Helen Prejean Returns to Talk About Art and Activism

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In her capacity as this year’s Nitze Senior Fellow, anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean returned to St. Mary’s on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 21 for her second and final lecture, entitled “Dead Man Walking: A Cast Study in Using the Arts to Promote Social Change.”

During Prejean’s previous lecture, she described the story which made her famous, as recounted in her book Dead Man Walking. Prejean, a Catholic nun from Louisiana, exchanged letters with a death row inmate and convicted murderer named Patrick Sonnier. She visited Sonnier in prison and eventually became his spiritual adviser, counseling him during the final days and hours before his execution.

After this harrowing experience, Prejean resolved to dedicate her life to abolishing the death penalty in the United States. In the decades since her first experience on death row, Prejean has been the spiritual adviser to six executed men, and has introduced the public to the death penalty, “a secret ritual behind prison walls, that not many people get to see.”

Her latest lecture, given at St. Mary’s Hall, focused on the creative process of writing and publishing Dead Man Walking, as well as the process of adapting her book into a successful film (and even an opera) of the same name, and the effect that its success has had on her cause.

In the days leading up to the lecture, two screenings of Dead Man Walking were held in Cole Cinema so that students could become more familiar with Sister Prejean, her work, and the film that introduced her to the public eye.

Emily Wavering, a senior and one of the lecture’s organizers along with fellow senior Marty McGowan, introduced Prejean by saying “One month ago…Sister Helen came to give her first lecture, and my suspicions about just how incredible she is were absolutely confirmed.”

Prejean began the lecture by summarizing her initial experiences with the death penalty which she had spoken about during her previous lecture, and spoke about how her vocation, her calling, was to educate people about the death penalty as a human right.  “Human rights,” she said, “are not something the government gives you for good behavior, and takes away for bad behavior.”

“The education we get, the tools we get when we learn to write, when we learn rhetoric, when we learn to communicate, how to persuade…our ability to imagine an alternative reality, to say ‘it doesn’t have to be like this,’” Prejean explained. “…all of that kicks in when we are summoned to a vocation. And for me, what I did first is to tell the story to whoever would listen.”

Prejean was at first reluctant to write a personal account of her experiences, even when others encouraged her to do so. “I really didn’t know the power of the personal story in which you take people with you,” she said.

After getting started, however, she was advised by her editor, Jason Epstein, to “deal with the heart of the crime…the victims and their families,” because he said that no one would want to read a book about “a Catholic nun who just forgives the murderer of two teenagers.”

It was crucial for Prejean to show the perspectives of both the victim’s family and the death row inmate through what she called “journalistic show-and-tell:” taking people through the facts of the case for an unbiased conclusion. She wrote the book in the present tense, Prejean said, because it is “the most immediate way of telling a story…because [she] wanted the reader to be there too” as she went through her experiences with the death penalty. “Radical things happen inside us when we travel through a book to these places,” she said.

Dead Man Walking did not cause much of a stir when it was first published, but that would soon change.  “Books have legs; they go where they want to,” said Prejean, “and this book landed in the lap of [film actress] Susan Sarandon…[She] was the first one who saw and believed that we need another kind of film in the United States on the death penalty.”

Prejean said that most movies that involved the death penalty included a story about uncertain guilt about an accused murderer, and that justice is always served. “They presume that we have the best court system in the world,” she said. “If he’s guilty, he dies, if he’s innocent, he lives; justice done, end of tale, end of reflection.”

Sarandon emotionally responded to Prejean’s look at the death row inmate’s side of the death penalty, and called Prejean to speak with her about the book. Initially, Prejean had comically mistaken Sarandon for Geena Davis, her co-star in the film Thelma and Louise, the only film of Sarandon’s that Prejean had seen.

At their first meeting, Sarandon told Prejean about her idea to turn Dead Man Walking into an “edgy film,” with Tim Robbins as the director. When Robbins agreed to direct the film, he told Prejean that “there is a difference between art and propaganda: propaganda…tries to convince people to agree with their view of a story. If the film were a piece of propaganda, the victims would have faded to the background. Art, on the other hand, surprises people, and makes the story unpredictable.”

Prejean gave Robbins and Sarandon complete artistic control over the film project, as she figured they were more knowledgeable about what makes a good film than she. They made a few small changes, such as making the death row inmate character a composite of two inmates Prejean had counseled. Her trust in their artistic vision paid off: Sarandon later won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Prejean in the film version of Dead Man Walking.

Robbins originally had trouble trying to convince producers to invest in the film. Many told him that the plot was “too heavy. And [that there was] no romantic element in it, you got the nun and the death row inmate…they told him to ‘spice it up,’ you have Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon in the movie!” Robbins deflected such suggestions, saying that “it’s not about ‘spicing it up:’ it’s a movie about redemption for everybody.”

At the time the movie was made in the mid-1990s, Prejean said that “the death penalty was at its peak.” After the film was released, with much success, people became interested in Prejean’s book, which landed on the New York Times Bestseller list, and opinions on the death penalty gradually began to change. Prejean attributes such a change to the artistic work of Robbins and Sarandon. “It takes courage to push those edges,” she said, “and do [a film on the death penalty] like it had never been done before.”

“That’s why we need the arts,” she added. “To bring people face to face with what they don’t know about. And because of this, we have an evolving sense of decency…A majority of the nations in this world now do not have a death penalty. It’s our turn.”

Maddie Alpert, a junior, felt that Prejean’s way of connecting with others was “rare and inspiring.  When I first heard her talk, I thought the death penalty was wrong, but wasn’t really outraged by it. She moved me to outrage. I’m really glad we got to have her on campus.”

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