Welcome to The Converse-Station: A dialogue between writers. With the site getting so much traffic (my Facebook page is reaching over 18 million people) I can think of no better way to utilize that traffic than to introduce the readers to writers I love. The dialogues created within this series have stayed with me long after I’ve read them on the page. Enjoy. xo Jen Pastiloff
The Convere-Station: Elissa Wald Interviews Author Rene Denfeld.
He talks about the confused mess inside of him. He says everyone thinks sociopaths are super-smart criminals, but he is just a messed-up guy who doesn’t know why he does what he does. Except there is like a switch in him, and when the switch flips on, he cannot stop.
“If it made sense, I would tell you,” he says. “When you kill people, it is supposed to make sense. But it doesn’t. It never does.”
The lady nods. She understands.
With each secret he tells her, her eyes get darker and more satisfied. York can see from the precious slot of window that the rain clouds have lifted and the sky itself is dark. He has been speaking forever; he has told her secrets he has been afraid to tell anyone, secrets he suspects she knew all the time.
The look in her eyes is of a person who drank from the end of a gun barrel and found it delicious. Her eyes are filled with a strange sort of wondrous sadness, as if marveling at all the beauty and pain in the world.
This is an excerpt from The Enchanted, the debut novel of Rene Denfeld that just won the prestigious French Prix award. The novel involves several prisoners on death row and other characters who come into and out of their world: the lady (a death row investigator), the fallen priest and the warden, among others.
From the moment I opened the book, I was unable to put it down and I stayed awake into the middle of the night to finish it. Sacrificing sleep for a book is rare for me now, as I have young children, and even rarer was my utter lack of ambivalence about it. The last book that held me deep into the dark hours was Gone Girl, but the whole time I kept thinking: “I should go to bed now; I should really go to bed.”
With The Enchanted, there was no struggle, no “should” — there was only the understanding that I was having a sacred experience and my highest imperative was to let it be unbroken.
I was about 4 when Johnny came into our lives. He was a pimp. He saved us from an even worse pimp named Lane, who beat my mother bloody. Johnny took us to his home. I sat in his lap, a tiny girl with Botticelli curls. Johnny smelled like Pink hair lotion and Jheri curl activator. He wore a hat with a feather.
During the days, Johnny took me into a bar on what was then Union Avenue in Portland, Ore. The women, dancing in cages in full-length nylon body stockings, mesmerized me. At night our house became crowded with prostitutes, all skin and eyes.
I loved Johnny. He fathered my younger brother and sister. He taught me how to put hot sauce on rotten fish to make it taste better.
But life with Johnny was fraught with terror, too — men kicking in the front door with sawed-off shotguns, holding their guns to our heads because Johnny owed them money. And my poor mother, stumbling home after being raped on the streets, my big brother washing her tenderly in the bathtub.
This is an excerpt from an essay Rene wrote about her life. It ran in The New York Times in September. After finishing The Enchanted, I was intensely curious about her and did an internet search to learn more. I saw that she’s published three other critically acclaimed books of non-fiction. I read that she is the single mother of three children she adopted from foster care. I learned that on top of all this, she works full-time as a death row investigator. And I understood that her childhood was as harrowing as any I’d ever heard of.
I believe that healing happens in love and between people. I don’t agree that people are supposed to go off to be by themselves and heal themselves. I don’t believe we heal ourselves – I believe we heal and let ourselves be healed by each other. So I try to be really open to letting my kids heal me, and healing them.
This is an excerpt from my conversation with Rene. After reading so much by her and about her, I felt I would never draw another easy breath unless I could sit in a room with her and hear how she overcame so much adversity and became a force of such beauty in the world. I have never spent a more worthwhile hour in my life.
* * *
Elissa: The prisoner called Risk is one of the monsters in The Enchanted. He carved up his own 5-year-old son and he delights in the ongoing rape and sexual enslavement of vulnerable young men. If he has any redeeming features, we don’t see them.
Then we’re told that the crimes of the prisoner called Arden are more unspeakable yet. But Arden is a more complicated character. He’s this ecstatic sensualist: drunk with pleasure at the taste of rainwater trickling down the wall of his cell, at the sight of birds from a prison window, at the slightest scent of the changing seasons on the clothing of the guards. He loves literature with a passion. He wants good things for other people, like the priest and the lady.
What drove the decision to bring so much sensitivity and sociopathy together in the same character?
Rene: The Enchanted was inspired by my work as a death row investigator. I do exactly the same job as the lady: I spend time with these men and women on death row, and then I go out and do investigations into their history.
Every day that I do this work, someone is gifting me with their secrets. And I think there’s no higher honor than someone giving you their secrets to hold. But at the same time, in my work, I’m confronted on an ongoing basis by the fact that people are capable of the most terrible things.
I think often when people write about death row it becomes a very political exercise and it feels safer to focus on innocent people who are falsely accused. And that does happen – I’ve had innocent clients. But I think the harder question has to do with the reality that people do terrible things to each other, and what does that mean? What does it mean for us, and what does it mean for them? Do they still have a soul? Are they still worthy of being recognized and seen as human beings? Why do some people do such horrible things to others? If we understand these answers to these crimes we can prevent them.
I believe that we can recognize the terrible harm that people do to each other and we can also recognize their humanity. I believe we can do both at exactly the same time. And I believe this is something that’s desperately necessary.
Elissa: Your formative years were fraught with almost incomprehensible hardship. How did you not only survive your childhood, but transcend it?
Rene: You know, I would say that I haven’t. I think part of “transcending” your difficult childhood is coming to terms with the recognition that you never really do. It’s an ongoing struggle for me. I don’t think we ever escape our pasts; I just don’t.
But I think people who have survived extreme childhood trauma and thrived in some way are people who, from a very young age, have found a way to look out. As a child, I took refuge in the public library. I escaped into books and books offered me an alternative vision of life. Books offered me a sense of morality.
Elissa: You make a compelling case that prison is an enchanted place. You do this from the point of view of a prisoner so deprived of human contact and access to nature that any tiny shred of something good is like a miracle – much in the way the lady experiences the juice from a dusty can of peaches as a miracle.
You said that one day as you were leaving the prison, you heard a voice that said: this is an enchanted place. I wondered whether you might talk a little bit about this – about the ways in which prison is enchanting to you.
Rene: I think a lot of people have been surprised and taken aback that I would choose to show prison as an enchanted place. But I think we tend to have this vision of prison – and prison culture — as outsiders. We’ve constructed this version of what prison is like based entirely on the privilege in our own lives: the fact that we have full bellies, that we get to touch each other, that we get to walk outside in the sun. And so we’re looking at prison from our vantage point and we have a set of assumptions about what it’s like to live inside it.
We have thousands upon thousands of people who go into prison every year and they disappear. They’re gone. We erase them. They’re our caste of invisibles. And we don’t care anymore what their lives are like; we don’t care to know.
The biggest surprise to me as someone working inside prisons was that life inside it can still be beautiful. I mean, to me this is the deepest affirmation of the human spirit: the fact that a person can live in this tiny cell, that’s like 9’ x 6’, this little cement box with a dirty toilet and a bunk that’s bolted to the wall, and that’s all they have. And for people on death row – they are literally almost never allowed out. They’re not even allowed a visit from their mom where they can get a hug. They’re living in situations that I think most people would consider torture, and they wait there for decades for execution.
And yet despite all this, through the power of their own imagination and resilience, they will still be able to find some joy. Some of them escape into reading books. And some of them have found these amazing ways to make art.
It costs money to get something from commissary – which is items off a cart, basically – but they’ll get M&Ms… I don’t know if you’ve seen this kind of art before. But they’ll make paint from the crushed shells of M&Ms and they knit homemade paintbrushes out of chewed toothbrushes or whatever they can find and they’ll paint the walls of their cell.
So it’s remarkable the ways people find to escape the bars of their existence, the ways that they’re able to find and create beauty. We all can find ways to escape the pain of our lives into something beautiful.
Elissa: You won a Golden Gloves championship in Tacoma in 1995. What drew you to boxing and what did it offer you?
Rene: I was on my own by the age of 15. I lived on the streets, and had survived a huge amount of trauma. Underneath it all I was very scared. I was a deeply fearful person. I’m not a very big person, and I’m a woman, and I had been hurt, and beneath all my bravado I carried this huge fear.
So I was drawn to boxing. I wasn’t sure why but I decided to do it because in spite of my fear I was always a risk-taker. I went down to what was then called The Grand Avenue Gym in Portland. This was in the early nineties and my understanding is that I was the first woman ever to walk in there to learn how to box.
And it was honestly one of the best things I’ve ever done because I had to confront my fears. I learned self-defense, which was huge. I started to feel, when I walked down the street, that I could protect myself. But there was the deeper psychological benefit of being able to take apart aggression, and to confront it in myself.
Jesse Sandoval was my coach. He was a great trainer. He was this Mexican guy who trained a bunch of other Mexican guys – in fact, the gym was known as Little Tijuana – so I was not just the only woman, but the only white person on his team. And Jesse was a father figure that I’d never had. He really loved me and I loved him. Eventually he referred to me as his daughter. He was an incredibly gentle sweet guy with all these sayings about boxing that were very helpful to me. He’d say: “Are you going to go through life with a mattress tied to your back? Are you going to always be scared?”
And so I did it for several years and I ended up being the first woman to win The Golden Gloves in Tacoma.
When I adopted my first kid, I stopped boxing because it’s a dangerous sport, but it was good for me at the time. I think something we often deny women, even today, is a sense of physical capability – the ability to defend ourselves. As women, we are encouraged to be fearful about so many aspects of our lives.
Elissa: You’re the author of four very diverse and critically acclaimed books. You’re the single mother of three children you adopted from foster care. And you work full-time as a death row investigator, which takes you to these incredibly harrowing places – both physically and psychically – on a regular basis. Any one of these jobs would be more than most people could handle. I imagine if it were me taking all this on, I’d be so exhausted and depleted and desperately comfort-seeking at the end of every single day that I’d just be in sweatpants on the sofa in my every spare moment, weeping into my pint of ice cream.
So no one else will ask you this, but I guarantee countless people are wondering it: how do you not only manage to do so much, but look so elegant and beautiful in the midst of it all? I mean, honestly I’d say it’s a little bit freakish.
Rene (laughing): I think in our society, women are encouraged to feel small and to believe we’re not as brave and strong and capable as we are. I’m not saying everyone should feel they have to do what I’m doing but I think we’re all capable of doing brave, strong things. But in our culture women are discouraged from that in a million different ways.
In some ways I’m glad I had the childhood and the hardships that I had. I’m not always happy about it but I’m glad about it, because it gave me the insight and the strength to help other people and understand them. For instance, I adopted my kids from foster care and I know a lot of people would find that a frightening proposition, but I didn’t — because I’m not frightened of their histories. I know you can have deep trauma in your history and still go on to be a happy, good person.
I’m also really big on self-care. Along with recognizing that we’re all capable of doing great and important things is the recognition that we all have needs — human soul needs. I think often women are encouraged not to own those needs. But if you’re going to continually give of yourself to the world, you have to get something back. Self-care is huge and women need to stop feeling guilty about it.
I work out every day. I have to work out every day to reduce my anxiety, because I do have PTSD, and I have self-care that I do around my PTSD. And I try to be upfront about that, and take that time out for myself, and my kids know I’m going to do that. But I think the most important part is just being honest with myself and allowing myself to be authentic and vulnerable.
Another thing is, I’ve given myself permission to be mediocre. I couldn’t do everything I do if I was trying to be some Supermom. I’ve let go of the idea that I have to be perfect. For instance, we don’t sit down to dinner together every night. There’s a big crock pot and everyone will help themselves as they want. I know there’s this idea that a good mom has everyone sit down at the table at the same time every night. I mean, I think we get hung up on these… these signifiers. But you know what? I am a good mom, even if our life looks different.
Elissa: Reading your work, I was struck anew by the age-old mystery of good and evil, and this made me think of things that are going on right now on the public stage and in my own life.
Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby are just two men in an endless parade of people we’ve liked and admired for a long time — people who have given cherished gifts to the world — who have been revealed to have done terrible things. And even as these scandals were breaking, someone I’ve personally liked and admired for years was arrested for domestic assault, and I found out about it from an article in the newspaper. When things like this come to light, there’s this shock and this revision that happens, where we ask: who is this person really? And now who is this person to me? And I’m still grappling with my own response to this information. I mean, my first impulse was to write a note to my friend, and to say: I don’t believe a word of this newspaper article. But you know, what if it’s true? Of course I don’t want to express support based on an assumption that might be false, and I don’t want collude in any denial of the truth. So I guess I’m struggling with – I mean, if you’re not the mother of the person in question – is it okay to still love someone who’s done something awful? Is it wrong to express support? Do you have any clear ideas around this?
Rene: I think we all want to believe that the criminal is The Other. We want to think the criminal is the ugly guy who’s drooling on his shirt and who has no redeeming qualities. It can’t be one of us. It’s hard to face the idea that we’re all capable of harm and that profound harm might be inflicted by someone we know and love.
But from a very young age, I had people I loved who hurt me, and hurt me terribly. But I loved them. And I learned that that’s okay – that my love for them was okay. But that doesn’t mean, for instance, that I’d ever let those people around my own children, or that they shouldn’t be in jail. I can recognize both those truths.
I also believe in the power of people to change. I’ve even worked with sex offenders and contrary to what people think, there are some effective treatments for sex offenders. Not all, but some can change. So I think it’s very important to set boundaries and ensure our own safety, and to always stand up for what’s right and what’s moral, and completely condemn the crime, but still allow the possibility that this person may be able to change.
I think we get caught up in this idea that we either have to condemn harshly and forever, or excuse and minimize – that there’s no middle ground, but you know, there is. There’s a huge area in there for us to navigate with each other. When we see the soul even in a monster, then that is when we can see it in ourselves.
Elissa: So this interview will run on The Manifest Station, and the central premise of the site is something the founder Jen Pastiloff calls “beauty hunting”. If there’s a unifying characteristic of The Manifest Station readers, it’s the desire to cultivate beauty even in darkness and hardship and sorrow. You’ve obviously honed that ability – it’s shining from every page of The Enchanted and from your real life as well. Can you say something about your beauty-hunting process, or prowess? Does it come naturally to you at this point or is it a deliberate practice?
Rene: There are a couple of lines in The Enchanted where the fallen priest is talking about the beauty in the pain, and the pain in the beauty. And I really believe there’s something to that. You know, I think that pain and hardship… how do I want to put this? I was going to say that pain can have its own beauty but the fear of saying that is that it might seem to imply that the beauty minimizes the pain, and it doesn’t. The beauty is in our souls and in our love for each other.
To answer your question, finding the beauty is a deliberate practice for me. I do think about it consciously and I think a big part of it is being brave. I think we have these huge gifts that we can give each other and we need to be courageous enough to do it.
I think we all desperately hunger to be seen and heard. If we’re lucky, we’re going to be accepted and if we’re super lucky we’re going to be loved. And that’s a gift that we can give each other. And so I remind myself that this is something I have to give other people.
And I know when I do that, it’s like holding a mirror up and having it reflected right back. And I can’t describe how beautiful it is for me to give those gifts to other people. You know, in the course of my work, I’m struck by the fact that often I’m the first person to ever really listen to somebody. A lot of the people I work with have waited their whole lives just to have a person who will listen. So I get to be the one who does it. That’s a gift for me and a gift for them.
I think it’s important to remind ourselves that we can all be brave and courageous people and we all have the capacity to be really good for each other. And much of the time, we can do that in small ways. It doesn’t have to be big or for show. It’s the little ways that people love each other that truly matter. Sometimes the smallest way you are brave turns out to be the biggest gift—for another person.
Rene Denfeld is a novelist, author and death penalty investigator living in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times. She is the happy mom to three kids adopted from state foster care. Her books can be purchased here and here.
Elissa Wald is a freelance writer and editor, and the author of three books: Meeting The Master, Holding Fire, and The Secret Lives of Married Women. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children.