Memoir, Fiction, or Two-Headed Calf?

C.S. McClellan By C.S. McClellan, 3rd Jan 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Personal Experiences

Writing about anything that can’t be neatly labeled is a frustrating experience. What do you call a memoir that has to be fictionalized to protect someone you’re writing about? Is it still a memoir if part of it hasn’t happened yet? If you don’t know how it will end?

Stepping Into Deep Waters

How do I write about someone I have never met and will never be able to meet except through our letters? How do I describe a relationship with someone when a great deal of how I understand him has to be read between the lines? When the circumstances of his life mean that his letters come no more often than once a month, and sometimes not for several months at a time? When those circumstances incline him to suspicion of people’s motives rather than trust?

A little over a year ago, I began a correspondence with a young man who has been condemned to die by lethal injection. His crime isn’t important to this essay. I’m familiar with the case; I don’t in any way condone the crime. I also know that, for all the years that are left to him, he will carry the burden of guilt, regret, and self-hatred.

In case anyone asks why I would correspond with someone on death row, all I will say is that if you knew more about the American justice system than the sensational news stories about cold-blooded killers, you wouldn’t be asking that question.

Our correspondence started off cautiously. I wasn’t sure how to introduce myself to Justin (not his real name), and he has had many bad experiences with people from the free world. Some are curiosity seekers, some want to spew hatred, and others want to save his soul. I wanted to know if it was more than my imagination that we had a great deal in common, including temperament. (There is a large amount of his writing online, and a book about his case.)

Two Different Lives

To make a long story short, we’ve developed a friendship that has changed my life in many ways. If nothing else, the relationship has made me look more deeply into myself, and ask questions about our society that I might never have asked. We have introduced each other to our favorite writers and discussed material that I printed up from the internet or scanned from books.

I wake up at night thinking about him, a man with a brilliant mind, who went through a period of hell that no one took notice of, and that drove him to an unspeakable crime. He lives in total isolation, in a small space not much bigger than an average bathroom, with a steel door that permits him little sight or sound of anything outside his cell. It’s an environment that drives prisoners to insanity and suicide, and it’s only by the strictest self-discipline that he’s been able to mature as a human being rather than allow himself to be crushed into passivity or madness.

I try to imagine myself living that way year after year, knowing that my death is waiting for me, and I know I couldn’t survive it. Justin has become the image, for me, of the thousands of men — and the comparatively few women — who spend years in conditions that we no longer accept as legal for animals. I read books and articles about our justice system, about mass incarceration, about the tangible and intangible costs of being unable to find any better way than judicial murder to deal with capital crimes. I keep up with the latest news, national and international, and try to understand why the US, among western industrial nations is the only one to hold so many prisoners and to kill so many of them.

How Does it End?

I don’t know how to write the book I need to write, about how Justin has changed me. I don’t know which I dread more, his execution, or my dying first. I promised that I would never abandon him, that if he no longer heard from me it would be because old age had caught up with me. Our meetings before the dark will end when one of us enters that darkness, and there is no way to know when that will happen or which one of us it will be.


Death Sentence, Execution, Friendship, Pen Pal, Prison, Prisoners, Solitary Confinement

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author avatar C.S. McClellan
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author avatar Carol Roach
7th Jan 2015 (#)

the book would be fascinating, I have published two books.

I think you can start with the you you were before, the things that were important to you and not important to you the introduce this man with all you can say about him and the conclusion would be the transformation of you

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author avatar C.S. McClellan
7th Jan 2015 (#)

Thank you. I like the idea of using what was important to me before. That would lead to setting new priorities, and seeing the world from a different perspective.

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author avatar Vickie Collins
10th Jan 2015 (#)

My goodness, I have had friends who were in prison for a brief period. Many are more danger to themselves than to others, and come from such sad backgrounds that one almost can understand it resulting in the crime it resulted in.

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author avatar C.S. McClellan
10th Jan 2015 (#)

That's true, Vickie. Too many of them come from such horrible backgrounds of neglect, and abuse that it's a wonder they aren't all insane. And it's estimated that about 50% of long-term prisoners have mental problems, often very severe.

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