John J. Lennon was born in 1977, became involved in the drug trade as a teenager, shot a man in 2001 and was sentenced to prison in 2004. In 2010, he began to take creative-writing classes at New York’s infamous Attica Correctional Facility. Lennon described the resulting transformation in his life in a 2015 New York Times op-ed: “Though I didn’t have much of a sense of self-worth, I learned I did have some untapped talent. Discovering this has brought with it another set of challenges, though. As I’ve discovered the satisfaction of learning, I’ve realized that I deprived the man I killed of ever discovering his potential, his human essence. I grapple with this shame.”
In the years since that class, Lennon has quietly assembled one of the more fascinating portfolios in contemporary journalism, starting with a piece for the Atlantic on gun control, and continuing with articles for the Marshall Project, Hedgehog Review, Vice, Pacific Standard and elsewhere. Denied many of the customary accoutrements of the modern writer (he works on a clear plastic typewriter and cannot Google), Lennon relies on a network of fellow writers and editors to help with research and email. He does interviews, including this one, from a public prison phone.
Phil Christman: Can you tell us a little about where you come from?
John J. Lennon: I grew up in a housing project, in a decent part of Brooklyn. My mother sent me away to private school, which wasn’t the best for me. And then, I think I was around ten or eleven, we moved over to Hell’s Kitchen, which was this seedy neighborhood on the West Side of Manhattan. It had this history of gangsters running through the neighborhood and that made an impression on me for some bizarre reason. I romanticized the whole lifestyle, and aspired to be one when I grew up.
PC: So did you romanticize being a gangster in the way that some kids want to be a pro athlete or rock star?
JL: Yeah. My stepfather George was a longshoreman—a working man who paid his taxes, and an overall good guy. But I used to hear him tell my mom stories about the Westies, this murderous Irish gang. Without realizing it, he was elevating their reputation. On dark, cold nights, I’d be lying in the backseat, cruising upstate to our hunting cabin, and I’d hear him at the wheel telling my mom nostalgic tales, about some guy walking into a bar and blowing a guy’s head off like it was nothing. And it was around that time I learned my real father had blown his head off, and nobody was talking about him. So my dad was insignificant, but this killer, he was real significant. That’s who they were talking about. And I didn’t make that connection then; it was only years later, in prison.
PC: Some of the college students I teach still have a tendency to romanticize those times through weird obsessions with movies like Reservoir Dogs and The Godfather.
JL: Yeah. It’s even more visceral when those stories are about your neighborhood. It’s your friends’ fathers that they’re depicting—it’s a very real thing.
PC: You’ve written for the Guardian about the difficulties of receiving books in prison. What are you currently reading, and how did those books get to you?
JL: Shortly after I published that op-ed the policy that made it hard for prisoners to receive books in New York was overturned. We can now receive books from anywhere. We can even get books from Amazon. So I’ve been getting a lot of books lately. But for many years, when it was hard to get books, I used to get a boatload of magazines and newspapers (my mom would subscribe for me): the New Yorker, New York Review of Books, Atlantic, Esquire, GQ… That’s why I started writing in that genre. Because of that situation, where it was hard to get books because they’d be scrutinized in the package room, but magazine subscriptions came through regular mail.
Currently I’m reading two classics: The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère, and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (for the second time). I wanted to read them both at the same time and here’s why. The Truman Capote book is arguably the best book of the twentieth century, ushering in New Journalism and a whole genre of nonfiction that is written like a novel. But Capote’s a little weasel. He writes beautifully about these guys that he ingratiated himself with and befriended, but at the end of the book he’s nowhere to be found.
In The Adversary, Carrère writes about a Frenchman who kills his family, but he doesn’t betray his subject like Truman Capote betrays his two subjects. Instead Carrère unpacks his own emotions about the crime. He writes in a first-person confessional style that is meshed with reportage. It’s a similar style that I’m developing as a journalist writing about my peers in prison, identifying with the characters I write about. Capote doesn’t do this. I read a Paris Review interview with Emmanuel Carrère, and even though he acknowledges it’s a masterpiece he resents that Capote betrayed these guys.
PC: That aspect of Capote always bugged me too. Have you read Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer?
JL: It’s funny, I just finished reading that. It’s the same ethical dilemma that we’re talking about right now. It was originally a New Yorker essay and it was republished as The Journalist and the Murderer. In that book, Malcolm talks about Joe McGinnis, who wrote about a doctor who killed his wife and kids. But at its core it’s a book about journalistic ethics: how much you’re supposed to ingratiate yourself and tell these untruths, as some journalists and writers have condoned, in order to get the story. They treat it as if it causes no real damage, as if the person you’re lying to has no feelings and doesn’t even matter.
PC: How do you wrestle with that in your own writing? How do you deal with those ethical issues?
JL: For the most part, most people writing about people in prison just understand their character from their deed. They’re not really next to the subject, so they don’t fully understand their character. For example, I’ve had fascinating conversations with a guy who was part of a robbery in which a police officer was killed. But he’s made a true transformation. This guy is a really decent person—he is one of the nicest guys I know—but nobody on the outside knows that. I know that because I live with him, I eat with him. I see how he acts. He has struggled to find his own humanity and educate himself; he has learned to love and feel and have empathy for others. When you think about character transformation, I mean, this guy is the guy. But when you read the recent Post article about him, he’s a thug, he’s a piece of crap. It’s just poor writing; they know nothing about the character. I grapple with these issues by placing myself alongside the subject, like this guy I’m talking about, who’s a more decent man than me. He is kinder, more humble. And when I’m able to say that, writing from my own experience, that gains the reader’s trust.
PC: Can you talk more about the people in prison who you find remarkable? That’s one of the things that if you don’t either have family in prison, or friends in prison, or work with prisoners, is one of the hardest things to get across to people.
JL: Another person that fits the fold is a friend of mine, Shane. Nearly 25 years ago—he was 23 then—he bludgeoned his 63-year-old gay lover and then dismembered him—so that’s a pretty sick deed. Shane was basically sentenced to life in prison.
He’s gay in prison, first of all—so he doesn’t have it easy. And he’s just a very kind man; he helps people. He’s a facilitator for a re-entry program called Stage Three, which means his job is to prepare men for release into a society that he will never be released into. I recently sat in on him teaching men how to use Narcan to treat opioid overdoses. I was talking to some of the guys who were getting released—I know some of their reputations—and Shane was just beaming with humility and selflessness. He does this all the time: preparing guys to get out who, let’s just say, don’t have character like he does, when he’ll probably never get out himself. He just keeps going, being of service.
PC: Transformation starts from within, but what kinds of things can we do on the outside to help facilitate that, as volunteers? My wife’s father did twenty years in Texas, and she often talks about the difference between the programs that are just kind of there to make the volunteers feel better about themselves, versus the people who actually get in there and build relationships. What helps?
JL: Look, people often find themselves doing service in a prison, like running a Bible study or something like that. But I’d push for those same people to think outside the box, to use the same specialization and services they use in the workforce. If you’re a banker reading the Bible to prisoners, maybe that’s not the most effective thing you can be doing. Maybe ask the superintendent if you can start a financial-literacy course.
For example, Doran Larson came to Attica in 2006. Doran Larson is an English professor at Hamilton College and he initially started volunteering as a member of a support group in Attica that started after the riots. But Doran knew he had skills as a writer and as a teacher, and he saw the need for a writing workshop so he started one. He mentored many writers who went on to publish. If Doran didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be a writer. He gave me the tools and showed me what good writing looked like.
PC: How do you maintain a sense of community and support in prison as a writer? I know as a writer, I occasionally need my friends to talk me out of thinking I suck and everything I’ve ever done is garbage. How do you maintain that in a place where it’s hard to find community at all?
JL: Building a network of people that I enjoy talking to, a little at a time. I’m oftentimes starved for good conversation, where I can commiserate or throw around ideas about a piece I want to write.
It was hard for me to make friends with editors at first. They’re really smart and really busy and have these really short email replies, which usually carry bad news. And here I am this writer trying to win them over, and I’m a prisoner. But eventually I was able to do that, and now my phone list is filled with editors and writers like Eric Sullivan at Esquire and Bill Keller at the Marshall Project. I’ve also become friends with Leann, the managing editor at the Hedgehog Review. And she’s a Christian conservative from Texas. I mean, homegirl would have voted to fry me if she sat on my jury. But we got to know each other after they published my essay “The Murderer’s Mother.” She often helps me send my work to different editors and generally makes sure I represent myself professionally. I’m really grateful for her and I consider her a friend.
PC: Let’s talk more about your own articles. What are you working on right now?
JL: I’m working on a piece that’s about to be released about a man with mental illness who’s in here with me. I’ve been able to get close to him and talk to him about his journey and observe how prisoners treat him. In this piece, I’m reflecting on the purpose of putting a schizophrenic man in prison for the past twenty years. It’s exploring how to mesh the criminal justice system with people who are really, really sick. They don’t share the same culpability as someone like me, who knew what he was doing, who went out and lived a lifestyle, and intentionally, without a doubt, killed a man—and I own that, I’m accountable for that. When you deal with a man who has schizophrenia, and it’s well-documented, there’s got to be some mitigating circumstances, where you look to treat this man. And when there’s not, it’s shameful. What happens is that, by default, men like that are left to the empathy of men like me. I’ve seen plenty of people in here who are cruel to the so-called bugouts, because they just don’t know any better. And it’s just a sad scene.
PC: If you get involved in prison work of any kind, you end up wondering whether this system has a purpose. What do you think the role of prison is in this society, if it has one? What is it for and what should it be for?
JL: So, I do think prison is needed. Being in here, you see. Let me just say, I think prison is necessary for a person, until the point when it is unnecessary. And often times the sentence itself is not the determining factor of that. What do I mean by that? I mean, when the judge sentenced me, for example, to 28 years to life, I didn’t really know where I would be fifteen years later. I didn’t know I would have this career and sort of found my way, that I would stop being a lowlife, stop doing drugs. And I don’t even blame the judge, because she didn’t know either. She was just like, “This guy is disgusting and he needs to be off the streets.” And you know what? She was right. I was a foul person. But sometimes cool things happen; people get lucky, they find opportunities and they find their way. And sometimes people just get older and they get tired of being a lowlife and they just stop doing stupid shit that’s self-destructive and destructive to their community.
There are some tough folk in here, but everyone’s at different stages. So I think prison does serve a purpose. But that purpose could be helped by a more layered debate about what we can do when we’re in here. We need to have conversations about what’s effective and what’s not. If you ask me, some of the heavily funded “template” programs, like the anger regression training and the residential treatments that states get federal dollars for… could they be cut back?
I’m more for the volunteer programs. If you ever ask someone what the most transformative part of their life was, no one’s going to be like, “Oh, it was in that phenomenal federally funded therapy program where they taught me how to count backwards and think of pleasant imagery—like, wow, that really did it for me!” It’s not going to be this bureaucrat getting paid $80,000 a year meeting with you in an assembly line. If I meet with my quarterly counselor, there is nothing on that computer to let them know anything I’m doing. I have some pretty cool accomplishments, and my counselor knows nothing about them. And that just shows the total detachment of corrections counselors. But guess who does all that work? The people who don’t get paid to come in here. People who come in for AA meetings and have followed my progress and are proud of me. These people have a different sort of investment: it’s hard to be a volunteer, to run a program in a prison—there are so many inefficiencies. So, prison is necessary, I think, until it’s unnecessary.