Memoir Sparks Campus-Wide Debate

Meghan Christian

Every year, UM-Flint takes part in a Common Read program as a way to engage students in meaningful discussions about difficult topics through reading the same book. The selection for the 2015-2016 academic year is “Dead Man Walking” by Sister Helen Prejean.

Given the memoir’s focus on the death penalty, it is not surprising why UM-Flint chose it for their Common Read program this year. The death penalty is a topic sure to spark intense debates and “Dead Man Walking” is a catalyst used to start these conversations about sentencing people to death, about all of the red tape in our justice system and about if it is possible for someone who commits such terrible acts to still be human.

In 1982, a Roman Catholic nun entered a world very unlike her own. That year, Prejean became the spiritual advisor to a man, Patrick Sonnier, who had been sentenced to die in the electric chair for killing two teens.

“Dead Man Walking” allows us enter into a world that is totally unlike our own, all from the comfort of our couches. We follow Prejean into the depths of the criminal justice system and into the depths of our own morality while she tries to battle for Sonnier’s life.

Prejean’s clear and simple narrative allows the reader to be transported to Angola State Penitentiary in the ‘80s. She does not muddle her story with too many flowery words. She states her experiences as they happened, in a clear way so that her readers can feel it as well. Her choice to write her memoir in the present tense allows her readers to feel as though they are right next to her as she first meets Sonnier and starts to see that there is still a man inside of him that deserves to live, even though he has been convicted of a terrible crime.

Not only does “Dead Man Walking” raise questions about our criminal justice system, but we also begin to look at the death penalty from a moral standpoint. At points in the novel, we see Prejean struggle with her own morality and spiritual life because of Sonnier and her experiences in the prison with him. Through Prejean’s honest and moving account, we are unable to remove ourselves from her experiences. We cannot just turn the channel or close the book and pretend that we did not feel something from her account. As readers of her memoir, we are changed. No longer are we able to play God and say that some men deserve death while others deserve life.