Anthropomorphising cancer? Right now it’s working for me. The world lost a beautiful young woman today, way way too young. She had a beautiful family, a wonderful husband, an adorable one year old daughter. She lived less than a year from her diagnosis. Cancer sucks and is mean as shit.
My daughter, however, is awesome and very kind and wrote a beautiful blog post about this terrible loss. Check it out: Too Short.
It’s coming up on eight years since I started writing the memoir that’s been occupying most of my writing attention for the past three months. What started in the summer of 2008 as a book I decided I was only going to write on islands, and only in a journal covered with crinkled brown paper that David had bought for me in London, is finally revealing its structure, which has nothing to do with islands or writing in one particular journal.
But that conceit — writing my “Island Journal” as I called it — is what got me started and the most important lesson I’ve learned over these past eight years as I’ve been trying to master the craft of creative nonfiction is that where you start is very likely not where you end up.
Last summer at the Vermont College of Fine Arts writing conference both Andre Dubus III and Joan Wickersham talked about years of failed attempts to write a story from their lives as a novel. Years and years of writing that didn’t work. Both of them finally got their stories right as a memoir — Townie for Dubus and The Suicide Index for Wickersham. Both are terrific (read them if you haven’t).
I went to the VCFA conference to workshop the novel I wrote last winter, which was a much needed break from the intensity of my work the previous spring on the memoir. I did learn a lot about writing a novel and sustaining a story across many many many more words than I’m used to managing in poems. But mostly I learned to let go, as Dubus and Wickersham had. I understood that I needed to go home and stop trying to wedge that original island journal into the memoir I was trying to write about the years when I lost Eric, lost my best friend, lost track of myself, lost faith in my parenting, found David and then lost him as his family navigated its own terrible loss, lost myself again and then found myself again, not surprisingly right where I’d been all along.
Now I’m back to revising the memoir. I don’t even know what number draft to call this, because its form has changed so radically. Given what else was going on in my life and my family last summer and fall I didn’t have a chance to use what I’d learned at VCFA to start revising the memoir until January and I started by taking it apart. I’ve been struggling with how to put it back together — deleting island journal passages, writing a new thread of story to weave in, getting rid of scenes that don’t move the narrative forward, rearranging. How could I carry the story across the arc it deserves?
And now I know. I don’t remember exactly when or how, but sometime in the last few weeks the story began to unfold in a structure that so far continues to make sense as I move through each section. It’s exciting and energizing and makes me want to be at my desk more than anywhere else.
David and I were both getting ready to go out one day last week and I told him I planned to go right back to work on the memoir when I got home in the afternoon. “Of course,” he said. “You’re in a blessed place.”
Yes, it’s a blessing to be in a creative flow that’s smooth and open, without the nagging voice that asks why are you doing this, does it matter, is this any good? I’m listening to the book right now and liking what it says.
Yesterday afternoon I sat on the porch and began a draft of a blog post about the writing I’ve been engaged in for the last couple of months. “Deep In” to another revision of my memoir, I’m excited because the structure I’m using this time is working. I’m making progress.
My plan was to put up that post this morning, and I was in my study early, ready for many hours at my desk today. I went downstairs to make a cup of tea and noticed Jonathan Baird’s OpEd in today’s Concord Monitor. Waiting for my water to boil and tea to seep, I read the article.
I’d read the Monitor editorial last Sunday about Jeffrey Pendleton and thought, what, a black man died in the Valley Street Jail and this is all the coverage there’s been? Then I forgot about it and spent the week absorbed in my very privileged and very rich life. I spent days in my study working on the memoir and making collages. I did some volunteer board work. I sat on my porch when the sun was warm enough and the wind still enough. I listened to the birds nesting in the blue spruce and yews, chattering songs all day.
When I read Baird’s piece today I thought, okay, enough about me. Spread the story.
Where is the outrage for Jeffrey Pendleton?
By JONATHAN P. BAIRD
For the Monitor
Thursday, April 14, 2016
Over the last couple years, these names have come into our collective lives: Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. There are quite a few others who experienced the same fate I am not naming. All were African-American and all died in police custody or at the hands of the police in circumstances that could best be described as questionable.
The deaths contributed to the creation of the national movement known as Black Lives Matter. The people who died lived in places all over the United States. None, however, were from New Hampshire – until now.
Now we have the little-known, terrible story of a New Hampshire man, Jeffrey Pendleton, which has received scant local media attention. Pendleton’s story is New Hampshire’s version of Sandra Bland, the black woman who was pulled over by a policeman in Texas for a lane change and who inexplicably died in jail a few days later. Like Bland, Pendleton was wrongly jailed and he died mysteriously in his jail cell. No credible explanation for his death has yet been offered.
The question has to be asked: Where is the outrage? Why so little reaction to Pendleton’s death?
Found In His Cell
On March 13, Pendleton, a 26-year-old, homeless, African-American man from Nashua was found dead in a cell at the Valley Street jail in Manchester. Pendleton had been in jail for five days when he died. He had been arrested March 8 on a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession. The Nashua District Court had set Pendleton’s bail at $100 cash, an amount he could not afford to pay. As a result, he went to jail.
No one seems to have any explanation for why he died. State and prison officials have had precious little to say. A Union Leader article quotes a Nashua police captain who says the Nashua police did everything correctly in the case.
Dr. Jenny Duval, deputy chief medical examiner for New Hampshire, performed an autopsy and said from her examination there was no evidence of any natural disease or physical trauma. The exam found no needle marks. Dr. Duval looked into Pendleton’s medical history and she said that he had appeared to be in good health.
Dr. Duval ordered additional tests and hoped that test results will determine the cause and manner of death.
Why was he jailed?
While for me the Pendleton case prompts many reactions, I would begin by asking: Why was he in jail? And why would an apparently healthy young man suddenly die there?
The jailing of Pendleton for failing to pay $100 bail on the pot charge is all too typical of the callous and uncaring way poor people are treated in New Hampshire. No way would most people be going to jail for that. They would come up with $100. Pendleton was jailed for being too poor to pay $100. Why is the state using such a harsh penalty, jail time, for such a minimal charge? The cost of incarceration, housing and feeding, far exceeds the charged offense.
Pendleton’s case is a good example of the criminalization of poverty. He was not a flight risk nor did he pose a danger to others, the reasons typically invoked for bail. I would also point out that pot is now legal in multiple states and when our state decides to enter the 21st century, it will be legal here. New Hampshire remains the only state in New England that has not decriminalized marijuana possession. It’s only a matter of time.
It is both sad and wrong that Pendleton was jailed for a non-violent activity that would not have been punished at all in multiple jurisdictions.
One prominent New Hampshire defense attorney told me that he thought if Pendleton had not died he would have served 30 days. Then, when he appeared in court, he would have been released on time served, and the case would have gone away.
Penalized for poverty
Across the country, people are increasingly penalized because they are poor. Money-based bail regularly means that poor defendants are punished before they get their day in court. Probably poor people end up doing more time than if they had a court hearing and were convicted immediately. Imposing high bail on a poor person who faces a minimal charge is equivalent to a conviction.
The consequences of this form of pre-trial detention can also be dire. Going to jail can mean job loss, eviction from an apartment and possible loss of child custody. And those things can happen before a hearing on the merits of a case.
The day after Jeffrey Pendleton died, the U.S. Justice Department released a letter to state chief justices and court administrators across the country suggesting they change their practices on fees and fines. The letter explicitly stated:
“Courts must not employ bail or bond practices that cause indigent defendants to remain incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release.”
The letter came a day too late for Jeffrey Pendleton. How does the state plan to make amends to a dead man? I don’t see anybody jumping up to take responsibility.
Ever since the events in Ferguson, Mo., awareness has increased about the broader problem that many courts in America have been imposing exorbitant fees and fines on people who have committed relatively petty offenses. It is and remains modern-day debtors’ prison.
Too many cities and towns are relying on court fines and fees to pay down municipal debt. In a report released by the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors on Fees, Fines, and Bail, the authors note the increasing municipal reliance on these fines in America. The report states that in 1986, 12 percent of those incarcerated nationally were also fined. In 2004, the number had climbed to 37 percent.
Plaintiff in suits
Prior to his death, Jeffrey Pendleton was not some marginal, unknown homeless person. He had been a plaintiff in two lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire. In the first case, in March 2015, the court forced the town of Hudson to pay damages for the unconstitutional and illegal way they treated people who were peaceful panhandlers. In the second case, Pendleton spent 33 days in jail for walking in a park adjacent to the Nashua Public Library. The police charged him with criminal trespassing for walking through the park after he allegedly violated a verbal “no trespass” order. Nashua had to pay Pendleton and his attorneys for violation of his constitutional rights.
At this point, it is impossible to know if Pendleton’s activism played any role in what happened to him. I would hope that a thorough and fair investigation will get to the bottom of Pendleton’s tragic death. It is hard to fathom how and why a 26-year-old man spontaneously dies – if that is what happened.
The New York Times reported that Pendleton had arrived in Nashua in 2009. He had worked low-wage jobs in fast food restaurants. After a divorce in 2013, he became homeless and he started sleeping in the woods. He spent the winter of 2013-14 outside in a tent.
$8.50 an hour
Pendleton worked at a Burger King in Nashua. In the press, a co-worker was quoted saying he made $8.50 an hour at most. That money is a little above New Hampshire’s paltry minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, far and away the lowest in New England. The money Pendleton earned was not enough for him to rent an apartment or to pay bail.
In February, Pendleton had participated in the Fight for $15 campaign, which advocates for a higher minimum wage. He had demonstrated outside the Burger King where he worked. Maybe if Pendleton had been making a higher wage, none of these events would have happened.
In an article that appeared in the Huffington Post, Attorney Gilles Bissonnette, the legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire and Pendleton’s lawyer, described Pendleton as a “really sweet” and “kind” person, whose troubles with the law were primarily a result of his poverty. Attorney Bissonnette also said the following:
“(Pendleton) got involved in these cases not because he thought he would obtain some sort of financial windfall but because he believed these cases could bring relief to other poor people who were struggling to get by and who were having interactions with law enforcement. He cared about how the cases that we were handling could potentially change police practices in the future.”
I must say I remain puzzled by how little coverage Pendleton’s death has received in New Hampshire media since March 13. Most of the stories that have been done come from outside news outlets like the New York Times and the Guardian. I did hear one story on New Hampshire Public Radio and the Monitor did an editorial. When I have asked friends and acquaintances about Pendleton’s death, they have invariably not heard about it.
There have been a lot of stories about bobcats and also about the St. Paul’s preppy and the tragedy of his temporary detour from Harvard, but almost nothing about a dead young black man. Based on the coverage, maybe poor and black lives don’t matter.
(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot works at the Social Security Administration. His column reflects his own views and not those of his employer.)
A friend once said “your poems are like photographs.” What I see goes in to words, translated through what I think, how I sort language to get the image I want on paper. Now I’m trying it without words. And loving it.