Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Reading Empathetically: A Review of David R. Dow's The Autobiography of an Execution

Reading Empathetically: A Review of David R. Dow's The Autobiography of an Execution 
by Maurice Chammah

Although the phrase "listening without judgment" has a noble, gentle ring to it, enacting it practically and living it physically seldom feel like "gentle" tasks. The urge to respond to a lawyer, an activist, and even at our weakest moments, a survivor of violence, and shout "That's not what I would have done!" can be more than just a nagging sensation. It can be, two hours into a harrowing narrative, all consuming.

At the same time, the sheer complexity of the death penalty system in any state, and certainly Texas, can make it similarly easy to shut down and throw one's hands up in the air in a kind of informed apathy. The process of litigation, as it unsteadily lopes through state courts, federal courts, the executive branch, and multiple other offices is so complicated and aggravating that all of the emotional aspects of the process, the fact that it is fundamentally about retribution for a murder, can get lost in the language of "evidentiary limits," "procedural requisites," hearings, briefs, stays, and a whole mess of Latin.

So reading the emotional memoirs of a capital defense lawyer is a strikingly different experience, because no matter how empathetic one tries to be as a reader, the nature of a book, especially one so confessional as this one, is to lay itself out for judgment, aesthetic, moral, and factual. Reading David R. Dow's "The Autobiography of an Execution," I could be consumed by an urge to shout back at him, but all that was in front of me was a page of text, not the living, breathing Dow. At the same time, matters of legal complexity that would normally register a shrug of "It's just too hard to understand," don't turn off the reader so easily because they are invested with meaning for Dow, and in certain cases, with matters of life and death.

Unlike Dow's earlier written work on the death penalty (Executed on a Technicality), The Autobiography is an impression-heavy, emotionally sophisticated narrative of the experience of a death penalty defense lawyer as his client nears execution. In Dow's idiosyncratic, but no less reflective prose, the story of the legal battles is woven in with disarmingly intimate accounts of his life with his wife and son. Random events from his typical middle class experience are interposed between the fever pitched moments of intensity that pervade the legal process around the death penalty. With almost no warning, the mundane jog in the early morning, the glass of whiskey, the smallest interaction with his son, become powerfully invested moments of living because they are placed so close to the shadow of death. Dow expertly guides us through his multiple worlds: a stable, though occasionally tense domestic life, a frantic law office, the crushing environment of Death Row, without relying on cheap juxtapositions. We feel the transitions, are compelled by the contradictions, and walk with Dow as he retreats to his home office at 3 a.m. to write down ideas for his appeals.

By trading in chapters for randomly lengthened anecdotes separated by dividers, Dow is able to capture his own loose, free vision for an autobiography that is only partially about himself. The clients sometimes bleed together and the legal threads of their cases sometimes become obscure, but the result is not an ocean of information so much as a tightly formed web; One can choose whether or not to trace out its complexities, while still unable to help being enveloped by Dow's synthesizing prose.

Without documentable facts to rely on, reading Dow's story is a dreamlike walk through experiences, and indeed he mentions the stories of various dreams with nearly as much detail as the real world. Following with rules of legal ethics (and an appendix by another scholar explains these rules), he cannot tell us exactly which facts go with which cases, and his archetypal death row defendants have personalities that sometimes seem all too classic. It's not so much a problem for Dow, however, because such abstraction allows him to describe his life with collage-like impressionism. Trips to the supermarket, long drives to Death Row, his son's baseball games, and laying in bed chatting with his wife all form a kind of landscape in his mind that may be imprecise, but is far more beautiful for it.

As a result of these limitations and the ways they are dealt with, Dow's work reflects much more accurately the way people actually remember things. Events are chronological only when the chronology itself has meaning, emotions and experiences are more powerful than facts, the interactions with judges and other lawyers more powerful than the facts and constitutional theories of the cases themselves. We are left less with a step by step account of Dow's life and work, and more with an overall feeling for how harrowing that work must be. I'm waiting for a prosecutor to publish something similar.