This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
In John J. Lennon’s latest essay for the Review, he reads Sarah Weinman’s book Scoundrel,an account of the saga of the writer and convicted murderer Edgar Smith, who had once been championed by William F. Buckley. “As a journalist who covers criminal justice while living in prison,” writes Lennon, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the crime stories we tell for the purposes of entertainment.” The enduring fascination with “true crime,” as narrated by journalists on the outside, is a source of considerable frustration for him. Many critics of the genre argue that its simplistic binaries and sensational details exploit both the victim and the accused, but Lennon’s argument goes further: these stories all start to sound the same. What the genre is often missing, he believes, are the experiences of incarcerated people; their lives and moral reckonings continue long after they are sentenced.
Lennon previously wrote for the Review about another famous prison author, Jack Abbott, who had been championed by Norman Mailer. (As Lennon mentions, Abbott also wrote for the Review in the 1980s.) Lennon is a contributing editor at Esquire and frequently writes opinion columns, book reviews, and first-person reported pieces on life in prison for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and New York Magazine.
He’s now about six years away from his first appearance before a parole board, but Reginald Dwayne Betts, a poet, lawyer, and champion of Lennon’s, will soon ask New York governor Kathy Hochul to commute his sentence. Last week I contacted Lennon for an interview through his publicist, Megan Posco, who handles his correspondence from the outside. She pastes e-mails into a messaging app from JPay, a prison communications company; he receives and replies to messages on a seven-inch prison-issue tablet. Each JPay message costs twenty cents, on average. When that system is slow, as it was this week, Lennon dictates messages over the phone. This is also how he drafts and edits his pieces, including “Peddling Darkness.”
Nawal Arjini: You’ve described your writing style as “journalism meshed with memoir.” How do you balance these two modes, and is there ever tension between them?
John J. Lennon: The first thing most prisoners, myself included, look to write about is themselves. I suppose it could be called testimonial writing. I taught myself journalism by reverse-engineering magazine articles in my cell at Attica. For years the package room guards had misinterpreted a directive and were refusing books that people mailed or ordered on Amazon; we had to buy books from a particular vendor with the money from our prison accounts. It was a headache. So to avoid the package room, I asked my mother to subscribe to a lot of magazines, including this one, which a guard delivered to my cell with the regular mail. Between that and a creative writing workshop I attended in Attica that was geared toward publishing nonfiction essays, I gravitated to magazine writing.
Journalism allowed me to focus on other people. Yet I am of this world, and I do grapple with the same things as many of my subjects. This is where memoir comes in. As long as I’m being vulnerable and never placing myself above my subject, I think the reader welcomes me in the narrative. I’m a bit more involved in my pieces than the “I” in New Journalism, gonzo journalism, or even personal journalism. Vivian Gornick warns of entering the story too much, to avoid confessional writing, but in some of my stories I feel required to take that risk. Emmanuel Carrère, one of my favorite writers, is unapologetic in the way he “occupies his own position” in his stories.
In much of your work, including this essay, you describe the man you murdered, which is the crime that brought you to prison. Why is this disclosure important to you and your writing?
I haven’t always written about the man I killed in the best light. I used to use his name in my work, but after my essay in The Washington Post Magazine about writing an apology letter to the family, his sister wrote a letter to the Post requesting that I no longer use his name in my writing. So now I don’t. To a reader who doesn’t know all the facts it may seem like I’m intentionally leaving him nameless.
No matter what the piece is about, the reader of a mainstream magazine will want to know how you wound up in prison. I try to write about it declaratively and move on. If I can avoid getting into the details, I will. I opened with my crime in this piece because I felt it was important to tell the truth about it, especially since Edgar Smith lied about his, and I wanted to share how it was exploited on the true crime show.
Your essay and your forthcoming book criticize the true crime genre. Would you elaborate a bit more on your concerns?
When I came across Weinman’s book Scoundrel, I was immersed in the first draft of The Tragedy of True Crime, a book I sold over the phone in my cellblock. It’s a character study of four men convicted of different types of killings, including Robert Chambers, the so-called Preppy Killer of the 1980s. The question I’m trying to answer with each of these men—and myself—centers on our post-crime identities. It will be an inversion of the true crime genre, in which people who killed are boiled down to the parts of themselves that supposedly explain “what made them do it.”
Emmanuel Carrère’s The Adversary is about a man who kills his whole family. Unlike Capote or Mailer or Didion, Carrère enters the narrative in the first person and tells the truth about himself. He doesn’t try to enter the killer’s mind, he explores his own. Carrère says the first few sentences of The Adversary were some of the best he’s ever written: “On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son.”
When I thought about these literary titans writing about murder with the intention of making a work of art, I wondered, who can most honestly tell these stories? Capote? Mailer? Carrère? Weinman? Perhaps more than any of them, I can: I live with my subjects. Still, I wonder, do I have the right to be artful when I write about murder?
You often report on other people in prison. What are the ethical considerations you undertake that a reporter on the outside might not consider or be able to fulfill?
I think it’s a matter of circumstance, rather than ethics, that enables me to come to a story with more of an open mind. Because I live with these men, I’m always doing a sort of character study: I observe their mannerisms, how they talk, their routines, how they treat others. Often this is before I know anything about their crimes. Reporters on the outside, like Weinman, immerse themselves in hours of rabbit-hole Internet research on their subject’s crime before they even attempt to reach out to them. The advantage of the prison journalist is the ability to access the pure story without first coming to know the character through his worst deed.
You’ve written in the past that your writing doesn’t earn you the same kind of understanding from guards and administrators as other kinds of “respectable” work might. Is this still true? Is it true of other incarcerated people?
It’s not about whether administrators respect my work. I came to prison with a ninth-grade education, dumb as they come, as I often say. I learned how to write and built a career from the inside. Of course, some administrators respect this. But more than anything, they see me as a liability. Abbott was right when he wrote that the most dangerous prisoner is the writer. I’m the only prisoner in America whose work regularly appears in the paper of record and mainstream slicks. Administrators don’t say a word to me. Literally not a “hello.” They are generally indifferent toward us all. It’s a shame, really, because they could make better use of the talent in prison.
Sometimes the guards compliment me on my writing. Most are decent people with a tough job: running to break up fights, reviving people who overdose, talking down folks who are experiencing psychosis. As for me, I mentor guys in the cellblock, on the yard, edit their drafts, send their essays to editors. I’ve helped several men get published.
Are there any contemporary prison writers whose work you find particularly interesting?
I read Kenneth Hartman’s work in that Attica writing workshop. His prison sentence was commuted years ago, but there are prison writers today who are breaking out with a similar first-person journalistic voice—guys like Chris Blackwell in Washington and Joe Garcia in California. Recently I helped a mentee of mine named LaMarr Knox, who came to prison twenty-eight years ago as a member of the Crips gang, write a piece for The Marshall Project in which he explains how crocheting helps him experience catharsis. I’m on the advisory board of the Prison Journalism Project, which has become a one-stop shop for readers to find many more incarcerated writers.
To what extent do you have faith that narrative can reduce rates of incarceration?
I’ve written pieces that have led to politicians taking action: I’m currently working on an article for the Times for which I spoke with a lawmaker about a bill he’s sponsoring. When I asked about including specific language that would benefit incarcerated people, he did. So I see the power of journalism. But narrative writing is this whole other thing; you’re not offering a solution or a call to action. You’re hoping to affect the hearts of readers. When I published “This Place Is Crazy,” about a man struggling with schizoaffective disorder in Attica, the act of weaving through it my own story—reflecting back on my years in society with my brother Eugene, who suffered from bipolar disorder—opened my eyes to the power of narrative.
An argument can be made, I suppose, that we are where we are with criminal justice reform because of narrative. “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done”—that’s a criminal justice cliché at this point. It’s a line out of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. Good narrative at least makes the reader think differently about crime and punishment.