The Rumpus Interview with Sabine Heinlein

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There’s a tragedy that my family doesn’t like to talk about, so naturally I’ve always been drawn to it. In the late 1970s, my dad’s older brother James was shot and killed by a friend of a friend. In one version of the story, it starts with a verbal altercation. My mom says it happened on a dark road in South Texas. James was in the passenger seat of a friend’s car when the killer pulled up beside them and shot James point-blank in the head. He was twenty-one years old.

I’ve wondered about James for years—what really happened that night, who he might have been if he hadn’t been killed. I never thought of the young man who shot him and the years he spent in prison. When we think about crime, we immediately envision the victims—the wounded, the dead, and their grief-stricken survivors. We forget about the other life that has been irrevocably changed. For the criminal, murder is a life-long sentence, even if granted parole.

James’s murderer went on trial and was sentenced to prison. Eventually, he was released. If he is still alive, he must be around sixty years old. I sometimes wonder what happened to him. What kind of life does he lead, and how does he feel about having taken my uncle’s life? Is he tortured by guilt, or does he still try to justify what happened on that dark road in Texas more than thirty years ago?

“In terms of empathy, murderers are obviously very low (if not lowest) on our list of priorities,” Sabine Heinlein writes in her book Among Murderers: Life After Prison. She spent more than two years at the Castle, a prominent halfway house in West Harlem, following three native New Yorkers who took other people’s lives. Her subjects Angel, Adam, and Bruce were released after serving several decades in prison. Among Murderers depicts the challenges the men encounter on their journey to freedom, from finding work to forging new relationships to forgiving themselves. It also explores the various ways the men live with their remorse. In the tradition of Susan Sheehan’s A Prison and a Prisoner and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, Heinlein puts a face to a population that evokes strong feelings while remaining largely unfamiliar. Among Murderers is an eye-opening look at life after prison and our society’s thirst for vengeance.

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The Rumpus: I’m really curious about the origin story of Among Murderers. What was your previous knowledge of criminal justice in America? Did this project find you, or did you seek it out?

Sabine Heinlein: I often approach topics through the back door, and Among Murderers was no exception. I recently talked to an acquaintance who is an editor, and he said, “Good journalism has to be inefficient.” What he meant was that a good journalist must get lost in order to find something new. I had very little knowledge of the criminal justice system. Of course, I knew the basics: America has more people incarcerated than any other country in the world; a large majority of prisoners are people of color; each year more than 700,000 people are released; and two-thirds of them will land back in jail. These shocking facts have made headlines, yet most people don’t seem to care. So I was aware that we’re dealing with a largely overlooked and under-reported epidemic. Based on these facts alone, though, I wouldn’t have known how to make this topic up close and personal or how to make people care.

Rumpus: So what was your back door to this story?

Heinlein: When I moved from Hamburg to New York twelve years ago, I noticed that New Yorkers almost exclusively talk about work. New Yorkers define themselves by what they do and what they aspire to do. I had written my [master’s] thesis in art history about artists who presented themselves as dandies and flâneurs, basically “workless” individuals who considered life itself a work of art. I have always been interested in the friction of work and ennui, of aspiration and failure. I started to research what New Yorkers who don’t work do with their time, what they struggle with. This is how I came across the phenomenon of “job readiness” classes. I looked at the most depressed areas in the city to see what kind of services they offer to the workless. I visited an organization in East Harlem called S.T.R.I.V.E.—Support and Training Results in Valuable Employees—to observe one of their classes. I found that most of their students were poor people of color with extensive rap sheets. I felt like they were treated badly under the pretense they needed to be broken down to be built back up. It was like a boot camp: authoritarian and humiliating. Either you follow their rules, or you’re out. I read up on boot camps and found out that they have no impact on recidivism rates at all.

Heinlein_comp4.inddSo I went to a number of other programs in the city to see whether they all worked in the same manner. While the programs were all different, they also had certain things in common: they had Pollyanna-ish names (like CEO—Center for Employment Opportunities—and the Fortune Society); they cherry-picked their clients (meaning they excluded those who are the hardest to employ); and they all focused on soft skills, like how to shake an employer’s hand, how to show respect, how to make your rap sheet sound less threatening, how to drown out your anger against the system, etc. No one asked what individuals really wanted to do with their lives. No one seemed to care what they struggled with internally (even though murder is the leading cause of death among women in the workplace). In short, these programs didn’t seem to consider the research that had been done by criminal justice experts.

Between classes, I sat down with the students, and we talked about their obstacles and dreams. I noticed that while these organizations were trying to erase people’s pasts, so they could presumably move forward, people’s pasts never disappeared. Most people actually wanted to talk about their upbringing and their crimes. This is how I became interested in people’s attitudes towards their crimes, which varied widely and had an enormous impact on their re-entry path. I then knew that I wanted to tell several individuals’ stories and talk about their rehabilitative paths. So I needed to find people I would want to spend one or two years with.

Rumpus: How did you narrow down your main subjects to Angel, Adam, and Bruce? How did you approach them about your work?

Heinlein: I interviewed at least fifty ex-cons before I met Angel. I would sit down with people during their lunch breaks, and we would talk. I would go shopping with them and help them create e-mail accounts, for example. I was very straightforward. I always had my notebook out, and sometimes I would tape our conversations. I told them that I was a journalist, and that I was interested in re-entry. I told them the whole on-the-record/off-the-record thing. I told them that I wouldn’t use their real names, unless they wanted me to. Almost everyone I spoke to thought his story needed to be told. I wanted to find someone who had spent a long time in prison to show the impact long-term incarceration has on one’s psyche. How does one manage freedom after twenty or thirty years behind bars? What is it like to cross the street? How do you make decisions if all decisions have been made for you for the past thirty years? Most people also wanted to talk about what landed them in prison in the first place. This is something I would have never guessed.

In 2007, I went up to Albany to report on a re-entry advocacy day, and Angel was there as part of a group of ex-cons who spoke to legislators about barriers to re-entry. On the bus ride back, I sat down next to Angel. We talked for three hours straight. Angel was funny, almost too funny considering that he had “killed a friend in an argument” and spent twenty-nine years in prison. He was very charismatic. I felt there was a lot more to it, and I became curious. I couldn’t stop listening to him. I explained to Angel what I was working on, and he agreed to meet again and let me follow him. He happened to live at a halfway house in West Harlem called the Castle. (One of its residents, whom I later dropped because he threatened me, had introduced me to the Castle several months before I met Angel.) At the Castle, Angel befriended Bruce and Adam. The men had all been released within a few months of each other. All three had served several decades for murder. This is when I felt things were falling into place, journalistically speaking. It took me one year of seemingly random interviews to get to this point.

Rumpus: Are you still in touch with all three? I’m curious to know how they feel about the book.

Heinlein: Barely. Once a reporting project ends, something new starts. However, I did send Angel, Adam, and Bruce the book and invited them to my readings. Since then, I’ve spoken with Bruce on the phone a couple of times. He was very pragmatic about the whole thing: he said that he thought the book was “very interesting.” He also told me that Adam hadn’t even read the book. This didn’t surprise me. It must be terrifying to have your whole life laid out in front of you like that. Ground rules or not, you must feel very vulnerable and exposed. Even though I discussed my intentions with my subjects—I even gave Angel a copy of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief to show him the kind of work I pursue—you never know how you feel about being in a book until you read it.

Angel came to the book launch event. He was supportive, but he wasn’t too happy about his portrayal. He always had the impulse to find everything beautiful, to love and be loved, and to garner positive attention. I think he wanted me to show his heroic path to redemption, his sustained narrative: heavily-abused-boy-turns-killer-goes-to-prison-becomes-religious-is-finally-released-and-now-pays-his-taxes.

Castle_outsideBut as a writer I don’t believe in heroes. I’m not a cheerleader. I’m interested in ambiguity. I want to learn more about life’s complications. I’m as interested in failure as in success. I’m fascinated by the perseverance of the human spirit. No one is perfect, and the book wasn’t meant to be a public service announcement. It simply wasn’t fully believable that everything could be beautiful after strangling a young girl, even if it is a story of your past. So after the event, Angel chided me for having portrayed him as an unremorseful person. He acknowledged that everything I wrote was true, but he was angry. He said one doesn’t have to talk about remorse to feel it. But he didn’t seem interested in discussing the issue, so I left it alone. I think my portrayal of Angel is nuanced. While I have problems with his attitude toward his crimes, I also admire him for his perseverance. He’s come a long way.

Rumpus: From his parole hearing transcripts and the conversations you have with him, it doesn’t seem that Angel feels genuine remorse for murdering a young woman. Yet he re-enters the world more easily than Bruce or Adam. What did you make of this?

Heinlein: Yes, Angel re-enters much more easily than Bruce and Adam, whose crimes were, by comparison, far less gruesome. Adam, in particular, is on the opposite end of the spectrum. His crime and his time in prison accompany him wherever he goes. This really hinders his re-entry. He’s always sad and can’t fully enjoy his new freedom. Angel, on the other hand, enjoys himself exuberantly wherever he goes. So for him, leaving his past behind serves him well. He doesn’t volunteer information about the specifics of his crimes. He fully believes in his transformation; and for the most part, this seems to work for him.

Bruce carefully considers his crime—it keeps reappearing in our conversations—and yet he manages to move on. He can say his victim’s name while looking you in the eye; he takes full responsibility for his actions. “You have to learn how to carry your crime,” he told me, and that makes sense to me. Bruce moves ahead with surprising balance.

Rumpus: I know it was a challenge to get Bruce to open up. How did you approach this difficult task?

Heinlein: Food. Bruce and I always ate. It’s a passion we share, and it helped us a lot in our conversations. Whenever we ate together, Bruce opened up.

Rumpus: When the men are first released they have trouble grocery shopping, because they’re overwhelmed by all the options. Angel also says that none of the foods he remembers eating before prison taste the same. But that all seems so minor when you consider how different New York was when they got out of prison versus when they committed their crimes. Did this ever come up in your conversations?

Heinlein: That’s a good observation. It is interesting that they quickly mastered external, practical experiences—swiping a subway card, using an ATM. They showed each other the ropes, and that was that. When something went wrong, they laughed it off. I wonder if people have an easier time adjusting to a new, external world than to something that’s more abstract, something that requires emotional adaptation. I feel like Angel’s response to food was an emotional issue. While you’re in prison, you create all these fantasies about the outside world (particularly about good food and sex). When you get out, reality simply doesn’t live up to your fantasies, which is disappointing. I think it is also important to note that what might seem minor to you or me can be a major issue for someone who has spent most of his life locked up.

Rumpus: Of course, I have to ask: did you always feel safe with your subjects?

Heinlein: When I meet with strangers—whether they’ve killed or not—I first meet them in public. I would like to say that I’m a good judge of character. Although people always think that about themselves, and you never really know until it’s too late. I think people think of murderers as psychopaths. The truth is that only a very small percentage of murderers are psychopaths. In most cases, there is a perfect storm that leads to the crime: drugs, poverty, provocation, a lack of impulse control, the repercussions of childhood abuse, and coincidence. As a journalist, I’m not trying to recreate situations like that. You don’t pick a fight with a murderer. And I think that you’ll find psychopaths wherever you go. It’s just that most psychopaths know how to behave. They don’t go around killing people. They work on Wall Street, for example. So yes, I did feel safe.

I do remember this one moment in Bruce’s apartment, which was in a kind of seedy building in a not-so-good neighborhood in the Bronx. I was like, What am I doing here all by myself? I looked at Bruce, who is 6’6” and has huge hands, and I thought he could squash me like a fly and no one would even hear me cry. But I immediately caught myself. This was society’s prejudice talking, which is what I was trying to fight. At this point, I had known Bruce for over two years. I respected and trusted him. We cannot judge a person based on one terrible moment twenty-five years ago.

Rumpus: You mention some talk of morality and street code with your subjects. How much was your race and gender discussed?

Heinlein: Your connection of the two subjects—street code and culture disparities—is interesting. It took me two years to understand why Bruce killed a stranger in a relatively minor argument. For the longest time, I just didn’t understand it because our “rules” were so different. If I am “disrespected,” I either solve the situation verbally or I go home and cry. In his past life, Bruce lived in an environment that was determined by a different set of rules. If another man “disrespected” you, you put down your foot. You had to show that you were ready to fight. In Bruce’s case, the stranger bluffed, pretending he had a gun under his coat. Bruce felt physically threatened and he pulled his gun to defend himself. This is when he noticed that the other guy was bluffing. There was a rule in his neighborhood (and his whole neighborhood was watching the scene, by the way): if you pull your gun, you use it—or you lose respect and make yourself vulnerable. Bruce aimed for his opponent’s shoulder or arm, but hit his heart.

But this is how things were commonly solved in Bruce’s environment. Bruce had never learned to solve conflicts verbally or to just go home and cry and forget about it. So when he told me this, something clicked. I felt like I couldn’t apply my own rules to judge his case. It’s an alternate universe almost.

Rumpus: How do you think being a middle-class German woman affected your experience navigating life at the Castle?

Heinlein: I think people were interested in the fact that I was German. They asked me a lot of things about Germany. None of them had ever really traveled outside of the U.S. before they went to prison. According to their parole stipulations, they weren’t allowed to leave the five boroughs. Some people were suspicious—and you should always be suspicious of journalists, because you never know their motives unless you read their work and question them thoroughly. Bruce, for example, asked me how a white, middle-class woman could possibly understand a black man like him. (I included this conversation in my book, actually, because I found it telling.) I think that’s a valid question. I don’t pretend that I have the same inside view that Bruce has. But I do think that this is an opportunity to learn from each other, that I’ve bridged the gap. Someone who was born and raised in a completely different culture can potentially offer a unique perspective. You will see and question things a native-born American might not even register.

Rumpus: I was surprised to learn that murderers actually have one of the lowest recidivism rates among ex-offenders. What was the most surprising thing you learned about criminal justice while writing Among Murderers?

Life SkillsHeinlein: I initially thought that there is some sort of logic behind the process: you commit a violent crime; you receive a sentence that correlates with this crime; you go to prison for X number of years; you go in front of the parole board; and you are released once you have proven that you’re rehabilitated. While I knew that your sentence also depends on the quality of the defense—on money, in other words—I thought that once you are eligible for parole, you have a reasonable chance of being released. This is not the case. The parole hearing process is completely arbitrary. This is why I decided to dissect this process: people’s release from prison is not dependent on the work they’ve done on themselves. It’s not a decision that is being made by qualified individuals, psychiatrists, or psychologists. It’s based on a twenty-minute interview by commissioners who have never met the prisoner before. All my subjects were denied parole for several years, because their release was “incompatible with the public safety.” All of them had folders brimming with vocational and educational certificates and support letters—to no avail. It is unclear what they could or should have done to get out when they were first eligible for parole.

If this is the board’s assessment—“incompatible with the public safety”—the system should provide recommendations and qualified treatment. But rehabilitative programs are virtually absent in prison. To make people “better” we have to assess and treat them on an individual basis. Otherwise it’s a cruel, irresponsible, costly, and ineffective process. The system is in need of reform. Rehabilitation is a very complex issue, and with the masses of people we keep behind bars, it’s something we’re obligated to think about.

Rumpus: How did you know your book was finished? Was there a timeline you planned, or did you feel that you’d finally recorded your subjects’ biggest accomplishments?

Heinlein: I thought I’d be following the three men for one year, but I quickly realized that this timeline was far too short. Things move excruciatingly slow after twenty or thirty years in prison. For Bruce and Adam, very few “big” things happened within the first year. A lot of the things that happened played out internally. It was surprising to all of us that their crimes and feelings of guilt took center stage once again. Angel, on the other hand, found work, a girlfriend, and a new home within the first year. His first-year experience was more external. People move at different paces, and that’s okay. But yes, at some point, I felt that I was done. It was intuitive. I felt enough had happened to show what I intended to show.

Rumpus: Did you feel pressure to offer a “solution” at the end of Among Murderers? What are you ultimately hoping readers will take away?

Heinlein: I think only the undemanding reader looks for solutions. The ambitious reader knows that life rarely offers solutions. Life is hard work and for the most part, a compromise. Angel suggested a title for my book: From Attica to Broadway (because he served time in Attica and starred in an off-Broadway play that recounted a version of his redemption narrative after his release). Had I chosen this title, I would be offering an easy solution. I hope that readers understand that we’re dealing with complex individuals who, despite all the obstacles they have encountered, managed to stay afloat and to grow enormously. Angel learned how to read and write and found happiness and love. Great achievements. Bruce and Adam were fearless in the ways they allowed themselves to look at their own mistakes. I admired that, and I hope readers can share this admiration. Most importantly, though, I want the reader to realize that no two murderers are alike. I think the realization that we’re dealing with individuals softens us and evokes empathy, or at least something more complex than the desire for revenge.

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Featured image of Sabine Heinlein © by Rachel Stevens.

Photographs of the Castle and “Life skills, according to the Fortune Society” © by Sabine Heinlein.


Amanda Green reads for free and writes for money in New York City. Her work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in Mental Floss, Popular Mechanics, Marie Claire, and various other print and web publications. She procrastinates on Twitter. More from this author →