February 13, 2011 / Praxis
An interview between TOJ Editor-in-Chief Chris Keller and the author of GENERATION EX-CHRISTIAN, Drew Dyck.
Sister Helen Prejean is a vowed member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille. She has worked tirelessly for the abolition of the death penalty after befriending Patrick Sonnier on death row. Her book Dead Man Walking, which became the subject of the Oscar winning film of the same name, recounts this time of her life. Since then she has written another book, Death of Innocents, which chronicles the many innocent people that have been convicted and executed by the state.
Sister Helen Prejean has won numerous awards and speaks over two hundred times a year. Her message has taken her into the private chambers of presidents, prime ministers, and the Pope, whom she personally met and influenced to change the Catholic Church’s ambiguous stance on capital punishment. In this interview, Sister Prejean shares some of her journey, past and present. She also tells of Manuel Ortiz and Cathy Henderson, two innocent people that she is fighting for today.
Sister Helen Prejean (SHP): In 1982, I wrote about a person on death row in Louisiana by the name of Patrick Sonnier: his story is told in Dead Man Walking.1 I went to visit him, and it was the first time I was in the presence of another human being who had knowingly done evil and killed another human being. The transcendent part of that experience for me was when I looked in his eyes, because I was sort of afraid of him. I guess I thought that in some way, someone who had murdered someone else, their eyes must look different or their face in some way would mirror someone who was bent on evil or something. It was so amazing, Shannon, because instead when I looked into his eyes, I remember thinking very clearly, “Whatever he has done, as bad as it may be, he’s worth more than the worst act of his life.”
That began then a habit of presence, being in the presence of someone who had a tremendous amount of goodness in him that began to be revealed. I also had to stand present with the victims’ families, because a teenage couple had been killed. So the “doing” part that we’re talking about is getting ourselves to be physically present; it is going onto death row. Following the call to go visit or write, and all that action begins to take you down a road, and on this road, you have these encounters.
So first was the man on death row, who with another person had killed these teenage kids. Then there was the road of going and meeting the parents whose kids had been killed. The girl’s parents were very angry at me, and they didn’t want to have anything to do with me. It was an experience of making a mistake because I hadn’t reached out to them earlier, and they were angry at me.
I experienced rejection, which I felt I deserved, because in their anger and their grief they were all caught up in a societal symbol, a cultural symbol, that says the way you are going to relieve this sadness and the way that you are going to deal with your rage and your loss is that you will be allowed to witness the death, the killing, of the one who killed your child. And so this was my first experience, and there was a kind of guilt, in being in the presence of the girl’s father and mother. Because I knew that I hadn’t reached out; I hadn’t written; I hadn’t known what to do because I was spiritual advisor to the people that had killed their kids. There was a powerlessness in that and a guilt, like “who am I to go and accompany people on death row? I haven’t had a murder in my family, I haven’t had my sister or my niece or my mother killed.”
Walking in the presence of such pain, it’s very hard to hold onto the principles of human rights, compassion, and life and not give in to the seeking of vengeance—even though it’s legalized, that’s basically what the death penalty is. So that was an experience of discovery for me, and I resolved out of that experience that I would reach out to murder victims’ families, and that I would never hesitate again.
By being in the presence of the other couple, the parents who had lost their son, I also experienced a whole other reality, a reality of people who had recognized that the chair was always going to be empty in which their young son David had sat. Their spiritual journey was not to let the hatred overtake them, not to lose the love they had inside, so they taught me that it’s possible for human beings to be thrown into this kind of fire of abrupt and violent loss of their only son and yet to not let the love be overcome.
I came to a new understanding of forgiveness as a positive way of being, a way of being present so that the person doesn’t succumb to what society is offering them as the antidote to their rage and their grief, which is, “In my name I want you to kill again; I want you to kill.”
It is hard for executions to take place without the victims wanting it. I use the image of a river of fire—in fact I am writing about this in my spiritual memoir—where the fire means to be illumined from within but to be adrift in the river, always moving. You move with a current; it’s not like you create a river, but you do put the steerage on your boat, and you do set the tiller to go in the current or to avoid it.
There were currents I got caught up in. One on the perpetrator’s side and being brought into all that suffering, a suffering that includes the parents and the family of the one being executed. Nobody ever, ever reflects on them, the perpetrators. The first man I was with, Patrick Sonnier, his mother couldn’t even go into the town because she was so hated and reviled by the people who lived in the town. So I get to enter into their suffering, too.
And then over on the side of the victims’ families, what I discovered is that the gift that we give each other is not so much what we do for each other, it’s our ability to be present and to say to the other person by your presence and by your constant care that you care for them. This has to be concrete, not in words, nor even simply in prayer. It has to be embodied, and it has to be manifested. That is what shores up people’s dignity and helps them to feel worth it, that someone cares enough to be with them. So those are some of the first things I’ve learned and am still learning from this experience.
TOJ: That’s beautiful. At my graduate school we have a class, Interpersonal Foundations, where the core message is that of presence and being there. Actually your quote, “Let me be the face of Christ for you” is a mantra of the class, and so there is a bunch of us being trained up in the importance of Presence, capital ‘p’ presence.
SHP: That’s wonderful. That is the core thing, Shannon, that really is the core thing. What graduate school is this?
TOJ: It’s a place called Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle. It’s a school that combines counseling with theology.
SHP: That is wonderful. That is the category, or phenomena, that does hold all that you’re trying to bring together, so I’m glad that I fit in your groove.
TOJ: You are digging that groove in front of our feet. What advice would you give to people who, like me, experience discomfort trying to be present with those on the margins or those who are already labeled and faceless to society. You’ve been there so many times—are there any practical words of wisdom you can give to us to help us through those times? What’s helped you get though it and transform your perspective?
SHP: You know, it’s for us to reflect on our own discomfort, because I think as we develop a mature spirituality, we are able to be in the presence of anyone of so-called celebrity, like the President of the United States or the Pope or whatever, and not get an inflated high from it or begin name-dropping or bragging about how we met this movie star or that Pope or whatever. But then we must also realize that whatever category society has put on marginalized people, once we are with these people, if we are having a conversation in a soup kitchen with a homeless person, if we are talking to a woman on the street, these categories also disappear.
Edwina Gately started a house for recovering prostitutes called Genesis house in Chicago. One time the ex-prostitutes gave a retreat. They were the presenters! And they said, “You oughtta’ come.” I said, “You better believe I’m gonna come!” Because you need to hear people’s stories.
The things that make us uncomfortable are the distancing words we have that we put around them; they construct the basis of our discomfort. We say things like “Oh, this person’s a prostitute” or “Oh, this person is homeless” or ‘Oh, this person is an immigrant.” We categorize someone as “the poor,” or “a Muslim,” you know, possibly even “a terrorist.”
What feeds those things and that uncomfortableness is separation. In fact, uncomfortableness is the milder stage because it quickly turns to fear and then we’re easily, easily manipulated by politicians or anybody because of our fears.
As long as we are not meeting real people and having real conversations, we start saying “these people” or “those people,” and that is the source of our uncomfortableness; it’s the separation that we have built up inside ourselves. Then we begin to imagine them as threats to us. We think “They could do this to us” or “They could do that to us” or we do transference of something we see on the evening news or we heard about. We see one immigrant family ripping people off and conclude “That’s what those people do.”
What is really hard about the experience of being middle class or affluent is that we live in neighborhoods where we do not come into contact with people who are actually poor and struggling. We have to build up those experiences ourselves; we have to initiate them; we have to be the one to cross over into it, because you can’t just have a panel discussion and say, “Now we’ll have people share about being homeless.”
There’s a guilt in being middle class and having what we need. We have that guilt if we are not realizing the freedom that wealth gives us and the energy it gives us because we don’t have to spend half of our day, as so many women and children do, as so many villages of the world, getting water. We have energy because we don’t have to spend it on such things. Even if we are going to graduate school, look at what this is: We’ve not only gotten a degree, but we are getting another degree, we can be developing that. But if we do that for service and out of servanthood, in the biblical sense of Isaiah and Jesus, the Ghandian sense of that, then we can see it as releasing this energy and get something given to us in order for us to become the servant of all in the new way. And then the guilt drops away, because then we are using the energy we have been given for others.
TOJ: That’s great. I find myself, even here, being invited into your habit of presence and I am torn between wanting to ask questions for myself and wanting to ask questions for the magazine.
SHP: Don’t discount your questions, because maybe the questions you really want to ask are the questions that the magazine really needs asked.
TOJ: I worked with the elderly, and their families, who were suffering with Alzheimer’s disease. You often speak out about the death penalty and justified killing of death row inmates by the state. In Washington we recently passed the “Death with Dignity” initiative,2 and I was wondering if you have any thoughts about assisted suicide in the elderly or other culture-of-life issues.
SHP: Whenever life is at a vulnerable point, from the very beginning of life to the very end of life, we have to really watch when the state code of law allows the ending of human life, and we make it legal, because we need to build moats around the castle of life, especially with older people. Now, so many elderly people are put into homes and other places where very quickly the right to die can become the duty to die. There is just not the discernment, care, and presence that goes into that decision. There should be pain management but anyone in chronic pain, anyone who cries to die, it’s tempting to want to bring their death. The Roman soldiers used to break the legs of the people being crucified to hasten their deaths, not exactly a painless death.
Of course, with the management of pain you also have some qualifiers. You can have people strapped into wheelchairs, their heads bent over because they’re so drugged, they’re already in half-life, and then it becomes an easy, easy step to just take it all away. Just give them enough so that it finishes people off, simply because the person is old, or the person is sick—those stages where other people are in charge of those decisions, or where the dignity of the self has lost all agency.
Killing them destroys us. It deteriorates us as a society. We have to uphold the dignity of the human person. Pain management, especially with the drugs that are possible now, morphine and so forth, is possible in almost all instances. Things are always complex, but the bedrock is the dignity of human life. Once you put something into law that says “Well, you know, this person is asking to die, so here are our steps,” it can never codify all the possibilities and situations of human life; it never can. So once we codify certain conditions that allow for someone to take drugs that can kill them, at the patient’s request or at the family’s request, I think we have to be abhorrent of that.
In terms of the magazine’s topic of death and dying, what I deal with is not just death and dying, it’s death at the hands of the state. It’s being killed. Being killed and dying are two things that are very different from each other. It’s one thing that one’s own being through disease or whatever is coming to the end of life, and the aquiescence to that, and being helped to enter into that stage. But being killed is an entirely different reality where people imagine and anticipate their own death a thousand times before they actually die. It’s just a whole other reality.
When I am being present to people, it combines walking with them, accompanying them, and being present to them, but furiously resisting their death every step of the way. Part of my standing with them is that they know I am fiercely resisting their death in every way that I can. Even my presence at an execution is not to be a witness for the state, but I am there so that they can see my face. It is always with this very active resistance to the death, with my will and everything within my power. As soon as I visit a death row inmate, I go get with the lawyers, get with the news, get with the legal team and whatever we need there to not go quietly into this dark night and let the state kill somebody.
The irony and the surreal aspect of what’s going on with the killing now is that it’s masked as dying and that there is a medical, humane procedure to put someone to sleep. They even, Shannon, give a paralyzing drug to the person being killed so that witnesses do not see them struggle at all.
TOJ: I remember reading that in your book,3 and that was horrifying.
SHP: When we’re talking about death and dying, the reality is different when the state is killing you.
TOJ: That is a really important distinction to make; I am glad you made that. One noticeable thing about your books and speeches is that you repeatedly mention the names of the people you have been with—Dobie Williams, Joseph O’ Dell, Patrick Sonnier—is there anyone right now that you are working for and fighting for that you could mention?
SHP: Two people. One is Manuel Ortiz.4 He is on death row in Louisiana. He is innocent, and he has been on death row for fourteen years, and ironically, his hearing about his innocence is coming up in February. The lawyers have been working, and they really have gotten a cumulative amount of evidence to show that he is, in fact, an innocent person.
Also, a woman on death row in Texas. Her name is Cathy Henderson.5 She is accused of murdering a baby while she was babysitting. The first thing I did when I went to see her was to get her pro bono lawyers. They took the case, and they got forensic experts to show that what Cathy had said all along was true: that it was an accident. They said that she had murdered the baby, but in truth, it was an accident. Or at least, you could not definitively, positively say it had to be murder.
Those are the two people that I am visiting presently, and both of them are innocent. I have been visiting Manuel for over eight years and Cathy for four or five years.
TOJ: Is there anything we can do to help you in your work or to get the word out?
SHP: You want Washington to end the death penalty. You want to stop state killing. You want to be a part of ending this. You have got to shut down the machinery of death. You have got to shut it down. The people of Washington State, from what I know of them, from my many visits there, are not wedded to the death penalty by any means. Most people do not reflect on it deeply. We are part of systems.
One thing is to write to people on death row. How many people do you have on death row?
TOJ: I do not know.6
SHP: That would be the first thing. How many people have you killed?7 I have to say “you” because we are a democracy. Anytime someone has been killed in our state, it’s done in our name, and if we haven’t resisted it, we are part of it.
So just get information. Who is on death row? Who has been executed? Just start digging into the issue. It is an important life and dignity issue. Then just get in there and take it from there. Maybe write to someone on death row in Washington State. Maybe begin to get in touch with the pro bono lawyers that are taking the cases and find out what happens in the courts and who goes to death row and who doesn’t.
I found when I went to murder victim support groups that people stay away from victims’ families as much as they do the death row inmates. They had different reasons, but when people are in great pain, our society does not know how to be them. They said, “People stay away from us. They don’t know what to say to us.” You have to reach out to both sides. You have to reach out to the prisoners. They are building more and more supermax prisons. Two-thirds, Shannon, of people in prison in the United States are there for nonviolent crimes—they’re there for drugs or economic related crimes like forging checks.
We have 2.3 million people, and one in every one hundred adults is incarcerated. The death penalty is the tip of the iceberg, but there is a huge iceberg. We are the biggest incarcerator in the world; we are doing enforced exile on people, just like Stalin did in his gulags. It takes them away from family. It takes them away from everyone they know and love and puts them in an island of cement, steel, and bars. It is a terrible, terrible thing. All the deepest spiritual traditions, whether it’s Islam, Judaism, hold that we are to love one another as our brother and sister. It is a deep thing to realize that all our separations and fears are artificial because we all are brothers and sisters to one another. So it is these needs, the suffering cries of our society, that call to us. Then we begin to respond through our acts or like Saint John says, “Do the truth with deeds of love.” We have to embody love and there are great opportunities for us because the needs are so great. There is so much suffering, so much diminishment of people. To hear the cry is the first step.
All the wisdom traditions speak that blessed are the eyes that see what you see, and blessed are the ears that hear what you hear. In the Catholic Church during this Advent season, the Scripture reading the other morning was from Isaiah, and it said, “What has been hidden will be revealed.” All spiritual traditions have that. It is developing the spiritual capacity to be able to hear and to be able to see.
TOJ: Finally, you mentioned that you were writing your spiritual memoir, River of Fire, when should we expect that?
SHP: Sometime around fall of 2010.
TOJ: Thank you so much for speaking with us. I often read of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, and it is thrilling to be able to speak to someone who is living the life and blazing a trail for the rest of us.
SHP: Glad to be of service.
2. I-1000, for more information go to http://www.yeson1000.org.
3. Helen Prejean, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions (New York, NY: Random House, 2005).
4. For information go to http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1252/is_17_127/ai_66191296/pg_1?tag=artBody;col1 and www.deathpenalyinfo.org.
5. For information go to http://www.savecathyhenderson.org.
6. There are 9 people on death row in Washington State. See www.deathpenaltyinfo.org for more information.
7. Since 1608, 109 people in Washington State have been executed. Between 1608 and 1976, 14,489 people were executed in the United States; between 1976 and 2008 1,132 people were executed in the United States; thus, since 1608, 15,621 people have been executed in the United States. See www.deathpenalty.org for more information.
Shannon Presler is an intern with The Other Journal. He has a BA in theology and is pursuing his MACP at Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle, Washington.
Sister Helen Prejean
Sister Helen Prejean, a vowed member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, is the author of Dead Man Walking, which became the subject of the Oscar-winning film of the same name, and Death of Innocents. She is also a tireless advocate for men and women on death row. Her articles, thoughts, and other biographical information can be found at her websites www.sisterhelen.org or www.prejean.org.