THE UNINNOCENT: Notes on Violence and Mercy

By Katharine Blake. FSG Originals. 209 pp. $17.

Katharine Blake had recently finished her first year of law school at Stanford University when her cousin, a 16-year-old living in Louisiana, walked out of his home on a Thursday morning, stood next to a nearby bike path at the edge of a wooded area and viciously attacked a little boy, age 9, who happened to ride by. The two had never met before. The younger child struggled — defensive wounds were later identified on his body — but Blake’s cousin slashed the boy’s throat with a box cutter. The victim’s mother, a physician who had been riding a short distance behind, soon came upon the scene and tried, too late, to stop her son’s bleeding. The assailant made his way through the woods, encountered some men working on a house and told them to call 911 because he’d just stabbed someone. Why?, they asked. Because he was the first one there, he answered.

“The problem when life gets broken into before and after is that the edges of the two pieces are jagged and don’t fit back together,” Blake writes in “The Uninnocent,” a poignant yet awkward blend of memoir and reflections on mercy, justice and heartbreak, all prompted by this one unfathomable act. The 2010 murder, for which Blake’s cousin received a life sentence without the possibility of parole, became a before-and-after moment for the author, launching her on a quest to understand what had happened and why, how the legal system had responded, and what justice, if possible, could look like. She knows she cannot put the pieces of these broken lives back together; instead, in this book, she runs her fingers gently over the shards.

At first, Blake sought to remain apart from it all. Her relatives pitched in for the legal defense, but Blake wasn’t sure she wanted to help, wasn’t sure her cousin even deserved help. But she contributed anyway, hoping the act would insulate her. “I thought that money might absolve me from further obligation,” Blake writes. “I resolved to move on, untroubled.” But she didn’t, or couldn’t.

Blake began digging into her notes from her criminal-law class, then signed up for a course on mental health law, using school as a way to consider this crime. Because murder requires both actus reus (a guilty act) and mens rea (a guilty mind), she explains, Blake hoped her cousin would be diagnosed with a mental illness, which could at least begin to provide an explanation. He suffered a “psychotic break,” family members told themselves, and they speculated that he had schizophrenia. He later told doctors of the deep self-loathing and loneliness that led him to identify with a TV show serial killer who felt better after his crimes; he thought that he, too, would find relief in taking a life. But no formal diagnosis was forthcoming, and eventually, he gave up his insanity defense and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

Blake imagined the “alluvial grief” of the dead boy’s family, but doing so made her feel like a traitor to her side. She experienced hallucinations — a park drenched in blood, a baby in a stroller with its throat bitten by a dog — and she began to pray, a steady refrain, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Blake wonders if her cousin was truly evil or if he was sick. She runs through recent Supreme Court cases involving sentencing for people who committed crimes while minors, but she increasingly comes to find the legal world “dissonant” with the imperatives of justice, even “irredeemable.” Drawing inspiration from Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 book, “Just Mercy,” Blake concludes that no one truly deserves mercy — and that that is the point of mercy.

“When Stevenson writes that mercy belongs to the undeserving, he’s dropping us into the dark space between justice and fairness,” Blake notes. She wallows in that space and seeks meaning in it.

What she ultimately finds, though, is not quite clear. It is only slightly unfair to suggest that book subtitles beginning with “A Meditation on . . .” or “Reflections on . . .” or “Notes on . . .” or “Postcards From . . .” often signal scattered ideas ahead, a collection of disparate insights and feelings more than fully formed conclusions. At times, Blake’s “The Uninnocent: Notes on Violence and Mercy” reads like an author’s rough draft for a book project rather than a finished work. When she realized that “heartbreak” would be a concept she wished to explore, she wrote the word in all caps at the top of a Word document, and then, over the course of “weeks and months and years,” copied sentences from books, plays, poems, scientific studies and conversations dealing with heartbreak. Too many of them make cameos throughout the book — C.S. Lewis shows up over here, Frida Kahlo over there, Oscar Wilde pops up near the end — and the random quality seeps into the larger work.

The writing can be stilted, starting with the first line: “What Didion wrote about San Francisco but also America more broadly was still true: the center was not holding.” (Not an encouraging start.) Blake, now an adjunct professor at Vermont Law School, is also fond of using metaphors and, then, of pointing out to readers that she is writing metaphorically. “It felt good to have a word,” she writes when thinking about heartbreak. “I don’t mean that I thought my heart was broken . . . rather, I mean it’s what I’d been seeing when I looked out my window. My literal window, but also the broader metaphorical one that defines any worldview.” And when she lays out broad themes and conclusions, they can read as vague and generic. “Through writing,” she explains, “I see how this is a story about losing, finding, losing again, and searching for certainty.” Well, yes, but so is a story about my car keys.

Part of the issue is the author’s distance from her cousin. They were not close before the tragedy, and afterward, her approach to him is slow and tenuous. She does not write to him at first but sends him books — Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Le Carre — to help him pass the time. “Sending books also represented the beginning of a crossing over,” Blake writes. “I was moving into a territory that would thereafter be a part of my world.” Much of the book remains in Blake’s world, less about the consequences of her cousin’s actions than about whatever crosses through the author’s life and mind. She discusses her insights on the law, her time as a volunteer writing instructor in prisons, her relationship to her future husband, the birth of her child and her parents’ struggles to leave behind troubled childhoods. “Inheritance is a force that overwhelms intention,” Blake writes, deftly capturing her mother’s fears and father’s rages. Indeed, some of the book’s sharpest moments are far removed from the story that supposedly brought us here.

Eventually, after exchanging letters and speaking by phone, Blake visits her cousin at Angola, the notorious maximum-security penitentiary in Louisiana. The book builds up much anticipation for the encounter as the author penetrates deeper into the facility, but readers learn little from it. The two talked books and ate french fries. “When I said goodbye and walked down the long, dark hallway away from him, his ankles in chains, and felt the tears on my cheeks,” Blake writes, “I realized that what I wanted most of all was for him to walk out.” Over the years, he had earned his GED, taught Bible study and read hundreds of books. He was, she writes, “the opposite of irreparable,” a possibility that “reduces life sentences for children to a profound immorality.” Here her cousin becomes a vessel for Blake’s positions on juvenile justice, and for her belief in “Jesus’s instruction to free the prisoners, which I now understand in both its literal and metaphorical senses. . . . No matter what he said, [Jesus] was always speaking about love — love and mercy.”

In her eviscerating 2016 memoir, “A Mother’s Reckoning,” about the aftermath of the Columbine massacre perpetrated by her son Dylan, Sue Klebold reveals how she thought she knew her son so well, and loved him so deeply, and yet her knowledge and love were never enough. “The Uninnocent,” by contrast, is family tragedy and trauma at a remove. It is no less real for its distance — but just far enough away that the jagged pieces do not cut too deep.

Carlos Lozada is the Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” Follow him on Twitter and read his latest book reviews, including: