Chessman’s bequest to his executioners

RICHARD DRINNON is assistant professor of history at the University of California, and was recently Bruern Fellow in American Civilisation at the University of Leeds. His biography of the American anarchist Emma Goldman, “Rebel in Paradise” was published in 1961, and he contributed a remarkable study of Thoreau to ANARCHY 26.

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 19, 2018

A DOUBLE IRONY LAY IN CARYL CHESSMAN’S CONVICTION in 1948 on seventeen charges of robbery, sexual assault, and kidnapping. The state’s assumption that it could twice take away something irreplaceably precious was laughable; as for the man condemned to die two times over, he “didn’t much give a damn whether he lived or died.” But sometime during the dozen years left him he started giving a very big damn and also became a writer of true promise, if not of the realised achievement claimed by some of his supporters. The two were fairly directly linked. “One sheds one’s sickness in books,” D. H. Lawrence found, “repeats and presents again one’s emotions to be master of them.” Chessman’s experience was similar, for when he stayed his flood of legal briefs and memoranda to write several autobiographical novels, his first discovery was himself.

A false start showed him that mere hate was “not a very good storyteller,” that it would not turn back on itself and help him show how a “psychopathic hate is born.” Throwing away what he had on paper, he started over. Cell 2455 was a triumph of the intellect and emotions. To begin with, it was not simply a tear-jerking apology for his misspent and misunderstood youth. Even in the extremity of his condition, he did not take the easy course marked out by social workers and blame society for all his actions: “Make no mistake,” he warned the reader, “I don’t blame my plight on you or on society generally. I blame myself and I accept full responsibility for what has happened to me.” In truth, he was a little hard on himself, for his notes from the underground clearly established that society was in some measure to blame. In an economy based on the fast buck, the Cadillac convertible, and the swank apartment; in a social rat-race run on “Screw you, Jack” rules, with impersonal state agencies to sweep up the losers; in a political order in which almost all was permItted, provided you did not get caught or had police protection—after all, Chessman did not invent this Los Angeles subtopia and it was on this burned-over ground that he grew up and became part of the general estrangement. Certainly, as an adolescent with personal problems, he was hardly guided to creative solutions for his inner tensions. One of the contributions of his book was the conceptual bridge which he erected between the disturbed individual and the alienated society.

More difficult were his excursions into the dark places of his own psyche. Almost unflinchingly he outlined the life story of a child with an invalid mother and a suicidal father and related how he began stealing groceries more for kicks than for food. To teach him a “lesson,” the authorities repeatedly put him behind bars, threw him into solitary. slapped him, stood on his arches, and threatened him with the gas chamber if he did not conform to the system. The pedagogy was still lacking something essential, for Chessman simply tramped down on the accelerator in a “wild ride in a hot car through Hollywood, with the cops in hot pursuit and shooting.” All this reads like material from a B-movie, but what Chessman did with it reads more like Vienna than Hollywood. The wild ride, he realised, “leads both into darkness and away from darkness”—both away from guilts and fears of death and into the final kick of self-destruction. In his analysis of his relations with his parents, Chessman showed a perceptive awareness that his aggression turned inward had resulted in fear and guilt. Turned outward it had been a kind of therapy which helped him live in his hell. He went oil, however, to tie this external aggression to death, for to rely on it meant “you are afraid of nothing because you believe in nothing, have faith in nothing. It means you have found life worthless and death consequently meaningless. It means you have traded fear for guile and hate and an angry, furious contempt, that you have turned against yourself and all that is warm and human … Your coveted aloneness lacks only the finality that Death will give it.” And if aggression was really death turned outwards, then the state’s relentless drive to kill him and others was an expression of a collective death wish. Execution was to be his ultimate punishment for not “learning his lesson.” To approach the troubled young this way was farcical and worse: “the idea that someone exercising authority over them … can scold, lecture, frighten or force them into being ‘good,’ which usually means no more than blind, submissive obedience to authority’s will, is simply a fallacy. But authority—and society—seems to be infatuated with the idea anyway.” Infatuated was not quite the right word, but the insight was there. There is a basic identity between the criminal’s aggressive acts and the state’s. Its stubborn retention of the death penalty in the face of reason and evidence shows a comparable liking for aggression, except that the state’s ways of killing are of course
sanctioned ways.

In his last book, The Kid Was a Killer, Chessman further tied individual violence to collective violence. The psychopathic Kid does not take up killing on his own. Instead he takes part in the Korean War and finds a full, legal, socially respectable outlet for his lust to destroy. For his exploits the Kid receives medals; at home he would have earned a seat in the gas chamber. Only an individual psychopath or a psychopathic culture, Chessman was saying, would take up violent aggression to solve conflicts. “In time,” he wrote, “we would substitute vision for vengeance. We would rise above our own fears and insecurity and senseless prejudices, and when we did we would build a better world, one whose architect was neither force nor violence, retribution nor suspicion.” Given his circumstances and ours, this was an extravagant hope; but he himself provided us with one compelling reason for not thinking it impossibly optimistic.

Writing in the shadow of the gas chamber, Chessman shed his sickness in books, mastered his urges to destroy himself and others, and in so doing learned how to face death and die with dignity. Part of the unspeakable futility of his execution was its timing, for it came at a point when a full1ife had become possible for him: he had discovered in himself what Dostoevsky found in The House of the Dead, “the passionate desire to rise up again, to be renewed, to begin a new life.” Yet Chessman did leave us the legacy of his insights into violence and the impact of his experience. He showed a way out of our collective Death Row—no inconsiderable achievement for a writer—and may even have marked out a path to renewal and joy.