Theo Padnos reveals his read on kids who kill
Nothing shatters the innocence of a small town like a murder perpetrated by a teenager -- particularly when the victim is the killer's mother. By now, the story of 17-year-old Laird Stanard has all but faded from the public eye. But a new book by Theo Padnos offers new insights on the case. In My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun, the 35-year-old Vermont writer and Middlebury alum recounts his experiences teaching literature to Stanard and other inmates in the Woodstock Regional Correctional Facility. Its January publication will coincide with an article in Rolling Stone magazine about the unusual friendship he forged with the young killer.
Despite his literary success, which included a generous six-figure advance from Miramax Books, Padnos sounds genuinely surprised that anyone would find his story worth telling; in an interview at Muddy Waters in Burlington, he's more interested in asking about my writing. When he spots an advance copy of his book on the table, he dismisses it with a wave and tells me not to bother reading it. It's not false modesty. The former teacher appears more comfortable listening than talking.
Apparently, others get the same impression of him. People have told Padnos things no one else hears, or wants to hear. On a recent visit to the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia -- where Vermont's most violent offenders are housed -- Padnos met an inmate who is doing time for a kidnapping conviction. The man had dragged a boy into the woods, handcuffed him to a tree and raped him at gunpoint. Within days of meeting Padnos, the convict was telling him why he had committed the crime and what he was thinking while he did it; he even revealed other crimes for which he hadn't been prosecuted.
The inmate wasn't boasting, says Padnos. He'd just found someone who was willing to listen to him. With characteristic self-deprecation, Padnos insists the inmate would probably have opened up to anyone who gave him the time of day. The guy is in jail, he argues. He knows his life is ruined, so why not tell his story? "His lawyer doesn't want to know this stuff. He doesn't get a shrink because he's at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale. Nobody else in the jail wants to hear about it," Padnos reasons. "It's like a bar in New York City. There are a thousand tales out there to be told."
Of course, those tales aren't told to just anyone. Padnos, who has the taut frame of a bike racer, is not large or imposing. Floppy brown curls, horn-rimmed glasses and a boyish smile contribute to his non-threatening demeanor. He's like a young, newly ordained priest who can perhaps recall the pleasures of the flesh and isn't ready to mete out penance just yet. Still, he hears the confessions and gets inside the heads of these tortured souls. What he's discovered, especially among those who have committed horrific acts, is that they're often not the monstrous psychopaths everyone assumes them to be.
Padnos' entry into the company of murderers and thieves was anything but preordained. In the spring of 1999 he was a doctoral candidate in comparative literature and had just finished his last teaching contract at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "I was feeling trapped in this institution, as though I wasn't going anywhere. And we were studying all this very powerful literature and it didn't matter a bit to anybody," Padnos recalls. "Why? Because we were graduate students. We had our careers to worry about, and all this vocabulary to learn, and were picking up chicks."
With his Ph.D. completed and no clear direction in mind, Padnos moved back to Vermont -- his mom had a place in Woodstock -- and began painting houses and growing pot, all the while trying to gain a tenuous foothold in academia.
"But they didn't want anything to do with me," Padnos says of the colleges and universities he applied to. "So I was living in Woodstock for a long time and kept driving by the jail every day, and I was, like, There's my institution of higher learning right there.'" He took a part-time teaching job at the Woodstock Regional Correctional Facility, a catch-all prison for convicted felons as well as those awaiting trial in southern Vermont.
Padnos' decision to teach 18th-century literature to a bunch of "thugs and weirdo dudes" was more than just the desperate act of an unemployed teacher in need of a steady paycheck. He admits he always had a gnawing curiosity about the dark side of human nature, which is reflected in his literary tastes and course curricula. Padnos is a fan of authors like Raymond Carver, who reveled in the seedy underbelly of contemporary American life, as well as true-crime writers like Truman Capote -- Padnos often taught In Cold Blood to his undergrads at UMass. Another favorite is Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer, which explores how convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald was betrayed by author Joe McGinniss in his book, Fatal Vision.
Padnos had had similar fantasies about gaining intimate access to that stratum of Vermont society whose currency is sex, guns and heroin — all things that were virtually unknown to him when he was growing up. "I wanted to know how that worked in prissy, uptight fucking Woodstock, Vermont," Padnos explains. "I was also a prissy, uptight Woodstock kind of kid."
The local jail, as Padnos discovered, didn't quite measure up to the classic literary archetype of the American "big house." It had none of the hardened lifers, entrenched hierarchies or smoldering gang wars of a maximum-security prison. "The average criminal around here slinks in like a stray cat," Padnos writes. "He bathes, eats, naps, and barbers himself into a state of gentlemanly presentability. He stays a few more nights, watches as much TV as is humanly possible, combs his hair one final time, and he's gone."
Nevertheless, Padnos was enthralled by the subterranean world of drugs, deceit and violence his "students" exposed him to. He tried, with limited success, to school them in the classics of Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, Flannery O'Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky, using literature to highlight the timeless struggles of the human psyche. He admits that his classes were often spent scribbling bits and pieces of inmates' conversations and secretly hoping that some of their outlaw recklessness would rub off on him.
"They all knew each other, they knew each other's children, they knew their offenses, they knew how far back those offenses had gone," Padnos recalls. "You had the feeling that there were guns and drugs and dead bodies stashed down by the riverbank. I never found any of those things, but it was all very interesting to me."
The offenders in his classroom ran the gamut from the mundane to the murderous. Many were petty drug dealers, drunk drivers, parole violators or other small-time crooks who shuffled in and out of the system with regularity. Others were more ruthless — repeat felons who were facing hard time for kidnapping, rape or aggravated assault. And every now and then, an inmate came into the jail who was going to be put away for a very long time. In January 2000, one such inmate walked into the classroom and changed Padnos' life.
Seventeen-year-old Laird Stanard seemed an unlikely arrival to the Woodstock facility. The chubby, redheaded teen with round glasses and hunched shoulders came from a decent home in West Windsor. He'd attended a prep school in Bethel, Maine, served on the ski patrol and sang in the church choir. He seemed like a cheerful and goofy kid, as Padnos recalls in his book. He was eager to please, like a teacher's pet.
Laird struck Padnos less as a bully than a kid who was more likely to have been bullied in school. But he had a mercurial temper, which exploded late one Saturday night shortly before Christmas 1999. After sneaking out of his house around midnight and taking the family car to a nightclub in Ascutney, Stanard returned home to find his angry mother waiting for him.
From an upstairs bedroom, Laird's father heard his wife and son arguing, then a loud pop. Bill Stanard ran downstairs and discovered Paula Stanard shot to death. Seconds later, Laird fired the shotgun at his father but narrowly missed him. Laird bolted from the house, crashed the car into a tree and a mailbox, then returned to a party he had attended earlier. There, he hastily concocted a story about how he had just been carjacked. Days later, police arrested him for the shooting.
The other inmates at the jail greeted Stanard as both a celebrity and a detested mother-killer. When he appeared in Padnos' class, the teacher could only watch as fellow inmates harangued and ridiculed him for his crime. Padnos writes that his natural inclination was to protect this bewildered boy, who obviously felt as powerless and out-of-place among these hardened criminals as he did.
Over the next few years, Padnos developed an unlikely bond with Stanard, essentially becoming the boy's teacher, coach and confidante. As Padnos tried to make sense of this complex, enigmatic character, Stanard shared with him his letters, school papers and poems, his intimate thoughts, dreams and nightmares.
What compelled the writer to reach out to the murderous boy? In a sense, Padnos explains, he saw in the face of the confused, young killer a nightmarish version of himself. Convinced that he had been just as confused, impulsive, intolerant and spoiled at age 17, Padnos believes it was just dumb luck, combined with the vagaries of circumstance — his family didn't keep guns around the house — that prevented him from suffering a similar fate.
"Every time a guy sitting in front of you tells you about a crime, you think, If I had been in that situation, is it conceivable that I would have acted like you acted?'" Padnos asks. "And there were a lot of cases where I said, Yeah, I could have done that.'"
Such sentiments were more than just natural empathy. In his book, Padnos writes about a grad-school assignment in which he was asked to analyze one of his dreams. He recounted one in which he was a Professor Moriarty-type killer who ripped open his father's belly with a large knife and then tried to dispose of the corpse. In the dream, Padnos was arrested for his crime and taken to the Woodstock jail. En route, he suddenly took comfort in the thought that, for the next 20 years, he no longer had to worry about living up to anyone's expectations.
Why did Stanard and other inmates confide in their teacher? That's difficult to say. Padnos shrugs off the suggestion that anything about his persona makes him a likely confessor. It helped that he created an atmosphere of trust: In his classroom, Padnos eschewed the normal safety precautions of the jail, bypassing security cameras, monitored windows and an open door. Certainly, his boyish appearance helped put inmates at ease, as did his nonjudgmental attitude and natural curiosity about their crimes. And perhaps, says Padnos, quoting Shakespeare, it was that "So full of artful jealousy is guilt, it spills itself in fearing to be spilt."
Padnos readily acknowledges that the inmates believed they could use or manipulate him. "They think, Here's a guy who's finally going to tell it like it is,'" he says. "In fact, it's a central dynamic I have with these jail guys. They believe I'm their publicist."
Padnos didn't work too hard to dispel that delusion, since manipulation goes both ways. He seems keenly aware of the precarious relationship he maintains with inmates like Stanard, and he seems to believe, as Malcolm suggests in The Journalist and the Murderer, that all journalism is a form of betrayal.
When Padnos himself is interviewed, he speaks practically in a whisper, as though he's airing thoughts and ideas that shouldn't be overheard by the young patrons who surround us in the coffeehouse. More than once he voices concern that he comes across as a braggart or a thrill-seeker. He doesn't. Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that he thinks his success is undeserved, and that the interest — even adulation — he has for his subjects is a guilty pleasure.
"These guys took these incalculable risks and they got nailed and they were still doing fine and they're happy. That was impressive to me," Padnos says. "Here I was saying, Oh, my gosh! I can't lose track of this job interview.' And these guys were, like, My life is over. And I'm OK with it.'"
Padnos' book also reflects that unlikely — some might say misguided — admiration for his students. At times he refers to their crimes as "imaginative foolishness" and "poetic recklessness." During his interview, he refers to the careless indifference that one AIDS-infected pedophile displayed towards his own body as "Zen-like."
He also knows that not many people can stomach such warm-and-fuzzy sentiments for murderers, rapists and child molesters. "If you talk to the victims or the cops, they hate this kind of talk. They just despise it," Padnos admits. "It's just mealy-brained, wishy-washy, bleeding-heart shit."
This is especially true of victims' families. Though Bill Stanard has cooperated with Padnos on his book and upcoming Rolling Stone article, Paula Stanard's family wants nothing to do with him. "They think I'm an outrageous profiteer, an exploiter of their deceased, adored daughter and sister," Padnos says. "Plus, I'm coddling their killer and it makes them sick. I've been told they think I'm the scum of the Earth."
Padnos doesn't see himself that way, of course. He distances himself from other real-crime authors who shamelessly immerse the reader in every sordid detail of the crime. In their new book about the Zantop murders, Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Mitchell Zuckoff recount with almost voyeuristic thrill the excitement felt by Vermont teenagers James Parker and Robert Tulloch when they hacked the Dartmouth professors to death.
"That's the narrative engine of the book. They're taking that original power and energy of someone's real-life tragedy and recreating it so people can enjoy it," Padnos says. "You can imagine that the [victims'] family is not going to be all that excited about it."
His goal in My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun — the title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem — was entirely different. Padnos tried to get inside Stanard's head to understand how a seemingly normal teenager becomes a killer. "Very few writers have actually spent a lot of time with their killer, gotten to know them and brought them into their lives and become friends with the dude," Padnos says, in a rare display of pride. "Truman Capote did it with Perry Smith. Ann Rule did it with Ted Bundy a little bit. And Joe McGinniss did it with Jeffrey MacDonald."
So, what did he learn from spending nearly four years with his killer subject? "We often look at a person like Laird and we say, How could he possibly do that? He must be a sociopath,'" Padnos explains. "What's interesting to see is how unfrightening they are in person."
Padnos no longer teaches in the jail — the Woodstock facility closed in April 2002. But he has noticed a common theme among the violent young men he encountered behind bars. Middlebury writer Ron Powers calls it "an apocalyptic nihilism [that] is taking root in this nation's children." Powers, who was instrumental in getting Padnos his book deal, wrote an excellent piece for the March 2002 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, "The Apocalypse of Adolescence," about Stanard and the Dartmouth slayers.
"The questions we must ask ourselves today, therefore, are these," writes Powers. "Why are so many children plotting to blow up their worlds and themselves? For each act of gratuitous violence that is actually carried out, how many unconsummated dark fantasies are transmuted into depression, resignation or benumbed withdrawal from participation in civic society?"
Recently, Padnos had an opportunity to see how some of those fantasies fester and grow. During his visit to the Virginia prison, he noticed that many of the young, violent criminals pass their time much as they did before prison — with role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars and the like.
"One of the skills that permits you to become a successful player is to slip into this special little envelope that you create. It's extremely visceral and exciting and moving, but you have to sustain the illusion," Padnos explains. "Basically, the setting is, there's a dark power that rules the world. It's corrupt and it's decadent. And I think a lot of people believe that's how the world is run."
Padnos is not suggesting that role-playing games foment homicidal tendencies. "But I do believe that kids can be extremely persuaded by that way of seeing the world," he asserts. "And it's not just jail kids. Kids I taught at UMass, too."
This apocalyptic attitude isn't limited to teens, either. One need only listen to statements made by the Bush administration about the current War on Terrorism, with its Axis of Evil and "You're either with us or against us" posturing, to recognize a simplistic worldview that divides all nations into those on the side of good and those that have strayed to the dark side.
"I think that's what motivates people like Klebold and Harris," says Padnos, referring to the Columbine shooters. "They came from this white-bread community of Littleton, Colorado, and every day they were going over to the dark side just a little bit After a while, you have this extremely powerful, visceral experience, and what do you compare it with? The namby-pamby nothingness of Littleton. Of course you think you can blow it away."
For Padnos, who was schooled in Gothic literature, such views are as old as the hills. If anything, he believed he could use classic literature to help enlighten young convicts about these age-old struggles of the human psyche. He doubts he made a lasting impression on the men in prison. But perhaps, he suggests, the classics can help other young people recognize in their own feelings of alienation and despair the stuff of legends that need not end in tragedy.