The Common Good
February 2009

Hearing Voices

by Richard Vernon | February 2009

Oral history: Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, in their own words.

Although humans have always told and collected stories, it is often the voices of the powerful that make the front pages and history books. But in recent years a number of projects aim to remedy that—StoryCorps, for example, which records the experiences of everyday Americans, and Witness, a nonprofit that trains people to record human rights abuses around the world. Riding this wave is Voice of Witness, a book series that illuminates human rights abuses through oral history—by providing a platform for people who normally go unheard to speak for themselves.

Inspired and encouraged by the late storyteller Studs Terkel, Voice of Witness (VOW) is an offshoot of McSweeney’s, the San Francisco-based publishing house begat by Dave Eggers, who first came to prominence with his groundbreaking autobiography, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Like his subsequent novel, What Is the What, which is based on hours of interviews with Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng, the VOW series relies on thousands of hours of interviews with people from all walks of life. These first-person accounts—put into paperback form—are also buoyed with comprehensive appendices produced from meticulous research.

With the publication last fall of Out of Exile: Narratives from the Abducted and Displaced People of Sudan, the series is now four books strong, with more to come. Under­ground America: Narratives of Undoc­umented Lives, collects the stories of a wide range of voices, each of which belongs to someone who lives and works in the U.S. illegally. Some fled persecution, others came to earn money for their families back home, most, but not all, are in low-wage, physically demanding work, such as cleaning and picking fruit. Diana, who fled a collapsing Peruvian economy to be near her son in the U.S., was told to work late cleaning fingerprints off the slot machines in a Biloxi casino as Hurricane Katrina headed for the Gulf. “All our work turned out to be for nothing,” she says. “The next day there was no casino.”

Many of the interview­ees had been arrested, questioned, or threatened by immigration authorities. Undocumented workers are vulnerable to exploitation, to being bullied and cheated by bosses, and health care is difficult to obtain without false papers. The pain of isolation is a recurring theme throughout the book’s 340 pages, as friends and family are usually far away.

VOICES FROM THE STORM: The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and its Aftermath contains the accounts of 13 New Orleans hurricane survivors. Though its 229 pages can sometimes be an awkward read, overall it’s one of the most thorough accounts of the devastation I’ve encountered. Backed with appendices that range from flood maps to a transcribed Department of Defense briefing that involved President Bush, FEMA, and hurricane center staff, it serves as a valuable historical document. What emerges most clearly, far more than the destructive power of wind, rain, and flood, is the shameful way various authorities passed the buck, procrastinated, prevaricated, and—in full awareness of the consequences—made plans so slipshod that disaster was inevitable. The primary victims were the poor, non-whites, the uneducated, and the physically disadvantaged.

Certain stories stand out: Dan Bright’s horrific experiences as a prisoner left to drown in his cell. Patricia Thompson’s relief at being bussed out of her drowned neighborhood, which soured as she was dumped with her family and hundreds of others on a dry stretch of highway and left for days. When they were finally evacuated by police with drawn weapons, she says, “I look at my 5-year-old granddaughter, Bailie McPherson, and the light from one of the guns was actually on her head. She’s past afraid; she’s terrified and she’s asking her mama, Gaynell, ‘Mama, am I doing it right, am I doing it right?’” Also compelling are the accounts of two priests, Vien Nguyen and Jerome LeDoux, who stayed behind to serve their neighbors and act as mediators, advocates, and peacemakers.

Far more engaging, though more distressing, is Sur­viving Justice: A­mer­­i­ca’s Wrongly Convicted and Ex­on­­e­rated. The 11 men and one wo­man here are innocent people who between them have spent decades in U.S. prisons. Bev­erly Mon­roe served seven years of a 22-year sentence for the brutal murder of her boy­friend, mostly because she didn’t have a lawyer when the investigating of­ficer in­terrogated her. Gary Gau­ger spent three years on death row having been bullied into believing he might have murdered his parents in an alcoholic blackout, despite there being no physical evidence to connect him to their deaths. And so it goes in a litany of investigative ineptitude, apathetic counsel, ignored confessions from the real culprits, and more. “Until stories like these are widely known and from them lessons learned,” Eggers and co-editor Lola Vollen write in the introduction, “it will continue to happen to anyone.”

These dozen witnesses, most of whom are still waiting for an official apology, are given plenty of room to talk, with almost 500 pages of firsthand accounts. More than 70 pages of explanatory notes, an extensive glossary, statistics, and short articles on everything from prosecutorial misconduct to sexual abuse in prison confirm that the justice system is less likely to be just with defendants who are poorly educated, not white, or from low-income backgrounds. It also confirms that God’s grace reaches everywhere and that often all it takes to turn around a case of wrongful conviction is one person willing to listen and believe.

To render such a mountain of data and cacophony of voices readable and engaging is challenging; for the most part, these books succeed admirably. The series does not so much weave a tapestry from different experiences as braid a rope, a lifeline by which we might haul ourselves into a less ignorant, more actively compassionate future. In them, the specific illuminates the general, destroying preconceptions, stereotypes, and cop-out responses along the way. If we learn nothing else from Sunday school, we learn that we are to know and love our neighbors, and if we learn nothing else from projects such as the VOW series, it is who our neighbors are.

Richard Vernon is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York.

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