In 2003, while passing San Quentin State Prison on a ferry from Marin County to San Francisco, bestselling author David Sheff was struck by an image: a bunch of inmates waved to his seven-year-old daughter and her friends on the ferry’s top deck, and the girls waved back.
“It was the first time, after living in the Bay Area forever, that I really thought about the fact that we live in paradise here, next to this walled-off other city where over 4,000 men live,” recalls Sheff, who was born in Boston and raised in Arizona but has lived in the Bay Area since attending UC Berkeley in the 1970s. After that boat ride, he became curious about the prison and “started to ask questions.” Those questions evolved first into a magazine piece (a March 2014 New York Times Magazine profile of Jeanne Woodford, then San Quentin’s progressive warden, titled “The Good Jailer”).
Sheff, 64, is speaking via Facetime from his home in Inverness. He’s in his airy office, bathed in sunlight, wearing a casual button-down shirt. He’s discussing the book that wound up growing out of his trips to San Quentin: The Buddhist on Death Row (S&S, May).
This is Sheff’s first interview about the title, which is his seventh book. It tells the story of Jarvis Jay Masters, an African-American inmate at San Quentin. Incarcerated in 1981 for armed robbery, Masters has been on death row since 1986, following his conviction for the murder of a guard; he maintains he had no involvement in the guard’s death and continues to appeal his conviction.
Masters was introduced to Buddhism during his 21 years in solitary confinement, and the religion changed his life, helping him become a force for good in a terrible place. Under the guidance first of (now-deceased) Tibetan lama Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche—whom Masters met after a criminal investigator turned him on to meditation and he wrote a letter to the lama—and then of monk and author Pema Chodron, among others, Masters has become a bodhisattva (an enlightened being); he relies on his daily meditation practice to mitigate his own suffering and helps others in the prison help themselves as well—even a guard who had been contemplating suicide.
Masters became a published author in prison, writing many articles, poetry, and two books: Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row (1997) and That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row (2009). In 2009, prison reform activist Pamela Krasney, a friend of both Sheff and Masters, asked Sheff to blurb Masters’s second book, and he did.
“It wasn’t until Pamela died [in 2015] and I was at her funeral that it all clicked in my brain that this was something that I wanted to explore more,” Sheff says. “I remembered Pamela’s connection to Jarvis, but also the reasons she was so connected to him. It started to open up my own thinking about him. Some of the obvious questions leaped to the forefront, such as, ‘How does somebody survive in that world?’ I don’t know about you, but I struggle every day. This guy is living in a place where I can’t even imagine surviving. And yet he’s deeply invested in helping people get through their suffering—even the people who have hurt him the most.”
Around the same time, Eamon Dolan—v-p and executive editor at Simon & Schuster, and the editor of Sheff’s 2009 memoir Beautiful Boy, about his son’s descent into addiction and struggle to stick with recovery—began talking with Sheff about an idea he had. “David and I were having dinner, and I mentioned that I was looking to publish a book about forgiveness,” Dolan says. “I believed he was ideally qualified to write on that topic because of his professional gifts as researcher and because of his own harrowing life experience, which I knew well from working with him on Beautiful Boy. He took my little idea and ran with it all the way to San Quentin and Jarvis Masters, a man who knows as much about forgiveness as anyone alive.”
The Buddhist on Death Row is Sheff’s first book in years that is not about addiction, a subject he became an expert on after his oldest son, Nic, got hooked on crystal methamphetamine as a teen, then moved on to cocaine and heroin. Nic’s many failed attempts at getting clean led to one that finally took, 10 years ago.
Sheff first wrote about his son’s drug abuse and the devastating effects it had on his family in an essay called “My Addicted Son,” published in 2005 in the New York Times Magazine. The piece led to Beautiful Boy, Sheff’s best-known bestseller, which in turn led to a 2018 big-screen adaptation starring Steve Carell as Sheff and Timothee Chalamet as Nic.
Beautiful Boy was a departure for Sheff, who was known for writing about celebrities and pop culture; his previous book, 1994’s Game Over, was about video games. But the memoir took him in another direction and led him to write other books on addiction and recovery, including, most recently, High: Everything You Want to Know About Drugs, Alcohol, and Addiction (2019). Sheff coauthored the book, which is aimed at helping teens avoid alcohol and drug abuse, with Nic. It also put him on the lecture circuit, where he talks about the science of addiction, and how addiction affects the brain.
“The experience with Nic and our family pushed aside everything that felt in any way inconsequential and trivial,” Sheff says. “Suddenly it was a door into the deepest parts of myself, but also into this world of people who are suffering.”
In a way, his exposure to suffering through the world of addiction groomed Sheff for writing about Masters; it primed him to create a portrait of a person who has seemingly conquered how to manage suffering.
“At one point in The Buddhist on Death Row,” Sheff recalls, “Jarvis says he hears from all these people who write to him. They have the two-car garages, they have the perfect little puppy, and their depression is so severe that they can barely function. And Jarvis says, ‘You have all that, and you’re still suffering in that way? Well, I’m luckier than you.’ You hear somebody who’s on death row say he’s luckier than many of us who are outside the prison, and it sounds preposterous—but it also, when it clicks into place, is a very profound idea.”
Nonetheless, Sheff doesn’t embrace the notion that religion will, or even can, save. As he notes in the introduction to the book, he is not a Buddhist. “I was raised Jewish, but I’m an atheist,” he says. “The idea of Buddhism as a religion is not something that I was ever open to. But there’s a secular kind of Buddhism that makes sense to me. And I believe in meditation.”
Sheff still keeps in touch with Masters. “I’ve gotten a lot closer to him and care about him in a very, very deep way,” he explains. Masters is waiting for his appeal to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which will likely be his last shot at freedom.
“I hope that someday—it’s a fantasy I have—he’ll get out, and we can go take a walk together on a beach,” Sheff muses. “But, in the meantime, this is his world, so I plan on staying connected to him.”
Sari Botton is the editor of the anthologies 'Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY', and 'Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY'.