On Empathy and Storytelling: Sister Helen Prejean and George Orwell

Last weekend Denison University’s commencement speaker Sister Helen Prejean explained that as she was drafting her anti-death penalty classic Dead Man Walking, her editor told her that if she wanted readers to trust her, she would have to address the horror of the crime committed early in the book. She must face the complicated truth with the reader before she can convince the reader that a world without the death penalty would be a better world, that the death penalty won’t bring the victim back, that the death penalty only produces more violence.

All those platitudes won’t work, he told her, unless she writes the whole truth of crime and then addresses the punishment.

A close read of Prejean’s book reveals that she, indeed, followed her editor’s advice. Prejean earns the reader’s trust and then spins a tale that slowly, but surely, takes the reader to a place where he or she will begin to see the condemned, the dead man walking, as something more than a killer.

This is no easy task.


Late in the book Prejean describes her final moments with Robert Willie, a man condemned to die for the 1980 kidnapping, rape, and murder of Faith Hathaway. In the hush of a prison cell, in the final moments of his life, Robert tells Prejean about a job he once had working on a push boat, moving barges up the Mississippi from Grand Isle, Louisiana, to Cairo, Illinois.

Robert explains that one night he walked to the front of the long train of barges with a coworker to set up a light. After setting the light, they sat down to rest and smoke a joint. He tells Prejean, “The river is real, real mysterious at night with the lights makin’ little flicks in the water and the swish of the current under you and you have this feeling and it’s like an adventure, being away from home and on a long river like that, which you know goes by cities and towns and different parts of the country.”

Prejean’s retelling of that moment takes readers into the grand American narratives of the great river, of Huck Finn, of the scrappy adventurer about to “light out for the Territory.” It is also a moment of empathetic encounter between two humans. We all know what it’s like to be impressed and overwhelmed by the natural world, to revel in the mystery of the night. We have all sought adventure, love, life. We have all rested.

George Orwell’s “A Hanging” takes readers to a similar place. Orwell is watching a man condemned to die walk to the gallows. On his way, he makes a point of avoiding a puddle so as not to get his shoes wet.

Orwell writes, “When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working — bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming — all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned — reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less.”

And, perhaps, one story less.


Super-Maximum: Taking a Phone Call from Solitary while Rocking a Newborn

He calls while I’m rocking Louis, my three-month old son who is struggling to find rest. I’ve been helping him along for half an hour when my phone rings.

I know it’s him. I don’t want to take it. Louis is almost asleep. But he’s been in solitary for over twenty years, so I take the call and my chances. His cell window looks out on the parking lot. I imagine he’s tortured by watching the cars and people come and go—a strange ebb and flow of lives and routines.

Developmental psychologists say that we learn and grow from our contact with those around us, but contact for him is so fleeting. I know that when he hugs visitors goodbye, his next touch is from a guard checking his anus. And I know that it’s been over twenty years since he’s seen the sun high in the sky, squinted his eyes, and felt the burn on his brow.



I hear, “This call originates from an Ohio correctional facility” and the occasional shout and door slam. When we visit, it’s in a visitor’s room, the nicest room in the prison, a room on the other side of enormous doors.

But now he’s behind those doors. Somehow now I feel closer to him than when I’m meeting with him face to face.

A fire burns in the woodstove and I can still smell bacon from breakfast. The sun reflects off snow in the branches of a Norway spruce behind our house.

“What’s that noise?” he asks.

“I don’t know. Could be the connection,” I reply.

I hold the phone under my chin and shift Louis around and start squatting up and down, hoping that will work. Louis closes his eyes and seems to be drifting off. I keep squatting up and down and he keeps talking.

We talk about mutual friends. He talks about re-reading Black Boy; he always talks about Black Boy, about Richard Wright. And he talks about his case. He’s feeling hopeful.

In Louis’s room I have corn growing in an old egg carton, deep black soil with thin pin-like shoots that lean to the light. This morning I saw that they’d opened overnight, magical how this happens while we sleep our eyes twitching impatiently while this steadfast urgency unfolds.

Louis starts to cry again.

“Man, what’s that noise?” he asks again.

“Oh, that…Louis is crying.”

And then I don’t know what sound I’m hearing whether it’s laughter or crying or both.


“Highly Recommended” CHOICE Reviews The Thirteenth Turn

“Why did so many lynchers revert to the noose?” the author asks.  And, he continues, “how did they learn to tie the knot?”  More broadly, this book uses the “cultural technology” of the rope noose as a ready-made symbol to explore questions of public executions, vengeance, and folk justice in US history.  Shuler (literature and black studies, Denison Univ.) begins with a broader history of the noose in Western culture and in some fascinating early chapters looks at the public execution (by hanging) of slaves who were allegedly plotting against the colony of New York in 1741, a 12-year old girl in New England in 1786, John Brown in 1859, and an assortment of other stories.  Much of the book’s second half then takes up the harrowing subject of lynching, where the rope noose took on the powerful set of symbols and meanings now associated with it.  Those meanings are themselves complex, as evidenced by the fact that the song “Strange Fruit” actually comes from a midwestern, not a southern, lynching.  The last portion of the work takes up some more recent stories and documents the continued power of this simple cultural technology.  The result is a book that is as haunting as its subject.

–P. Harvey, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs