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Posts Tagged ‘The Other Wes Moore’

Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption by Benjamin Rachlin is this year’s Concord Reads (our community-wide read program) title. And it’s the reason I have bags under my eyes, because for the past two nights I have been compelled to keep reading long past the point where I should have put the book down, and then laid awake thinking about Willie Grimes, the innocent man of the title, and Chris Mumma, co-founder of the North Carolina Center On Actual Innocence, and a force for justice. Even though I’ve read other books about injustice (Just MercyThe New Jim Crow, Walking the Dog, The Other Wes Moorethis was still very wrenching.

Imagine your life taken from you by a wrongful conviction. Now imagine being moved constantly from prison to prison, and misunderstood by almost every single person you meet, judged and misdiagnosed by nurses and doctors and psychiatrists. Kept from your own siblings funerals. And imagine that even through all of this, you keep hoping that evidence is out there to free you, and you just have to remain true — never giving in to pressure, endless, insufferable pressure, to say you did the crime you didn’t do. The sheer number of times that Willie Grimes was either asked to confess or had a clueless member of the corrections world write a note in his record about his unwillingness to take responsibility — it’s mind boggling. It would make most people lose their minds, or their humanity, or both. Willie Grimes not only didn’t do either, he grew in his faith, he steadfastly continued to advocate for himself as best as he could, and when he was finally exonerated, he mowed other people’s lawns just to be helpful. In my view, he is truly saintly.

There are many other heroes in this book — Chris Mumma, for one, without whom Willie Grimes and many others would not be free. And she too faced obstacles that would defeat most people. Political wrangling. Egos among the people she assembles to form a commission in North Carolina to draft a process for considering post-conviction innocence claims. A mountain of said claims, and evidence that these were only a fraction of the cases out there. Barebones staff, no real power, very little budget. None of this stops her, and she is the definition of righteous. Although they don’t appear until nearly the end of the book, the crime victim’s granddaughters also seem like amazing people to me. They accepted that the man they had understood to be their grandmother’s attacker was innocent and spoke out about how grateful they felt for the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission’s work.

The people who should be ashamed of themselves is a longer list. They don’t merit any further attention.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Benjamin Rachlin is also a kind of hero for bringing this issue to a nationwide audience, and a very talented writer. This is an excellent book. One thing I admire tremendously as a librarian who teaches information literacy is the way Rachlin clarifies, in an author’s note before the book even begins, how and where he got his information and how readers can tell what are quotes from source materials and what are recollections of the people he spoke with. That kind of clarity is unfortunately not as common as it should be in creative nonfiction. Rachlin also excels at storytelling. I seriously couldn’t stop reading, even though I knew I’d be tired today.

Read this book. Tell someone else about it. Discuss it with people. Be prepared to cry, and to grind your teeth, and to mutter to yourself.

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The university where I work selected The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore as the book all incoming freshmen are reading this summer. Since Convocation Day is just under four weeks away, I decided it was time to read it. If you haven’t heard of it, the book is written by a man who heard in college of the fate of another man with the same name, who’d been convicted of killing an off duty police officer during a robbery. The author, stuck by their same name and similar early childhood circumstances, eventually wrote to the convicted man, later visited, got to know him, and after a few years wrote a book about their two lives.

Wes Moore the author and Wes Moore the convicted man were both boys in Baltimore with single mothers. Both got into trouble early in life, although the author’s mother tried more drastic steps to prevent her son from wrecking his life, first moving the young family to the Bronx to live with her parents in her childhood home, then sending Wes away to military boarding school when he appeared to be headed in the wrong direction.

It paid off. Military school led to an Army commission, then to Johns Hopkins, the Rhodes scholarship, a White House fellowship, a Wall Street career, a book deal. The other Wes Moore got into increasingly more dire situations, including selling drugs, and had four children by the time he was twenty. When he watched the mother of two of his children succumb to addiction he couldn’t face his own part in it. He found out about Job Corps, got his GED in a very short time, and trained as a carpenter. Back in Baltimore, he could only get low paying unskilled jobs and under continued financial pressure as he tried to support his family, he went back to dealing drugs.

The Other Wes Moore juxtaposes these two stories, focusing primarily on the first 20 years of each Wes’s life. It’s a telling portrait of life for poor, young black Americans, and it’s also a heart-breaking look at what happens when society does not fulfill its promises fully — Wes the convict is smart, but he never graduates from school and if anyone tries to help him there it goes unmentioned. His mother was in college (ironically, at Johns Hopkins) and also working to support herself and her kids when Pell grants were cancelled and she was forced to drop out. When Wes made it through Job Corps he was prepared to live a new life, but was not given a chance with a living wage or even a job where he could apply his skills, and he turned back to crime.

Yes, the author’s mother managed to keep her kids safe, and sacrificed to get him first to private school in the Bronx and then military school, and yes, people have free will, and should be able to take responsibility for their actions. Still, I was really struck by how different things could have been if the convicted Wes had just had a couple of things go differently in his life. But there was something that bothered me even more: he claimed he wasn’t even at the robbery, and therefore could not have participated in the murder. Wes the author mentions this, but does not pursue it, or even spend more than a sentence or two on it. In the introduction to the book he writes,”Wes, it should never be forgotten, is in prison for his participation in a heinous crime.” So I guess he just doesn’t question the verdict, even though he’s come to know the man who claims he wasn’t there.

It seems to me that a man who has become devoutly religious while serving a life sentence who still maintains his innocence deserves more than a passing reference to his contention that he didn’t do it. He was young black man with a record, and I don’t know if I have enough faith in the justice system to believe his conviction was definitely just. That really bothers me, but it’s true. Society had given up on him long before and had sentenced him to a life of despair. So it’s not much of a leap to wonder if society would even think twice about locking him up. The community was demanding justice for a police officer. In light of all the recent attention given to the endemic police bias in Baltimore, I can’t help but wonder. Would that bias trickle into the justice system? I can’t imagine it wouldn’t.

As a memoir, The Other Wes Moore is compelling, but there were some stylistic choices I had a hard time with. I’ve never been a fan of reconstructed dialogue, which Moore employs not only in the sections about his own life and family (at least he was there) but also those about the other Wes. The author is a good storyteller though, and when I was reading the book those sections didn’t bother me. So maybe it was my overall discomfort that made me think twice as I looked back at the book when I was finished. Is it a good choice for a community-wide read? Absolutely — there is a great deal to discuss about race, economic and social inequality, education, family, personal responsibility, even the power of books and stories to change lives.

But I remain disquieted nonetheless.

 

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