Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, often stays at America House when she comes to New York. She was here last fall for the opening of the opera based on her book, which recounts her experiences as spiritual advisor to men on death row. What we spoke of, though, was not so much the opera, but her present and future writing projects. Her next book, to be published in 2003 by Random House, is tentatively called Impossible Burden: Eyewitness to the Death Penalty.
Like her first book, it is based on her experiences accompanying prisoners waiting to be put to death. The two who figure in it are Dobie Williams, executed in Louisiana in 1999, and Joseph O’Dell, a Virginia prisoner put to death two years earlier. Sr. Prejean’s accompaniment of Mr. O’Dell led, she said, to a personal interview with Pope John Paul II, who appealed on his behalf. The book’s title, Impossible Burden, refers to the many who bear the burden of being involved in death-penalty procedures. The last chapter, she observed, has been the most challenging to write. There she describes the whole shift in the teaching of the Catholic Church, a shift that resulted in an eventual change in the catechism itself, which all but excludes the use of capital punishment.
Prayer, Sister Helen said, figured greatly in the writing of her new book. In fact, working on it has been what she called “an exercise in prayer, because you have to come to that stillness, that waiting, allowing the deepest truth to surface.” Although it was what she termed a grace to dive deeply into the personal narrative of the two executed men, she emphasized that it was a struggle because of the many issues that had to be analyzed. “There’s also a need to move to a deeper level of compassion for all the people involved in death-penalty situations”—a compassion that in itself can weigh heavily on the human spirit. She gave the example of jurors who must decide whether a fellow human being will live or die.
The book as completed thus far was written over the past three summers at a Cheyenne reservation in Montana. A Franciscan sister had invited her to the reservation, an arrangement that allowed Sister Prejean to work undisturbed in a simple room in a trailer. At the same time, she was able to explore various aspects of Native American spirituality. “Their whole approach is that the spirit of God the creator is everywhere, and so you begin to look at nature in a new way.” Her experiences on the reservation are “probably going to be another unfolding book,” she said.
That, though, stands farther in the future. The book that lies immediately ahead, after Impossible Burden, concerns her presence among women in Nicaragua, to be published by Orbis Books. Its provisional title is The Women of Batahola: Struggles of Survival and Adventure. Batahola is a poor barrio in Managua where several sisters of her congregation—the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille—are working. But having been translated into dozens of languages and made into a film, Dead Man Walking is likely to remain her most famous book. Now, she said, Tim Robbins, director of the film version, is converting it into a play, to be produced locally by community and college theaters around the country. Its influence on people’s views of the death penalty will thereby be expanded still further.
Sister Prejean continues to travel extensively, speaking at gatherings in this country, as well as in Europe, Asia and the Caribbean. Despite the intensity of her writing and speaking activities, however, she has continued her accompaniment work. After Dobie Williams was executed three years ago, she began to visit another condemned prisoner in Louisiana, Manuel Ortiz. He has been on death row for 11 years. Convinced of his innocence, she predicts that he will be exonerated. The exoneration of more and more death-row prisoners is adding impetus to advocates’ efforts to end capital punishment.