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Dead Man Walking

Sister Helen Prejean

Chapter 1

Summary Chapter 1

Prejean describes the history of the electric chair, beginning with its first brutal use in 1890. She includes a doctor’s report that says electric chair victims suffer horribly before dying. Patrick’s victims haunt Prejean, and she feels guilty about befriending their killer. If someone were to kill her own family, she does not know how she would feel, but she is sure she would not want her death avenged by execution. She believes we cannot trust governments to decide who should live and die; she can’t believe in a God who “invests human representatives with such power to torture and kill.”

Patrick’s loneliness and gratitude touch Prejean, and she decides she should visit him.

Analysis

Sister Helen Prejean’s journey from a life of quiet religious contemplation to one of social activism is motivated by a series of revelations. Prejean illuminates the progression of life-changing decisions that brought her to Patrick Sonnier. She opens her story with a single question and answer, condensed into one sentence: Chava Colon asks her to become a pen-pal to a death-row inmate, and her response is an almost off-handed “sure.” By opening her narrative this way, Prejean highlights how easily the capricious decisions we make can change our lives forever. The simple question and the casual answer lead to a radical transformation in Prejean’s life.

The transformation that begins with Prejean’s decision to correspond with Patrick is just one part of a larger personal and religious transformation that has brought Prejean from a comfortable middle class childhood to a vocation as a nun and a life spent in a poor, violent public housing project in New Orleans. Prejean’s decision to work with Patrick is one step in a series of life-altering moments.

Prejean’s relationship with Patrick and her life in the St. Thomas housing project are intimately connected to her faith. Her decision to fight for social justice is a part of both her new understanding of Catholicism and the changing direction of the Catholic Church. For Prejean, it is no longer enough to believe in God. Faith is not passive, but active, and in order for her to live up to her faith and ideals, she must work and fight for justice. It is a radical and demanding idea, one that calls upon the individual to shoulder responsibility for society’s ills. Prejean’s religious beliefs lie at the center of her narrative, and it is her personal reflections on the challenges, disappointments, guilt, and confusion she faces that make her story so uniquely moving and effective.

In addition to describing her relationship with Patrick, Prejean describes the larger social context of poverty and inequality. The execution of Patrick Sonnier is just one element of the general social injustice that includes police brutality, the abject poverty of the St. Thomas housing projects, the cruel indifference of politicians, and the unfair distribution of government resources. The facts and figures interspersed throughout the narrative are not merely disturbing, but damning. Prejean calls into question the basic fairness of the American judicial system and the social and political context that support it. The state, in its decision to execute Patrick, claims to seek justice, but ours is not a just world.