Is a True Thing
to Jail," the note on my typewriter said. "See Me First."
At the bottom were my boss's initials.
I figured it to be just a friendly jab at the fact that I was late for
work. Though I was a city-desk reporter for The Birmingham News,
I lived out in the country, and on that frigid January morning my car
had been hard to start.
Then I noticed that the other reporters' work stations were mostly unattended.
I soon learned why: They were out covering a story, a big one.
During the night, somebody had kidnapped A.G. Gaston--the city's wealthiest
black businessman, who was then in his eighties--after beating both him
and his wife when they tried to resist. Gaston was safe, though; the police
had found him. A suspect was in custody. This was in 1976.
One team of reporters was out interviewing the officers who found Gaston,
another team was at the crime scene, and another at the hospital where
he and his wife were recovering. I was the rookie of the bunch, and was
correctly judged expendable enough for a long-shot assignment: confronting
the accused kidnapper in his jail cell, in hopes he'd talk about the incident.
On my short walk to the County Jail, in the brisk air, my adrenaline was
pumping as I framed in my mind the questions I'd ask the prisoner. I had
never been inside a jail, and in retrospect my image of violent criminals
was drawn solely from B-movies: swaggering, unkempt loud brutes who were
almost cartoonish in their insolence toward authority.
That wasn't what I found.
Charles Lewis Clayborn, Jr., was a short man, with the muscular build
of a boxer, and his features had a hint of Sidney Poitier's cultured good
looks. He was composed, well-groomed, wore a faint smile, and although
he sat completely motionless on the edge of his bunk his half-shut eyes
never stopped scanning his cell and the hallway beyond.
As I asked him questions he responded variously with a grunt, a chuckle,
or, at times, a cryptic word or two that bore no connection I could see
to the subject at hand.
At one point I became unaccountably apprehensive; the hairs on my neck
stood up. I felt I was in the presence of an immense intelligence, which
for the moment had rendered itself almost entirely visceral.
I tried to block out this odd sensation and concentrate on Clayborn, but
the interview was going nowhere. Finally I concluded it, and used a phone
to call the newspaper. "What did he say?" the editor asked,
before I could speak. "Does he admit it? Does he say he had accomplices?"
"No," I said. "I---"
"Well, what did he say?"
A long sigh on the other end of the phone. "Okay, it was worth a
try. Come on back."
Reading the yellowed clippings in the public library's archive twenty
years later, I smile to come across my name in the list of reporters who
contributed to the article. I contributed not a word. Still, that morning
and that face have been regularly in my thoughts ever since, because when
I was walking back to my office afterward, in a reflective mood once my
nerves had settled, I was forced to fully recognize--or rather, to admit
to myself--what had been at the edge of my awareness the whole time.
I had distinctly felt a third presence in the cell. Somebody, or something,
that was clearly not Clayborn, and not me, but was equally as real--and
was clearly, my instinct told me, evil.
This feeling went against everything I believed. But still it would not
go away. Has not, in fact, after all these years.
There's a sentence of my novel, The Shining Shining Path, in
which I describe a threatening character as having "a gaze as timeless
as the void awaiting a mountain climber's misstep."
That's as near as I've come to saying what the presence, that day in 1976,
felt like to me.
"The death of Satan," Wallace Stevens wrote, "was a tragedy
for the imagination... How cold the vacancy when the phantoms are gone,
and the shaken realist first sees reality..."
Of all the people I know, I'm the least likely to feel any sympathy for
this notion. My childhood was spent in the sway of a hellfire-and-brimstone
rural Southern church, with Satan continually at my elbow, and sin and
evil rampaging through the world. Music was considered evil, until it
was gospel music. Movies were evil, period. As was dancing. And gambling.
And alcohol was especially evil.
When I was finally old enough to escape from this painfully constricted
world, I ran straight toward the open arms of science and reason and behaviorism
with all my strength, like a hostage greeting his rescuers. I was not
unaware of the resulting "cold vacancy" of which Stevens writes.
But at the time it felt, by comparison, like a caress.
Twenty years after my visit to the jail, the subject of evil continues
to divide my instinct and my intellect into polar opposites. At least
there's some comfort in finding out, even in our enlightened technological
age, that I'm far from alone in my quandary.
In his recent book, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the
Sense of Evil, Andrew Delbanco contends:
has opened up in our culture, between the visibility of evil and the intellectual
resources available for coping with it. Never before have images of horror
been so widely disseminated and so appalling--from organized death camps
to children starving in famines that might have been averted...
The repertoire of evil has never been richer. Yet never have our responses
been so weak. We have no language for connecting our inner lives with
the horrors that pass before our eyes in the outer world. We shudder or
wince, then we switch the channel.
Delbanco concludes that the situation amounts to nothing less than "a
crisis of our incompetence before evil," which he takes as the theme
of his book. This has come about in part, he says, because "we have
an inescapable problem: we feel something that our culture no longer gives
us the vocabulary to express."
Delbanco's supposed gulf is not hard to find in our lives. What humane
and reasonable person, for instance, would argue that the Holocaust was
not "evil"? Or slavery? Or serial murder? Or any number of modern-day
terrorist acts and genocidal crusades?
"Evil" is clearly still acceptable as a descriptor of past events,
and even, in extreme cases, of the individuals who perpetrated them. Use
"evil" as the subject of a sentence, though--or venture the
word "demon" or "possession" outside a discussion
of some primitive tribe--and you're automatically branded as a crank,
or a fanatic, or worse.
How have we come to a schism between thought and language of such Orwellian
Even Delbanco, in his remarkably even-handed treatment of the subject,
at one point declares peremptorily: "We certainly no longer have
a conception of evil as a distributed entity with an ontological essence
of its own, as what some philosophers call 'presence.'" He immediately
counters with, "Yet something that feels like this force still invades
our experience, and we still discover in ourselves the capacity to inflict
it on others."
A major turning point in my thinking, though, occurred in 1990 when I
read People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, by Scott
Peck. I had found a great deal of solace in Peck's earlier book, The
Road Less Traveled. I was touched by his good faith effort at bridging
the seemingly hopeless cultural gap between science--in Peck's case psychology--and
conventional religious faith.
People of the Lie was anything but consoling. It scared the hell
out of me. Or more accurately, into me. Based on actual case
histories from his extensive psychology practice, the book tells the story
of a handful of patients Peck believes had gone beyond any popularly accepted
diagnosis of mental illness, and had crossed over into a realm he could
only describe as being literally possessed by evil. In researching the
book he observed a number of exorcisms by Catholic priests, and despite
his scientific skepticism, came away convinced that palpable forces of
good and evil were doing battle in those bare, lonely rooms.
The most unsettling aspect of all this, to me, was that none of the patients
Peck considered evil had ever been in trouble with the law. Not one was
a robber, or murderer, or rapist, or kidnapper. Most of them had families,
good jobs, and were well respected in their communities and churches.
Nevertheless, nearly all seemed oblivious to the havoc they wreaked in
the lives of the people around them.
One case involved a couple who brought in their fifteen-year-old son for
an examination. He had seemed depressed and was doing poorly in school,
but the immediate reason for the exam was that the court had ordered it.
Though the boy referred to in the book as "Bobby" had no history
of behavior problems, he had just been arrested for stealing and wrecking
The mother and father--devout, hard-working Lutherans--told Peck they
were fairly certain of the reason: The boy's older brother had shot himself
to death just months before.
In a private talk with Peck, the teenager didn't have much to say. But
he insisted that he had mostly gotten over his brother's suicide and was
having no specific problems at school or at home. Since the office visit
was not long after the holiday season, Peck steered the conversation to
more general topics by asking Bobby what he had gotten for Christmas.
A rifle, the boy told him. A .22.
Peck's stomach sank as he asked Bobby, "How did you feel, getting
the same kind of gun your brother had?"
"It wasn't the same kind," Bobby replied. "It was the same
When Peck confronted the parents about giving Bobby their dead son's suicide
weapon for Christmas, they responded not with guilt but with anger. No
amount of discussion could convince the parents they had done anything
wrong, or even questionable.
The argument could be made, Peck acknowledges, that Bobby's parents were
not motivated by true malice, but were merely guilty of displaying a gross
insensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of another human being. But
isn't it also possible that that what we commonly consider as "evil"
might be, at least in part, an insensitivity toward others taken to a
magnitude that a "normal" person has trouble even conceiving
the political philosopher who, while reporting on the Nuremberg Trials,
first used the phrase "the banality of evil," set off an international
controversy at the time by suggesting that even a war criminal on such
a massive scale as Nazi official Adolph Eichmann was not, in person, the
snarling monster of popular imagination but rather an ordinary-seeming
When Eichmann fled to Argentina after the war, American intelligence agents
who monitored his activities reported that he seemed outwardly to be a
model citizen. He was especially kind to children, and one report describes
him as stopping a small boy whose hair he gently strokes and whose collar
he straightens before sending the youngster on his way.
Today, a generation later, Arendt's descriptions of Eichmann on the witness
stand at Nuremberg, when taken piecemeal, bear disturbing resemblance
to a garden-variety sociopath ("an almost total inability to look
at anything from the other person's point of view..."); or to an
ambitious executive ("Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking
out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all...");
or even to a former U.S. president ("a horrible gift for consoling
himself with cliches..."). Eichmann appeared to be a man of "rather
modest mental gifts," Arendt concludes. "He was not a monster,
but a clown."
Delbanco's book makes clear that the trend toward "depersonalization"
of evil in popular culture--especially where the old image of a terrible,
horned pitchfork-carrying Satan is concerned--was already well underway
more than a century before the events that led to the Holocaust:
Satan had been turned from an attribute of the self into a visible being
outside the self. Then, in his new variety of fantastic forms, he had
been dismissed. In other words, the devil was being reduced to something
that educated men could not believe in. This was the beginning of the
end of the devil as a meaningful symbol of evil.
This was not because the promises of Revelation were being fulfilled:
"And the beast was taken...and cast alive into a lake of fire burning
with brimstone." It was because the devil, like an old actor whose
declamatory style has become comic, was losing his audience.
In any event,
my impromptu immersion in the study of evil that began with Peck's People
of the Lie had an unexpected repercussion.
I had been
working every day for more than a year, with much enthusiasm, on an untitled
novel: a farce about a hard-bitten rock music promoter who is coerced
into managing a low-budget road tour of six Tibetan monks who perform
ancient sacred music and dance.
But now, I no longer went to bed excited about waking up in the four a.m.
darkness to work on the novel before going to my office job. The manuscript
became a chore and a dread. Like most writers, I'd grown accustomed over
the years to feeling depressed and disenchanted, at some point, about
every work-in-progress. Not only did the mood usually pass, but it had
come to seem an inevitable, and somehow necessary, stage in a project's
This time, though, the mood didn't pass. The novel was clearly on the
wrong track, and I had no idea how to fix it.
Then, one rainy predawn, I realized with a jolt what was missing--the
real reason that the monks and their unlikely tour manager were out on
the road. It was suddenly clear to me that they were preparing for an
apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil. They were trying
to prevent the end of the world.
That morning I shelved a year's worth of pages and started over. The writing
would have more than its share of ups and downs over the next five years,
but I never doubted this was the story I had set out to tell in the first
place. And, along the way, I realized that, with the change in direction,
I had lost something besides a year's writing. I mysteriously quit having
a recurring nightmare featuring nuclear explosions and Book of Revelation
beasts that had plagued me since the age of eight.
In 1992, when
I read Cormac McCarthy's novel All the Pretty Horses and came
across a line of dialogue that says, "Evil is a true thing; it goes
about on its own legs," I knew immediately that the line would serve,
along with a verse of the old hymn "Zion Hill," as the epigraph
of my novel.
Though the book is finished and has made its way into the world, I'm still
drawn to read everything about the subject of evil I come across. I'm
increasingly convinced that evil is an actual force existing independently
of human constructs and periodically making itself known through human
I realize, even as I think it, that this is a dangerous way to think.
The supreme danger, as both Delbanco and Peck take great pains to point
out, is that successfully portraying one's adversary as evil (and therefore
less than fully human) has been an integral step in nearly every group
atrocity throughout history--from the Inquisition to the Holocaust, from
the Salem witch trials to the suffering in Bosnia.
By no means do I believe "the devil made me do it" is an acceptable
defense for a crime. Peck and numerous other writers agree that it's ludicrous
to entertain the idea of spontaneous possession by evil, a demon pouncing
on us unawares from behind a bush.
Rather, they say, possession is more like going down a long flight of
short steps, one at a time--a series of voluntary moral choices, some
trivial when seen in isolation, that are made over a period of months
or years, even a lifetime. It's only when the results are apparent that
the possessed realize how far they've come, and the path back to their
former way of life becomes unthinkable, a form of emotional suicide.
In the back of my brain lives a tiny, skeptical scientist. Even he seems
to be reevaluating his assumptions about all this. But, as Gary Zukav
points out, the gap is fast narrowing between science and spirituality.
In his book, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Zukav describes his visit,
as a layman, to a conference of international experts on quantum physics:
"To my great surprise, I discovered that (1) I understood everything
that they said, and (2) their discussion sounded very much like a theological
Whereas science once held the promise of eradicating troublesome mysteries
from the world, the cutting edge of many disciplines now appears to be
leading in the opposite direction, toward deeper and more complex mysteries
than our logic can accommodate.
Researchers studying the biological basis of consciousness, for instance,
are faced with a maddening puzzle: While most of us take for granted that
consciousness is a real phenomenon, it's also true that as the cells in
our brain continually die off and are replaced, our consciousness becomes
a function of molecules that were once inert--part of the air we breathed,
the food we ate.
How does a particle stop being inert matter, become sentient, and then
go back to being matter again, if not by some exterior force known only
dimly as "consciousness," which enters or "possesses"
it for a time?
And couldn't the same be true of the phenomenon we know, only dimly, as
We can change the channel all we want, but the mystery only deepens.
A prison official
in Montgomery scrolls through the database on his computer as I wait on
the other end of the phone line. "Yes," he says suddenly. "Clayborn,
Charles Lewis. He's at Elmore." He means the Elmore Correctional
Facility in central Alabama, one of the state's largest penitentiaries.
After I hang up, I gather my will and dial the phone number he gave me.
A warden at Elmore listens patiently to the story of my encounter with
Clayborn twenty years earlier, and agrees to arrange a meeting if the
prisoner, now in his sixties, is willing to see me. For some reason, I
have a hunch this won't happen.
But in less than half an hour, my phone rings. The warden says Clayborn
would be glad to talk. He remembers me, he says. How about next Tuesday?
That afternoon, feeling half in a dream, I call the prison again to get
directions. A secretary tells me which exit to take, from the interstate
onto a remote two-lane highway. And she adds somberly, "Once you
get on this road, you never get off." She senses my hesitation and
laughs. "All I'm saying is, the road changes, but you don't. You
know what I mean?" I tell her I do.
Tuesday is a brilliant winter morning: the sun almost blinding through
the iced limbs of trees, the sky as dark a blue as you ever see. I follow
the two-lane road past cotton fields coated with frost, a tiny grocery,
a feed store, a shop that sells bow-hunting supplies.
Elmore Correctional is a constellation of long, concrete buildings that
appear freshly painted, a pale yellow, with rows of aluminum air vents
glistening on the roofs. The grounds are immaculately clean, and the chain-link
fence runs alongside a pasture where a few horses graze. The total effect
is more like a military barracks than a prison--until you become aware
of the gun towers, and the razor wire atop the fence.
At the guard
station out front, I surrender my driver's license and am led through
a series of electronically controlled steel gates to a paneled office
with desk and chairs, where I'm told to wait while a guard brings the
inmate to me.
Clayborn, Jr. comes through the door smiling, his hand out to shake. He
wears a white uniform stenciled with the prison's name, and white jogging
shoes. He carries a thick file folder under his arm. Except for a couple
of wrinkles, and a barely visible frosting of gray in his close-clipped
black hair, he looks virtually unchanged from the January morning in Birmingham
twenty years before.
As he takes
the chair opposite me, I tell him he doesn't appear to have aged much,
which seems to please him. "I try to avoid dissipation," he
says seriously. "I eat fresh vegetables whenever I can. I drink milk.
I exercise. I jog, I lift weights." He had a problem a while back
with his blood pressure, he says, but medication is keeping it in check.
His pattern of speech is rapid and fluid, with a scholar's vocabulary,
and though I pride myself on being attuned to regional accents, his is
impervious to me. One word's inflection might suggest Hoboken or the Bronx;
another, Jamaica or Haiti.
He's put his prison time to good use, he tells me, taking college classes
for an associate degree in liberal arts. I ask him if he enjoys reading.
"Oh, I'm a regular bookworm," he says. "I especially like
historical fiction. James Michener, John Jakes, Jean Auel--the Earth's
I ask about his childhood. He tells me he grew up in Davin, West Virginia,
which he describes as "a small, hilly coal-mining town." His
parents died in the 1980s. He's lost touch with his brother and two sisters.
I ask him what he wanted to be, when he grew up. He looks across the room,
wistfully, at nothing in particular. "I've always loved agriculture,"
he says. "Making things grow. I suppose I wanted to be a sort of
gentleman farmer. But my schoolteachers frowned on that. They thought
I should be a doctor or a lawyer, something more beneficial to my race.
Of course, those were the days of rampaging segregation."
He eventually joined the Air Force, and in the months preceding the kidnapping
he worked in Las Vegas as a waiter and busboy.
open the folder of newspaper clippings I've brought, and show him the
headlines about his arrest, his trial, his conviction. I ask what he remembers
about those days. "Oh, everything," he says casually, and then
changes the subject. "I've just been rolling with the system,"
he tells me. "I just go along. I haven't had any disciplinary actions."
I ask if he's been considered for parole. He was paroled in 1990, he says.
He bought a car, moved to New Jersey, started a job. But he says he became
intrigued by Alaska--"It's the land of the last frontier, you know"--and
drove to Anchorage, intending to make a new start.
The only problem was, he failed to tell his parole officer. He was stopped
in Alaska by the highway patrol, and when they traced his license they
discovered a warrant. "That's how I ended up back here," he
While awaiting extradition to Alabama, he began a campaign of letter-writing--"Trying
to get my side of the story told, you know?" He opens the file folder
he's brought with him and takes out a neat packet of the replies, still
in their original envelopes, that he's received. He offers to let me read
Some are form letters from U.S. Senators, acknowledging his "information."
Another letter, long and detailed, is from the Board of Education in his
home state of West Virginia, replying to his charge that school textbooks
were part of a conspiracy of lies about his long-time hero Booker T. Washington,
who wrote Up from Slavery while serving as president of Alabama's Tuskegee
"You can go all through elementary school and high school,"
Clayborn tells me indignantly, "believing that he was from Alabama.
It's not until you get to college, if then, that you found out he was
really from Virginia.
I'm wondering how any of this applies to the crime Clayborn is in prison
for, when it slowly dawns on me. A.G. Gaston, the man he was convicted
of kidnapping, became a millionaire in a business he named the Booker
T. Washington Insurance Company.
"At the time, I only saw two ways open to me," Clayborn says
earnestly. "There was the way of Martin Luther King, the indirect
method. Or I could sacrifice myself to criminal involvement, and bring
this to the attention of the whole nation."
I ask him
what he would do differently, if he could live that period over. "Oh,
everything," he says. "I'd probably have joined the Black Movement,
and worked through that avenue. I certainly regret the hurt that I caused.
I wrote Dr. Gaston and told him that. He didn't reply, but I heard through
others that he bore me no animosity." (The week after I met with
Clayborn, A.G. Gaston suffered a stroke and died in a Birmingham hospital
at the age of one hundred and three.)
long silence, Clayborn and I both looking at the table between us.
"What do you believe in?" I hear myself ask him.
He doesn't hesitate. "I believe in the Ten Commandments," he
says, "and in living peacefully with my fellow man." When he
was younger, he says, he became a Rosicrucian for a while. "I tried
to make it my religion, but I wasn't strong enough. I did receive a degree
of enlightenment, though."
I ask him if he believes in the concept of evil--of people being possessed
by a force outside themselves that makes them do wrong.
Clayborn slowly releases a breath through his lips. "That's a heavy
question," he says. "Yes sir, I do a lot of thinking about that.
I know there's more to man than what appears outwardly. There are powerful
forces in us that are yet to be controlled.
"I mean, look at Sarajevo. Look at Rwanda. It's not about race. These
are people of the same race, doing that to one another."
The room is silent. I look over my notes, and tell him that I believe
I've got what I came for. He replaces his papers in the file folder.
We stand up. I shake his hand, thank him for his time, and wish him the
Then I retrace my path through the electronic steel gates, and walk out
into the blinding sunlight.
It's not until I'm home that I realize the magnitude of my omission. If
I had gone to Elmore after all those years to confront the notion of evil
head-on, it was clear that at the last minute I had blinked.
I call the
warden's office, and arrange to talk briefly with Clayborn on the phone.
When Clayborn gets on the line, and after we've exchanged hellos, I explain
to him that I was young and impressionable when I first saw him in the
Jefferson County jail. Still, I tell him, I haven't been able to shake
the memory of being very afraid--not of him, but of some force or presence
I sensed in the cell with us. I ask him if he remembers anything like
"Yes, certainly," he says. "I was being guided by a mystical
The silence is mine. Finally, I ask, "Was it an evil force?"
"Oh, no It was not negative. It was constructive. Even though it
caused pain, it was something that had to be done. That much I know, sir."
I thank him and tell him good-bye and he hangs up. The cold vacancy of
the dial tone is all that's left.
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