In your mind, do violent offenders and criminals deserve empathy?
There’s one story in particular in my book, An American Summer, about Eddie Bocanegra, whom I consider a good friend and a remarkable human being. Eddie often feels defined by a moment when he was 18. In an act of revenge for a friend who had been shot, Eddie took the life of a rival gang member. Bryan Stevenson, who wrote Just Mercy, has this line, “We’re all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” I think Stevenson is absolutely right about that. Eddie is this wonderful father and husband, and now runs one of the most innovative violence prevention programs in the country. He’s also an incredibly generous soul. I don’t mean to excuse what people have done, but people have this incredible capacity to change, to shift their moral center.
I just taught a class through Medill [Northwestern University’s Journalism school] at Stateville Prison, which is a maximum-security prison. And we had 10 Medill students. We’d go out there, carpool once a week and meet with 10 incarcerated students, all of whom were there for violent offenses. Many of them were there for murder. Most of them were in their forties and fifties and a couple of them in their sixties. And they were remarkable people. Deeply thoughtful and curious and kind. I never asked about their crimes, These are people who were pushing against being defined by that singular moment. Each of them in their own way had found their way.
For me, empathy, which is so central to my work, is not about excusing someone, but trying to understand them. Trying to understand how they get to a certain place, why they make the choices they do, what’s pushing and pulling at them. And that’s certainly what I attempted to do in An American Summer.
As a professor, what do you hope your students will take away from your class?
I hope that they come away with a full admiration and respect for the process of writing. Writing is this really deliberate exercise. I’ve been at it for 40 years, and it’s gotten easier in some ways. But, man, it is still really, really hard. And with my students, I read their work closely and mark it up with comments and suggestions. I think it can be intimidating and sometimes I think students feel I’m being cruel. So now, at the beginning of my course, I take a New Yorker piece I submitted in which my editor wrote back saying, “I love this piece.” And then you look at it and it’s just dripping in blood. I mean, it’s all marked up in red. I give this to my students just to let them know that my close reading of their pieces is really an act of love.
You’ve been part of the fight for racial justice for a long time. Do you think 2020 and the Black Lives Matter movement represent an inflection point that will result in political and social change?
I hope it’s an inflection point. In the wake of the George Floyd murder, we’ve seen the emergence of a more robust Black Lives Matter movement, and people on both sides of the racial divide are asking questions about the legacy of structural racism. We’ve also come out of four years in which race was central to the rise of our former president. And it’s not even been a question of dog whistles. He was a president who openly trafficked in racist rhetoric. For me, one of the things that’s been really disheartening is that I feel very disconnected at the moment from parts of our country. Much of it having to do around race. So I think we’re at a place, at a kind of reckoning. Or at least I hope so. For the past few years, there hasn’t been any space to have the conversation around all the things that really matter. Maybe, hopefully, we’re slowly finding our way back, to a place at least where we can address some of the gross racial and economic inequities in this country.
We have such a long way to go. I just got an email the other day from one of the state schools in North Carolina, and learned they’re using my book, The Other Side of the River, which very specifically grapples with the question of race. It’s gratifying that they’re having students read the book. It came out 25 years ago. The sobering thing is how resonant it still feels today.