Poet James Lewisohn Wants Out of Prison but Not Out of Guilt for Killing His Wife
The case has become a cause célèbre, and writers like William Styron, Allen Ginsberg and Tom Wicker have rallied to Lewisohn's support. Even prison officials and the poet's brother-in-law have urged that his sentence be reduced. "The verdict was grossly unjust," says David Zucker, who is married to Roslyn's sister. "Jimmy does not belong behind bars."
The prisoner himself is more resigned. "No one needs to remind me I took a life," says Lewisohn, his voice cracking. "I mourn my wife every day." Indeed, it was only with Roslyn that Lewisohn's life had acquired a kind of coherence. His parents, European expatriate writer Ludwig Lewisohn and opera singer Thelma Spear, "split up when I was about 6," he says. "After that I lived for a while on the New York streets, in a reform school, foster homes—horrible places. But I don't feel sorry for myself. A lot of people have worse childhoods." In 1952 Jim was admitted to Brandeis, where his father had become a professor. Three years later he began dating Roslyn Shapiro. "We met in English class," he remembers. "We were married three months later and stayed together 19 years. She was the best human being I ever met. She was kind to me, put up with me, saw through my pain and eccentricity to something valuable."
After graduation Jim and Roslyn went to New York, where he earned his master's in Hebrew literature but had difficulty finding a job. Around 1962 they moved to Portland, Maine. Lewisohn began teaching at a branch of the state university while Roslyn worked as a junior high guidance counselor. By 1970 the couple had four children and Lewisohn had tenure as an associate professor, but his insecurity had become neurotic. He erratically subjected colleagues to tirades, fed his fears with liquor and sedatives and began toying ominously with handguns. "I was under stress, immature, and I didn't face problems," he says. "Roz accepted it, but I was really a miserable, self-indulgent little man."
Finally, on June 2, 1974, Lewisohn's anxiety erupted in tragedy. After bidding goodnight to dinner guests, he went out alone to a tavern, where he had "a drink or two." He dimly remembers returning home at about 2 a.m. and calling Roslyn to help clean up the kitchen. "I was back again at the table with my gun, and I was pushing and pulling the mechanism when the gun exploded," he recalls shakily. "I screamed, and Roslyn did too. She said, 'Jimmy, I'm bleeding!' And I said, 'No, you're not! You can't be!' All I knew was that it was my fault, and that I loved Roslyn more than my own life." He tried unsuccessfully to take it, wounding himself in the stomach.
Confusion over the definition of lesser manslaughter offenses may have played a role in the jury's verdict: murder. But in 1977 the Maine Supreme Court voted 3 to 2 to reject Lewisohn's appeal.
Now converted to Catholicism, Lewisohn has worked as assistant to the prison chaplain, is currently a clerk and runs a poetry workshop for a few fellow inmates. Playing down his professorial background, he also pulls kitchen duty three times a day, rising at 5 a.m. "I have to live with my brothers," he explains. "I want to share their agony, and I can't if I seem special."