John J. Lennon’s essay “The Murderer’s Mother” appears in our 2016 summer issue. In this interview, Lennon, who is incarcerated at Attica for a drug-related murder, tells us more about his background, how he came to writing, and what it’s like to be a journalist behind bars.
The Hedgehog Review (THR): What was life like growing up?
John J. Lennon (JJL): I grew up poor, with a single mother, in a Brooklyn housing project. But I had more opportunities than most kids in the projects because my mother made money running hot dog stands. She was able to send me away to boarding school from fifth to eighth grade. It was mostly upper class, privileged kids, about thirty of us, living in a mansion on the Hudson River. In the seventh grade, I won second prize in an essay-writing contest. They gave me a $75 savings bond. (Two years later, I would swipe it from my mom’s drawer, cash it at a discount, and buy drugs.) Things got bad in my adolescent years. I’d learned my real father committed suicide and then we moved to Hell’s Kitchen. Mom enrolled me in public school, and all of a sudden, life was much less sheltered. At the time, the reputation of a murderous Irish mob called the Westies—most of whom were sent away to federal prison in the 1980s—seemed to rule the neighborhood.
Just to give you a flavor of the time, here’s a short anecdote: It was 1991 when I first met Danny, a then-thirty-something Westie who had somehow managed to avoid indictment. My friend Terrence and I were holding down our street corner. Full of swagger with dark hair and blue eyes, Danny winked at me when he walked by, “What’s up, kid?” “You know,” Terrence told me after he passed by, “Danny killed a guy before.” When I heard that, it wasn’t just fear I felt, but admiration, too. It was then that I began to see murder more as a revered deed among gangsters than as the mortal sin it was among civilians.
THR: Tell us more about the crime that sent you to prison.
JJL: Alex, the man I killed, was, like me, in the drug game. At the outset, the murder was about money, drugs, and respect. As sick as it sounds, it was also about this need for me to complete my image. (I think many murders committed within gangster culture have a lot to do with broken boys and young men who want to earn status in a subculture that they otherwise cannot earn in mainstream culture.) I shot Alex several times with an AR-15 while he sat in a car, then dumped his body off a pier. It was a terrible crime, for which I’m deeply sorry. This all happened in December 2001.
THR: What happened after that?
JJL: My last day of freedom was January 24, 2002. I was arrested on warrants for two open cases—possession of a gun and a DWI—on which I’d jumped bail. I was held on Rikers Island, which is where most New York City jails operate. Criminal defendants who can’t post bail (or don’t have it) are held on Rikers until their cases are resolved by a jury trial or a guilty plea. (Once convicted and sentenced, prisoners are processed off Rikers and transported upstate into the state corrections prison system, eventually landing in one of New York’s many medium- or maximum-security prisons.)
While I was being held at Rikers Island, I was re-arrested for an ongoing investigation for selling drugs to an undercover detective. Then, Alex’s body washed up on a Brooklyn beach. An aggressive murder investigation began and I was soon re-arrested once again. I pled out to the other cases and those sentences ran concurrently, essentially merging, with three to six years for the drug-selling case. In July 2004, after my second jury trial—the first ended in a hung jury—I was found guilty of the murder and then sentenced to twenty-five years to life, which the judge ran consecutively to my other sentence. In total, I’m serving twenty-eight years to life. Because violent offenders can’t earn good time in New York, I’ll see the parole board when I’m fifty-two. I was twenty-four when I came in.
THR: You’ve described yourself in your early months in prison as someone with a ninth-grade education and “not an ounce of character.” In your view, what constitutes character in prison? Can a person acquire character? Have you?
JJL: I think good character is having a personality with grace and poise. And I’ve seen men in prison with it, mostly spiritual or religious guys. For a long time, the only parts of me that stood out were my character defects—I was selfish, self-centered, self-seeking, full of fear, egoism, and despair. When I got into recovery, I learned that to get good character, I had to act as if I were actually selfless, had faith, humility, and hope. Eventually, it’s supposed to seem less like an act and come more naturally. Admittedly, I don’t know if that transition has happened for me yet. I’m a work in progress.
THR: What’s it like to be a white man with certain privileges in a prison where most of the population is Latino or black? How do you prove your cred?
JJL: It's true that whites are a minority in New York prisons, and at times, it can be harder for them in prison. I think my cred, though, comes from my individual swagger. I mean, I grew up around blacks and Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. I’ve served time as a juvenile, a year on Rikers as an adolescent (now that was a tough time for me), and have basically been in the system for most of my life. I’m well known. I’m almost forty now, and I’d like to think my prison cred is already established, not something I have to prove or maintain. Today, I’m working on my cred as a writer and journalist.
I do believe that I have white privilege, even though I’m in prison. To acknowledge it simply means I’m informed—and you don’t have to be a liberal or intellectual to see that privilege exists. Read stuff like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “A Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic—it’s eye-opening. And if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I went out looking for this life. By contrast, a lot of my black and brown prisonmates didn’t have the opportunities that I had. So I have a lot of shame. I think the judge who presided over my trials and watched me try (literally) to get away with murder, thanks to the tough lawyer my mom hired, also recognized how I’d squandered my privilege—and that’s probably why she lambasted me, running my sentences consecutively. I suppose I understand her reasons today, but it still hurts to think that she apparently had no hope that I could turn around my life.
THR: What’s a typical day at Attica like for you? What sort of complications attend even the simplest thing, like trying to tell if someone is worth the risk of friendship?
JJL: Currently, I’m in a relatively cushy cellblock. The guards are decent. My job duty is to scrub the shower room. I go to the yard, hit the weights, shower, then it’s me time. My cell is my sanctuary. I live in my head and on the page.
Friends? Well, I’m selective about whom I embrace. Ideally, we all want friends who encourage, support, and admire us and we them—but that’s hard to find in prison. I mean, I do want to be of service to my peers, and in the past, I’ve mentored guys. But to be a mentee, you have to realize whom you are around and be willing to ask for help. The thing is, we’re all at different places on our journeys. (Attica, in particular, isn’t a progressive prison in which programs thrive and prisoners prosper.) Back in 2005, I was in Clinton Dannemora, another notorious joint without much going on, and David Gilbert (one of the founders of the Weather Underground organization) locked a few cells down from me. A radical, a terrorist—call him what you want. I lived with the guy and he was selfless and brilliant, helping others study for the GED exam. I kick myself for not asking for his help, but I was lost then. I just wasn’t ready.
So, on one hand, there is plenty of solitude if you want to trust few people and keep to yourself in prison. On the other hand, if someone asks for help, it’s worth the risk to open the door. I have a friend here who writes comedy sketches, certainly a tough genre in which to get some traction, especially from prison. He tells me I’ve inspired him to grind away and send his work out into the world.
THR: What was the turning point for you in prison?
JJL: In 2008 in another max prison, I got a punctured lung after being stabbed six times with an icepick while out in the yard. When you get stabbed in prison, everyone knows it’s going down but you. A guy I knew from Brooklyn did it. He greeted me, embraced me, then stabbed me. It was payback for Alex. So here I am, stumbling around the prison yard, full of holes, the guards oblivious, and everyone avoiding me, wanting nothing to do with a dying man. It hurts when I breathe and I’m scared and I’m thinking “I’m gonna die in this stinkin’, fuckin’ prison yard and my life will have meant nothing.…” When I realized that I wasn’t going to die, I decided I was going to make my life matter.
THR: Not long after that you attended your first creative writing workshop. What was it about the professors and the lectures that grabbed your attention? Why do you think you were more receptive in prison than you had been in public school?
JJL: Before we learned anything about writing, the professors reacquainted us with the basics. Just learning American history, particularly Reconstruction, with Professor Maxfield was a visceral experience. It’s difficult to comprehend how the progress made in rights for blacks around this time—the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments, the Freedmen’s Bureau—essentially vanished until the Civil Rights era nearly a century later. But imagine learning about sharecropping, lynchings, and poll taxes in an Attica classroom surrounded by black and brown faces. Professor Maxfield would go on and on, describing the ugly truth with dramatic inflections, and I’d be awkwardly scratching my neck, looking at the floor, shamefaced.
On the outside, there are a host of societal and individual issues that prevented me and many of my peers from pursuing education along traditional lines. We’re more apt to learn on the inside because we have lots of time for reflection and few distractions—no girls, no phones, no Internet. Prison can be a crossroads for many—and when an opportunity to educate ourselves comes along, we’re all in.
Recently, I came across a line from Nicholas Kristof [from A Path Appears, written with Sheryl WuDunn] that has really stuck with me: “Talent is universal but opportunity is not.” Ever since winning that essay contest in the seventh grade, I’d wanted to be a writer. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired and, after the stabbing, I thought enough is enough. The creative writing workshop opportunity showed up and I jumped at it.
Prisoners can bring extraordinary life to a classroom—we hurt, we rage, we love, we endure, we intuit. Which is why professors love teaching us. One of my favorite success stories involves my friend Carlos, who started college with me in the 2010 Attica program and then transferred to Eastern Correctional Facility [in Napanoch, NY] in 2012. He landed a spot in Bard College and then led the Bard prison debate team to beat the Harvard debate team last year. I’m so proud of him!
THR: Federal funding for prison education programs has slowed to a trickle, but there are numerous private organizations bringing higher education to prisoners. Tell us about some of these programs with which you are familiar.
JJL: Because Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill made prisoners ineligible for Pell Grants, the 300-odd college programs that operated in prisons nationwide back then evaporated. In the late nineties, the Sunshine Lady Foundation, started by Warren Buffet’s sister Doris, began supporting Hudson Link for Higher Education, an organization that funds and coordinates college programs in several New York prisons. The Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), started by Bard College graduate Max Kenner in 1999, offers prisoners a chance to earn a Bard College degree and is today the largest program of its kind in the US. In 2010, Ms. Buffet’s foundation provided a grant for a college program at Attica with courses administered by Genesee Community College. I was one of twenty-three who were in the first cycle, and about nine of my classmates and I graduated last year with associate degrees.
At the federal level, more funding is finally happening as well. First, the Obama administration approved a five-year pilot program for some prisoners to receive access to Pell Grants [“Second Chance Pell”]. In New York, another $7.5 million will be allocated to prison college programs by way of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. However, in order to reverse fully the Pell Grants ban, Representative Donna Edward (D-MD), needs help to pass the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, H.R. 2521, currently languishing in committee. My supporters have sent me Hillary Clinton’s criminal justice plan but there is no mention of this bill. To be fair, the REAL Act is a specific solution to the problematic measure that was a part of her husband’s crime bill—one which, in my opinion, has hindered rehabilitation in American prisons for years.
THR: Tell us about some of the literature that you have read and its influence on you as a writer. Any genre that you avoid reading?
JJL: Back in 2006, I was in a new solitary confinement prison where the cells all had double bunks. I got lucky with this one bunky who had a bit of college and was somewhat well read. I told him that I wanted to be a writer. So he asked, “What have you read?” I rang off a few John Grisham titles. He was unimpressed and made a list of books which I immediately sent to my mom. A week or so later, the slot of our cell door opened and books spilled all over the floor: Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Orwell’s 1984, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and more. The one that moved me the most was Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, a novel about the horrors of war.
In 2010, I got into a creative writing workshop in Attica that was voluntarily hosted by an English professor. We focused mostly on nonfiction from Best American Essays and The Art of the Personal Essay, an anthology with an excellent introduction by editor Phillip Lopate discussing the essay craft. We unpacked essays from Montaigne to E.B. White (the latter’s Elements of Style is always within arm’s reach in my cell).
Sexy names aside, the kind of writing that moves me the most is memoir or personal essay combined with reportage, work that spins a nice yarn in which the writer weaves in personal experience through a larger social justice issue, demonstrating ethos, evoking pathos, and manifesting logos. Balancing prose with advocacy is controversial, but when it’s done well, there’s nothing like it. Bryan Stevenson nails this in his book Just Mercy. When reading it in Attica, I had to put it down many times, get up, pace, stop, and sometimes just have a good cry. This sort of rallying-cry writing moves me because it inspires me to write similar pieces, which I hope will in turn move others.
I’m also moved by long-form investigative journalism that focuses on important issues—work by Jennifer Gonnerman [reports on juveniles in the justice system], Ken Armstrong [a staff writer at the Marshall Project], Michael Schwirtz, and Tom Robbins [Schwirtz and Robbins along with Michael Winerip were 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalists for their New York Times report on brutality in New York prisons], to name a few. What do I seldom read? Poetry; much of it is just too abstract for my taste. I’m around so much realness that I strive to connect the dots and craft tales with utterly readable prose—anyone who can do that well, it is sublime, really an art form.
THR: You’ve been published in the New York Times and The Atlantic, among others. Can you tell us how you work within the limitations of your circumstances?
JJL: The piece in The Atlantic, “A Convicted Murderer’s Case for Gun Control,” was a blind submission that I mailed with a simple cover letter in which I mentioned that I was in a creative writing workshop in Attica. I got lucky. The right editor read the piece and saw my vision. Before I sent it, I ran a lot of drafts through my clunky word processor and showed them to a couple of professors. The essay was about to be workshopped in my creative writing class when I heard back from The Atlantic. My professors were blown away. I was excited, too, I have to admit.
But it was a piece about how I committed murder with a straw-purchased gun—I used that experience to speak with authority on an issue. I like to think it was well written but the subject was a rather awkward one to be proud of. I wasn’t this great writer with an MFA or a degree from the Columbia School of Journalism making the obligatory debut in an important magazine. I was a convicted murderer in Attica, granted, one with some creativity. But I was a new voice in an old debate, and I knew my voice would raise the eyebrows of some editors. It’s why I doubled down and later published gun-control pieces in the New York Times and Quartz Magazine.
To get real cred, though, I knew I had to branch out. I soon realized that my perceived disadvantages as a writer—being in prison, no computer, no Internet, no email—were overshadowed by my advantages—a lot of free time, gritty life experience, and a chance to observe on the ground an endless stream of compelling stories. This gave me a real edge over other journalists covering mass incarceration. I tried my hand at op-eds (Albany Times Union) and reportage (“Dying in Attica” for the Marshall Project). In a New York Times Sunday Review op-ed, I addressed my idea of using cell televisions to broadcast MOOCs, an idea I actually pitched to the Attica superintendent with other prisoners on our TV committee. (After the superintendent blew me off, I left the meeting tight-jawed, feeling marginalized, thinking, “Oh yeah, I’m going to publish an op-ed in the Times about this”—and that’s exactly what I did.)
The logistics can be challenging when it comes to working with editors, because I’m often in need of an intermediary to send and field emails, type up documents, and pitch pieces. It’s quite a scene sometimes, between my supportive mom (who has Parkinson’s), my passionate wife (with a fiery attitude), and my young friend in Boston (we bonded after he responded to one of my pieces), but it all seems to work. As for editors, I see them as powerful people who say what’s hot and what’s not. They are the gatekeepers. When they let me into their world, paradoxically, they let me out of mine. For them to publish me or even pick up the phone when I call is humbling. I am grateful that they nurture me as a writer and a human being.
THR: How has your development as a writer influenced your reflections on why you are behind bars. You mentioned that, in addition to learning about literature, history, and sociology, you have discovered the quality of empathy.
JJL: As a prisoner, my reflections are colored by the things I see from the insider’s lens through which I view the world. As a writer and journalist, though, I suppose I try to understand crime and incarceration in the context of story. In Attica, I observe a lot, ask questions, and try to connect the dots to see if I can relate a specific incident to a broader issue: guns, prison education, mental health, aging in prison, black and blue strife, the presidential election, the LGBT cause, etc.
I also try to be compassionate and open-minded to prevent myself from being boxed in by the norms of prison counterculture mentality. For instance, after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando [June 12, 2016], I interviewed a couple of gay prisoners in the yard. (I needed some material for a story and didn’t care what the rest of the yard thought of me for talking to them. Gays in prison are for the most part ostracized and ridiculed.) The two men I spoke to had some horrible tales. I discovered that my work as a journalist has led me to empathy, or at least sympathy.
I’m sure that learning about history and literature helped me become more empathetic. To be fair, as much as I write about attending college classes in prison, I haven’t spent all that much time in a classroom. I’m essentially an autodidact, an outlier who’s spent hours writing, rewriting, and reading the best writing I can get my hands on. But living sober and being emotionally and spiritually balanced is my priority—that, more than anything else, has led me to empathy.
THR: One of the issues that you’ve begun writing about is the mentally ill in prison. Can you say a little about what you’ve discovered?
JJL: Prisons are the new mental-health asylums in America. Recently, I finished my first feature on this topic. It’s taken a year to write—conducting interviews, doing research, digging, writing, rewriting. I take the reader through a year in the life of Joe, a fellow Attica inmate serving time for trying to hold up a smoke shop with a BB-gun. Because almost the only place where mentally ill prisoners can find treatment nowadays is a maximum-security prison, vulnerable guys like Joe are sent to Attica even for short stints. If Joe had been mentally sound, he would have served his sentence in a medium-security prison surrounded by grass fields. At the time I interviewed him, he was roaming Attica’s A Block yard in a medicated fog collecting cigarette butts. His favorite beat was the same spot where a gang member had been murdered some weeks before. His story is one I think more people need to know.
THR: What inspired you to write “The Murderer’s Mother”?
JJL: A while back, I received some feedback from an editor who had rejected a reportage piece that I submitted. This editor told me that, as a reader, he wanted to know more about the prisoner-turned-journalist writing the piece, “Who is this guy, what’s his story?” So I set out to write a short memoir piece. But memoir writing is dangerous, especially for a guy like me. In a good memoir, the storyteller has to have a potent voice that connects with the reader. Telling the tale in the voice of the murderer’s mother—now that might work, I thought. I knew my mother’s plight well enough since I’d been hearing about for years!
So I related her story in the second person, also a risky move. I allow mom to tell her story at a distance and then jump out of that voice before the reader gets too annoyed. Even after I adopt the first-person voice, I’m keeping the story focused on how my mother is affected by the murder I committed. This tricky perspective shift keeps circling back to a very heavy topic. I feared writing this essay—feared that the reader wouldn’t want to root for me in the end. If I’d stretched it into a longer piece, I worried that I’d be found out. The story as it is, I think, carries the tension of paradox and conflict. I’ve been told it reads as a reckoning.
THR: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JJL: In the end, I guess I’d like readers on the outside to know that I’ll always have to grapple with the shameful part of me that once aspired to murder and the prideful part of me that now aspires to be a writer. As much as I want to forgive myself and make those things separate parts of myself—the old me and the new me—I don’t know if I can do that all on my own. I believe that society has a role to play as well.