Inmate Journalists and the Truths Their Books Reveal About Prison Life

July 24 Update: Wilbert Rideau, whom I wrote about below, recently published an Op-Ed in the NY Times, “When Prisoners Protest.”

As indicated by my mini-barrage of tweets yesterday, I was pleased to read in  this NY Times article that Angola Prison in Louisiana recently provided historical materials and artifacts to the Smithsonian’s National African American Museum of History & Culture, to be located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  Curators plan to actually rebuild a guard tower and inmate cell as an exhibit in the museum. Patricia Cohen’s story also examines Angola’s fraught racial history, in which it served as a kind of instrument for Jim Crow-era justice. More recently, prison officials have shown a willingness to let its record be examined, certainly more than similar penal institutions, opening a museum just outside their gates and working with the Smithsonian. I know about Angola Prison because inmates there publish an excellent newspaper called The Angolite that has won national media awards. Its editor-in-chief was Wilbert Rideau, an Angola inmate whose first trial led to a conviction and death sentence for his role in a robbery that led to the death of a bank teller. He spent eleven years on Death Row. In subsequent trials his capital sentence was reduced to life in prison. In 1975 he began working on The Angolite. In 1992, he and fellow inmate editor Rob Wikberg published Life Sentences: Rage and Survival Behind Bars with Times Books at Random House, where I began working five years later, in ’97.AngolaLife Sentences back cover

One of the first titles I acquired after arriving at Times Books–a book to which William Styron would then contribute a powerful Introduction–was Dead Run: The Shocking Story of Dennis Stockton & Life on Death Row by Joe Jackson and William F. Burke. Protagonist Stockton was a convict on Death Row in Virginia, who kept a diary in the run-up to the mass escape of six fellow inmates. His diary became a source to Dead Run co-author Burke, then a reporter at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. Thus, Stockton became a kind of inmate journalist, or as is said now, a citizen journalist. Because Life Sentences, drawn largely from the files and pages of the Angolite, had already sold well–I got the copy photographed below in ’97, with a copyright page which shows that even then the title had already gone through seven printings–my senior colleagues gave the nod to me acquiring Dead Run with alacrity. It received many prominent endorsements and reviews, including one in The Angolite (“Unlike other books by inmates, employees, or outsiders, Dead Run provides an authentic verified, objective view of the prison world.”). It sold pretty well in hardcover (selling about 8,000 copies) and Walker & Company published it in trade paper, with a great jacket (below). I chronicled the story of how I got Styron involved in championing the book with me in an essay I published in the BN Review, almost two years ago. The writing and publication of that personal essay led directly to my decision to create a personal blog, what became The Great Gray Bridge. The day before Halloween in 2011, I titled one of my first posts My Encounter with William Styron.Dead Run backDead Run inside frontDead Run front

In 1993 LIFE magazine had dubbed Wilbert Rideau “the most rehabilitated prisoner in America.” By then, he had already served longer than any comparable Angola inmate. He was finally released in 2005, after 44 years of incarceration, following a fourth trial in which he was judged guilty of manslaughter. His sentence on that conviction was 21 years, far less than what he’d already served.  Upon his release Rideau set out to write a memoir. Then Executive Editor with Carroll & Graf of Avalon Publishing Group, and known for publishing prison titles, I was on the submission list of possible acquiring editors for his representative, Washington D.C. attorney Robert Barnett.  Offered the opportunity to meet with Wilbert during his face-to-face publisher meetings, we did invite him to our 17th Street office in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. I recall that Wilbert came with his co-writer/partner Linda LaBranche. I found him a calm and self-possessed man, with a quick wit and an eagerness to meet my eye. I remember proudly telling Wilbert that one of the main reasons I had begun acquiring, editing, and publishing prison books, and books about miscarriages of justice, and plights of the wrongfully accused, was because of the early success of his first book, Life Sentences

We did bid for the rights to Wilbert’s book, putting together what was for Avalon a rather aggressive offer, but it was unavailing. Knopf got the book and in 2010 they published In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance. I see that it’s available in trade paper, ebook, etc., and got great reviews. Next to the cover is a photo of Wilbert flanked by Robert Barnett and Ted Koppel. Other important works that Wilbert has created, or cooperated in the creation of, include “The Farm,” for which he was co-director, and independent radio producer David Isay’s portrait, “Tossing Away the Keys.”In the Place of Justice Rideau, Barnett, Koppel

Please note: All the book links in this blog post are live and go to the website of Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, if you want to buy Life SentencesDead Run, or In Place of Justice. Under an arrangement I’ve made with Powell’s they return a portion of your purchase price to help me maintain this website. 

On the Imperative of Publishing Whistleblowers

Neal Maillet, editorial director of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, has published a good opinion piece in Publishing Perspectives on what he sees as the imperative of publishing books by whistleblowers, and the dynamics that prevail when working with these authors and their books. In 2004 Berrett-Koehler published the breakthrough book on vulture capitalism, Confessions of an Economic Hitman, a mega-hit by John Perkins that was licensed to Plume for trade paperback for whom it was also a bestseller. More recently, he writes that B-K has published Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic, on the little-known darker side of what we like to think of as progressive measures to facilitate economic progress in the developing world.

For my part, when I describe the imperatives and mandates that impel my personal publishing choices I have long placed “whistleblowers, truthtellers, muckrakers, and revisionist historians” highest on my list, and refer to this on the two business-oriented pages at the top of this website, Philip Turner Book Productions and Philip Turner. Quoting from the latter page, I’ve written “As an editor and publisher I have always felt impelled to publish books by and about singular witnesses–whistleblowers, truthellers, muckrakers, revisionist historians–people who’ve passed through some crucible of experience that’s left them with elevated author-ity, and the only person who could write the book in question, or about whom it could be written. Whether told in the first person by an author who has passed through some crucible of experience that leaves him or her uniquely qualified to tell the tale or in the third person by a reporter or scholar who has pursued a story or historical episode with single-minded passion, I am devoted to publishing imperative nonfiction, books that really matter in people’s lives.”

My definition of an imperative book is not limited to books by corporate and government whistleblowers, though it certainly includes them. The list of relevant books I’ve acquired and/or published over the past decade and a half includes these ten titles:

1) DEAD RUN: The Shocking Story of Dennis Stockton and Life on Death Row in America (1999), a nonfiction narrative by reporters Joe Jackson and Bill Burke with an Introduction by William Styron, chronicling an innocent man on Death Row in Virginia and the only mass escape from Death Row in U.S. history. The condemned convict, Dennis Stockton, wasn’t among the escapees, but he kept a whistleblowing diary detailing corruption in the penitentiary that he later with the reporters;
2) IBM & THE HOLOCAUST: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation (2001), an investigative tour de force by Edwin Black showing how one of the world’s most successful technology companies lent its technology to the Third Reich’s killing machinery;
3) THE WOMAN WHO WOULDN’T TALK: Why I Refused to Testify Against the Clintons and What I Learned in Jail (2002) by Susan MacDougal, a New York Times bestseller. Susan served 18 months in jail for civil contempt when she wouldn’t give Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr the testimony he wanted from her.

4) THE POLITICS OF TRUTH: Inside the Lies that Put the White House on Trial and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity (2004) by Ambassador Joseph Wilson, which later became the basis in part for the film, “Fair Game,” a New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller;
5) AHMAD’S WAR, AHMAD’S PEACE: Surviving Under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq (2005) by Michael Goldfarb. A longtime NPR correspondent, this is Goldfarb’s tribute to Kurd Ahmad Shawkat, his translator during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, who started a newspaper in the months after Saddam’s fall, only to be assassinated for his editorials critical of intolerance. A New York Times Notable Book.

To the books by these authors, I would also add my writers, the late Edward Robb Ellis, the most prolific diarist in the history of American letters, and 100-year oldRuth Gruber, award-winning photojournalist–each of them singular eyewitnesses to history. Over the years I have published four and six books by them, respectively.

Among my professional roles nowadays is that of independent editor and consultant to authors on book development in which I continue seeking out unique individuals with stories like these to tell. That’s also why I enjoy working with Speakerfile, the company that connects conference organizers with authors who do public speaking. Thanks to Neal Maillett and Berrett-Koehler Publishers for reminding me and all readers of the vital role publishers play in helping us hear the voices of whistleblowers and truthtellers. H/t to Mike Shatzkin for alerting me to Mr. Maillett’s article. Also, thanks to the Open Democracy Action Center (ODAC) for use of their whistleblower graphic.

Please click through to the complete post to read about the last five books from the above list and see many of the book jackets.

Alexandra Styron’s Father’s Day Reflections

Because I was in Toronto over Father’s Day, I was late in catching up to Alexandra Styron’s New York Times essay, Missing: My Dad, published on Sunday, June 16. The colon in the title carries the rueful message of the whole piece.

Last year Alexandra published Reading My Father: A Memoir, a candid and insightful book that I read, marveling at her revealing, pithy, chronicle of her difficult father, William Styron. In the recent piece she again probes the painful subject of what she calls her father’s  “grumpy and distant” temperament. The starting point for the column was her discovery of a photograph while researching the memoir, a black & white image by well-known photographer Bernard Gotfryd that finds her at about two years of age in the arms of James Terry, aka “Terry,” She describes him as “a man who performed many jobs around our place but none more important, or better executed, than filling the aching void left by our father’s inaccessibility.”

She reflects on many ironies, not least  that her surrogate parent Terry, an “illiterate son of sharecroppers” filled the breach left by her emotionally unavailable father, who saw himself–and was–consumed with the creation of his art. She observes that that work included his Pulitzer Prize-winning depiction of the rebel slave Nat Turner, published even as Terry and his wife Ettie, African-Americans themselves, shouldered a key role in raising the four Styron children.

We know from Darkness Visible, her father’s 1990 cri-de-coeur, and Alexandra’s book, that in the decades after the period of the photograph he suffered debilitating mental illness and later dementia, which often rendered him unable to write, and even more difficult as a parent than in earlier years. It so happens that from 1997-99 I had my own encounter with Styron, when I prevailed on him to write an Introduction for a book I had acquired and edited for publication, Dead Run, a nonfiction chronicle of an innocent man on Virginia’s Death Row, the state where Styron was born. That encounter led to a personal essay of mine, “William Styron: A Promise Kept,” linked here on this blog, that was published in the BN Review a few months after I read Reading My Father.  As I wrote in my piece, I never saw the difficult side of William Styron: “Though I know from reading Alexandra Styron’s book that her father was prone to explosions of temper, despite my months of cajoling he never lost patience with me. I imagine such a dynamic is not unknown among the children of difficult parents—polite to strangers, abrupt or worse with family members.”

It is impossible to read Alexandra’s book, or her latest essay, without feeling the painful imprint that her father’s difficult personality made on her. She adds too, that her “Southern father had taken a notorious bruising from many black intellectuals for assuming the voice of Nat Turner, an African-American icon, in what he called a ‘meditation on race.’” In fact, Confessions was dedicated to Terry. Even as a youngster, Alexandra writes, “None of this is to say we were deaf to the echoes our relationship with Terry evoked. On the contrary, before I knew much of anything at all, I was aware that a little white girl being squired around by an elderly black man in a mechanic’s uniform created something of a spectacle.”

The essay ends on a surprising and poignant note. After Alexandra published her memoir she heard from a man she’d never met, Joe Quammie. Like the Styron kids, he’d grown up in Connecticut. In some ways his experience was similar to hers, as he wrote, “my father didn’t have much to do with us kids,” though in other respects they differed. African-American like Terry, the older man had been his Boy Scout troop leader and a father figure to him. At times, he wrote Alexandra, he’d resented all the time Terry spent with her family, and the “fond way he spoke” about them. He said he ultimately came to see his feeling as a case of “simple sibling rivalry,” though she doesn’t believe it was “simple” at all. He also informed her of a sad symmetry with her father–Terry had also endured dementia before his death.

Joe’s outreach to Alexandra has initiated a new friendship, a quasi-sibling relationship they’re both nourished by.  She reports that in April Joe wrote her he’d been back in New Milford from his home in Toronto, Canada. “He’d been to Ettie and Terry’s grave site, and planted some perennials, ‘one for each of us kids.’ I’m hoping to get up there to see his handiwork, before the turn of another year.”

I urge you to read Alexandra’s whole essay, as there is much more to it than I have touched on here. Finally, despite William Styron’s failings as a father, painfully portrayed in her essay and memoir, I will continue reading and relishing his work–from Set This House on Fire through Lie Down in Darkness, Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie’s Choice, and all his other work, including the articulate argument against the death penalty that he marshaled in his Introduction to Dead Run. His contribution to American letters is undiminished.

#FridayReads, May 18–“Atlantic Fever”, “Anatomy of Injustice,” and “Bad Blood”

#FridayReads, May 18–Joe Jackson’s Atlantic Fever: Lindbergh, His Competitors, and the Race to Cross the Atlantic, with a cast of obsessed and scheming aviators who all wanted to make Paris first. Among the schemers is Admiral Richard E. Byrd, whose machinations and manipulations on the stage of world-class feat-making would make him almost as legendary as Lindbergh. In the 1990s and early 2000s I published Jackson’s first three books, including the co-authored Dead Run, with an Introduction by William Styron. Jackson’s a very gifted writer of narrative nonfiction. Kirkus Reviews says of his latest: “With stirring detail and perceptive insight about the pilots and the public, Jackson recaptures the tone and tenor of a frantic era’s national obsession.”

Also reading and finishing two powerful true-crime narratives: Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong, Raymond Bonner’s masterful dissection of a flawed and corrupt prosecution of an innocent man; and Casey Sherman’s Bad Blood: Freedom and Death in the White Mountains, a compelling tick-tock of a deadly case I know too well, the violent 2007 episode in New Hampshire, near where I attended Franconia College, when a cop and and a young man he had stopped both ended up shot dead.