Watch the premiere of the Oprah’s Book Club sit-down featuring Oprah in conversation with Jarvis Jay Masters, whose memoir, That Bird Has My Wings, is the 97th OBC selection above.
Masters has been in prison for the past 41 years, most of that time on San Quentin’s death row. While Masters fully admits to committing armed robbery, which originally led to his incarceration, he has maintained his innocence in the murder of a prison guard, for which he was sentenced to death. In fact, he was locked in his cell at the time of that murder.
More than a decade ago, Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön sent Oprah a copy of Masters’s memoir. Chödrön has been instrumental in helping to guide Masters’s spiritual transformation even during his solitary confinement, a practice that has helped sustain him over the decades. She, along with many other influential people, have rallied to the #FreeJarvis campaign. A hearing to determine whether or not his conviction will be overturned is set for the end of October.
Oprah sat down for a conversation with Jarvis Jay Masters, a talk that could only take place by phone, because of prison restrictions. Masters called Oprah collect from a phone booth in San Quentin. They were interrupted periodically by a prison recording, and because calls were terminated after a few minutes, Jarvis had to keep calling back.
The pair talked about a range of issues, beginning with Oprah telling Jarvis how much his book moved her and has stayed with her over the years. “I felt for you. I think of you in the moments when I feel my greatest sense of freedoms…of you not being able to see the same sky I see,” she said.
“Do you still long to see the sky?” Oprah asked Jarvis. He replied that someone recently asked him what would be the first thing he’d do if he ever got out of prison, and he told them: “I just want to be outside at night. I want to know what night feels like.”
Jarvis thanked Oprah for supporting him behind the scenes, helping to line up better legal assistance for him, as he put it, “always raising your hand,” which in turn gave him “a second wind.”
Perhaps the most heart-rending moment in their dialogue came when Oprah asked Jarvis how he could possibly have written an entire book with only the filler of a pen, which she'd experimented with “so I could walk in your shoes—or in your penmanship.” It made her fingers hurt, Oprah said. Jarvis replied that having only a part of a pen to write with made it so that he couldn’t “skip over anything, or stop at points in your life that were devastating.” Among those difficult memories? “The time my father was whooping my mother and I heard her say, ‘Just don’t kill the kids.’”
When Oprah first encountered Jarvis’s book a decade ago, she tried to interview him but was refused again and again. All this time later, and just a month out from Jarvis’s potentially life-altering hearing, they finally made it happen.
Leigh Haber is Vice President, Books, Oprah Daily and O Quarterly. She is also Director of Oprah's Book Club.