The Author of Dead Man Walking Talks About the Opera, the Movie, and Her Work on Death Row
This opera deals with a controversial and contemporary topic. Is the American public ready for it?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I have found for 15 years that the American public is ready to talk about the death penalty. They've needed somebody to take them there. I was happy when the film was done because I knew we were going to have a way to help the American people reflect on the death penalty. It's a moral issue that people don't give a lot of reflection to. I mean, thank God most people personally are not involved with the death penalty because it means somebody would have been murdered in their family. It's the kind of thing that if it doesn't have an impact on your daily life, you hear about a terrible crime, you say they deserve to die end of reflection.
I believe the American public is ready for this opera, just like I think they were ready for the film, Dead Man Walking. Why did so many people go to see it? Here's a film that's going to take you into something that's really tough and it was a box office success. How do we explain that? I think similarly with the opera that people maybe are ready for deeper spiritual reflection than we give them credit for.
Is the opera blatantly anti-death penalty?
Not at all. No more than the film of Dead Man Walking was. I think a true work of art is one that brings people to a deeper level of reflection. You know, William Faulkner, when he got the Nobel Prize for literature, said that the only thing worth writing about is the conflict in the human heart. True art, I think, brings you both sides of a conflict. Then people go into their own hearts to search it out. The question, as Joe Mantello phrased it, is we see a murder and then we see an execution - is that essentially the same thing or is it different?
You've taken this on as a life journey. Why?
Well, you choose or you get chosen. You know, I didn't seek to do this. I got involved with poor people and the St. Thomas Housing Projects in New Orleans, and I got an invitation to write to somebody on death row and then I walked with him to the electric chair on the night of April 5, 1984. I became a witness. I realized people don't have a way of seeing this, people don't have a way of being brought close. They can read about it in the paper the next day and they're going to see justice was done. And so then my job was to bring people there, which I have been doing ever since. First by talking to people, which I still do, but then writing the book and to continue to accompany death row inmates and their families.
I continue to do it because you don't see a whole lot of people volunteering to go into this fire and do it.
When you went into the death chamber the first time, what was it like?
It was the most surreal experience I ever had. I was terrified. I had to stay in the present moment if I [thought] ahead I would start coming unraveled: "Oh my God, in two more hours they're going to kill him."
The only private place I had in the death house was in the woman's room, and I'd go in there and I'd just take my cross and I'd say "Jesus, God, please help him not to fall apart." It was a very selfish prayer because I knew if he fell apart emotionally, I was hanging by a thread. So in a way we sustained each other. He would say, "Sister Helen, are you OK?"
Toward the end the first person I was with - Patrick [Sonnier] - went, "Oh, look, you can't see it at the end because it could scar you, psychologically." All I knew was there was no way he was going to die without seeing a loving face and I said, "Oh, no, no, I'll be there. You look at me, you look at my face." And I've done that five times. And so it's these faces that I remember. So to see an opera being done which is going to help people reflect on this, you know, is something that is, is deeply satisfying for me, [I'm] so glad that this story can be told.
What is your definition of forgiveness?
Lloyd [LaBlanc] whose 17-year-old son David was killed, had the best working definition of forgiveness. He said, it doesn't mean I condone. Every day of my life I'll think of my boy and how he was killed, but if I don't deal with the bitterness and hatred that's taken over me I'm going to lose my life, too, and I've got to be there for my wife and my children. It was almost like depriving the killer from taking his life, too.
What do you hope the audience gets out of the opera?
What I hope that any audience gets out of the opera, the film, the talks I give around the country - which are story telling - is to go to a deeper place in ourselves. Whenever we do something as a society it's always presented as, "This is something good and necessary and it may be tough but it's the only thing we can do." And I think what [the opera] is about is to look at different options. Is the only thing we can do to imitate the worse possible behavior of people who've killed and to say justice demands that we kill you? Is that the only thing we can do as a society or are there alternatives? And I think art helps us explore alternatives, to make new choices, and brings us to that deeper place to do that.
What about the politicians and politics surrounding the death penalty?
We have to give them moral courage to do the right thing. They've been afraid to do the right thing, but now we have a huge shift happening in this country. A recent Hart poll shows that 80 percent of the American public is now aware that innocent people are going to death row along with the guilty. They're offended. Their sense of decency and fairness is offended by that, and they're calling for a reform of the death penalty or a moratorium on it.
That gives a mandate to politicians who claim, "I'm doing this because look how many people support the death penalty." This really is going to help them to do the right thing because there's a shift happening in that.
So what if there was no death penalty, only life without parole? Inmates get fed, health care, videos, exercise, everything but visitation. How is this a punishment?
What can we do to a person who has killed another human being if punishment is the only thing we're about? That mentality of punishing people, torturing people. It's really us trying to work out our anger and our outrage by heaping onto them what they did to their victim - and that dehumanizes us.
The other way to look about it is restorative justice. Are we about imitating them and just extracting the pound of flesh? What does that say about us as a society and what does it do to us? We have to remember, everybody's involved in this.
A life sentence is definitely punishment. One of the prisoners said it best: "You are in the company of people whose company you would never choose; you sleep next to them in the dorm and you sit and you eat with them. People are suffering. How much suffering do we need and what does that really do to us?"
Let's not try to be God anymore or put this impossible responsibility on jurors. Here's a terrible crime - well, look at the mitigating circumstances. How can we put this God job on people that only have human consciousness and wisdom and all the frailties?