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For Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, a Case Becomes Personal

As a young law-school intern, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich left the august halls of Harvard for Louisiana, where she was assigned to a firm specializing in defending clients facing the death penalty.  One of the firm’s clients was Ricky Langley, a pedophile, who was charged with murdering a six-year old.  It’s a case that changed Marzano-Lesnevich’s life, altering her career path, consuming much of her young professional life, and prompting her to reexamine her own childhood.  The case, along with her childhood, serve as the raw material for her first book, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir.Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzno-Lesnevich, Mike Yawn, SHSU, LEAP Center

This Q & A was published in the Houston Chronicle on 5-25-2017.

Q: How did you become interested in the Ricky Langley case?

A: I went to law school knowing I wanted to fight the death penalty, and I took an internship my first year of law school with a death penalty law firm in New Orleans.  Shortly after I arrived, I was shown a confession tape of a man, Ricky Langley, who molested and murdered a six-year old boy.  And as I watched the tape, I felt time collapse around me.  I grew up being sexually molested, and this case created a conflict for me.  I didn’t work on the Langley case, but when I returned to law school and even later, the case still haunted me.

Q: Did this case become a test case of your death penalty views?

A: Yes, I believed that if I truly opposed the death penalty, then I should be able to defend child molesters, and it wasn’t that simple.  The case unlocked complex questions: what do we do with the past? How do we construct stories in the legal system?

Q: What answers to these complex questions did you find?

A: People don’t leave their lives behind them when they sit on juries, and I didn’t leave my past behind me when I engaged this case.  I read more than 30,000 pages of court records, and these records shed light on my understanding of the case, but also on my understanding of my past.  The people involved in this case saw it through the lenses of their own past: the jury foreman, the lead defense attorney, the judge, and I believe even the victim’s mother.  We think of the law as a truth-seeking mechanism, but it’s more of a truth-making mechanism.  It makes a story and it calls that story truth.

Q: Does anyone know this case better than you do?Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzno-Lesnevich, Mike Yawn, SHSU, LEAP Center

A: I’ve wondered! I’m sure the lawyers do; they were devoted.  But I do feel as though I am carrying this case with me.

Q: Is it that sense of “carrying the case with you” that prompted you to weave your story with that of the Langley case?

A: The stories, at least in my own mind, were intertwined, and I realized it’s a crucial part of the story.  The people involved in the case looked at the crime through the lens of their own lives, and as I studied the case more, I realized I was doing the same.  I wanted to lay that out there, so that readers can see the lens I examined the case through—and perhaps they will examine the case through the lens of their own lives.

Q: As you mention in the book, looking at the case through the lens of your life involves re-examining unpleasant memories, including that of being molested by your grandfather.

A: Yes, and these experiences made it impossible for me to approach the case as an abstract idea. My ideals—of being against the death penalty, for example—couldn’t serve as a complete barrier against what had been done to me.  Empathizing with Langley meant re-examining the actions of my grandfather, and it wasn’t so simple. It forced me to see a fuller picture of people.

Q: In the book, you suggest that the jury was also able to see a fuller picture, even when the law asked jurors to simply choose a side.

A: Yes, and I thought the jury’s approach was more honest to the actual complexity of the situation.

Q: Do you think it was more just?

A: That’s a complicated word in a case like this, but I’ll say a tentative yes.

Q: Part of seeing a “fuller picture” is looking at Langley’s childhood.

A: The circumstances of his birth are striking.  His mother was in a car crash before he was conceived and he was conceived while she was in that full body cast.  He grew in her womb for months while she was constrained in that body cast, and he was exposed to all sorts of drugs and x-rays in utero.  It was a traumatic way to enter the world.

Q: What is Ricky Langley doing now?

A: He’s serving a life sentence.

Q: Do you have any contact with him?

A: I do not, other than the time I write about in the book.

MY:  What books influenced your writing?

AL: I am sure it is abundantly clear that In Cold Blood was important. For a while I described this book as “In Cold Blood if Capote had been honest about his personal stake in the story.” The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, was an important influence.  A departure from those, but also influential was Full Body Burden, by Kristen Iversen, which is about growing up in the shadows of a nuclear plant. Iversen’s book incorporates her research and Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzno-Lesnevich, Mike Yawn, SHSU, LEAP Centerher life, which was illuminating.

Q: You’ve spent a lot of time on this case and, by extension, this book.  As a first-time author, how are you approaching the book tour?

A: I am excited.  I am looking forward to getting out there and getting people’s reactions.  Writing and research are solitary endeavors, so I am thrilled to bring the book out to the world.

Q: And how does your family feel about you bringing this book—and the personal stories in it—out to the world?

A: It’s complicated.  They’re proud of me, but it’s difficult because it’s a real story, and it’s our family.  I’m fortunate to have their understanding, and I think it took a lot of hard work and thinking through things to get to that point.

Q: Have your experiences with the book changed your view on the death penalty?

A: I am still very opposed to it.  In some ways that is because I want the law to be better than I am, better than my intense emotional reactions.

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

 

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John Sandford: Professional Writer

John Sandford was a journalist for 25 years, he was a Pulitzer finalist in 1980, and he won the Prize in 1986.  But he’s best known for his “Prey” novels, the first of which was released in 1989.  His latest—his 27th—is “Golden Prey,” and it is largely set in Texas.  This article appeared in the April 30 Houston Chronicle.  Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

Mike Yawn: How long did you work as a reporter?John Sandford, Golden Prey, Lucas Davenport, Books, Prey Series, Mike Yawn

John Sandford: About 25 years.  I began at my college newspaper at the University of Iowa, and then was drafted into the Army, where I went to the Army Journalism School.  I intended to become a lawyer, but I liked journalism so much I just went into newspapers.

MY: You won a Pulitzer in 1986.  What did a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist make in the mid-1980s?

JS: A little more than $60,000 per year, or something like that.

MY: How did you transition from journalism to writing novels?

JS: The plan was to do both journalism and novels.  But after a couple of false starts, I got the concept down, and “Rules of Prey” sold well.  Once I strung a few successes together, I switched to novels more or less full time.

MY:  After “Rules of Prey” succeeded, did someone say, “let’s brand the ‘Prey’ title?”

JS: Yes, exactly. Series books were big then: Tom Clancy, Sue Grafton, and others. But, now, 28 years later, we’re running out of adjectives for the titles!

MY: Lucas Davenport is your protagonist, and he’s a millionaire who works in law enforcement. That’s unusual.

JS: Creating a protagonist is something of an exercise in engineering. I wanted a likeable character, one who could be credibly involved in action of the sort I wanted to write about. It doesn’t make sense to have a teacher as your protagonist in a series about crime.  It’s hard to imagine a series in which you have 20 serial killers for them to catch….

MY: …Well, there are some schools…

JS: Well, that’s true, but it’s more credible to have a private investigator, police, or FBI in an environment with lots of crime.  I also wanted a protagonist who could appeal to men and women readers. Davenport is good looking in a rough way; he likes fashion—a tough guy who also enjoys shopping.  He likes women and pursues them, but not indiscriminately.  The women he likes are smart.  Traditionally, protagonists in crime fiction are a bit rumpled, but Davenport has a bit of Hollywood in him.

MY: Tell us about “Golden Prey,” your latest in the Prey series.

JS: Davenport has taken a new job as a Deputy US Marshal, and he winds up in Texas chasing two guys who have committed a horrific crime: they kill drug dealers, steal cash, and kill a little girl who was a potential witness.  And these bad guys are chased by Davenport and by the drug dealers’ accomplices across Texas, culminating in a showdown in Marfa, TX.

MY: A lot of your books have nasty villains, but two of the characters in this one are particularly villainous.

JS: Court and Soto are the kind of villains who are willing to do anything for a buck.  Soto is the kind of asshole that makes life hard for people.  Court is one of those women ruined by life. Her parents were a mess, now she’s a mess, and she takes revenge on life by hurting people because she’s been so badly hurt.

MY: Despite the villains, there is a lot of humor in the novel, including satire on Marfa and modern art.

JS: I liked Marfa, and I like art generally.  I was curious about Marfa and what Donald Judd had done down there.  I am not a fan of Judd’s art, but I thought that if I saw all of his installations at once, I might have a different perspective.  But I didn’t.  I still don’t like Judd’s art; I don’t like Carl Andre’s art. A Whirlpool Washing Machine Factory would have been more interesting.  I’m serious.  The art isn’t good.  In some ways, I think it’s a scam, and I am kind of embarrassed for it and that’s why I was making fun of it.

MY: Yet you liked Marfa.

JS: It’s an interesting town, and it has a couple of nice hotels.  I told my wife that one of the hotels reminds me of New York, because there are all these people dressed in black talking about art.

MY: Texas comes off well in the novel, which isn’t always the case in fiction—or non-fiction.John Sandford, Golden Prey, Lucas Davenport, Books, Prey Series, Mike Yawn

JS: I live in New Mexico now, but if I didn’t, I would probably live in Dallas.  I like the DFW area.  We have friends there.  I like Houston, too.  Books set in Texas are also interesting.  James Lee Burke just wrote a book set in Houston that’s one of the best books he’s ever written.  Texas is an interesting place.  More than any place in the US, it is its own place.

MY: You are a Texas Country music fan and you give Texas singer-songwriter Delbert McClinton a nod in “Golden Prey.”

JS: He’s one of my favorites.  I listen to Texas Country; it’s a mix of story telling and country music.  I like Robert Earl Keen, and there’s another Texas guy, Terry Allen, who is also an artist.  He has a song called, “Bottom of the World,” and it’s a fantastic song.  Steve Earle is up in Nashville, but he’s really a Texas guy. And Townes Van Zandt may have been crazy, but he was a terrific song-writer.  I’m serious about this; I really like Texas music, and it’s one of the reasons I like Texas.

John Sandford, Golden Prey, Lucas Davenport, Books, Prey Series, Mike Yawn

 

 

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More than Inkblots: Damion Searls’ “Inkblots” tells story of Hermann Rorschach

Article published in Houston Chronicle on February 19, 2017.

Almost 100 years after its creation, the Rorschach test remains a widely-used scientific tool in psychology and serves as a cultural catchall in the popular imagination.  Author and translator Damion Searls explores this legacy—and the life of its creator—in his latest book: “The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing,” which goes on sale February 21, 2017.

Hermann Rorschach, Inkblots, Damion Searls, Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle, LEAP CenterMY: Could you describe the role that art played in Rorschach developing the test for which he is famous?

DS: Rorschach’s father was a drawing teacher, and he himself was an amateur artist, making drawings in his diaries, building and painting toys for his children, and an avid photographer. He was a visual person.  Freud was a word person: the talking cure, “Freudian slips” of the tongue, and so on.  But we’re not all word people.  Freud thought the most revealing thing was what we say or don’t say; Rorschach thought that seeing goes deeper than talking.

MY: Rorschach began his career at about the same time abstract art emerged.  Was there a connection between abstract art and Rorschach and his inkblots?

DS: Rorschach wasn’t an artist in that sense, but he was aware of modern trends and mentioned them in his work.  The main link is the new idea that art expresses something inside the artist (this is why Jackson Pollock, for example, is called an “Abstract Expressionist”).  Modern abstract art tried to give visual form to something ineffable inside, and the Rorschach test used visual images to gain access to that ineffable inner self.

MY: Even people familiar with Rorschach’s test may not know that the same ten blots that Rorschach developed 100 years ago are still being used.Hermann Rorschach, Inkblots, Damion Searls, Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle, LEAP Center

DS: Most people think that each psychologist uses their own blots.  In fact, Hermann made ten unique images, and he put them in a specific order to choreograph the test-taking experience.  Those ten are still used today.  The blots are visually interesting, and that’s a big part of what inspired me.  Most smears look like nothing, but Rorschach’s blots really could be two waiters holding pots and bowing to each other or what have you.  They can be perceived differently, but there is a structure to them.  I could go on for hours about what makes them so rich.  Psychology aside, they’re probably the ten most analyzed paintings of the 20th century.

 

MY: In terms of usage, the high point of the tests was in the 1940s and 1950s.  What factors prompted this degree of ubiquity?

DS: The test became popular in the U.S., starting in the late 30s—after Rorschach died—when American culture was very interested in personality.  How could personality be measured in an objective way?  Here was a test that claimed to give access to that.  When WWII erupted, the field of clinical psychology took off and the Rorschach test was the center of the field.  It remained central through the 1960s, when reactions against expertise authority of all kinds brought down both Freud and the Rorschach test… but the test was reinvented in the 1970s as a numerical, objective test, and survives to this day.

MY: Professionals disagree over the validity of the test, and some researchers suggest that the Rorschach test has become a Rorschach test of its own.

DS: Professionals disagree, but much of the criticisms are out of date.  There has been a lot of research on it, and science has validated the current Rorschach test.  What people are rightly skeptical about is the pop-culture version, where the test is a magic mind reader.  The real Rorschach test doesn’t do that.  The Rorschach test is not a Rorschach test.  The cliché is that there are no wrong answers, anything means what you want it to mean.  But the real Rorschach test isn’t like that.  The blots have objective visual qualities; the test has a specific history and use. The facts matter, not just our opinions about them.

MY: Rorschach died at an early age, and not much is known about him.  For people who haven’t read the book, what would you like them to know?

DS: The people who have read the book so far are struck by the same thing I am: that Hermann Rorschach was a really solid, good person. You like spending time reading about him. He was modest, kind, hard-working (and incredibly handsome); a responsible scientist, truly anti-sexist and supportive of women; and a good and sympathetic doctor, loved by his patients and colleagues. He overcame a humble background and the early death of both his parents to create a lasting psychological test, cultural touchstone, and visionary synthesis of art and science. It’s a good story.

 

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

 

 

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