Forgiving the Dead Man Walking

I haven’t seen “Dead Man Walking”, the opera or the film. I haven’t read the book either.

I’ve read a less well-known book, “Forgiving the Dead Man Walking: Only one woman can tell the entire story”, by Debbie Morris. She is the surviving victim of Robert Lee Willie, the rapist and murderer whose conviction put him on death row; Dead Man Walking is a story of his spiritual redemption, told by Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who became his spiritual guide. By contrast, “Forgiving the Dead Man Walking” is the story of the victim, in the victim’s words.

Left: Debbie Morrris’ biography “Forgiving the Dead Man Walking”; Right: Sister Helen Prejean’s biographic novel “Dead Man Walking”.

Debbie Cuevas, as she was then, was kidnapped, repeatedly raped, and almost murdered. She managed, with incredible insight and unimaginable strength of will, to forge some sort of connection with her rapists so that she could persuade them to release her.  She knew they were intending to kill her because they told her, almost in passing, about the previous girl they had raped and brutally killed, Faith Hathaway. Cuevas’s testimony was then crucial in securing their convictions for Faith Hathaway’s murder.

Debbie Cuevas was 16 years old.

In the current #MeToo era, I hope that if we are going to hear a story told by a nun working with a rapist and murderer about his spiritual journey before execution, we will think it important to hear his victim’s story, told in her own words. In her book, Cuevas writes of her incredulous horror at discovering “That nun wrote a book”. She describes her further horror when the book is made into a film, with much more prominence than the book had, and the trauma of the publicity as she has to relive her ordeal without even being placed in the story.

In the end, she makes peace with Sister Helen Prejean. She writes that Sister Helen omitted her out of concern and love, love that she wholeheartedly feels when they meet.

“Forgiving the Dead Man Walking” is in a sense also redemption arc, but importantly that of the victim not the criminal. It is a remarkably generous and uplifting book given its unthinkable subject matter. Cuevas finds how she can forgive Robert Willie. Taking God as her guide, she concludes that forgiveness is more powerful than justice, and forgiveness is the powerful path she manages to choose. 

I believe that if we are to make any progress in the #MeToo era we need fewer black-and-white arguments and more understanding of nuanced points of view. So I am not saying that Robert Willie’s story should not be told, or that his redemption arc has nothing to teach us. But I am urging you to remember the victim’s story, and all victims’ stories, and think about how you would feel if you were kidnapped and raped and then someone wrote a book, film and opera about your rapist.

I encourage you to read “Forgiving the Dead Man Walking” before going to see the opera, so that we don’t erase the story of Debbie Cuevas.

Eugenia Cheng is a mathematician, pianist and opera lover. She is Scientist in Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the author of several popular math books, the most recent of which, “The Art of Logic in an Illogical World” uses mathematical thinking to clarify social and political arguments. Her next book “x + y: A mathematician’s manifesto for re-thinking gender” will be published in 2020. She also writes the Everyday Math column for the Wall Street Journal, and runs the Liederstube: An Intimate Oasis for Art Song, in the Fine Arts Building. Her favorite seat at the Lyric is in the front row, at the very end, audience left.