Books that are both riveting and important are all too rare. David R. Dow’s “Things I’ve Learned From Dying” is a powerful, moving cri de coeur that recalls Ron Suskind’s “Hope in the Unseen” and Tracy Kidder’s “Strength in What Remains” in the way it tests — and renews — your faith in humanity by confronting intractable social ills and moral quandaries unflinchingly. But unlike those reportorial feats, this quasi-memoir by a death-penalty lawyer who founded the Texas Innocence Network is intensely personal.
A more accurate title for this nuanced meditation on life-and-death issues might have been “Things I’ve Learned From the Dying” or “Things I’ve Learned About Dying.” But no matter. Dow’s book artfully extracts lessons from a period when three bitter losses converged into a perfect storm of distress for him: the loss of his vigorously outdoorsy 60-year-old father-in-law to melanoma; of his beloved Doberman to sudden liver failure caused by nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs prescribed to treat the dog’s arthritis; and of a legal crusade to save the life of a particularly affecting prisoner on Texas’s death row.
Dow has represented more than 100 death-row inmates in their state and federal appeals, a process he also wrote about in “The Autobiography of an Execution,” a 2010 finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award. He does not say how many — if any — cases he has won, but his legal work, driven by his passionate sense of justice, seems at times an exercise in frustration. With withering clarity, he captures the arcane intricacies and absurdities of Texas law and the pressures of constantly being up against the ultimate deadline — execution dates set before the last appeals have been filed.
Dow is nothing if not opinionated, and his scathing remarks on the Texas criminal justice system are sure to raise hackles: “People who think bogus legal proceedings happen only in places like Iran or China apparently haven’t been to Texas,” he writes angrily. “It hasn’t always been this way. . . . But decent judges have been replaced by bureaucratic hacks who reach results that melt their political butter no matter how much violence they have to inflict on legal principles on the way to getting there.” He adds: “The Great Awakening for law students comes on the day they realize that law, like war, is just an extension of politics, where principle routinely bends before expediency and ideology. . . . There are days I’m embarrasssed to be a member of the profession.”
He also offers these fighting words on the governor-appointed Board of Pardons and Paroles: “In my experience, most of them are about as open-minded as the Taliban. Somebody on death row could morph into Mother Teresa herself, and those seven people would say, Too bad. She shouldn’t have killed anybody. Off with her head.”
Although these diatribes may seem blunt, Dow is a sophisticated, cunningly effective writer. He introduces us to his client Eddie Waterman (also featured in his potent TED Talk) with a chilling description of the murder for which he’s been sentenced to death. “And why exactly do you want to save this man?” asks his father-in-law, angry about his own imminent death sentence from fourth-stage melanoma. “I’m not sure yet,” Dow answers.
His uncertainty is quickly dispelled by evidence that Waterman was an accessory to the cold-blooded crime but was not the murderer. He further humanizes this supposed “poster child” for callous cruelty with a moving portrait of the thoughtful, deeply repentant model prisoner he’s become and heartrending descriptions of a nightmarish childhood in which Waterman’s crack-addicted mother was finally taken away to an asylum after he called the police when she pursued him with a butcher knife when he was 6. When their father’s new wife turned them away, he and his older half-sister were left to their own devices. Gangs eventually stepped in to fill the familial void.
Yet Dow takes pains to make clear that “people who defend murderers aren’t necessarily opposed to killing” — many, for example, condone war. Nor are they against severe punishment. The owner of several guns, Dow lets off steam at a shooting range. He declares surprisingly that if someone harmed his wife and son, he would sneak a gun into court and shoot the offender himself. He agrees with a mugging victim’s assertion that “there’s some bad people who don’t deserve to be walking God’s fine earth,” but clarifies, “I just don’t think the State of Texas should be deciding who those people are.”
On one level, Dow’s book is about tenacious machinations to forestall and ultimately face up to three grim deaths. His father-in-law’s bitter debates about quantity vs. quality of life pertain equally, Dow notes, to his legal clients and his dog. Yet in his experience, death, the ultimate thief — robbing both the dead and their survivors of second chances — is worth resisting. Curiously, of the three strands of his story — medical, legal and canine — the legal is by far the most compelling. Which makes us wonder: Is this because injustice arouses our indignation more than senselessness?
Dow is clearly an intense guy. He’s racked by regret for having pulled what he thinks were the wrong levers in his attempts to save Waterman. On the home front, he feels he’s failed both his son and his dog by not bringing the animal home from the vet to die on her own timing.
“Things I’ve Learned From Dying” is softened by glimpses of Dow’s personal life and by flashes of humor. “You named your kid after a car?” a grocery clerk asks upon hearing that the boy is called Lincoln. Parenthood has humbled Dow by showing him “how easy it is to [mess up] another human being.” He repeatedly contrasts Lincoln’s wise (sometimes unbelievably, even cloyingly wise) composure with “the smell of broken lives” in prison and with Waterman’s abominable childhood, so bad that it “made me dizzy. It wrung the hope right out of me.”
Dow’s extraordinary book is filled with sentences that begin, “One thing I’ve learned . . .” But the most important life lesson he conveys isn’t stated explicitly. Instead, he repeatedly demonstrates that what really separates good people from bad people is the ability to empathize — an ability Dow possesses in spades, and that Waterman develops in prison, tragically too late.
THINGS I’VE LEARNED FROM DYING
A Book About Life
By David R. Dow
Twelve. 273 pp. $25