As the nation convulsed with news that the President allegedly uttered yet more disparaging remarks about yet more honorable people, the Washington Post published an important letter that passed nearly unnoticed. Last October, the Post Magazine published an essay by John J. Lennon, who is serving time in New York for murder. In his essay, Lennon described how hard it had been for him to apologize to the family of the man he killed. Recently, the sister of the murdered man responded to Lennon in a letter to the Post, which the Post Magazine published this past weekend.
Lennon is a successful and prolific journalist. His work has appeared at some of the most prestigious outlets in American letters, including The Atlantic and The New York Review of Books. He is a contributing writer for The Marshall Project and a contributing editor for Esquire. I’m not a big fan of his work. I have always found it self-absorbed. Even when he is writing about someone or something else, the story is really about him. In 2018, he wrote a well-received essay for Esquire on the sorry state of mental health care in prison. Yet he felt the need to include passages about the amount of money he made and the Cadillac he drove when he dealt drugs on the outside, the murder he committed, and the unauthorized kitchenware he had accumulated in his cell at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
Still, he is a talented writer, with a keen eye and a fluid style. Like any good journalist, he’s a storyteller. I trust that his editors know what their readers want, and that Lennon provides it. I just feel like taking him aside and telling him gently, “John, it’s not always about you.”
Except it is, and that’s what makes the letter from the sister of the man he murdered so important.
Lennon not only writes from prison, he writes about prison. He wrote an article on sports betting at Sing Sing for Sports Illustrated, another about an opera rehearsal behind the walls for Opera America, and one for Men’s Health on working out in the prison yard. His column for The Marshall Project appears in a section called, Life Inside. They say writers should write about what they know, and Lennon knows prison.
But he is more than a prison chronicler. In nearly every article, he tells the reader, often in the first or second paragraph, that he was convicted of murder and writes from a cell. If he had a business card (and he might for all I know), it would not say journalist. It would say self-taught prison journalist convicted a long time ago of murder.
I’ve seen this many times before. I work closely with an extraordinary man named Richard Rivera who has dedicated himself to the welfare of the homeless population where I live. He is also writing an ethnography on rural homelessness and doing graduate work in sociology at Bard College. He moved here last year, and before long had three job offers. Within months, he had met the mayor. Within a year, he had established relationships with nearly every progressive social justice organization in town. He is selfless, brilliant, and tireless—a whirlwind of energy and ideas. We work together on several projects, and if he had the time, I would ask him to join me in teaching the class at Cornell on the creation of the carceral state. Yet when he spoke to my students, practically the first words out of his mouth were, “Hi, I’m Richard, and I served 39 years for murder.”
It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard: a determination to introduce yourself with the worst mistake you’ve ever made.
I spend a lot of time in prisons and have asked a number of men who have done or are doing long bids about this practice. In part, it’s a nod to the Internet age. People know that for anyone with a computer and a coffee shop, their criminal history is just a couple clicks away. So they declare it at the outset; better to get in front of it than to let others discover it on their own. It’s a perfectly sensible defense mechanism.
But there’s something else going on: Announcing your past alerts the audience to the distance you have traveled. Men like John Lennon and Richard Rivera have become extraordinarily accomplished, and while their achievements are impressive by any standard, they are even more so when we realize they did it in prison. Richard not only got his GED, he got his BA and the first of his graduate degrees in prison.
Prison is not the setting any of us would choose to shed deeply ingrained but destructive habits, let alone the site we might select to nurture entirely new ones. One of the most impressive men I’ve ever met—inside or out—is serving three consecutive life sentences for a triple homicide in Colorado. He turned his entire life around inside. But do not imagine it was like flicking a light switch. “Being who I was was easy,” he told me the first time we spoke. “It was bein’ someone else that was hard.” I have written about these transformations before. I call it “making the turn.” The men I have met who have traveled this hard road are enormously proud of what they have achieved, and rightly so. They want the world to know. Who can blame them?
Yet the celebration of their success comes at a great social cost. Imagine the self-made millionaire who starts every conversation with the story of her penniless past. For some, the lesson of her success is that America is still the land of opportunity. If she can do it, anyone can. Those who don’t simply lack the pluck and grit it takes to succeed. The problem of poverty is not structural, it’s personal. Rags to riches stories reinforce the myth of a fair and open system.
Super max to corporate boardroom stories are no different. Prison isn’t so tough. There’s plenty of ways to rehabilitate yourself if you really want to. Just look at John J. Lennon. Here’s a kid from Hell’s Kitchen who came to prison facing 28 years of hard time. He turned himself into a first-class writer. Look at Richard Rivera. He was 16 when he landed behind bars and was barely literate. If they can do it, anybody can. The problem of recidivism is not structural, it’s personal.
Worse, these stories set the bar too high, at the expense of those who cannot write for Esquire or meet the mayor. When we celebrate the exceptional, we denigrate the ordinary. Those who cannot meet the standard set by superstars are somehow unworthy of society’s embrace. This is a terrible and cruel result, made only marginally better by the fact that people like Lennon and Rivera do not intend it.
In this time of so-called criminal justice reform, we should not set our sights on finding the next John J. Lennon. We should ask whether a person is capable of being a productive member of society—a loving partner, a supportive parent, a reliable worker, a trusted friend. Hundreds of thousands of men and women fit this bill but languish in prisons across the country, anonymous and forgotten because they cannot describe their workout routine for Men’s Health. Millions more were in prison once, but now sag under the crushing weight of a felony conviction. Those who are in should be out; those who are out should be unchained. They will never write for The Marshall Project. They will never get a Ph.D. But they can enrich the lives of those they know and love, and that is more than enough.
And so we come at last to the letter written by the sister of the man that Lennon killed. To put it gently, she was not impressed with Lennon’s apology, and even less with the fame he has achieved. She asked him to stop mentioning her brother in his writing.
Whether she forgives Lennon—whether she believes his sorrow is sincere—is her choice alone. No one can make it for her. But as I read her letter, so articulate and poignant, my thoughts were not with the apology he extended or the rebuff she dealt. I asked myself why this exchange—so personal, so private—was unfolding in the pages of the Washington Post, online for all the world to see.
Uncountable thousands of people in prison are wracked with guilt, destroyed by the destruction they have caused. They long only to be forgiven, though they cannot forgive themselves. Their guilt is eternal; their shame is endless.
But society does not put their torment on display. They do not make the jump from nameless inmate to human being by sharing their deepest pain. Their stories do not grace the pages of The New York Review of Books. Only John J. Lennon gets this privilege. Lennon is right. It’s all about him, and that’s the problem.