Padnos, Theo 1968–
Padnos, Theo 1968–
Born 1968. Education: Middlebury College, B.A.; University of Massachusetts Amherst, Ph.D.
Journalist. Taught at Community High School of Vermont.
My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun: Adolescents at the Apocalypse; a Teacher's Notes, Miramax Books (New York, NY), 2004.
Light of the Crescent Moon: An Undercover Journey to the Soul of Radical Islam, Palgrave Macmillan (New York, NY), 2007.
Theo Padnos was on his way to a predictable career as an academic when he realized that he did not want to spend his life professing literature in a meaningless context. Having completed his Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he moved back to his family's home in rural Vermont to look for work. He eventually found it at the Community High School of Vermont, part of the Woodstock Regional Correctional Facility, where he was hired to teach literature to inmates. His memoir of the experience, My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun: Adolescents at the Apocalypse; a Teacher's Notes, provides a look into the minds and hearts of young offenders.
The book makes clear that Padnos empathized with many of his students. Because he listened to them, withholding judgment, they opened up to him. Many were in jail because of petty offenses, including drunk driving or drugs, but others were guilty of more serious crimes: kidnapping, aggravated assault, rape. In January 2000, seventeen-year-old Laird Stanard entered Padnos's classroom. Laird stood out not only because of the severity of his crime—he had fatally shot his mother and attempted to kill his father—but also because he was so unlike most other inmates. Laird did not come from a low-income family or a broken home that included other law-breaking members; the son of a teacher, he had attended exclusive private schools and was enrolled at a prep school in Bethel, Maine, in December 1999, when he committed the crime. In Laird's account, he was angry because his father had insisted that the family return home after the school's holiday program, when Laird wanted to stay in Maine to visit a girl. Stuck at home against his will, Laird went out without permission the next night and took a gun with him. When he got home and his mother began arguing with him, he pulled out the gun and shot her. His father rushed downstairs at the noise, and Laird took a shot at him as well, but missed. He then drove six miles to a ski resort, where he joined a party and concocted a story about hitchhikers killing his mother. Finally someone called the police. It took them four days to sort out the various stories and charge Laird with the crime.
Much of Padnos's memoir focuses on Laird, with whom he felt a special bond. "Every time a guy sitting in front of you tells you about a crime," he states, "you think, ‘If I had been in that situation, is it conceivable that I would have acted like you acted?’ And there were a lot of cases where I said, ‘Yeah, I could have done that.’" Padnos notes the powerful effect of pop culture messages, particularly from films, in the psyches of inmates like Laird. His students, he told Atlantic Monthly writer Ron Powers, dreamed of committing crimes that would "truly mesmerize the middle class with violence. They've been transfixed by disaster themselves—in their families, at the movies, in the company of their mentors in crime. They've come to feel that there's nothing out there for them. And so they know exactly the effect they're looking for. They keep up with the news. They read about their deeds in the papers. They've been ignored all their lives, and they're pleased to see that the public is finally giving them some of the attention they're due." But Padnos went on to explain that "they're drawn to the myths built into these violent movies, not just the violence itself. Prison life, especially for kids … is soaked in myths about outlaws, self-reliance. People traveling a rough landscape that is their true home. People who mete out justice to anyone who impinges on their native liberties. Post-apocalyptic heroes, just like they want to be—violent, suicidal, the sort of people who are preparing themselves for what happens after everything ends." His students, Padnos said, "half believe that their destination is the same as these screen heroes."
Such was certainly the case, in Padnos's view, with Laird. "His plan was a movie plan," Padnos told Powers. "He thought he would live with his girlfriend, off on the lam someplace, with his dad's shotgun and his mother's credit card to help them get around." Instead, in return for pleading guilty, Laird received a twenty-five-year prison sentence. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly found Padnos's focus on Laird "obsessive" and voyeuristic, and deemed his memoir "a patchy mix" of diary notes, observations, and relatively thin analysis. Noting Padnos's ability to get inside the head of Laird and other students at Woodstock, however, a writer for Kirkus Reviews observed that My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun "conveys a dreamlike sense of standing outside oneself and observing" that contributes to the book's "unsettling" quality.
Leaving teaching for journalism, Padnos took a position with a newspaper in Yemen. His account of Muslims there, Light of the Crescent Moon: An Undercover Journey to the Soul of Radical Islam, was described by a Kirkus Reviews writer as an "eye-opening look into the abyss … that lies between the true believer and the infidel."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Padnos, Theo, My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun: Adolescents at the Apocalypse; a Teacher's Notes, Miramax Books (New York, NY), 2004.
Atlantic Monthly, March, 2002, Ron Powers, "The Apocalypse of Adolescence."
Colorado Springs Independent, January 15, 2004, John Dicker, "Kafka for Cons."
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2003, review of My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun, p. 1212; August 1, 2007, review of Light of the Crescent Moon: An Undercover Journey to the Soul of Radical Islam.
People Weekly, April 12, 2004, Ting Yu, review of My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun, p. 64.
Publishers Weekly, October 13, 2003, review of My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun, p. 64.
I am Ben Jones,http://www.iambenjones.com/ (June 15, 2008), review of My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun.
Seven Days,http://www.sevendaysvt.com/ (June 15, 2008), Ken Picard, review of My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun.