Last fall, an editor at my suburban Boston daily urged readers to reflect on “a personal essay, lyrical but not flowery,” by one of our “neighbors” at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Framingham, the state penitentiary for women. “The least we can do,” he wrote, “is put our ears against the tall brick walls” and let Kathy Power tell us about her “community.” This might seem a modest and charitable request, if the name Katherine Ann Power didn’t ring a bell. But once the history that led her to MCI is revisited, you may decide you know more than enough about “Kathy” without needing to absorb her latest exercise in self-pity.

On September 23, 1970, there was an armed robbery at the State Street Bank on Western Avenue in the Brighton section of Boston. Two men and one woman burst in, shouted “we mean business,” and fired into the walls. It was politically motivated violence: the stolen cash was to finance attacks on “the state,” and somehow impede the war in Vietnam.

The armed robbers were Susan Saxe, William Gilday, and Stanley Bond. The last two were high school dropouts and ex-cons, attending Brandeis University as “special students,” under an early type of affirmative action. They stored their weapons and stolen ammo in the apartment of fellow student Katherine Power, a rich girl from Denver, who shared their political and criminal agenda.

When the three robbers emerged onto Western Avenue, officer Walter Schroeder, a father of ten, had responded to a call and was waiting behind his patrol car. With a burst of machine-gun fire, Gilday shot and mortally wounded Schroeder, who died a few hours later. A mile from the bank, the criminals hopped into the “switch” car driven by Power. Soon afterward, Gilday, Bond, and Saxe were caught; Power vanished. In 1984, assuming she was dead or out of the country, the FBI removed her from its Most Wanted List. A little more than three years ago, she reappeared in Boston and became a celebrity.

Having negotiated surrender to the FBI via several big-shot lawyers, Power is serving 8 to 12 years for manslaughter, but she still sees herself as victim and heroine in an epic of youthful idealism. “I seem to be a carrier for a lot of people’s stuff,” she writes, adroitly using New Age idiom to shift responsibility for her imprisonment onto the presumed emotional needs of other people.

It is hard to blame Power completely for her confused self-image. She has had and still has noisy cheerleaders. The political climate in the Boston area has been so disordered for so long that when Power surrendered, the media, and some public officials, exalted her. A lawyer called her “an icon for public morality,” and a district attorney praised her ethics. A reporter who interviewed her in 1994 wrote that Power’s life as a fugitive “exemplified charity, nonviolence, and social activism.”

What had Power done to earn this Christ-like accolade? After her accomplices killed Officer Schroeder, she disappeared into an underground of feminist safe-houses and speculum parties. To disguise her identity, she took the name of an infant, Alice Metzinger, who had died in 1948, the year Power was born. During her shrewd getaway. Power conned the government for small business loans, cooked gourmet health food, and ran a chain of restaurants. She wore Birkenstock sandals (when she surrendered, the media highlighted this fact), sorted through sex partners, and had an illegitimate child (she remains unsure of the child’s paternity). She was very “right on.” The fact that she cooked polenta was itself nearly enough to acquit her in the Boston Globe. Those who celebrated her hardly noticed that her “charity” did not include service to Walter Schroeder’s widow, Marie, or to the ten fatherless children. But then, like Daniel Faulkner, the police officer shot to death by Mumia Abu-Jamal in Philadelphia, Walter Schroeder was a white man whose death scarcely registers with promoters of “social justice.”

While left-wing reportage swooned over Power’s “nonhierarchical anarchist values,” a few who worked for her out West offered a different portrait. One remembered her as “a strong presence in the kitchen, not known for tolerating mistakes. She’d yell at you in a voice you could hear through a closed door.” Another acquaintance recalled that Power had instructed her young son not to ask about extended family. “Doesn’t he ever wonder about it?” a former friend had asked. “No,” Power replied. “He knows we don’t talk about that.” Her recent columns suggest that Power remains too absorbed in self-exploration to focus on her son’s dilemma. While her essays often expatiate on cosmetic matters, she has yet to mention missing her son or husband.

Along with her aesthetic focus on diet and appearance, as an idealist. Power remains more interested in motives than relationships. She feels she had good reason for her actions in college, was virtually compelled to do as she did. “I was looking for a nonviolent way to act effectively [against the war], but it didn’t exist,” she told an interviewer. A National Merit Scholar, Power claimed there was no way a person could protest the war in Vietnam without participating in armed robbery. Circumstances made her do it. She was the real victim, a victim of her times. Reporters eagerly regurgitated this convenient theorizing.

Walter Schroeder’s daughter Clare, now 43 and newly retired from the police force in Waltham, Massachusetts, offers a clearer analysis of Power’s confusion. “She’s a very bright woman,” Schroeder noted. “All of the ammunition and weapons were stored in her apartment. There had to be a thought [her accomplices] were going to use it.” Power was so absorbed in the event’s existential value for her that its obvious potential harm to others dwindled to insignificance.

But Boston’s major newspaper, the Globe, assures readers that Power is not only bright, but creative. In prison, she has joined a “women’s spirituality group” and writes poems. “A long one describes her as a warrior,” gushed an interviewer. And now she pens op-ed columns in which she dwells on sorrows like the fact that she gets only 20 minutes to shave her legs, and sometimes, the water is even tepid! A lengthy puff piece in the New Yorker magazine recounted Power’s nightmares and dreams of persecution. The reporter focused on how traumatic the aftermath of her crime and surrender have been for Power, lamenting that “Boston newspapers have published negative stories about her.”

Negative coverage? When the Globe belatedly printed comments by a few of Officer Schroeder’s children, the article was surrounded by a sea of copy describing Power’s “endogenous clinical depression” and how much she had suffered from living under an assumed name. Readers learned in detail about her regimen of Prozac and Trazodone, and that she has “intensive psychotherapy twice a week.” Power now takes courses in writing, journalism, and computers, earning time off her sentence for each state-subsidized venture.

As one might expect with a classy radical victim, Hollywood came calling. The same folks who love Bill Clinton to the tune of $12,500-a-plate fundraisers were hot for Power. Ellen Endo-Dizon, whose company produced a television movie about serial killer and prostitute Aileen Wuornos, said Power’s story intrigued her. The only difficulty was technical. “Where do you find an actress who can play someone for over two decades,” she mused. But Laura Schiff, manager of Longbow Productions in Studio City, was ecstatic. “It’s a journey, a double life, a leaving everything behind,” she enthused. “It’s hard for anyone to imagine doing that, and that’s what’s so fascinating.”

Judge Robert Banks has forbidden Power to profit from sale of her story, a stricture that must be particularly galling in light of her journalistic success. Galling, indeed, for her essays have a quality suitable for serialization in those glossy magazines at the checkout counter. Power’s first column in The Middlesex News noted indignantly that she had been handcuffed on her way to prison. “My warrant described me as an escape risk,” she wrote, putting “escape risk” in quotation marks, as if that were an unreasonable characterization of someone who evaded capture for 23 years. And she felt it important to record that upon entering MCI, she “was barelegged, because [her] nylons had failed to make it through the prison’s cumbersome property procedures.” In her second epistle she whimpered, “somehow we manage . . . with instant coffee,” and “sharing three 18″x 24″ mirrors.” She must make do with “a wash and go hairstyle and no makeup,” and showering “at odd hours of the day.”

But lest she be thought petty, her first column turned from thoughts of her lost nylons to the geese that stop by the prison grounds in fall. She lamented that their wetlands are filled and drained, and sought to enter into their thoughts. “Have there been divorces among the flock?” she wondered. “Is it led by young and confident upstarts who dared defy their elders?” Young, confident upstarts like her, perhaps? In the sensitive circles among which Power has moved, animals and people are much alike.

But it wasn’t long before Power’s essay (“lyrical, but not flowery”) turned from personifying animals back to her own suffering. “The geese know a lot more about where they are than I do,” she sniffled. “I haven’t traveled the roads past local stores and factories where my neighbors work, or the surrounding towns where they live. I don’t know the swimming holes, or the best riffles in the rivers. I don’t know the shapes and stories of the valleys.”

There is an awful lot Katherine Ann Power doesn’t know and probably never will. A National Merit Scholar she may have been, but her moral vacuity makes her a virtual black hole of self-absorption. It was left to Erin Schroeder, 11 months old when her father was killed, and now a Boston police officer, to clarify the issue at hand. “I think that she [Power] is delusional,” she said. “Does she realize why she’s in jail? She’s not there on a retreat.”

Once upon a time, ethics meant taking responsibility for your acts, especially for their effect on other people, in this case, the Schroeders. Power’s attorney, Rikki Kleiman, said that her efforts “to give Katherine a new life” would “close the book” on the Schroeders’ suffering. Close the book? So much for “charity.”