About The Author
Rene Denfeld is an author, journalist and licensed investigator specialising in death penalty work. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
She has published three non-fiction titles: The New Victorians: A Young Woman's Challenge to the Old Feminist Order, Kill The Body, The Head Will Fall and All God's Children: Inside the Dark and Violent World of Street Families. She has written for publications including the New York Times Magazine, the Oregonian, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Her first novel is The Enchanted, set largely in a maximum security prison in Oregon. Below ground level is the wing where death row prisoners are kept, often for years at a time, as they await the exhaustion of the appeals procedure. Its narrator is one of these prisoners: he has not spoken aloud for many years.
An investigator has been assigned to another prisoner, York, and she delves into his upbringing, revealing the brutality and deprivation that led to the crime for which he has been sentenced, although York himself wants no part in the efforts to have his sentence commuted.
The Enchanted portrays a twilight world, where lives that have long lost any purpose are eked out, measured in tiny pleasures like glimpse of sky, where corruption means that drugs and weapons are always available at a price, where prisoner rape is a fact of life. It is a novel that reveals how the most appalling crimes are often committed by those who have never known compassion or kindness, a novel that explores even when human decency has been stripped away that beauty and hope may still flicker amidst the horror and despair.
In our exclusive interview, Rene reveals the different ways prisoners deal with long-term incarceration, how brutality is the key to survival for many of them and the challenges in understanding how people become capable of the worst of crimes.
Author photo © Gary Norman
Questions & Answers
As an investigator you specialise in death penalty cases and you've published non-fiction on other topics; why did you decide upon a fictional portrayal of prisoners on death row?
I feel that fiction can tell a broader, more nuanced truth than non-fiction. I liked being able to set myself aside and tell the stories of the characters, free from my opinions. It was a joy to be immersed inside this story. I hope it gives a sense of the redemption and magic possible in life, no matter what our circumstances.
The maximum-security prison you describe is riddled with corruption, involving both guards and prisoners. Is this typical?
In my experience: yes.
The narrator speaks the prison as an 'enchanted place' of little men hammering inside the walls and golden horses racing underground. What is the typical psychological state of a prisoner on who has spent years on death row?
That's a great question. There's been research on the effects of isolation, and I can tell you from my experience, it can be terrible. At the same time, as this novel explores, humans are capable of finding joy and hope even in the most awful circumstances. There are men who draw fantastical drawings on the walls of their cells, and others who escape through books and imagination.
The narrator cherishes the rare occasions when a book is slipped into his cell, but he has a particular affinity for James Houston's The White Dawn, a novel about an Inuit village that takes in three shipwrecked whalers. Is there any particular significance to his favouring it?
Like the narrator, I found my escape in books, but unlike him, I was still a child, and the books became my path to a better life. The White Dawn was always a favourite of mine. I kept a copy on the bed stand the entire time I wrote this novel. For the narrator, the story symbolizes a wild connection to the natural world, which he has lost, and our universal longing to be accepted, just as we are.
It is said that the crimes of one prisoner, Arden, are unspeakable, even compared to those of his fellow prisoners. How does the nature of prisoners' offences affect their treatment by fellow prisoners and their prison guards?
As the character Risk illustrates, prison is a place where men who have done the most horrific crimes can become leaders. It all depends on their attitude and willingness to be brutal. The common myth is that sex offenders and child killers are mistreated in prison. This is not always the case. As the narrator says, prison is a place where people grow into their shadows. The weak are victimized, no matter what their offence. The vicious take charge.
The investigation of the case of a prisoner called York, once a date has been set for his execution uncovers a great deal about his horrors of his past. Do many such prisoners benefit from scrutiny or does it depend on the determination of an individual investigator?
I believe all prisoners - and those facing charges - should have investigators to determine if they are truly guilty, along with finding out what happened, and why. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. There is no law to say an inmate deserves an investigation. I happen to work in a state that is very good in recognizing the need for investigators. Others states do not, which is how innocent people end up executed.
The unavailability of the chemicals used by many states in executions seem to have propelled capital to the top of the agenda in America again. Are these debates based on political expedience or is there any real analysis of its effectiveness? Which direction do you see the pendulum swinging in the near future?
Another great question! I don't know how effective that will be. If a state wants to execute people, they will find a way. I wish our focus could turn more to understanding and prevention. People with my job learn a lot about why violence happens - about why people do terrible things to another person; about why some survive horrible childhoods and others succumb to rage. I wish we could put that knowledge into action, to both understand the accused and prevent such crimes form happening again. Until then, I fear we will circle the same issue full of myths and misunderstandings.
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