MISFIT DOC: Life’s Work

Art: “Birdman Of Alcatraz” by John Lautermilch

At thirteen, Robert Stroud ran away from home and got a job working for the railroad in Alaska where he became a pimp. At eighteen, he murdered a bartender and was sentenced to twelve years on McNeil Island where he stabbed a guard to death and was sentenced to life in solitary confinement at Leavenworth. One morning in the yard, he found a nest with three injured sparrows. He nursed them to health and freed them through the bars on his window. He began ordering canaries through the mail—this was back when prisoners could have pets. Some canaries he kept, the rest he sold to his fellow inmates—men he knew only by their voices—who kept the birds in cages in their cells. Cages within cages. Suddenly, all the canaries began to die. Stroud ordered some books from the library and learned the canaries were suffering from septic fever, an incurable avian plague. He ordered a microscope, discovered a cure, and wrote a book, Diseases of Canaries, which has been considered one of the most authoritative books ever written on avian pathology since its publication in 1933, the year my aunt Marilyn was born.

They’re buried in the same cemetery in Metropolis, Illinois. Though the cemetery’s small, we’ve never been able to find Stroud’s grave. I imagine birds carved into a tall headstone, but being that spent his life in prison, he probably doesn’t have a headstone. Or, because he’s famous, someone stole it.

Marilyn was fascinated by animals, too—especially cats. She walked the back alleys of that tiny town feeding and tending the strays. There was always something off about her mind, though. Agitated, prone to rage—bipolar. I’m the same way.

Stroud was diagnosed as a psychopath. If the doctors were right, he couldn’t have been an animal lover. Psychopaths are incapable of loving anything. Is it possible he did all that work out of boredom?

(For some reason, it strikes me here that the only difference between people is money.)

Stroud was sent to Alcatraz when the guards learned he was making booze from the rubbing alcohol in his lab. Marilyn was kicked out of Bob Jones University for making hard cider in her dorm room closet.

At the end of it, when the voices of people disturbed her—their questions—“Do you want this? Do you want that?”—we would wheel her bed out to the courtyard and leave her awhile under the trees full of birds.


Jennifer L. Knox's new book of poems, Days of Shame and Failure, will be published by Bloof Books in October 2015. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, and four times in the Best American Poetry series. She teaches at Iowa State University. 

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