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.

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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.