When Susan Sarandon accepted the Oscar for her performance as a nun who befriends a convict on death row in “Dead Man Walking,” she publicly thanked her real-life model from New Orleans, Sister Helen Prejean.
Prejean is the author of the best-selling book “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States,” published by Random House in 1993 and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
The book tells the true story of a friendly, down-to-earth nun who brought love to a death-row killer, and to the families of his victims.
Insightful, quick-witted and gutsy, Prejean’s book weaves in startling facts about the death penalty and ushers readers - as did the film - into the execution chamber to witness the grisly execution of the prisoner she had befriended.
Today Prejean is one of the most influential voices to be heard on the issue of capital punishment.
In this interview Prejean talks about religion, racial injustice, Sarandon and the movie.
Judy Pennington: Does the movie “Dead Man Walking” fairly represent the issues involved in capital punishment?
Sister Helen Prejean: Yes, but the movie is not a polemic. It’s the story of a nun who gets involved with the poor, starts writing to a death-row inmate, goes to visit him and gets more and more involved - mostly because he’s got nobody else and he needs and trusts her. She accompanies him to his execution.
It doesn’t offer any simple, easy answers. It’s a story of redemption and of a journey made by everyone involved. It’s filled with ambivalence and complexity.
People can go to the movie and come out saying, “Yeah, I’m for the death penalty. I was before and I am now.” Others can come out and say, “I don’t know.”
Q: How did the movie come about?
A: Susan Sarandon was filming “The Client” in Memphis and her agent gave her my book. She was coming to New Orleans and she called me up. She said she was always looking for substantive roles and she was very intrigued with what happened in this story. This nun is a fighter, a scrapper, and she saw it as a strong role. Plus, she hadn’t been a nun yet.
We talked at a restaurant, and she thought Tim Robbins, her companion, would be very interested in doing a film. He read the book and I went up to New York and met with him. He said, “We are going to do this film.”
Q: Robbins wrote the script and directed the film. Was he attracted to the project by some sort of philosophical viewpoint or personal belief?
A: He’s an intellectual. He wants to bring people close to the issue and see it for what it really is. So he used a death-row inmate you don’t really love so people would say, “Fry him, throw him away.”
He wanted people to see this nun trying to apply everything she learned about Christ - which is that all people are deserving of love - and yet have difficulty loving this guy.
He wanted people to see that the death penalty comes down to the sergeant, the warden and the different people who have to carry it out and what it means for them. You see the chaplain, who has a different view of religion from the nun, and you see his complicity in the way he uses religion to uphold the authority of the state.
I think Tim Robbins saw all of these dimensions and said to himself, “We’ve got two hours and we want people to get under the rhetoric and experience this.” It’s powerful. Everybody in the film faces moral questions.
Q: Such as what?
A: Such as, is there an unconditional love, and is there redemption for all of us? Because it’s not just redemption for the inmate, but for the chaplain, who believes that all you do is zap people with the sacraments and that’s all that religion entails. That’s what he tells her: “Sister, that is your job.”< Usually we see a superficiality (about religion) pandered to by so many televangelists giving us this lurking image of God - the image that says pain for pain and suffering for suffering. The image that’s based on fear and burning people in a big frying pan in hell.
But the movie raises questions: What kind of God stands behind the death penalty? What’s your image of God?
Q: Do you think Americans have rejected the eye-for-an-eye image of God?
A: I think there’s a spiritual search going on in this country, but I’m concerned about the right-wing, fundamentalist stuff which offers such easy solutions. It’s almost like the death penalty - this simplistic, “easy” solution to crime.
Many people tend to sift through the Scriptures and select truth according to their own templates. We build the image of God from our own lives. But I couldn’t worship a God who’s less compassionate than I am.
Q: Are you saying that religion plays a part in upholding death and violence?
A: It plays a very big part. Some polls show that the more often people go to church, the more they believe in the death penalty.
I want to say that Christianity is domesticized, so acculturated - a comfortable religion of people rather than a religion dealing with the real challenge of what Jesus was all about.
Jesus had people of all classes and types eating together when the whole culture was about keeping people apart. Jesus moved across the whole spectrum of society and said, “This is what it means to have the kingdom of God, when people are sisters and brothers.”
But in this country today the most segregated day of the week is Sunday, when people go to church.
Churches are segregated, class-oriented. They preach about this personal God that will love and comfort me, and there’s very little about standing in solidarity with the people who are suffering the most.
Very little about building one body, one community - which means crossing over into the inner cities and building community together so that if one of us is hurt, all of us are hurt.
Q: How did you become involved in death-penalty work?
A: Chava Colon of the Louisiana Coalition of Prisons and Jails said, “Hey, you wanna write to a death-row inmate?” I said sure. I didn’t know anything about the guy, but I knew enough about the system to know if he was on death row, he was poor.
Q: Your intention was simply to write Patrick Sonnier, the inmate (played in the movie by Sean Penn). What changed your mind?
A: What transformed me, and what I think transforms anyone into activism, is being with people and witnessing their suffering.
You have to experience the injustice of what they go through.
Even when you see that, you might walk away and try to be neutral and say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do.”
But … watching and seeing suffering has a way of getting inside of you, and you catch on fire. When you see the injustice that’s causing the suffering, you’ve got to do something about it. Otherwise, you become complicit.
In this experience with Patrick Sonnier - where I first wrote him, visited him and then watched him die - I came out rebaptized.
I had watched a man’s death right in front of my eyes. I knew I was one of the few people in this country who had really seen this thing close up. It’s a secret ritual done at midnight. People don’t see it. All they have is the political rhetoric.
It was a tremendous mantle of responsibility placed on my shoulders - to speak out.
MEMO: Judy Pennington is a free-lance writer and former director of the Bienville House Center for Peace and Justice in Baton Rouge, La.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter