'I Learned To Read In Prison—Using The Twilight Books'

I owe my education to Robert Pattinson. Thirteen years ago, I was in prison. I'd just been arrested for smuggling drugs from Panama into the United States and I was looking at 10-plus years behind bars.

I was a 25-year-old drug dealer, a mother of four children from three different fathers. I hated my life. And I was illiterate. Growing up, I had been too much of a troublemaker to pay attention in school. My home was dysfunctional and I was sexually abused as a child, which destroyed much of the good in me for many years. That's not an excuse for all my bad decisions, just my truth.

Rather than try to figure out why I was acting out, my teachers moved me into remedial classes where I got even less attention. At the end of the year, they passed me forward to the next grade and I became someone else's problem. I dropped out for good at 14 after I got pregnant. I still couldn't read much more than my name.

Fast forward to 2009. I was being held at a detention center in Miami and the second "Twilight" movie, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, had just been released. For any non-TwiHards, New Moon is also the second book in Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight" series, and a girl who was also detained at the center had a poster for the movie.

Robert Pattinson plays Edward, the story's main vampire. He was front-and-centre in the poster. Just behind was Jacob, his werewolf rival. And just behind him was Bella: the third point in their love triangle, and, in my opinion, the luckiest woman in the world! I remember thinking to myself: "I need to find out what is going on with those three." Watching the movie wasn't an option, but I could get my hands on the "Twilight" books in prison.

Except I didn't know how to read. The "Twilight" series is thousands of pages in total. To me, it might as well have been "War and Peace". It was that intimidating. The first book opens with this line:

"I'd never given much thought to how I would die—though I'd had reason enough in the last few months—but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this."

It took me several days to figure out what those words meant, but when I finally did it felt like the author was writing directly to me.

I could read the smaller words, easy ones like "I, if, it, place, dream" but the bigger words stumped me: "sauntered", "inconsequential" or "scarcity". But I kept going back over them, day after day until their meaning slowly emerged. I promised myself no matter how long it took, I was going to read all four books that had been written in the series at that point. It took a long time.

I spent about a month reading the first book because I only had it for a month. The inmate I had borrowed it from had promised it to someone else after me, so she needed it back. Reading the three subsequent books was spread out over a longer time period because that girl had the books each mailed to her separately from home, and they were in high demand. So, I was reading the series on and off for most of my time in prison.

On one hand, it felt empowering to be learning to read; like I was taking the first step toward changing who I was as a person. Because once I got the hang of it, reading was all I did in prison. But on the other hand, I was ashamed that I couldn't already, so it wasn't a journey I felt I could share with anyone else.

The sense of accomplishment was also muted because I was so consumed with terror that some or all of my kids were going to end up in the child welfare system and I would lose them forever to adoption before I completed my sentence. Three of my four kids were being raised by my sister and my mother, but it was a real struggle.

As well as my journey to reading, the series also played a part in reconnecting me with my faith. The first book actually opens with a quote from scripture. Genesis 2:17. It spoke to me as well. I grew up in a kind of Christian home. My parents tried church for a while but it didn't stick. It felt like God left my life for real after I was molested. I blamed him for everything bad in my life, and I held him far away during my most self-destructive years. But he came back to me in prison. And well, thank God, because I never needed Him more.

I have faced unbearable traumas in my life but nothing compares to what I was forced to endure in prison. I was put on suicide watch. They dressed me in a long cloak, a cross between a straight-jacket and a dress with velcro straps. It sat heavy on my shoulders, like a bullet-proof vest. I can still feel it on me today. I was on watch 24 hours a day; cameras in the cell, lights always on, and a guard sitting just outside the door.

I stayed there for a few days and then I got angry. I started lashing out. I'd never felt so alone. Until, suddenly, I didn't. And that's when I felt that God came back to me. I felt His peace, like a warmth that wrapped around me in the coldest, darkest corners of that prison. I had a deep sense that I would never be alone again. I started to believe in myself and I took the reading skills I'd learned from the "Twilight" books and used them to dive back into my faith. I read the Bible from cover to cover, over and over again.

Prison, illiteracy, reading, Twilight
Rosemary Green was illiterate when she was first incarcerated in 2008. She learned to read in prison using Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight" books. Rosemary Green

My return to God was gradual. It started in Miami in the remand centre before my sentencing, when I first thought I was going to lose my kids forever. But it was baby steps at first. I was transferred to a different detention center two years after my sentencing and I was regularly reading the Bible over the last three to four years of my time in prison. It was my saving grace.

I ended up serving just under five years. I finished my sentence strong and went home to Canada. I got my four children back. I got my high school diploma, then one from college. Right now I'm finishing up a university degree. Rather than being a drug-dealer, I'm now someone my children look up to.

It wasn't until I got home that it really sank in what I had accomplished in learning to read. I was going through my court documents with my sister and it stopped her in her tracks—she couldn't believe I was reading them with her!

I've become a vocal advocate for prison reform on both sides of the US-Canada border. I'm even the host of a new podcast that tells the stories of women just like me. Women who are so much more than their prison sentences. I have come a long way.

And to think, all of it was possible because I got hot and bothered for a hunky vampire. Thank you, God, for helping me find Twilight.

Rosemary Green is the host of Life Jolt from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. You can hear it on April 27th wherever you get your podcasts.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.