No one is tougher on Sister Helen Prejean than, well, Sister Helen Prejean.
The New Orleans-based Roman Catholic nun is best known as the author of the 1993 bestseller “Dead Man Walking.” The book inspired the 1995 film starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, for which she won an Oscar playing Prejean, who will deliver a livestreamed Town Hall talk on May 22 discussing her 2019 book, “River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey.”
During a recent phone interview, Prejean, 81, recalled the grueling self-scrutiny of “Dead Man Walking,” which is about serving as spiritual adviser to two death row inmates before their executions in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola.
“My editor read my first draft and said, ‘You are so hooked into [convicted killer Elmo Patrick Sonnier’s] human rights and ending the death penalty. You wait far too long to talk about his terrible crime,’” said Prejean. “He said if in the first 10 pages I didn’t face the fact Sonnier and his brother killed two teenage kids in cold blood, and my own horror at this, no reader is going to continue the book.”
At the same time, Prejean “didn’t have a clue as to what to do about the victims’ families.”
“I thought I better just stay away,” she said. “It was a terrible mistake. It was cowardice.”
The lesson for Prejean was that writing was her road to moral clarity. By bringing readers into her mistakes, they could identify with her as a human being.
Those same principles and more apply to “River of Fire,” a story about the first half of the author’s life. “River of Fire” flows through Prejean’s ever-evolving cultural and spiritual awareness, from sheltered, upper middle class white girl in Jim Crow Louisiana, to rigorous student of advanced theology as a young nun, to the call of social activism.
“It was a long journey, and I thought it might be helpful to share how I woke up,” she said. “Looking back on my younger self, I can see my spirituality really needed to change. I thought the main thing was to pray for people, for homeless people, hungry people. You pray, and God solves all the big problems. What’s one little person going to do?”
Prejean’s path to answering that question becomes a captivating narrative in “River of Fire,” full of rich detail, emotional immediacy and literary grace.
She recalls her crushing fear of sin as a small child, the trickle-down impact of a draconian, punitive Catholic church prior to the Second Vatican Council.
The latter veered the church away from stifling rules and encouraged the engagement of clergy and lay people in the broader world and its needs. Vatican II’s changes resonated with Prejean, who was in her early 20s at the time.
“It had everything to do with how you love people, and how you grow in love and how you care about people. Everybody is called to be a saint.”
Two key relationships are a major part of “River of Fire.” One is with Prejean’s best friend, Sister Chris, a hospital nurse described as a near-Dickensian figure, overworked, bone-weary and unable to advance her position. The other is with Father William, a priest with alcoholism who wants to marry Prejean, and whose emotional demands finally alienate her. In both obvious and subtle ways, these ties help Prejean become true to herself.
While in her 40s, Prejean took charge of younger, novice nuns. Their passion for fighting social injustice, poverty and racial disparity awakened her to a higher calling.
“Poverty is not God’s will. That’s a result of human systems,” Prejean said. “I realized I had accepted that suffering was God’s will for people. They’ll have a shiny home in heaven. I was not dealing with what it means to not have health care for your children.”
Prejean moved into New Orleans’ nearby Saint Thomas housing projects. She still lives in New Orleans today. It is there where she has better understood, as she puts it, “You either watch history go by, or you’re a part of it.”
“Pope Francis has spoken of the church as a field hospital where the poor and the vulnerable are,” Prejean said. “That’s the call of the Gospel of Jesus. It’s not self-perfection and me becoming a holy nun. It’s the suffering in the world and what’s happening in my time.”
Sister Helen Prejean will be one of the keynote speakers for the livestreamed event “The Death Penalty in the Age of Data, Science, and Abolition” hosted by Seattle University, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday, May 22; tickets are free, with a $10-$50 requested donation; death-penalty.eventbrite.com.
Prejean will discuss “River of Fire” via Town Hall livestream at 7:30 p.m., Friday, May 22; contribution requested; townhallseattle.org.