Monday, January 13, 2014

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

I want to talk to you this morning about a sensational book by a local author; the book will be published in March of this year. The author is Rene Denfeld; she calls the book a novel, and it is a novel, but one that she could only have written because of her work in prisons and for men on death row. Besides being an internationally known author and journalist, she has worked as a Mitigation Specialist and fact investigator in death penalty cases. 

The title of the novel is The Enchanted, and it begins with a narration by one of the death row inmates who tells us, “This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it but I do. “
The most enchanted things happen here—the most enchanted things you can imagine. I want to tell you while I still have time, before they close the black curtain and I take my final bow.
To say that it is a sad book would be an incredible understatement, but given the insights and compassion of its author, the sadness is dwarfed by the importance of the content. The lead character, who is always referred to simply as “the lady", works for attorneys who represent men on death row. Her task is not to get these men out of prison, but simply to get them off of death row and back into the general prison population. The other central characters are the men themselves, a defrocked priest, and a warden whose wife is dying of cancer.

The descriptions of the inside of the prison, and especially of the dark, windowless hall of death row are detailed and horrific. 
Back so long ago, when they built this enchanted place, they killed men in three ways: they waited for them to die, worked them to death, and they hanged them. 
Not much has changed. Instead of working men to death, there is a slow starvation of the body and soul. And instead of rope they use a machine.
But while the lady works with and for a single death row inmate at a time, she is not at all blinded to the atrocities some of them have committed and for which they are on the row. Over and over she tells the reader that she has more sympathy for the victims of these men than for the men, but still she in some sense understands them and advocates for them. 
Her clients rarely walk to freedom—that is a myth. She can count the truly innocent clients she has had on one finger. Most of the men she works with are guilty. They may not be guilty of all they were charged, but they are guilty of more than enough. Many are guilty of even worse, the crimes that were suspected and never proven.
No, the dream of the death row client is to escape execution for a life behind bars. They want to escape the dungeon into the rest of the prison. They want a visit from their mom that involves a touch. They want to stand in the sun, to play a game of ball, to eat at a table with other men, to see the sky and feel the wind. Those are their dreams, maybe small to others, but huge to them. It is a modest dream, in a sense, and yet one that is amazingly hard to achieve for a man on death row.
The lady digs into the pasts of these men. If they give her permission to do so (and often they refuse) she interviews family members and past acquaintances hoping to turn up facts that will lead not to their freedom, but simply get them off of death row. The lady’s own very difficult past helps her to realize what may be relevant for the attorneys working for these men. She also knows about the guards who profit by helping selected inmates to smuggle drugs into the prison, or by providing frightened boy prisoners for them to do with as they will in the rape shed. 

She knows of the corpse valets, prisoners selected by a corrupt guard named Conroy. He selects men who know how to be quiet—how to keep secrets.
And the secrets are so many. How bodies end up dead in cells with signs of strangulation or broken necks and the guards clear their throats and say natural causes. How others are shot and others die in heaps of blood all erased by the dawn. How no one ever dies here of abuse, of rape, of being killed by the guards. How the records—what record? A prison is a place without a history.
But while the book talks extensively of corrupt guards and privileged prisoners, the portrait of the warden is all in all a sympathetic one. True, he thinks of the lady as an enemy, but he also really tries to expose corrupt guards and to treat inmates fairly. 

But after seeing the lady he can’t help getting angry. He takes his job seriously. Every day he protects inmates from each other and society from inmates. He wants to tell the politicians to try policing three thousand men who spend their lives trying to disembowel each other with shanks made out of sharpened table knives. Get back to me on how it goes.
And then the lady comes in and pulls a few tearjerkers for judges who have never stepped foot inside a prison, who have never even met the victims or their families. And the next thing he knows, she is walking another man away from his deserved death. 

He knows there are too many black men on the row. He knows there are too many men who had Grim and Reaper for their defense attorneys. He tells his new guards there are more than enough guilty men to go around, we don’t need to invent more. He is the first to admit the system needs fixing.  

When he thinks about what men like York and Striker and Aden have done, he is firm in his truth. Enough years of being the jailer—of seeing men kill each other in prison riots, of holding the hands of rape victims as they testify in front of parole boards—he knows that some men deserve to die. He can chat with a man like York, and he can even show kindness to a man like Arden, but he knows in his heart they deserve to die. Such men are like diseased dogs, or demented animals. You can bemoan what made them killers, but once they are, the best thing is to put them down with mercy. 

He stops himself. No, he thinks again, the lady does know those things. She talks to the men’s families, she plumbs their lives—she has to know the pain they have caused. Yet she still tries to get them off and this he cannot figure. This is the part that makes him mad.
What is she to do if she runs into a prisoner who doesn’t want to be saved from execution? Suppose what she has in a file is enough to save a man from death row, but he insists that she not show the file to the attorneys? Should her loyalty be to her employers or to the man she is allegedly trying to help? And can she go on doing the work if she refuses in this case to reveal what she has uncovered?

If there is an answer to her question, perhaps it will come from one of the death row inmates. 
I sit under the cover for an eternity before I decide the lady is strong enough to have seen me. Someday she will see the monsters for what they are, and stop questioning herself about why she seeks them. She will stop feeling bad about wanting to make castles for them. Even monsters need peace. Even monsters need a person who truly wants to listen—to hear—so that someday we might find the words that are more than boxes. Then maybe we can stop men like me from happening.

The lady has a gift, and I hope she keeps using it. It is the gift of understanding men like me.
This is a courageous book. Ms. Denfeld, especially given her continuing work, was so brave to have written it and to have lived the life that allowed her to write it. I commend her for her superb writing and for her courage and her gift.

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