That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row

By Jarvis Jay Masters
(HarperOne; 304 pages; $24.99)

If it’s too easy to make fearful snap judgments about criminals, it takes steely courage to look unflinchingly at the whole person behind the crime, the good and the bad – the kind of bravery that Jarvis Jay Masters exhibits in “That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row.” A like courage will be required of readers, who face an arduous, abuse-filled journey, but also a story buoyed by tremendous heart.

In his second book, Masters delivers a simple but painstakingly detailed account of the complicated tangle of experiences, influences and choices that brought him to serve an armed-robbery sentence at San Quentin. Four years later in 1985, Masters was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in the death of a San Quentin prison guard, based on testimony now proved false; he spent 17 years in solitary confinement, which ended in 2007.

Yet, rather than structuring his book as a case for his innocence, little about his Death Row charge is included; Masters focuses on a candid examination of his early past and offers a few insightful reflections on his present life – an attempt, he says, to offer others inspiration to make different, better choices, and a restraint perhaps born from the dedicated Buddhist meditation practice Masters began in prison.

His story begins in the late ’60s, when Masters was a young child and his mother and stepfather were heroin users and dealers in Long Beach. Masters and his sisters were regularly abandoned for days and weeks at a time, often with nothing to eat but what a concerned neighbor left out once a day. Social services eventually intervened, sending Jarvis and his siblings to different foster homes. He is fully aware of the irony that “[e]ighteen years later, this very same judicial system was now ordering [his] execution.”

Institutions frame many of the harrowing events in Masters’ life. After what is at first a welcome rescue from neglect and deliverance into a loving foster home, Masters is soon abandoned by the social welfare system. Forced to move to a new home where “acts of violence were random” and he and the other foster children “rated our own toughness according to the violence that we endured,” Masters soon runs away, living on the street until ending up in McLaren Hall – the first in a series of runaway stints and boys-home placements.

Of these, his experiences at the Valley Boys Academy, a military-type reform school that Masters calls a “gladiator school,” are the most horrifying. Placed there with other 11- and 12-year-olds, he once again works hard to succeed and assimilate; but at the academy the price of acceptance is such abuse as cigarette burns, ritualized beatings and being trained to be a counselor’s fighter.

Masters says the counselor “purposely unleashed my rage” and “reached deep inside me to find viciousness and bring it out,” at the tender age of 11. Masters’ perpetual struggle to discover an independent identity and adapt to dysfunctional environments – succeeding, then slipping back into destructive behavior – is also one of the book’s most heartbreaking themes. When he begins experimenting with drugs at one home, it’s because drugs make him equal to the other boys. When he begins to break rules, it’s a way to be in control.

Yet Masters’ narrative isn’t one of self-pity. He makes a point not to reserve judgment, to instead record events and emotions, then let them pass like thoughts in the mind during meditation. He expresses gratitude for the positive people and moments in his life, then recognizes and releases the abuse. This ability to forgive, to rise above rage, blame and judgment to a place of love, is remarkable. And the compassionate act of self-discovery captured in “That Bird Has My Wings” is one that, as he hoped, will reach well beyond the confines of one cell, one act, or one person – and inspire many.


Originally published 10/2/09 in the San Francisco Chronicle