It took author, nun and anti-death-penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean nearly half her life to become a warrior for justice.
Her illuminating and candid new memoir, “River of Fire,” is a prequel to her bestselling “Dead Man Walking” (also an Academy Award-winning movie starring Susan Sarandon), in which Sister Helen counsels and then walks a death row inmate to his execution and witnesses it firsthand: “They killed a man with fire one night,” she says in the book’s preface, recalling her culture-shifting 1993 book. “Strapped him in an oaken chair and pumped electricity into his body until he was dead. His killing was a legal act. No religious leaders protested the killing that night. But I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. And what I saw set my soul on fire — a fire that burns in me still.”
“River of Fire” covers the first half of Prejean’s 80 years. It shows how and why it took the Dixie-born nun decades to shake off the cultural haze of white Southern privilege to comprehend the complex configuration of poverty, racial disparity and discrimination, capitalism, social injustice and all the other issues that conflate inside her death row advocacy work.
It’s not that the evidence wasn’t all around her during her early years. In her native Louisiana in the 1940s and ’50s, it would have been tough to miss. But what “River of Fire” does so well is explain how deeply culture infuses and informs how we see disparity and injustice. It shows how difficult it is to break free from its limitations.
Born and raised in Baton Rouge to a white, Catholic, upper-middle-class family, Prejean lived a happy, suburban and somewhat cloistered existence even before she decided to enter the Sisters of St. Joseph convent at 18.
Growing up, she and her siblings thrived on a 5-acre estate called Goodwood, with two doting parents, a strictly segregated culture, all-white Catholic schools, firmly conservative church — all of which informed her life’s rigid boundaries, especially who got to live the American Dream in the Jim Crow South.
Speaking as her former younger self: “I’m not prejudiced, I’d tell myself, I’m Christian. I love all people, whatever their skin color.”
We see the life of a young midcentury nun and the fascinating, draconian — and sometimes bizarre — rules that governed her every breath and step. Prejean taught at a local white Catholic school (segregated, something she never questioned), and then in 1959, the sweeping reforms of Vatican II hit and ripped the Roman Catholic Church open to new winds of swift change, with all its concurrent disorienting power.
For the nuns, suddenly there were no more old-fashioned voluminous habits, replaced with a simple black blouse, midcalf skirt and sleeker veil. No more holy cloistering, no more one true religion, and the young Prejean is sent out periodically into the world of the psychedelic ’60s for her higher education.
There, she meets a young priest, an alcoholic who wants to marry her; we also witness a life-long close relationship with a fellow nun. It’s finally in her new job as director of novices that Prejean, now in her 40s, attends a social justice conference and hears a sentence that jolts her out of her white privileged miasma and, as she states, “permanently alters the trajectory of my life.”
The simple line: “Jesus preached good news to the poor. ... (And) integral to that good news is that the poor are to be poor no longer.”
Prejean’s status quo shattered. She writes, “I realized I (didn’t) personally know one single person or family on this earth who is poor.”
A year later, she volunteered at the nearby, mostly African American St. Thomas Housing Project’s Hope House in New Orleans, where she still lives and works today. It is here, at St. Thomas, that she says she gets her true education in the historical racial politics of her state. It’s also where she received the request to be a pen pal with a Louisiana death row inmate that so alters her life, and then later accompanies Robert Lee Willie to his death in the electric chair.
“Even when I’m a hundred years old, I’ll still be ‘too young to understand’ the long-standing assault on people of color in my own home state,” says the still vocal anti-death-penalty firebrand. “But learning I am. Mostly I’m sitting at the feet of my new teachers, the residents in St. Thomas.”
She also writes, “Time to kiss that privileged, special, bride-of-Christ self goodbye and join the human race. For me, now, being of service isn’t virtue — it’s flat-out justice. For years and years, black people served me. Now I serve. Long overdue.”
River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey
Sister Helen Prejean
Random House; 320 pp., $27
Kinosian is the author of “The Well-Rested Woman.”