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Yvonne Abraham

A different read on life

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / May 12, 2011

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LOWELL — When you’re an addict, life is all about you.

Finding the next hit is a full-time job. You think about yourself from the moment you open your eyes in the morning to the second you nod off, and for every hustle-filled hour in between.

Standing before a judge for the 5th, 6th, 20th time, there is still only that ruined you. Unless you’re lucky enough to get a judge who sees in you what you cannot. Instead of sending you to jail, the judge sends you to a book club.

Yes, a book club — where, if you’re lucky, you’ll glimpse something beyond your shattered self.

“You enter a world other than your daily life,’’ said Meaghan, a tall, 31-year-old addict who spent 10 years in the system, most recently for writing false prescriptions. “I find myself thinking about the characters in the books during the day.’’

On a recent Tuesday night, Meaghan and six other women sat in a green-carpeted classroom at Middlesex Community College, turning over the characters in Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.’’

All seven were sentenced to the program, called “Changing Lives Through Literature,’’ instead of jail or straight probation. They’re required to read a book and show up on time to discuss it every other Tuesday for 14 weeks. The group also includes their probation officers, and, often, a judge, too.

Judge Joseph Dever, recently retired from Lynn District Court, has come to just about every session in Lowell for two decades. “The joy of my judgeship,’’ he calls it.

Inside the classroom, the divide between The Law and the lawless falls away. They become a bunch of people talking about stories, people less likely to be at odds on the outside.

“The Bluest Eye’’ is not a simple book. It’s easy to drown in Morrison’s prose. But once the discussion began, all of the women floated beautifully. They had a refreshing way of cutting to the nub.

Maria called Cholly Breedlove, the alcoholic who gets his own daughter pregnant in the book, “a sick bastard. He had a sickness with children, the innocence and pureness of them.’’

Kerri, who volunteered for a second stint with the book club, said Cholly’s wife, Mrs. Breedlove, “was wicked OCD.’’ And the warm-hearted prostitutes who lived above the Breedloves?

“Oh, they were wonderful!’’ Dever said.

“Judge!’’ Brittany said, in mock horror.

They talked about sexual abuse, racism, the tyranny of conventional ideas of beauty.

What they didn’t talk about was themselves. Jean Trounstine, the no-nonsense professor who leads the Lowell group, sees to that.

“Through the characters in these books, they start to look at life objectively, rather than subjectively,’’ Dever said.

At a cost of less than $500 per person, “Changing Lives’’ is cheap, and phenomenally successful. Dreamed up 20 years ago by two friends — Superior Court Judge Robert Kane and UMass Dartmouth English professor Robert Waxler — it has been adopted in court systems across Massachusetts, in other states, and in England.

Judges are careful to select habitual offenders for the program, not those likely to right themselves without help, and not just addicts. The first group of eight men had 142 felonies among them.

Those who participate reoffend half as often as those who don’t. Which makes you wonder: Why isn’t every court system in the country doing this?

“Changing Lives’’ has persisted here despite funding cuts and John O’Brien, the patronage-king former probation chief who was indifferent to it, at best. The committed probation officers in the group are an antidote to his poisonous tenure.

After hours discussing “The Bluest Eye,’’ the women agreed it was better than they’d thought at first, but terribly sad.

“Can we have a happy book next time?’’ Brittany asked.

Trounstine gave a mischievous smile and handed out copies of “The Bell Jar.’’

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com