What's All This Then?
What's All This Then?
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Field-Tested by Lori Andrews
in New Orleans, Louisiana
Im sitting at a wrought iron table on the lawn of the French Quarter Police Station in New Orleans. As I sip an iced tea, I crack open Janet Malcolms The Journalist and the Murderer. Sitting next to me is a murderer.
That man, Johnny Spain, killed when he was 17. In prison, he became a Black Panther whose subsequent political trial brought him support from around the world. His conviction was overturned after he spent 21 years behind bars.
For four years, as a journalist writing about him, Ive met Johnnys lovers, his relatives, his prosecutors, his jailers, his mentors, his enemies. Ive read the 50,000-page transcript of his trial, listened to tape recordings of his sessions with psychologists, read the 100 books he kept in his cell. Ive insinuated myself thoroughly into his life. So the first two sentences of the Malcolm book resonate for me: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on peoples vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
I listen to Johnny breathing beside me and feel a cloying terror. Not because of Johnnys capability for violence, but because he is reading the book manuscript I wrote about him.
I surreptitiously search for signs of interest or concern on Johnnys face. As always, he is inscrutable. In prison, he protected himself by never showing emotion. In our interviews, he talked about himself in the third person. Whether he was describing being beaten, or shoved in the hole for six months, or teaching at Stanford after his release from prison, it all sounded exactly the same.
Hours pass, and the victims and perpetrators of the days misfortunes and crimes pass us on the way into the police station. Occasionally, I enter the Café Beignet next door for food or drinks, and we read on. Malcolm likens the relationship between journalist and subject to that of lovers, each demanding something from each other. But my demands have escalated. I now want to provoke Johnny. I want him to see his painful, dark life laid out in my book and finally open up about his feelings.
The Malcolm book is short. I finish reading before he does. I think about the pressure from my editor to breathe life into Johnny and to make sense of his story as if he were a character in a novel. My pulse races as he turns over the last page. I expect a big reaction, a torrent of words or tears. Instead, Johnny turns to me, his face unchanged. “That poor boy,” he says about himself.
Read the next Field Test by Rosecrans Baldwin