We read the papers, we watched the news, we followed the trial, we waited like every other American for the jury to decide Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s penalty. The first text notification, from the Times, said a verdict had come, but not what it was. We filled the time. We looked at pictures of the bombing victims, their confidence, their resignation, their gleaming legs. Aftermath, we saw, is not just a word, “not even past,” as Faulkner says. Then we went back to opening envelopes with submissions to the journal we publish, which is all creative writing under justice’s wide banner.
As often happens, one of the submissions was from an inmate, today an inmate who has been on death row since his late teens. We thought of Tsarnaev. We saw his blank stare, his abrasive finger, his resigned pacing around and around his cell. That’s all we could know of him. Reports about the trial made the same observation; this young man sat silent, not present, seeming bored by the ninety-two government witnesses and even the four in his defense. By the end of the trial, we knew the details of that Patriot’s Day, but very little about the main character. Tsarnaev was absent from his own story.
We went back to the narrative on our desk. In four single-spaced pages, highlighting the physical degradation and the sludge-slowness of time, this incarcerated writer raised a literary middle finger to the camera. We recognized the rancor and cynicism and the rage against the life-denying effort of the bars, of the system. We don’t know the details of his case, we don’t know the horror of his crimes, but we slid down his words into his cell, and the face we saw was not deadpan-unreadable but human.
We tell our creative writing students that character-driven stories sink their hooks into a reader. Plot, yes, but not at the expense of a person. By lifting the veil, by showing heart and head and guts, even the most despicable characters get their moments. Obviously story-telling is not a trial, but forsaking that first-person point of view may be a factor in a jury’s decision to opt for death. The plotline is there, the character less so.
As in most murder trials, this defendant did not take the stand. Usually it’s a damage-control choice by his lawyers. This time, the decision to keep the character off the page backfired. Silent Tsarnaev dehumanized himself. And as we learned again on Friday afternoon, it’s much easier to dole out a death penalty when the person is not there, even in liberal Massachusetts.