Nonfiction Contest Finalist: A Failure of Narrative Distance

In the late spring of 1999, I walked tree-shaded, brick streets of Alton, Illinois, with my friend, Margaret. It was that season when some days are summer hot while others still hold cooler traces of the passing spring. The evening retained some of that day’s heat, despite the shade. Margaret’s chestnut hair was streaked with gray, pulled up off her neck into a twist, and somehow she seemed even more beautiful to me than when we were young. “Let me tell you a story,” she said. “You should write about it.” I can no longer completely distinguish all details of the story she told me from what I learned later.

As Margaret talked, we walked within a few blocks of the hospital where I was born. We were also within a few blocks of Alton Cemetery where a ninety-three foot bronze monument to anti-slavery minister and newspaper editor, Elijah P. Lovejoy, stands. The monument was first dedicated in 1897, rededicated in 1969, and again in 1997.

On November 6, 1837, members of a mob killed Elijah Lovejoy two days before this thirty-fifth birthday of, as he tried to defend his new printing press. He had moved across the Mississippi River from Missouri to Illinois, hoping for a community less antagonistic to his work, but each printing press he brought to Alton was destroyed by mobs. After killing Lovejoy, mob members threw his fourth press into the Mississippi. Among those who had helped defend the press, twelve were criminally charged with violent resistance to riot. Eleven mob members were charged with violent riot but acquitted at a jury trial in which the Illinois Attorney General assisted the defense. Eventually, a piece of Lovejoy’s ruined press was recovered from the river. In her book, God’s Portion: Godfrey, Illinois 1817-1865, Judy Hoffman observes, “The bullets that killed Elijah Lovejoy ricocheted around the nation and returned to destroy Alton’s reputation.”

The little city did not transcend race in the 20th century or in the first decade of the 21st. On April 23, 2008, Alton’s newspaper, The Telegraph, quoted the mayor’s referral to Martin Luther King’s murderer, James Earl Ray. The mayor said, “To have something like the King killer being from Alton tarnish your city is terrible.”

A decade before the mayor’s statement, on a hot August night in 1998, two carloads of white people came to a mixed-race, but mostly black, Alton neighborhood within a block of the recently rededicated Lovejoy Monument, almost literally in its shadow. They set in motion the story Margaret told me the following spring. The group’s leader was a middle-aged white man, accompanied by a brother, a son, a daughter-in-law, a daughter, and a family friend. The leader’s television had been stolen, and he mistakenly believed his girlfriend had traded it at a crack house in the neighborhood. As it turned out, she had traded the television but in an area nowhere near the neighborhood his family “visited” in their search for it. The leader proceeded down the street with his family, stopping people to “interrogate” them, going into individual yards, and knocking on doors. He and his brother entered a tiny yard where several black men in their twenties were gathered on a small porch. The home’s occupant said he knew nothing about a television and told the brothers to leave his yard. They refused, apparently committing criminal trespass to property, under Illinois law. These events seem undisputed.

Some bystanders said the leader’s screams at neighborhood residents included racial slurs, such as, “You niggers stole my TV.” Later, when I reviewed witness statements to police, they conflicted on this point and on whether or not the leader was carrying a baseball bat later found at the scene. It was undisputed that he had been drinking heavily for hours, “ranting” and expecting “trouble” even according to witness statements most favorable to him—those from his own family members.

A fight broke out, with the first blow apparently struck by one of the young men on the porch, although witness statements indicated that it occurred in response to a raised fist from the leader’s brother. The fight moved quickly to the street where, as the group from the porch backed off, a crowd of younger, teenage boys gathered. Some swung or kicked at the leader, who had serious health problems including heart disease, and who died of heart failure, probably precipitated by injuries from the fight. An autopsy revealed his blood alcohol content to be well over the legal limit for intoxication.

Eleven young black men, ranging in age from their mid-teens to their late twenties, were charged in the death. Some obtained plea bargains to what might be considered relatively reasonable charges (such as mob violence, aggravated battery, and manslaughter) with relatively reasonable sentences (ranging from probation to five years). Two, both seventeen at the time they were charged, went to trial, and received twenty-year sentences. The first teen to be tried later had his felony murder conviction affirmed in The People of Illinois v. Taiwan M. Davis.

The second teen to be tried was represented by a renowned area criminal defense attorney, Charles Shaw. I became obsessed with his story and incorporated it into a section of my literary nonfiction dissertation, which was primarily about my juvenile law practice. I traveled from Nebraska to Alton as often as feasible, despite my dissertation chair’s concern about my safety, as I plunged into the project.

Enlisting Margaret’s help, I stayed at her home repeatedly, turning it into my research headquarters. I conducted interviews at her round, oak dining room table, while covering her multi-colored striped living room couch and hardwood floor with hundreds of pages of legal documents, newspaper articles, police reports, and transcripts of interviews and court proceedings. Her presence and the details of domesticity provided a comforting antidote to my obsessive but heartbreaking investigation.

One interview was with Charles Shaw, who had practiced law in the greater St. Louis area since 1947. Slender, with thin white hair, Shaw sat behind a large desk of blond wood in his Clayton, Missouri office, gazed at me through thick glasses, sighed, and spoke of his young client. “Neighbors liked him, thought he was a good kid. This guy’s mouthing off and gets slugged, and [my client] happened to be in the crowd. You would expect had this guy lived, he would have been charged with peace disturbance. He was drunk, and he was angry.”

Shaw’s client had an I.Q. of 70 and was considered “slow” or “borderline retarded.” He went to trial in 1999, after eleven months in the county jail where he turned eighteen. At trial, he was convicted of mob action, “disturbing the public peace by 2 or more persons acting together and without authority of law” (720 ILCS 5/25‑1). Mob action is a felony, so he was also convicted of first-degree murder under the state’s felony murder statute (720 ILCS 5/9-1), a statute that has been critiqued widely, including scathing criticism from Professor Timothy P. O’Neill of John Marshall Law School. Shaw described his client’s conviction as “one of the worst defeats I’ve had in fifty-three years of practicing law. I figured this kid was innocent, and  . . .  he ought to have been acquitted based upon the evidence. This kid was not a thug.”

Shaw pointed out that, although one prosecutor had referred to his client as a “street thug,” the supposed thug had no behavior problems in school, worked, had no history of legal problems, and was generally regarded as “a good kid” by everyone, including his teachers and the school psychologist, who testified on his behalf. I might have wondered if this attorney was being entirely forthcoming had his claims not already been corroborated by my interviews and documents, including a transcript of the school psychologist’s testimony. Shaw insisted the conviction was “a terrible thing,” adding, “We . . . had a defense. Here was an aggressor . . . sort of assaulting the whole neighborhood. I’d never lost a case like that. We lost. I’m completely flabbergasted. I really think it was a racial deal. It was an outrage.”

What I find most disturbing is the possibility that to be found guilty of murder of an enraged, drunken white man who has a heart attack and dies after starting a fight, while apparently engaged in his own mob action and criminal trespass to property, you need not be a participant; perhaps you need only be present, at least if you are young, black, and male. I want to be wrong on this point, but I’m not, according to Charles Shaw when I asked him:

That’s exactly right. All he had to do was be there. Yeah, under the mob action rule, that’s all. It’s an unconstitutional law. It’s guilt by association. In my state, I don’t have to stop you from committing a crime even if I know you’re committing one. I can watch you do it, and that doesn’t make me part of it unless I do something to help you or urge you on. It [the Illinois mob action statute] forces you to take some affirmative action to prevent whatever’s taking place, or you’re part of the mob.

As I was leaving his office, Shaw showed me a black-and-white photo on top of his file cabinet.  In it, a flight-crew of young men stood beside a World War II B-17 bomber. He pointed out Clark Gable and himself in the picture. He did not tell me that, after being shot down and becoming a POW, he made seven escape attempts before succeeding, as I learned from his 2001 obituary, just under a year after we talked.

An activist who spoke with me reported being told by a prosecutor that if the activism stopped, an early release could be arranged. Activist leaders did back off after the reported promise, the activism did stop, and about five years into his twenty-year prison sentence, Shaw’s former client was quietly released. The interracial public outcry over his harsh sentence was never officially acknowledged as having any effect.

It has become somewhat commonplace to observe that narrative is the way human beings make meaning of experience, but it is hard to know what meaning to make of this story, and a subsequent event makes it harder. Several years after the young man’s release from prison, he led police on a high-speed chase, and was arrested on various charges, including speeding and resisting arrest. His father, a reputed drug dealer who seemed to play little or no part in his son’s pre-conviction life, was in the car with him and arrested on suspicion of possessing cocaine. Years earlier, in the light of much evidence to the contrary, one of the prosecutors working zealously to imprison him called him a “thug,” and perhaps he became what he was called. If so, he had considerable “help” along the way, a phenomenon that those who helped probably are not likely to examine. It would be understandably tempting for them to see the chase as vindication, the story’s oversimplified and unjust, but convenient, concluding chapter—proof that they were right about him all along.

 

Years ago, the incarnation of a much longer version of this story in my dissertation was, among other things, a hundred-page embodiment of my struggle to achieve some semblance of narrative distance. Often, after a day of writing, I walked for miles in the country outside Lincoln, Nebraska to calm myself. In at least one instance, I walked eight miles before realizing how far I had gone. Later, I put the story aside for years and might never have revisited it if a friend, another writer, who witnessed my struggle, had not invited me to discuss it on a conference panel she was chairing a few years ago. After the conference, I put it aside again. Even now, I have not mastered narrative distance completely here; but eventually something, whether exhaustion, resignation, obsession, tenacity, or something else, made me try again because if we do not have justice, at least we should have a story of the struggle for justice.

This story could be examined from various theoretical perspectives: legal studies; critical race theory; construction of race in legal discourse; art and politics; literature and literary activism; and narrative construction. Problematically perhaps, I do not feel theoretical about this story, and sometimes, I feel hysterical. In many respects, my narrative here is a story of failure—failure of justice, for example, which is a collective social failure, but it is also about my particular failure as a writer, failure to achieve the narrative distance to make this subject emotionally manageable, in order to write about it effectively—yet what is narrative distance, and why in this instance, is it so difficult for me to attain?

Much has been said about narrative distance, but in my experience, no one has said it better than Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.

Here she instructs me as a writer to “get to something hard and true beneath the surface,” to find “a narrator on the page strong enough to do battle for me.” If I understand Gornick correctly, this narrator, a persona, is both me and not me—perhaps what Abraham Lincoln would call the better angel of my nature—drawn from my greatest strengths, thus able to shed some of my weaknesses, and “achieve the right distance: the one necessary for engagement.” Too much distance creates “absence of sympathy” without which “engagement fails,” while too little distance threatens to drown narrative voice in the turbulent depths of emotion, foreclosing necessary “self-investigation.” Paradoxically, I overcompensated for too little distance with a pseudo-detached, rather dry academic voice indicative of excessive distance in many attempts to write this story.

While I find all Gornick’s comments on narrative distance useful, the intense resonance of one observation commands my most immediate attention: “If you don’t leave home you suffocate, if you go too far you lose oxygen.” I am engaged here in a narrative about not just any place but about the place where I was born and the area where I grew up. Although I have not resided there for many years, it is the place I mean when I say, “I’m going home,” whether for a family reunion, a visit with friends, a wedding, or—too often these days—a funeral. Writing about home changes everything. Home is the geography of river, bluffs, woods, fields, plains, and prairie with which I was first imprinted, the calming and settling landscape that I visualize almost immediately without conscious thought when I hear the word “home.” It is the place for which I retain feelings of strongest attachment, but paradoxically and more threateningly, it is also a place that engenders feelings of intense alienation in me, particularly due to issues of human suffering and injustice, readily apparent in the ghettoized poverty I need not look very far to see.

Despite efforts of progressive members of the community, I find this miserably visible injustice more inescapably apparent every time I return home. It is a disappointment to me in the sense with which Martin Luther King, Jr. used that term when he said, “There can be no great disappointment where there is not great love.”  On the same occasion, speaking out against the Vietnam War, he noted, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” So part of what is “hard and true” beneath the surface Gornick urges me to penetrate is that I have a choice, and it is not a happy one. It is a choice between the “safe” silence of betrayal and the risk of losing my home where, beyond close individual relationships, I have certainly never felt my voice to be generally welcome. I do not fear being murdered like Lovejoy but rather losing my sense of home to hatred, although fear of losing my home is not the only fear to be faced here.

In our society’s construction of race, my son is deemed black or mixed-race. We left southwestern Illinois when he was eleven, so although he retains some sense of attachment, it is far more attenuated than mine but perhaps no less paradoxical. At the end of the Twentieth Century, when I told my son about the Alton felony murder cases, he said, “What a horrible place. I’m so glad we moved away.” Yet, like me, in many instances, he recalls happy, even wonderful memories of his Illinois childhood.

My son is long grown, but nonetheless, for many years, when I thought about these cases, almost all I could hear was a voice in my consciousness drowning out nearly everything else, and what that voice said over and over was, “Not my son, not my son, not my son.”  That voice, even more than the threatened loss of home, made me feel almost too hysterical to write. I use the term hysterical very intentionally because its origin is in the Greek word for womb, hystera. Further, hysteria is associated with physical manifestation of unarticulated fear that has not been faced and mastered.

I have several stepchildren and one biological son. He has two children. In a sense, what I write here is connected to every biological descendent that I will ever have, and that is what makes it so difficult. Indeed, as Gornick says, I do need  “a narrator on the page strong enough to do battle for me.”

Now, as nearly everyone in the country knows, a seventeen-year-old black teenager, “armed” only with Skittles and iced tea was shot to death as a perceived threat to community safety. Symptomatic of our tortured constructions of race, his shooter has been described variously as white or Hispanic. Debates about the shooting rage across our television screens daily and nightly. Sometimes these debates include overwhelming statistical evidence that, in terms of homicide, the greatest danger to the life a young black man is another young black man. I do not deny that fact or the urgent need to address it effectively; but it is distressing to hear the fact interjected in a way that may be understood (or misunderstood) as implicitly intended to justify the interethnic shooting of an unarmed seventeen-year-old.

Recently, I was in a rainy parking lot outside a children’s museum. My third-grade grandson walked beside me toward the museum. His father and twelve-year old sister walked a little ahead of us. She is tall and slender, with a striking resemblance to her dad. She was wearing a large, loose, dark sweatshirt, and in the rain, she flipped the hood up to cover her long hair. As we entered the museum, I looked at her and nearly gasped, realizing that in the loose hoodie, with her hair completely covered, she could be mistaken for a boy. I know it seems like hysteria, but for the briefest instant, I started to tell her to put the hood down so she wouldn’t be perceived as a threat. I stopped myself, of course, and the moment passed. Once inside, she put the hood down anyway.

 

I grew up along the Mississippi River, our national artery, and despite its dangerous beauty, its undertow, I can hardly imagine not loving it. Sometimes, I think of the river yielding up that recovered piece of Lovejoy’s printing press. Sometimes I think of defense attorney Charles Shaw encouraging me to write about his young client. I think of his seven attempts to escape from a POW camp over fifty years earlier. I remember how comforting it was to be in the presence of Margaret’s sustaining friendship and in her home, even amidst my tumultuous research, how the sunlight came through her large windows, gilding the warmth of her hardwood floor. Sometimes, I recall the interracial social justice efforts of Alton area activists in the cases that began on a hot August night in 1998. I recall their words in the hundred pages I once wrote as a result of that night’s events.  If we do not have justice, I need the story of their attempts at justice. I revisit a black minister’s argument that activists’ efforts did result in that quiet, early release of Shaw’s client from prison. Although that release was too little, too late, the minister’s words do give me a bit of hope: “If you do things that are effective,” he said, “powerful people don’t want you to know you’re being effective. They won’t acknowledge loss or setback because they want you to think you can’t do anything, but we can expose those people. They don’t have total power.”

I need to believe he is right.

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