The big event in criminal-justice literature right now is the impending publication of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. The author, a crusading advocate and leader of Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, already plugged his book on The Daily Show, an early indication of how much attention we can expect from his memoir about his work.
There should be no doubt about the eloquence of his words (check out his TED talk, if you aren’t among the million-plus who have already), or the impact of his work (from the wrongful-conviction case that launched his career to the leading role he played in convincing the Supreme Court to abolish mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles). But wouldn’t the reader be better served by reading an independent appraisal, rather than a memoir?
That’s the question at the heart of The New York Times Book Review’s full-page review today. And the reviewer asking it has the professional standing to do so: Ted Conover, the respected journalist who has made a career of an immersive reporting style married with literary writing. Conover’s work, while often placing himself at the center of the action, is not about self-glorification. It’s not the sort of self-indulgent journalistic memoir that drives me nuts, where the subtitle of far too many magazine articles and books could be “this thing happened to me, and so I want to examine it from the perspective of me, me, me.” Instead, Conover participates in whatever he writes about to understand and explain it better.
Here’s how Conover addresses this key question about Stevenson’s book:
As I read this book I kept thinking of Paul Farmer, the physician who has devoted his life to improving health care for the world’s poor, notably Haitians. The men are roughly contemporaries, both have won MacArthur grants, both have a Christian bent and Harvard connections, Stevenson even quotes Farmer — who, it turns out, sits on the board of the Equal Justice Initiative. Farmer’s commitment to the poor was captured in Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains” (and Kidder’s advance praise adorns the back cover of “Just Mercy”).
A difference, and one that worried me at first, is that Farmer was fortunate enough to have Kidder as his Boswell, relieving him of the awkward task of extolling his own good deeds. Stevenson, writing his own book, walks a tricky line when it comes to showing how good can triumph in the world, without making himself look solely responsible.
Luckily, you don’t have to read too long to start cheering for this man. Against tremendous odds, Stevenson has worked to free scores of people from wrongful or excessive punishment, arguing five times before the Supreme Court. And, as it happens, the book extols not his nobility but that of the cause, and reads like a call to action for all that remains to be done.
Because it’s Ted Conover who’s joined the Stevenson fan club, and because he’s applied his judgment to the memoir-as-bragsheet question, I’m more apt to believe him. Then again, I’m already a Stevenson admirer. He’s one of the sources for my upcoming series on crime victims’ place in the criminal-justice reform movement. Now, at least, I have Ted Conover’s word for it when I wonder if Stevenson should have deferred to someone else to tell his story.