hc“Willie Francis opened his eyes as the first rays of Louisiana sunlight spilled through the window bars and onto the eighteen- inch-thick concrete walls of his narrow, solitary cell.  This was to be the last sunrise he’d ever see.”

Seventeen year old Willie Francis was set to be executed by the State of Louisiana on May 3, 1946 by “a current of electricity of sufficient intensity to cause death.”  On that warm late spring day, Willie had his head shaved by the jail barber, visited with his priest and then was driven past his family home one last time on his way to the death house where he would be strapped to a sturdy wooden chair and 2500 volts of electricity would course through his body.

That morning was to be his last on earth.  It was to be, but it wasn’t.

In Gilbert King’s gripping narrative, Willie Francis, a poor African American teenager, cheated the death sentence imposed by an all white jury during a day long trial where his defense attorneys asked no questions of any of the State’s witnesses, made no objections, and presented no evidence in his defense.  He was strapped into the electric chair, and the electricity passed through his body, but, as his stuttering cries explained to the on-lookers, “I AM N-N-NOT DYING.”  For reasons not entirely clear then (or now) the electric chair failed.

And so begins this incredible story, told in convincing detail.  The reach of King’s research is amazing – and lucky.  After the botched execution, Willie Francis (along with co-writer Samuel Montgomery) published a pamphlet entitled “My Trip to the Chair.”  The pamphlet had been catalogued at the Library of Congress, but had gone missing for more than two decades.  For three years, King called the Library monthly to inquire about the pamphlet to no avail.  Then finally, he got a call from the librarian saying it had been found.  From that document, King is able to describe in Willie Francis’ own words the ordeal that he went through.

Willie Francis’ story in and of itself lends itself to a riveting tale.  But King does a extraordinary job of filling in the back story, explaining the history of southern Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole communities and how slavery evolved to Jim Crow and how racism infused every aspect of Willie Francis’ life – and death.  King’s detailed descriptions of the various characters in the story and his artful use of foreshadowing and interesting asides is narrative non-fiction at its very best.

The legal issue in Willie Francis’ case – whether a person can be subject to a second execution when the first attempt failed – has been in the news over the past few years.  And the battle about executions in America – the method and the morality of them – is one that will end only when capital punishment is abolished.


Posted by: Rita | June 26, 2016

Book Twenty-Six: Whatever it Takes by Paul Tough

paul_toughSometimes, you pick up a book, read the blurbs on the back cover, and buy it just because of the luminaries who have written the praise.  Sometimes, a book will completely fail to measure up.  But Paul Tough’s Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America lives up to, and often exceeds, the praise on the back cover.

Tough’s impeccable research, compelling storytelling and graceful prose deserve the rave reviews: “a warm and immaculately reported piece of journalism…” (Dave Eggers); “cogent, provocative and original thinking…”(Alex Kotlowitz); “Not to be missed” (Michael Pollan) as well  as soaring praise from Elizabeth Gilbert, Marian Wright Edelman – and President Clinton.  This is narrative journalism at its finest.

The subject of the book, Geoffrey Canada, is a rare visionary who is not afraid to tackle issues and problems that generations before him have found to be impossible.  He grew up in poverty and chaos, but took advantage of the educational opportunities that were offered to him.  “My success was less a testament to my brilliance than a tribute to the hard work of professors and students who believed in me, challenged me, molded me, and finally sent me out into the world to do what I had to do,” he wrote in Daedalus, a few years ago.

And “what he had to do” was, whatever it takes.

Through his experience and his education, Canada saw that children raised in poverty far too often ended up poor as adults.  He recognized that to change a child’s chances, he had to change the whole environment – not just the school or education programs (because at the end of the day, those kids go home to dysfunctional families and unhealthy neighborhoods) but the whole environment – from ‘cradle to college’ as he puts it.

Canada created the Harlem Children’s Zone not just to help out one or a hundred or even a thousand children, but as a way to change the whole culture – starting by educating parents before a baby is born, and then tucking that child into a cocoon of services impacting every aspect of his or her life.  By changing the whole culture of Harlem, these children now can see the world differently – as a place of possibility, of potential.

Through his brilliant reporting, through the research he uses to back up the narrative, what Paul Tough shows, what Geoffrey Canada has proven, is that in order to save the next generation of children, we not only can, but we must, do “whatever it takes.” Tough has a new book that just came out last month: “Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why” — I can’t wait to read it!

There is No Me Without YouFirst, a disclaimer:  After reading Melissa Fay Greene’s 2002 New York Times Magazine article about the AIDS orphan crisis in Africa, I felt compelled to go  to Ethiopia, where I volunteered for three months at orphanages, observed (even participated in) some of the events described in her book, and later served as an informal “fact checker” for her. (Melissa called me once “Rita. Do you remember — were we staying on the second or third floor at the Yilma Hotel?” It is that kind of attention to detail that permeates the reporting in this fabulous book.) I hold her accountable (and am grateful to her beyond measure) for the change in the trajectory of my life: I would not have gone to Ethiopia; I would not have decided to adopt; I would not now be a mother – but for Melissa and her powerful writing.

Now, a warning:  If you care about what has been described as the worst humanitarian disaster of our generation, be sure you set aside a long spell of time before starting to read There Is No Me Without You: One Woman’s Odyssey to Rescue Africa’s Children.  You will not be able to put it down.

Haregewoin Teferra (whose daughter and husband had died within months of one another) became a foster mother by accident — a local priest, who knew of her deep grieving, asked if she would take in two orphan children who had been living in the sacristy because they had no place else to go. He thought Haregewoin needed these children as much, if not more, than the children needed her. Haregewoin took them to her middle class home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and began an odyssey of caring for dozens upon dozens of the millions of children orphaned by the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa.  Greene brings the reader into Haregewoin’s living room as the rain splatters mud on the children playing outside — and then draws these orphan children into the reader’s heart.

The story of Haregewoin’s journey from grieving mother to caretaker of strangers’ children is the perfect vehicle for Greene’s astute reporting about the breadth of the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.  Although her language is picturesque, she doesn’t paint a pretty picture; nor does she portray Haregewoin as a replacement for Mother Teresa.  Instead, she describes Haregewoin as the imperfect human being that she is – in overwhelming circumstances, trying to care for far too many children, she makes mistakes and missteps with sometimes devastating results. But, there is no question that she did more good than harm, and that many children would be dead or living on the streets without her heroic efforts to care for them.

In the final chapters, Greene interrupts her narrative arc to describe the stories of some of the children who were adopted by American families, sharing tales of ballet performances, swimming pool splashings and offers to kill a chicken for dinner.  Greene never implies that international adoption is the solution to the orphan crisis in Ethiopia (and she painstakingly describes what some of the solutions might be – more education, treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS through a commitment by the Ethiopian government, pharmaceutical companies and outside funding sources to actually solve the crisis.)  But the vignettes are charming and leave the reader with a feeling of hope in a world where some 12 million children in Africa will go to sleep without anybody there to tuck them in.

The_Immortal_Life_Henrietta_Lacks_(cover)If you’re a poor African American woman living in Baltimore in the 1950s, and you learn you have cervical cancer, you go to Johns Hopkins Medical Center. Not only is it considered one of the premier hospitals in the country, but the legacy of its founder ensures that you will be treated, even if you can’t pay. (side note: founder Johns Hopkins was an active anti-racist and not only decreed that the hospital treat African Americans in an era of segregation and slavery, he also endowed the hospital with funds to ensure that those freed from slavery would be able to receive medical treatment.)

So, when she learned she had cervical cancer at the tender age of 30, Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins for treatment. Unbeknownst to her, as part of her treatment, some of the tissue of her tumor was sent to George Gey’s lab in the basement of the hospital. There, the cells grew and multiplied at an unprecedented rate. While that rate of growth was important and beneficial for the furtherance of medical science, it also meant that the cancer cells in Ms. Lacks’ body grew quickly and thus, her cancer did not respond to treatment. She died at the age of 31, leaving behind her husband and five young children.

But Ms. Lacks’ legacy grew. Literally. Her cells – for reasons still not completely understood – divide continuously and infinitely. They were, quite literally, immortal.

The scientists were thrilled. This allowed them to have human cells to study in a vast variety of ways; to cheaply and eternally have access to human cells for research. To protect her privacy, the cells in the lab were dubbed HeLa cells. And they became unimaginably famous.

The problem, of course, was that nobody told Ms. Lacks or her family that they had removed her tissue for further study. Nobody told her or her family that her cells had a quality that thrilled scientists – and could have, would have, made her not only famous, but possibly rich.

Decades later, when Rebecca Skloot was in high school, she studied HeLa cells in biology class. And she became so fascinated by the cells that she wanted to know the back-story. Having the curiosity of a true scientist, she began what she expected to be a scientific journey into the cells, and instead became embroiled in an historical voyage beyond her wildest imagination. Skloot carefully documents the Labyrinthian history of the HeLa cells and the woman they came from. She spent months and months building the trust of Ms. Lacks’ family and then listened carefully to their story to ensure that she could tell it right. What she learns is the ugly underbelly of medical disrespect for people of color, and the ravages that racism and poverty inflict on a person, a family, a community.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reads like a novel, with fully drawn characters, plot twists and resolutions galore. However, it has no Hollywood ending. The legacies of racism permeate the story and leave Ms. Lacks’ family without answers for decades and without true justice ever. But it is a tale told with attention to detail, with honest respect for the truth and, with just enough humor to make it impossible to put down.

Kafka comes to americaAs a criminal defense attorney, there is nothing scarier than knowing your client is innocent. Especially in a case where the government might seek the death penalty. Few people have experienced that special form of horror – Steve Wax did. Twice. Within a period of less than four years. And (spoiler alert) both of his clients ultimately walked free despite being persecuted and prosecuted by a government caught up in the post-9/11 zealotry that ensnared far too many innocent people both at home and abroad.

In the dual narrative of Kafka Comes to America: Fighting for Justice in the War on Terror – A Public Defender’s Inside Account, Wax tells the story of Brandon Mayfield, an attorney in Portland, Oregon who is arrested as a ‘material witness’ after an FBI agent erroneously identifies his fingerprint as a match for one found on a bag associated with a terrorist bombing of trains in Madrid, Spain. Mayfield’s home is searched surreptitiously, his computers and client files are confiscated, his family left terrified as he spends more than two weeks in jail – not accused of a crime, but held as a victim in the Bush Administration’s “war on terror.”

While what happened to Mayfield, an American citizen, was horrible, the other story that Wax tells is almost unimaginable. Adel Hamad was a humanitarian hospital administrator from Sudan who, along with his wife and four daughters, had been living and working in Pakistan when he was seized by U. S. government operatives. He spent years in custody, first in Afghanistan, then in Guantánamo, and was never told why he was being held. Hamad suffered through dozens of interrogations and was held in isolation with no contact with his family, or anybody outside of Guantánamo. Although he did not suffer the physical torture that many other Guantánamo detainees did, he was, nonetheless, tortured by our government’s actions. Years of the unknown – courts that never ruled on anything,held in a prison that existed to hold people indefinitely, with neither charge nor trial. The details of Guantánamo are chilling – and should give every American pause: in Guantánamo, our government has abandoned its constitutional underpinnings in a way that we may never recover from.

Steve Wax tells the stories of his representation of Brandon Mayfield and Adel Hamad with clarity and insight. He never overstates the case – but never lets the government off the hook for their misconduct. Wax also describes with remarkable accuracy the life of a public defender fighting to preserve the rule of law in a Kafka-esque environment. It is chilling in its accuracy and yet heartening in the passion displayed.

It would be easy to read this book and suggest that it is a less complicated story because the clients Wax writes about are innocent. And that is, to some extent, true. It is easier to be outraged at the government’s misconduct when the client is innocent. But Wax built a career ensuring that not only the innocent received his most vigorous defense, but, that all of his clients did. I got to see that first hand during the almost five years I worked for him as an Assistant Federal Public Defender. His commitment to the rule of law permeated everything he did and everything he taught to those of us luckily enough to work with him. As he states in Kafka: “We want to heed the call to action implicit” in Dr. King’s letter from the Birmingham jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Wax goes further: “The need for compassion and desire to fight injustice were huge before 9/11. They are more needed now.” Kafka Comes to America is an eloquent explanation of why.

The SunflowerImagine you’ve watched your neighbors, your friends, your relatives be humiliated, imprisoned, and murdered, and then one of the group who has been perpetrating the atrocities asks you to forgive him for his participation. What would you do?

That is the basic premise of and question asked by Simon Wiesenthal in his seminal work The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. The first half of the book describes, in harrowing detail, Mr. Wiesenthal’s experiences in the  concentration camp in Poland where he has survived, against all odds, the Nazis’ torture.

At one point, Mr. Wiesenthal is taken to a nearby hospital where he and other concentration camp prisoners are required to remove garbage. A nun approaches him and asks him to go to the room of a German soldier. The soldier has been badly wounded and his face is covered in bandages. He appears to be near death. The soldier pulls Mr. Wiesenthal close to the bed and implores him: “In the last hours of my life you are with me. I do not know who you are. I know only that you are a Jew and that is enough. I know what I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and again I have longed to talk to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. I know what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace…I beg for forgiveness…”

Wiesenthal agonizes about the request – what response should he give? What action should he take?

As he trudges back to the concentration camp, Wiesenthal sees the graveyard where soldiers have been buried and a single sunflower has been placed at each grave. That image of the sunflower, a sign of individualism and respect for the death haunts him as he returns to a place of mass exterminations and mass, unmarked graves.

I won’t disclose what Mr. Wiesenthal does about the Nazi’s request. You should read and find out for yourself. And then read the second half of the book where others address the question: Should Wiesenthal have forgiven the Nazi? Would they have? And it prompts the question to all readers: What would you have done?

Short essays by numerous Rabbis and Jewish scholars, Buddhist monks and Christian ministers, a German S.S. Officer and others try to respond – not only grappling with “what would you have done?” but also “did Simon Wiesenthal do the right thing?”

My take on the question is: Who are we to judge? It seems to me that only those who suffered as he did, who experienced the horrors he experienced, can even begin to imagine whether and how his response was appropriate . . .

And yet, as I contemplated the questions, I was reminded of one of my death-sentenced clients who was asked by the mother of his victim if she could write to him, and then later visit him. After months of preparations, the visit was arranged. She wanted to know more about the last hours and minutes of her son’s life. My client wanted her to forgive him, even though he knew he was not entitled to her empathy. In the end, she said that she did forgive him – but she did not do it for him. She did it for herself. She was tired of hating the person who ended her son’s life. And in forgiveness, she found a certain peace.

I’m not sure it is the same – to be asked to forgive on behalf of victims you may not have even known, for acts that were beyond redemption. But it seems to me, if there is room for forgiveness in this story, it must only be to ease the grief of the victim, not so the perpetrator can ‘die in peace.’

whistling_vivaldi_-_both_coversWhen Claude Steele started trying to figure out whey some students, despite their abilities, did not do well in classrooms, he began to see patterns – after a certain age and ability level, women began to do worse in math classes, white students lost confidence in their athletic abilities and African American students lost ground in almost every subject, even when intelligence test scores indicate they should be standouts.

Steele coined the term “stereotype threat” to describe this under-performance, and in Whistling Vivaldi, he describes the research that helped him to develop the theory. Time and time again, he was able to show the impact of a stereotype on individual members of a particular group, even if the stereotype in fact did not apply to them – for example: there is a persistent stereotype that girls are not good at math. And research has shown that when tested, extremely talented women do worse than equally talented men. However, if a woman is told that a particular test is designed for women, the discrepancy goes away even if the test is identical.

It is in the area of the achievement or opportunity gap that Steele’s research holds the most promise – because the solutions to fixing things are so simple. Here is a list of “Empirically Validated Strategies to Reduce Stereotype Threat”:

  1. Remove Cues That Trigger Worries About Stereotypes
  2. Convey That Diversity is Valued
  3. Create a Critical Mass
  4. Create Fair Tests, Present Them as Fair and as Serving a Learning Purpose
  5. Value Students’ Individuality
  6. Improve Cross-Group Interactions
  7. Present and Recruit Positive Role Models from Diverse Groups
  8. Help Students Manage Feelings of Stress and
  9. Support Students’ Sense of Belonging
  10. Convey High Standards and Assure Students of Their Ability to Meet These Standards
  11. Promote a Growth Mindset About
  12. Value-Affirmations to Reduce Stress and Threat

Some people found Whistling Vivaldi to be too academic – but I think it is worth wading through some of the research notes because if schools or even individual teachers took the time to address these stereotype threats, the opportunity/achievement gap would be reduced immediately. Reading about the successes that Steele’s research developed is fascinating. If only more teachers would read and apply this work, our students of color would have a greater opportunity to succeed. And that is great gift for all of us.

The Kitchen HouseIt is rare that a book so captures a time and place that you are transported there – not really knowing whether it is “true” (because it is impossible to go back in time) but knowing that, despite the label of ‘novel’ it is real.

The Kitchen House is a dual narrative that transports you to southern Virginia in the late 1700s; to a place where black slaves and white indentured servants live side by side, their work indistinguishable and yet the color of their skin separating them into worlds unfathomable from our current, distant view.

Lavinia is orphaned on the ship that brings her family to America. She travels bound — not in physical chains like many of the enslaved people endured, but by the chain of indentured servitude. Her Irish lilt and freckled nose distinguish her from the other kitchen and “big house” workers, but her job as servant to the Captain (as the plantation owner is called) is no different. She begins her story with little memory of what came before, so her history becomes rooted in the family of the enslaved that she works beside.

Belle has been enslaved, but her white father and adoring grandmother ensure that she learns to read and is “given her papers” – to ensure that she will be allowed to live free. And yet, despite such advantages, the sorrows she endures limit her options.

The choices that Lavinia and Belle make – to stay, to leave, to return – are the core of the narrative, and yet their decisions are doled out like breadcrumbs along the footpath in the woods; we know they will lead to tragedy but Grissom keeps us guessing about how and where and when.

There is a deep sadness in this book, and because the characters are so deeply etched, it is palpable. The everyday joys they celebrate and the decency –and depth — of their character makes The Kitchen House something more than just a sad commentary on a tragic history. It brings the reality – the very harsh reality – of life on a Southern plantation an authenticity that is too often missing from white attempts to capture the experience of slaves. I don’t – probably can’t – know how accurate this rendition of life on a pre-Civil War plantation is, but the story it tells has an authenticity that feels real.

Strength in What Remains is a book that sucks you in to a literary non-fiction narrative, and then spits you into a memoir. Tracy Kidder spends the first half of the book describing the life of Deogratias, a genocide survivor from Burundi, and then follows up with a first person narrative of Kidder’s travels as he researches the book.

Amazingly, it works.

Deogratias grew up in Burundi, a small, landlocked, densely populated country in central east Africa whose past and future are inextricably tied – through cultural overlap and the horrors of genocide — with its neighbor to the north, Rwanda.

Deo grew up in a close-knit family of cattle herders who worked hard to ensure that he was able to go to school. He was a star pupil studying medicine when, in the winter of 1993-94, his education was brutally interrupted by the senseless ethnic violence that preceded the genocide.

When the violence began, Deo escaped – ironically – to Rwanda, just as that country itself spiraled into genocide. Although many are familiar with Rwanda in April 1994 (depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda) the genocide in Burundi began before and lasted long after the horrors in Rwanda had ceased.

As a member of the Tutsi ethnic group, Deo lived in constant fear that he would be found out, and murdered because of his heritage. He witnessed atrocities in Rwanda, where the Hutu majority relentlessly killed their Tutsi neighbors. He fled back to Burundi after months spent walking at night and hiding during the daytime — stealing food, drinking fouled water, and yet somehow surviving.

Through the miracle of a friend with connections, Deo flew to America and ended up living in New York City, Central Park to be precise. As a homeless person delivering groceries to the wealthy, he grapples with the harsh reality of his new life, frustrated by the indignities that he endures when people treat him as stupid merely because he does not speak fluent English.

Then he meets Sharon McKenna, an ex-nun who first helps him find medical care and then connects him with her friends Nancy and Charlie — who become both benefactor and family to Deo.  Through them, he is able to return to school and finish his undergraduate education (at Columbia no less) with the dream of someday returning to medical school.

Through school, he met Paul Farmer, a physician and medical anthropologist who was featured in Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains. Through Farmer, the journey to Strength in What Remains began.

The brilliance of this book is that Kidder melds the narrative of genocide with  Deo’s Horatio Alger story. And in structuring the book as he did, Kidder also gives us insight into how a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer gathers the details of a story. Kidder never forgets that the book is about Deo and his story, but through the intimacy of his first-person narrative, he exposes, to an appropriately lesser degree, his story as well.

Posted by: Rita | May 3, 2016

Book Eighteen: Getting Life by Michael Morton

getting-life-book coverIt is hard to even imagine the horror of coming home to find your beloved wife brutally murdered while your young son watched. It is even harder to imagine what it must have been like to then be questioned by the police, accused of killing the love of your life, convicted, and be sentenced to spend the rest of your life in prison. To lose not only your wife, but your son, your freedom. And then to learn that the person who murdered your wife killed another person while you were sitting in prison.

But that is what happened to Michael Morton.  As he describes in his memoir Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25-year Journey from Prison to Peace, he spent almost twenty-five years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. Prosecutors and police lied, suppressed evidence, failed to turn over exculpatory evidence, failed to search for any evidence that was inconsistent with their theory that Michael Morton killed his wife. And then fought like hell to keep this innocent man in prison.

I have never met Michael Morton, but I am quite familiar with the police and prosecutors who wrongfully convicted him. They are the same men who wrongfully convicted one of my clients (Henry Lee Lucas – the first and only person sentenced to death who was granted clemency by then Governor George W. Bush) and cavalierly ignored the rules of ethics and the rules of law.

No review can adequately describe the nightmare that Michael Morton lived for a quarter of a century. And no one who has not been wrongfully convicted can ever understand the depths of despair he felt over the years. The only good fortune Mr. Morton received over those years was Barry Scheck and the Innocence Project taking on his case and doggedly pursuing justice. That they were successful does not mean that the system worked. That the prosecutor (Ken Anderson) was eventually convicted of contempt of court and stripped of his license to practice law does not mean that prosecutors are being held accountable – Anderson spent a mere 7 days in jail despite the finding that his actions in the Morton case were not only unethical but illegal.

The most amazing part of this book is that Michael Morton’s spirit was not crushed. He remains positive and hopeful and has begun building a new life, establishing a relationship with his son and learning to love again. The grace he displays is phenomenal -his release from prison was redemptive. And yet, the system – our ‘criminal justice’ system, our society – owes him so much more.

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