top of page
  • NYS Writers Institute

Sister Helen Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking," checks in from New Orleans

We asked Sister Helen Prejean for words of inspiration. She came back to us with incredible answers.

Author of the international bestseller, Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen is a Roman Catholic nun and a preeminent advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. Dead Man Walking was adapted as an Oscar-nominated film starring Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen and Sean Penn as an inmate on death row.

Prior to the current pandemic, Sister Helen had been scheduled to visit the NYS Writers Institute at the University at Albany on Monday, March 23 with her new memoir of faith, River of Fire, the story of her spiritual journey from praying to solving the world's problems to engaging full-tilt in working to address societal injustices.

Still going strong at the age of 80, and traveling the country year-round to spread her message, Sister Helen is currently "social distancing" at home with the Sisters of St. Joseph in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Q: Do you have any words of wisdom for us?

A: Here's my first trickle of words to flow into the mighty stream [from her preface to the new memoir, River of Fire]

They killed a man with fire one night,
strapped him in a wooden chair and pumped electricity
into his body until he was dead.
His killing was a legal act.
No religious leaders protested the killing that night
but I was there. I saw it with my own eyes
and what I saw set my soul on fire,
a fire that burns in me still.​

Q: Do you have a favorite poem you'd like to share?

A: Marge Piercy's "To Be of Use."

The people I love best

jump into work head first

without dallying in the shallows

and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

They seem to become natives of that element

the black sleek heads of seals

bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,

who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,

who strain in the mud and the mud and the muck to move things forward,

who do what has to be done, again and again.

Note: Marge Piercy visited the NYS Writers Institute in April 2003 with her memoir, Sleeping with Cats.

Q: Is there anything you look forward to reading during these days of social distancing?

A: I'm just tipping my toe into the thought of chemist-turned philosopher, Michael Polanyi, who explores that the way we come to know something can happen only inside a previous "tacit knowing." It's what gives us the ability "to dwell inside of things."

Even hard-core scientists, if they desire to be creative, and not mere transmitters of cold, detached objectivity, must learn "to dwell inside of things," which is more art than science, more poetry than prose, more spirit than rational control of data.

In other words to truly know something (including people, I suspect, but a far more mysterious and never-ending process) we need to be humble, we must learn to kneel to hear and see correctly.

In his book, The Tacit Dimension, Polanyi asserts: "we can know more than we can tell."

It makes me think of 13th century philosopher Duns Scotus, one of the first to point to the unique "is-ness" of each being, which sparked the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, leading him to scent out the elusive "within of things."

Ah, yes, always to be on the scent of the "within of things"! What writer or aspiring writer doesn't feel a little jolt at seeing those words?

Q: What is life like for you during these strange times?

A: Check for pictures and accounts of my days enclosed in my little apartment in New Orleans. I’m welcoming being off the road for awhile. Even planted flowers and got a bird feeder & doing some good Cajun cooking.

My city is struggling mightily with the virus. Had Mardi Gras with 100k people on Feb 25, which seeded the virus massively. We’re now the third highest hot spot per capita. We have a good Governor, John Bell Edwards and good Mayor of New Orleans giving good leadership.

Also.... I’ve opened up beginning pages of my new book, Riding the Mighty River. More later....

You stay well.

We need you for the revolution.

Sister Helen

We're planning to reschedule Sister Helen for a Fall 2020 event at UAlbany. In the meantime, send her a message in the comments.


bottom of page