|The soul, Foucault says, is born out of methods of punishment. In Dead
Man Walking, it is reached, and brought to articulation, through the companionship of
those who love without judgment.
I imagine this essay as a conversation between two beloved colleagues to
whom it is dedicated. Each of them provided me with one of its originating points: Linda
Susan Beard insisted that I see Dead Man Walking with her, and Chris Castiglia
first gave me Discipline and Punish to read (and helped me, since, to understand
it!). I am grateful to them both, and to my friend Sharon Lamb, whose work I quote
frequently and approvingly below.
None of us who has read the opening pages of Discipline and Punish is likely to
forget Foucault's founding scene: the excruciatingly explicit account of the torture and
death of Damiens the regicide in Paris in 1757. Foucault uses the graphic torture of
Damiens as the point of contrast, and of departure, for a sequenced demonstration of the
"disappearance of torture as a public spectacle," the ensuing
"disappearance of the body as a target of repression" (7), and the correlative
substitution of the soul as the ultimate object of punishment (16). Most strikingly,
Foucault claims that the soul is produced - actually brought into existence - by the
excess of power the government exerts over the body:
... the surplus power exercised on the subjected body of the condemned
man [gives] rise to ... the "non-corporal," a "soul" ... the soul ...
exists, it has a reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within the body by the
functioning of a power that is exercised on those punished . ... [T]his soul ... is born
... out of methods of punishment, supervision and constraint. This real, non-corporal soul
... is the element in which are articulated the effects of a certain type of power. (29)
Foucault assumes that the soul does not exist a priori, but contends
here that the excessive use of force on the body displaces all human qualities into an
imagined realm, a nonbody he terms the soul, which, in turn, is open to further discipline
by established religion.
I want to argue, however, that Foucault's description of the evolution of a "whole
new morality" (12), with its focus on the correction of the "soul" produced
by the exertion of governmental power, involves a refusal to acknowledge the long-present
religious intent of bodily torture implicit in his own account. Seen through Sister Helen
Prejean's book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the
United States, and the movie Tim Robbins derived from it, my reading of Foucault's
narrative is rather different from his own: I insist that the soul was the intended object
of the torture of the body long before the "gloomy festival" of public
punishment died out (8).
This contention - that the ultimate object of public torture was initially and always the
conversion of what Foucault dismisses as the "illusion of the theologians" (30),
the soul - is only prelude. I set beside Foucault's narration of the soul as an effect
produced by "the functioning of a power that is exercised on those punished"
(29) an alternative genealogy. Drawing on Sister Helen's account of the torture and death
of two condemned men in Angola Prison in Louisiana in 1991, I trace a trajectory that
parallels Foucault's description of the articulation of the soul as a production of state
discipline: a counter history of attentive love. In this counter hegemonic account, the
soul comes into being as the result of the mindful care of one person for another. In this
reading, the soul is not constructed by enforced punishment, be it public or secret, but
emerges rather in the midst of such punishment, as a product of love. As Leonard Grob, who
draws on the work of Martin Buber to describe the "ontological primacy of
dialogue," explains, "There is no 'real' you apart from the self that appears in
concrete interactions with others ... 'I become through my relation to the Thou; as I
become I, I say Thou'," (6-7).
Foucault reports, but fails to call attention to, the way in which such a process has long
been a side effect, if not the end result, of state punishment. Rereading Discipline
and Punish through the lens provided by Sister Helen's book makes it difficult to
ignore the presence of the spiritual confessor at Damiens's side. Foucault first
introduces the confessor in the report he takes from an Amsterdam paper, which both
acknowledges the attendance of the priest and reads his significance for other observers:
"The spectators were all edified by the solicitude of the parish priest of St. Paul's
who despite his great age did not spare himself in offering consolation to the
patient," (3). An officer of the watch, who was present at the scene, reports further
that the same parish priest, who was ultimately unable to fulfill his function, found it
performed by another:
Several confessors went up to him and spoke to [Damiens] at length.The
confessors returned and spoke to him again. He said to them (I heard him): "Kiss me,
gentlemen." The parish priest of St. Paul's did not dare to, so Monsieur de Marsilly
slipped under the rope holding the left arm and kissed him on the forehead. (4-5)
Foucault does not call attention to the dynamics of this interchange,
nor does he tease out its puzzles: why the insistence that the regicide's desire to be
kissed was overheard? Why did the parish priest not dare to fulfill the wish? Who was
Monsieur de Marsilly, and why did he dare?
Nor does Foucault reflect on the manner in which the presence of the priests may have
affected the words of the tortured man: "though he was always a great swearer, no
blasphemy escaped his lips" (3). What he cries out instead are pleas for divine
... he often repeated: 'My God, have pity on me! Jesus, help me!'... at
each torment, he cried out, as the damned in hell are supposed to cry out, 'Pardon, my
God! Pardon, Lord'... he willingly kissed the crucifix that was held out to him; he opened
his lips and repeated: 'Pardon, Lord'... [he] asked the parish priest of St. Paul's to
pray for him at the first mass.(3-5)
It is Foucault's argument that only when public spectacles of torture,
such as that staged around the body of Damiens, had ceased, did the soul replace the body
as aim and focus of capital punishment:
The body now serves as an instrument or intermediary ... the body and
pain are not the ultimate objects of ... punitive action ... The penalty in its most
severe forms no longer addresses itself to the body ... it lay[s] hold [of] the soul. The
expiation that once rained down upon the body must be replaced by a punishment that acts
in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations. ... [T]o punish is ...
[to convert] a soul. ...The criminal's soul is to be judged and to share in the punishment
the mechanisms of legal punishment [are given] a justifiable hold not only on offences,
but on individuals; not only on what they do, but also on what they are, will be, may be.
... The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison
of the body. (11, 16-18, 30)
But, as Foucault's own account makes clear, the torture of the body,
mediated by priests of the church, had already long and explicitly been used as a way to
bring the soul of the condemned to salvation. Albert Camus, whom Sister Helen cites at
length, makes this rationale explicit:
The supreme punishment has always been, throughout the ages, a religious penalty. ... Life
on earth is taken from [the guilty man], to be sure, but his chance of making amends is
left him. The real judgment is not pronounced; it will be in the other world. ... The
Catholic Church, for example, has always accepted the necessity of the death penalty ...
[arguing that the criminal] "repents and his preparation for death is thereby
facilitated. The Church has saved one of its members and fulfilled its divine mission.
That is why it has always accepted the death penalty ... as a powerful means of salvation
... the death penalty can point proudly to its almost divine efficacy" ... the
executioner is invested with a sacred function. He is the man who destroys the body in
order to deliver the soul to the divine sentence. (222-23)
Although Sister Helen quotes Camus extensively on resistance to the death penalty, she
actively resists the logic of the Catholicism he traces here. The soul, as I read her
account, comes into full articulation not through the discipline of punishment, but
through her practice of the discipline of love, a process which the death penalty may
initiate. When a human being is subjected to the power of the state, he may enter into a
relationship with a religious functionary willing to be attentive to his need for
companionship. In that exchange lies the possibility for the construction - maybe the
reconstruction - of his soul. So may Damiens's soul have been brought into being.
So too may have been the souls of the condemned men attended by Sister Helen Prejean.
Sister Helen's book is a classic example of the practice of attentive love, and of its
consequences. Her description of the relationships that develop between herself, Patrick
Sonnier, and Robert Willie, whom she is able to touch and to love, is clear testimony to
the expression that is given thereby to their souls. "'I have never known real
love,'" Patrick Sonnier tells Sister Helen: "'It's a shame a man has to come to
prison to find love.'He looks up at [her] and says, 'Thanks for loving me'," (82).
By loving Patrick Sonnier, Sister Helen brings him into an awareness of himself as a soul,
of his worth as a human being. That awareness entails a process of correction, including
the assumption of blame for the wrong he has done. I understand Sister Helen's work with
the help of the psychologist Sharon Lamb, whose new book, The Trouble with Blame,
construes people as "vehicles and representatives of moral values," and argues
"right to be punished" ... coincides with the right to be
"regarded as a responsible agent": ... "to be punished ... because we have
deserved it ... is to be treated as a human person made in God's image." Perpetrators
not only deserve blame but are worthy of it, in the fullest, most human sense of
the word. (185-86)
Foucault would argue, however, that Lamb's reasoning is problematic, and
that when Sister Helen acts in accord with that rationale - when she insists, for
instance, that Pat assume responsibility for his crimes - she is acting on behalf of the
state. In Foucault's analysis, state enforcement of disciplinary punishment is only
completed when the accused find themselves guilty:
It is not enough ... that wrong-doers be justly punished. They must if
possible judge and condemn themselves ... the confession was ... the act by which the
accused accepted the charge and recognized its truth. Through the confession, the accused
himself took part in the ritual of producing penal truth. (38)
According to this logic, Sister Helen herself is participating in the
process of capital punishment when she counsels inmates; she operates as a government
functionary who induces condemned men to cooperate in their own discipline. Following
Foucault's critique, Sister Helen is neither subverting the death penalty, nor working
against its perpetuation, but actually enabling its task.
But she (and I) see her work, and its relationship to capital punishment, as moving beyond
such ends. Confession and apology are not only means of achieving the will of the state,
and of expressing its power, but articulations of a philosophy of human interconnectedness
which calls for the end of the death penalty. The "blame" of which Sister Helen
finds Patrick Sonnier "worthy" she also extends to the government officials who
oversee his death. Like Lamb, whose work on the "blameworthiness" of both
victims and perpetrators is an argument of balance - "if we hold one side responsible
... then we need to look at the responsibility of the other side" (185) Sister Helen
treats criminals, their guards, and their executioners alike as active moral agents.
She begins that work with an awareness of the ontological loneliness of every human being,
a loneliness that can be met only by the assumption of connection and mutual
responsibility. Sister Helen begins, indeed, with the price she has paid for her own
commitment to her vocation: "there's a costly side to celibacy ... a deep loneliness
sometimes. But, then, I've figured out that loneliness is part of everyone's life, part of
being human - the private, solitary part of us that no one else can touch" (127).
Not so paradoxically, it is Sister Helen's perception of that same loneliness in Patrick
Sonnier which lures her into becoming his spiritual companion: "The sheer weight of
his loneliness, his abandonment, draws me. I abhor the evil he has done. But I sense
something, some sheer and essential humanness, and that, perhaps, is what draws me most of
all" (22). Talking with the guards whenever she visits the prison, Sister Helen also
comes to understand how "isolating" their jobs are (71); eventually, too, she
learns about the "great loneliness" of the families of crime victims, of their
"frequent experience of abandonment by relatives and friends" (65, 231).
Sister Helen responds in each case with the practice of attentive love: entering into
imaginative sympathy with the sense of isolation and abandonment felt by those with whom
she speaks. In doing so, she comes to an understanding, for instance, that for Robert
Willie the Aryan Brotherhood "was a family": "'Everything they had they was
willing to share. That was the best part of it, the sharing. You belonged, man'."
Sister Helen tries to get Robert to enter into another kind of "sharing," an
imaginative identification with the pain of his victim. She asks him if he has "ever
really faced" the pain of his victim, "taken it inside" himself (179). But
in Sister Helen's analysis, the psychological effects of facing the death penalty run
counter to, work against, the imaginative engagement and assumption of personal
responsibility she is trying to encourage. Robert Willie tells her that it's hard
"'to be having much sympathy for [the victims'parents] when, here, they're tryin'to
kill me. When somebody's after your hide, it kind of tends to occupy your mind'."
(147). Sister Helen observes:
Remorse presupposes enough self-forgetfulness to feel the pain of others.
Can Robert Willie do that? I doubt it and wonder whether his death sentence makes his own
repentance even more difficult. Someone is trying to kill him, and this must rivet his
energies on his own survival, not the pain of others. (144)
For Sister Helen, the process of punishment does not bring about what
Foucault posits, the construction of the soul; it results, rather, in the destruction of
the self: "I can't imagine ever being so powerless. I think of Camus' description of
the condemned: everything goes on outside of him. ... He is no longer a man but a
thing waiting to be handled" (74).
Sister Helen's language in this passage sounds much like that of Foucault, who constructs
an opposition between the sovereign state, wielding political power, and the criminal
subjected to it:
The public execution is to be understood ... as a political ritual. It
belongs to the ceremonies by which power is manifested.The public execution is a
ceremonial by which a momentarily injured sovereignty is reconstituted. Its aim is ... to
bring into play ... the dissymmetry between the subject who has dared to violate the law
and the all-powerful sovereign who displays his strength. (49)
But Sister Helen is ultimately engaged in a very different gesture, one
that calls into question this clear opposition between powerful government and weak
subject. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault evades the question of agency, is
vague in specifying who is exercising this ubiquitous power on the prisoner (Megill 240).
In sharp contrast, Sister Helen argues repeatedly that the government is made up of people
who do its work. Even more striking than her call to get the condemned men to accept
responsibility for their crimes, to enter into imaginative sympathy with their victims, is
her parallel and consistent effort to encourage government officials to be accountable for
the work that they do. She notes a repeated "severance of personal values from public
duty" (103): when she speaks, for instance, with Louisiana Governor Edwards, who
tells her that he "is not 'personally' responsible if he simply 'does his job' within
the law" (56); when a guard whispers to her, "I don't particularly want to be
here ... but it's part of the job" (77). Sister Helen discovers that, at Robert
Willie's trial, the D.A. argued that if the jury decided on death, the final
responsibility, in fact, was not theirs because there would be numerous appeals and
reviews. "So the buck really don't stop with you. The buck starts with you."
Testifying on Robert's behalf to the Pardon Board, facing once again "the
bureaucratic process designed to distance them from the killing about to take place,"
Sister Helen calls on the board members "to take personal responsibility for the role
they are playing in the killing of this man" (167). She sums up the pattern of excuse
she has documented:
Who killed this man?
Everybody can argue that he or she was just doing a job - the governor, the warden, the
head of the Department of Corrections, the district attorney, the judge, the jury, the
Pardon Board, the witnesses to the execution. Nobody feels personally responsible for the
death of this man. D.A.'s are fond of saying that criminals "put themselves in the
In Foucault's account, Damiens assures the executioners "that he
did not think ill of them" (5). Robert Willie, who has been counseled by Sister Helen
Prejean, emphatically refuses a similar gesture. He tells Sister Helen that he doesn't
"believe in being chummy with the guards who'll be helping to kill me" (181),
and he decides not to shake the warden's hand: "I don't wanna say nothin'to him like
'it's okay, I know you're only doin'your job'." (207).
Robert's decision expresses what he has learned in his conversations with Sister Helen.
Her attempt to get government functionaries to acknowledge how their participation enables
the process of state-sanctioned execution to move forward is congruent with Elaine
Scarry's description of the ongoing "consent" of soldiers to the use of their
bodies, which enables the perpetuation of war:
.. war cannot be executed without ... consent; it is authored by - it
cannot be carried out without the "authorization" of - the population. ... [T]he
individual soldier in a conventional war must continually renew his presence over many
successive days. (152-53, 155)
In her interviews with the media, Sister Helen extends to the rest of us
her insistence that government employees and officials withdraw their "ongoing
consent" to the process of government-sanctioned murder. She asks all of us to refuse
further "authorization": "We're all complicit. Government can only continue
killing if we give it the power. It's time to take that power back" (130).
In making such a claim, Sister Helen is challenging the current taste for public
execution, which seems rooted in the desire to participate personally in the act of
vengeance. (Consider, for instance, the hundreds of volunteers who responded to Gary
Gilmore's request for execution by firing squad.) Sister Helen believes that the most
convincing means of demonstrating to the citizens of this country that capital punishment
is wrong are visual. She argues that we are able to countenance such killings only because
we do not see them:
There is an elaborate ruse going on here, a pitiful disguise. Killing is
camouflaged. ... [W]hen executions were public, it was not a pretty sight. It was awful to
see, and fascinating. And visible. It was truthful. It was cruel. It was unusual. And it
was obviously punishment. It was death. Forcible, violent, premeditated death. (218)
According to Foucault, the condemned man himself observed this dreadful
process in horrified fascination. Damiens the regicide, in the midst of hideous torture,
"raised his head and looked at himself. Despite all this pain, he raised his head
from time to time and looked at himself boldly" (4).
Robert Willie describes a similar scene to Sister Helen. To illustrate the dangers of
working on push barges, he tells her that once he had witnessed with his own eyes a cable
snap and whip around and cut a man in half.
Right at the waist, it cut him in two like a knife and his waist and legs
dropped into the water, and he just looked down and died. I think the shock killed him,
watching half his body drop into the water like that." (206)
The experience of death, in both Foucault's and Willie's accounts,
includes a moment of shocked self-recognition in which the self, the soul, views the
damage to its own body as if it were an other, the Other, separate.
But, as Lamb explains, the horrified gaze of the self at what is happening to one's own
body can be mediated by the gaze of another. Then the act of seeing can become one, not of
separation, but rather of connection and understanding, the prelude to the assumption of
responsibility: "Sartre spoke of the Other as the indispensable mediator between
myself and me: 'I am ashamed of myself as I appear to the Other.'... Looking away
supports ... isolation" (Lamb 182). In this line of reasoning, seeing becomes an act
of connection that enables one to assess the moral implications of one's own acts, and
move toward reparation.
What Sister Helen accomplishes in her conversations with both Patrick and Robert is a
refusal of the separating gaze, an insistence on connection between two human beings who
enable one another to see what it is they do. She asserts a congruence between what the
body does, what the eye sees, what the mind thinks, how the soul responds. She insists
that neither the condemned men, any of the government functionaries involved in execution,
nor the citizens of this country separate how they act from what they see. Speaking, for
instance, with the head of the Louisiana Department of Corrections, she has "a hunch
that if this man were to ... see with his own eyes this killing laid bare, he'd quit"
In her insistence that we look at what it is the government does in our name, Sister
Helen is attempting to reverse the process so well described by Foucault, in which capital
punishment became a hidden, shameful act, "a bureaucratic concealment of the penalty
itself," in which "the last addition ... was a mourning veil. The condemned man
was no longer to be seen" (Foucault 10, 13).
Millard Farmer, the attorney whose defense of death-row inmates is described in Sister
Helen's book, echoes Foucault in his description of the "shame in punishing"
(Foucault 10): "Look how shamefully secret this whole thing is. ... If most people in
Louisiana would see what the state did tonight, they would throw up" (DMW 94). Like
Millard Farmer, Sister Helen insists that if not only government officials, but citizens
who countenance their work, could see the process of state-sanctioned capital punishment,
they would refuse to allow executions:
I regret that so many people do not understand, but I know that they have
not watched the state imitate the violence they so abhor. ... I feel it would be a good
thing for people to be exposed to executions ... because then they would see the violence
unmasked and this would lead them to abolish executions. ... [T]he premeditated killing of
a human being is ugly. Torture is ugly. Gassing, hanging, shooting, electrocuting, or
lethally injecting a person whose hands and feet are tied is ugly. And hiding the ugliness
from view ... numbs our mind to the horror of what we are doing. (109, 214, 216)
Sister Helen's focus here is on seeing as an act of refusing to be
distanced, of reasserting that human connection. If we see, we can no longer be separated.
On his last walk, Patrick Sonnier asks one favor: "'Can Sister Helen touch my
arm?'," It is the first time, she reports, "I have ever touched him" (92).
Having done so, she cannot bring herself to watch his death: "I close my eyes and do
not see ... the executioner ... do his work" (94). Yet when she does look up, and
hears the warden announce the time of death, there occurs a moment of shamed recognition:
"His eyes happen to look into mine. He lowers his eyes" (94).
And so, witnessing her second execution, Sister Helen insists that seeing is an act of
connection, and of responsibility. Like the condemned man, she watches: "Robert takes
one more look around the room at the world he is leaving. He looks at me and winks, and
then they kill him. This time I do not close my eyes. I watch everything" (211).
When Tim Robbins directed the film Dead Man Walking, he enabled thousands of
people in this country to "watch" what Sister Helen had seen. During a public
meeting in May 1996, she reported that Robbins insisted on using the film to probe every
moral issue he could. Robbins collapsed the stories of Patrick Sonnier and Robert Willie
into a single narrative, that of Matthew Poncelet, whose death by lethal injection
comprises the final scene of the film. Matthew is strapped to a guerney. Turned upright,
with his arms bound, he looks as though he has been tied to the cross.
In giving us a last look at Matthew as if he were being crucified, Robbins emphasized an
aspect of Christ different from the one I have been tracing here, the one I think that
Sister Helen herself highlights. Her concern, and mine, has been the role of Christ as
suffering with us, as engaged in the acts of companioning and loving unconditionally.
"I can't bear the thought that you would die without seeing one loving face,"
Sister Helen tells Patrick Sonnier (and Matthew Poncelet). "I will be the face of
Christ for you. Just look at me" (37).
The emphasis in the final scene of the movie is not, however, on this leitmotif of the
book, "the impetus of love and compassion Jesus set blazing into history" (195),
but on Christ as victim of misguided vengeance. In focusing on what Stephen Moore
identifies as the most horrific form of punishment in the ancient world, on crucifixion as
a means of internalized discipline (96, 110), such visuals deny to the final scenes of the
film the force of what I have seen as the argument of the book: the power of love to
construct the soul.
Sister Helen fretted, in her book, about inaccurate film portrayals of the role of the
spiritual counselor: "the movies always show a 'man of the cloth'raising his hand in
blessing to the man on the scaffold" (121). Witnessing the death of Patrick Sonnier,
she objected, too, to the state-sanctioned process of death that had been "cleaned
up," as if for filming:
when the torture was visible ... witnesses could see the flames lick the
flesh. They could hear the cries of agony. But this death ... was like a framed scene,
death in the movies, death in celluloid, death under glass. No smell. ... No sight of his
face. ... And ... he could not cry out. (101)
Robbins spliced, in between the celluloid scenes of Matthew's
"crucifixion," haunting and dreadful scenes from the rape and murder in which he
participated. As Matthew was responsible for those murders, this splicing suggests, so is
the government responsible for his death. The equation of his death with the killings is
made clear in Robert Willie's final words, which Matthew Poncelet repeats in the film:
I would just like to say ... that I hope you get some relief from my
death. Killing people is wrong. That's why you've put me to death. It makes no difference
whether it's citizens, countries, or governments. Killing is wrong. (211)
The focus of Robbins's film, like that of Sister Helen's book, is on the
injustice of the system of capital punishment. But the book constructs a much more
nuanced, qualified and disturbing argument, one which the final scene of the film fails to
acknowledge. Accompanied by Sister Helen through the process of state-sanctioned death,
the condemned men come to articulate their souls: they come to love, come to
responsibility. By showing Matthew Poncelet crucified, Robbins elides that process.
It is a process that, for completion, has three stages, and I have so far traced only two.
Seeing the loneliness and need of condemned men, Sister Helen loves them unconditionally;
acknowledging them as human, she finds them blameworthy. But the act of finding blame does
not preclude forgiveness. At Patrick Sonnier's execution, Millard Farmer says,
"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (93). As Lamb explains,
A distinction can be drawn between forgiveness and
absolution.[A]bsolution may communicate ... that [the perpetrator] is no longer to be held
responsible but forgiveness ... is not a retraction of moral judgment nor an escape from
punishment - it does not mean that the perpetrator is no longer to blame for his actions.
Although Sister Helen holds Patrick Sonnier blameworthy, her ultimate
project is not one of identifying the culprit:
He seems to accept that he is responsible for what had happened, even
though he claims not to have killed the teenagers. ... I suspend judgment. With the
electric chair waiting, with death close like this, who the triggerman was seems not the
The confession Sister Helen obtains from Patrick Sonnier is more
qualified than the one Matthew Poncelet gives in the film. Patrick asks for forgiveness
without confessing guilt: "I don't want to leave this world with any hatred in my
heart. I want to ask your forgiveness for what me and Eddie done, but Eddie done it"
Patrick receives the forgiveness he asks for; indeed, he received it before he asked.
Because the end point of the whole process of companionship is not retaliation, but
forgiveness, it is appropriate that Dead Man Walking ends with the ongoing
struggle of Lloyd LeBlanc, which began with the first dreadful sight of his dead child, a
child whose own eyes are clearly transmuted into images of violence:
when he arrived with sheriff's deputies there in the cane field to
identify his son, he had knelt by his boy - "laying down there with his two little
eyes sticking out like bullets" - and prayed the Our Father. And when he came to the
words: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,"
he had not halted or equivocated, and he said, "Whoever did this, I forgive
them." But he acknowledges that it's a struggle. ... Forgiveness is never going to be
easy. Each day it must be prayed for and struggled for and won. (244)
The complete story told by Sister Helen, reimagined and reimaged in
Robbins's film, and retold herself in appearances across the country, diverges strikingly
from Foucault's account of the soul, "born ... out of methods of punishment"
(20). The argument I have been trying to trace in Sister Helen's book is quite different.
No, she says, the soul is brought into being through love, a practice by which we can
recoup what is threatened, what is lost, in the tortured experience of awaiting execution.
In this counter narrative, the soul is reached, and brought to articulation, not through
punishment, but though its mitigation, through the companionship of those who love without
It is important, however, to qualify this argument in (at least) two ways. First, the
threat of death need not be the necessary prerequisite for such love. We can make it
available to one another elsewhere, at other times. The great misfortune of the lives of
Patrick Sonnier and Robert Willie is that the love of Sister Helen, or of the rest of us,
was not extended to them before they reached death row. If it had, they might never have
Secondly, I need to acknowledge that the alternative genealogy traced here is one that
smacks strongly of privilege. If identity is the result of individual care, if soul is the
product of compassion, where lie the souls of those who do not share their particular
histories with others, those who are not loved at all?
Camus, Albert. "Reflections on the Guillotine." Resistance, Rebellion and
Death. Trans. Justin O'Brien. 1961; rpt. New York: Knopf, 1974. 175--234.
Dead Man Walking, Dir. Tim Robbins. Gramercy, 1995.
Grob, Leonard, Riffat Hassan and Haim Gordon, eds. Women's and Men's Liberation:
Testimonies of Spirit. New York: Greenwood, 1991.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan
Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1977.
Lamb, Sharon. The Trouble with Blame: Victims, Perpetrators, and Responsibility. Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.
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