Thomas Keating (1923–2018)

Thomas Keating
Thomas Keating

By Martin Rowe

I first encountered the work of Fr. Thomas Keating in 1994, who died on October 26, aged 95 as the newly minted promotion manager at Continuum Publishing Company (an independent press based in New York City). Among my tasks was publicizing three Keating titles that Gene Gollogly, Continuum’s sales manager and eventual vice-president, had recently acquired from Element Books: Open Mind, Open Heart; The Mystery of Christ; and Invitation to Love.

Gene recognized not only the centrality of these books to the burgeoning interest in “centering prayer” and Contemplative Outreach, the organization that Keating had helped birth, but ecumenism as a whole. Over the next five years, Continuum published many titles on the traditions of Christian contemplative prayer and lectio divina that Keating—and his fellow monastics Fr. William Meninger and Fr. Basil Pennington—had revived in the 1970s at St. Joseph’s Monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. In addition to books by Keating, Continuum brought into the world A Taste of Silence by Fr. Carl Arico, two titles by Fr. Richard Fragomeni, a book by Meninger on the fourteenth-century text The Cloud of Unknowing, and Centering Prayer in Daily Life and Ministry, a volume of writings by Keating edited by Gustave Reininger.

When Gene and I left Continuum in the summer of 1999 to found our publishing company, Lantern Books, Keating had no particular reason to follow us. He continued to write for Continuum, which was eventually bought by Bloomsbury, and for Crossroad (which was acquired by Herder, a German Catholic publishing house), but I think he appreciated Gene’s enthusiasm for Christian spirituality and my practicality, even pragmatism, when it came to publishing.

Gene and I had also attended two of the first three Gethsemani Encounters at Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky (the home and final resting-place of Thomas Merton). These meetings of Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu monastics at the turn of the millennium were held under the auspices of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID), in which Fr. Keating played a role. It was through these encounters that I became acquainted with other monastics—such as Sr. Mary Margaret Funk, Fr. William Skudlarek, and Ven. Yifa—who were to play a large role in my life and in Lantern’s development over the next ten years. Gene and I appreciated the honesty with which Keating and these other monks and nuns whom we published confronted the human condition—our vulnerabilities, dependencies, cravings, and self-delusions—even (or perhaps especially) within the context of a life of faith and ritual.

We had another connection as well. Keating’s readings of Matthew 6:6 (“Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”—NRSV) was, in addition to being an invitation to apophatic prayer in the manner of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Ávila, reaching back to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, paralleled by the intimacy and stillness of reading itself. In both, one’s own voice was silenced and you paid attention to another’s experience and wisdom. Through both, you opened up the possibility not merely of persuasion but transformation through the word. Combined with the work of MID, Keating’s commitment to interreligious dialogue—an outgrowth of Vatican II’s recognition of other world religions as valid pathways to the divine, and the engagements of Thomas Merton with other faiths—echoed Lantern’s own orientation to interdisciplinary work, in which we produced books that combined animal advocacy with social justice or religion, or social justice with psychotherapy or religion, and so on.

Over twenty years, we’ve published nine titles by Keating, three edited anthologies featuring his work, nine more volumes inspired by centering prayer, fourteen books on interreligious dialogue, three memoirs, and, for a while, we printed the MID bulletin and hosted the organization’s website. Although I only met with Keating on a handful of occasions, we talked on the phone regularly. His wit was sharp, even piquant; his concern for clarity in his writing and thinking was unrelenting. Manuscripts would undergo numerous revisions: a delicate penned caret inserting a key detail here; there, a spidery rephrasing placed on top of the offending sentence. Always apposite, always authoritative, always a refinement.

In his last years, he relied on me and his editor Bonnie Shimizu to tell him if he was repeating something or saying nothing. I think he felt relieved when after he submitted a slender set of thoughts for possible publication in early 2018, we told him to put down his pen. He’d done all he could in forty years of writing to explain what centering prayer was and how it fitted into the Christian contemplative tradition, we said. Those who took his words to be a salve without the necessary contrition or repentance; or thought he was peddling “new age” ego-boosterism; or even discerned a blasphemous syncresis that threatened Church teachings—none of these individuals would be convinced by yet another dissertation on our relationship with God.

Bonnie and I concurred that an honest reading of Keating’s work would encounter a seeker deeply committed to a humble recognition of a loving and intimate God, a Divine Healer who cared for our human failings and demanded that we face them, even as He (and we) recognized our utter helplessness. Thomas Keating didn’t need to prove to anyone that he’d lived his faith, or that his mind wasn’t bent toward God.

A contemporary of my father, Keating was like him a person to admire for his discipline and authority, as well as his humor, even though we were very different. Keating was a Catholic man of faith, I am a Protestant agnostic; he was an omnivore, I am a vegan; he was someone who’d committed himself to a formal institution for more than seventy years, I had fled the institutional life at the same age as he entered one. Yet we both performed our daily disciplines, based on a belief in a calling greater than ourselves; and we both tried to do our best in the face of our (no doubt) regular infractions of that vocation.

Before the release of The Rising Tide of Silence, a documentary film on Keating’s life by his nephew, Peter Jones, I hadn’t thought that the Keating I knew (avuncular, easily amused) might be very different from the younger man. According to the documentary, the desiccated austerities practiced by the Trappists before Vatican II demanded self-effacement; the order restricted what it was permissible to read (no psychology, for instance); and it along with the Church discouraged the contemplative life or apophatic prayer. As a young monastic, Keating had (the documentary asserted) vigorously toed that line. Vatican II (1962–66) took place when Keating was an abbot. Its loosening of monastic strictures, and its opening up to other modes of knowing God as well as other religions came as a massive shock not only to the system that Keating had spent almost two decades enforcing, but to the man and his monastery.

Keating appears nonetheless to have grabbed the opportunities presented by Vatican II with both hands. He reconnected with the long-suppressed Christian contemplative tradition partly to enable young people fleeing to the religions of Asia to reconnect with the inner world of the Divine. He engaged with some theories of human consciousness and psychology that emerged during the 1960s and 1970s to give practitioners a contemporary language by which to understand the often-overwhelming emotions (even terrors and despondencies) those earlier mystics had experienced during contemplative prayer. He honored the expressions of humility and self-emptying (kenosis) that could be found in other faiths, while sticking resolutely to his own via negativa.

When my wife, Mia, and I went to see him in hospice at St Joseph’s Abbey over the summer, he was lying in bed, thin but with a lively look in his eye. He was characteristically wry-humored and curious—pressing me to practice contemplative prayer, asking Mia about her work, and reflecting on his literary estate. I thanked him for what he’d brought to Lantern, and to Gene and myself; he expressed his appreciation for my labors on his behalf. There was nothing to lament; death held no terrors; and nothing more had to be said. After an hour, he said he was getting tired, and we left.

Perhaps I was lucky only to know this older Keating; perhaps the younger man would have left me cold. But he was never pious or pompous with me; he never complained about my edits (at least to my face) or told me how little I understood; he never pulled rank or faith or his closeness to God to silence my reservations. I like to think his generosity was because, like most monastics, he knew that the rigors of a life of work and prayer would ultimately expose Pharasaism. Each day held a potential revelation of how weak one was before God; each day was a struggle to rein in one’s ego, ambition, and pride and recommit oneself to the order, to the superior, to the faith. Thinking of him in this way helps me to grasp the magnitude of the vocation to which he gave his entire adult life; it also allows me to glimpse the frail and flawed human being beneath the robe—one whom Keating and his works cherished, sat with, and loved.

Self-Publishing Now *Is* Publishing

Ingram, the largest book wholesaler in the United States, recently sent out a newsletter with the following startling declaration:

2017 was an important year for self-publishing, when, for the first time ever, self- and indie-published books surpassed the market share of big publishers, with 42% of the market, as compared to 34% held by big publishers.

 

One caveat: it’s not entirely clear to me why “indie-published” should be bracketed with “self-published,” since there are plenty of medium-sized independent publishers who don’t consider themselves to be vanity operations, and who have had their share of bestsellers. That said, this statistic is a further indicator of the turbulent literary and commercial currents eroding the foundations of Big Publishing, with its large overheads and entrenched business patterns.

The statistic is also a recognition, as Ingram’s newsletter points out, that the stigma that used to adhere to authors who published themselves or who were published by small presses is disappearing, except perhaps within the well-guarded walls of the literary-industrial complex. A minuscule number of people may be able to make a living from their writing (’twas ever thus), but it’s now at least theoretically possible for many more people to try, without having to go through the obstacle course set up by agents, editors, and marketing divisions.

Lower production costs due to technological advancements; many more channels and platforms by which to reach readers; and a communications landscape that allows authors and readers to interact more democratically—all these have made publishing a less intimidating, hierarchical, and culturally niche activity.

As Dorothy found out in The Wizard of Oz, the demystification of pompous glamor and intimidation may lead to disenchantment, but it can also foster self-reliance and help you find your voice.

You’ve Published a Book . . . Now What?

We at Lantern like to imagine we have no illusions about how hard it is to squeeze a book past the gatekeepers of mainstream, third-party publishers. It’s a long, arduous, and dispiriting process courting agents, or failing to hear back from editors, or figuring out just where your manuscript is in the slush pile on someone’s desk—or even whether it made it there in the first place. That’s why we understand how self-publishing is a viable option for many folks: it’s technologically never been easier, nobody gets in your way, and you can get virtually instantaneous gratification by developing a product you have full control over. It’s a big thrill when copies of your book arrive at your house. But then comes the next question: Now what?

Let’s assume you mean distribution. If you’ve used CreateSpace, you have Amazon as your fulfillment house—and you can always pay for more and wider services. If you’ve published with IngramSpark, you have Ingram. Xlibris offers its own distribution services as well, and other options exist. You could try to persuade another publisher to distribute the book for you, but nearly all publishers only want to distribute other publishers. It’s too much hassle and costs too much (in accounting, mainly) for us to bother ourselves with single-book authors.

You then confront the issue of publicity. How are you going to let people know about your book? You can buy Google or Facebook ads. You can put up a cheap website. You can let people know through social media. You can do a giveaway on Amazon. But you have to work hard, and you have to be relentless and comfortable with self-promotion. No one is going to pay attention to you unless you make them: that’s just the truth.

Lantern recommends authors think of their book as a big calling card. Use it to get speaking engagements, or bigger speaking engagements. Disaggregate your text into op-eds or articles for magazines. Turn your book into a 20-minute lecture, or an hour-long seminar, or a weekend workshop, or a two-day intensive—and then take it on the road. If you use the knowledge you’ve distilled in the book in a multitude of ways, then the definitions of success become more numerous, and therefore more likely to happen. The book, therefore, is the beginning of the process by which you communicate to your audience, and not the end.

Of course, it’s possible that if your self-published work is a huge hit, an agent or editor will hear about it and propose they take the book off your hands. Indeed, several well-known writers began their literary lives as self-published authors. Or, you can keep control and make a ton of money. As with everything to do with publishing, however, there are no guarantees, and the vast majority of folks will never be able to give up their day jobs. But if you’re shrewd enough, you might just make a go of it.

Jens Soering Joins the Presidential Race

Jens Soering
Jens Soering

As regular readers of this blog will know, in the last couple of years, Lantern’s author Jens Soering has been the subject of a controversial New Yorker profile, a forthcoming documentary feature film called The Promise, and follow-up stories in the media that have questioned his conviction for two murders thirty years ago. Jens, who maintains his innocence, has consistently asked not to be pardoned or released but—a much easier lift—to be sent back to Germany to complete his sentence, thus relieving the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia of the tax burdens of looking after a person who is not a U.S. citizen and would not, under any circumstance, be allowed back in the U.S. once he was released.

It was to such an arrangement in 2009, that outgoing Virginia governor Tim Kaine agreed. That decision was not only immediately rescinded by incoming Republican governor Bob McDonnell (an apparently unprecedented move) but, now that Kaine is the running mate of Democratic presidential contender Hillary Rodham Clinton, has now become the putative soft-on-crime albatross that some Virginia Republicans are looking to hang around Kaine’s neck.

As a story in today’s Politico indicates, the Clinton camp aren’t running away from the story. As ever, the considerable actual merits of Soering’s release—he’s been a model prisoner, has written four valuable and insightful books for us, and he would pose no threat to the U.S. and save people money—will be forgotten.

WeChat Discussion with Alex Lockwood

Recently, a Brighter Green–sponsored discussion was held with Lantern Books author Alex Lockwood on WeChat, the popular messaging app used in China. People were able to ask him about his recent book, The Pig in Thin Air and about veganism, animal rights, and activism. Below is the edited transcript of this discussion.

Alex Lockwood WeChat Discussion

Publishing Your Thesis

Origin of the ThesesAt Lantern we receive many requests to publish masters’ theses and the occasional doctoral dissertation—or, more accurately, requests from newly minted M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s for us to read the document and make recommendations pending a decision on whether to publish or not. As you can see, the burden of work is almost wholly the publisher’s. We’re expected to put in the hours reading and make suggestions without any remuneration, and, frankly, we’re busy enough without offering free editorial advice which, as often as not, is not taken because the author doesn’t want to do the work: he or she wants the editor to do it for him or her! Nonetheless, assuming the best will in the world from an author, here are three pieces of consecutive advice for any academic seeking to publish a work, at any press let alone Lantern.

Figure Out the Purpose of Publishing Your Thesis
Lantern has published a number of books that are regularly used in university and high school courses. However, we are not an academic publishing company: we do not employ representatives to visit colleges to encourage scholars to use our books; we do not attend academic conferences to display our titles; we do not advertise in scholarly media; we do not seek reviews in academic journals. If your aim is to bring your work to scholars in your field then you need to find an academic press—one that publishes in that field.

Furthermore, if you’re using your thesis to further your academic career, you may not want a general trade publisher to publish it, since (sad to say) that might be taken as a sign that the work lacks academic rigor. Therefore, it may be strategic to publish with a university press or an academic publisher, such as Greenwood or Mellen, to burnish your academic reputation or simply get your thesis bound between two covers and given an ISBN and made available through the academic lending-library network.

Now for a little uncomfortable truth-telling. Is your quest for publication because you feel you put a lot of work into your thesis and you’d like it to be printed as a memento and/or so you can move on with your life? If either or both of these are the case, then go to Amazon or any vanity press and print a couple of copies on demand: one for your mother and one for the bookshelf at home. If you really couldn’t be bothered about the subject to work on your book or promote it, why should the publisher?

Of course, it’s conceivable that you genuinely want to make your work accessible and you believe that academic publishers make their books too expensive for the general readership, which is why you’re looking at a general trade publisher. In that case, you need to . . .

Mind Your Language!
In order to complete your thesis, you’ve had to jump through a lot of rhetorical hoops: you’ve had to describe what your argument is and then rehearse it deliberatively and thoroughly—showing that you know your area of expertise. You’ve had to fill your text with academese and other technical jargon that illustrates your command of your discipline’s argot. You’ve had to provide extensive footnotes or endnotes, supplementary material, and appendices and charts and diagrams to dazzle the examiners. All of these are necessary for you to gain your accreditation, but may not be desirable in a book for the general public. The ordinary reader won’t be interested in what might be called “methodological throat-clearing” (all of the prefatory material that defines the scope of a thesis) and will certainly not want a lot of inside-baseball guff that academics love.

So, if you’re committed to a general trade publisher, you’ll need to strip that material out of your thesis. You have to simplify, clarify, and unpack the ideas that you’ve labored over for the last year or two to make as dense and concise as possible. Now, if you don’t want to do that because you’re feeling inadequate to the task then you should hire a freelance editor—because your would-be publisher is not going to do it for you. Period.

Lock Your Thesis Away
There is another option. Lock your thesis in a drawer and start again. You know your material (after all, you wrote a thesis about it), and now you need to expatiate on why you were drawn to it and why it was important. Tell the reader who you are, why the subject fascinated you, and what we need to understand about it. Give us stories, characters, and arguments and lay them out simply and straightforwardly. You can always go back to your thesis for essential data, but that’s after you’ve bypassed all the academic folderol in favor of an explication of its ideas. It’s a good bet that, if you do that, you’ll be surprised at the voice that emerges and the further thoughts and observations that arise—ones that were suppressed or edited out of the original thesis.

It’s at that point—after the honing and editing and rewriting that you would normally do for any work of prose, right?—that you should approach a general trade publisher like Lantern. What’s more, it’s a fair bet your work will be in a much better condition than it was at the outset of your venture.

Jens Soering Continues His Fight

promise_soeringReaders of this blog will know about Lantern’s author Jens Soering, currently serving life imprisonment in Virginia following his conviction for two murders in the mid-1980s. In 2015, Jens was the subject of a piece in The New Yorker by Nathan Heller and two blogs by me, Martin Rowe, in which I examined his very difficult situation. I talked about how important it was to me that Jens’ powerful insights into life in prison, his newly kindled Christian faith, and the prison-industrial complex were not dismissed because of any prurient obsession we readers might have about whether he was guilty or innocent. I suggested that we needed to get beyond the notion that innocence equaled authority or, conversely, that guilt meant you had nothing valuable to offer society. I affirmed that I published Jens because I thought he had important things to say.

I also indicated that publicity was a double-edged sword for Jens and for Lantern. I hoped that the attention brought to his situation by The New Yorker would encourage people to read his books and lead to his repatriation to his native Germany (Jens’ request), given that he had served more than enough time and posed absolutely no threat to the people of Virginia or the United States. But I also feared that the publicity might reactivate in the public’s consciousness Jens’ original trial and conviction and that, in turn, might encourage politicians in the Commonwealth of Virginia to burnish their “tough on crime” credentials by denying Jens’ request for repatriation to his native Germany. Sure enough, Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia turned down the request, partly, according to Jens, because of the original New Yorker piece, which Jens considers to have been poorly researched and misleading.

The New Yorker article—really two articles, since Heller wrote a follow-up in which he stated that Jens was “possibly innocent”—has helped to propel interest in Jens’ story, especially in Germany where his case is a cause célèbre and where the penal system is much less cruel and unusual. (Indeed, as Jens presciently noted in An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse, which we published over a decade ago, the U.S. system is so counterproductive that it cannot be sustained.) In June, The Promise (a docudrama that questions Jens’ conviction) premieres at the Munich Film Festival, and will then go on general release. Efforts are underway for distribution in the United States. And last month, Sandy Hausman, an award-winning journalist with WVTF public radio in Virginia, who has long taken an interest in Jens’ case, produced a further three-part series re-examining it. You can find these here:

One can only hope that The Promise and radio pieces such as Sandy Hausman’s will encourage the U.S. to release Jens—with as little fanfare as possible—back to Germany.

Jens Soering’s Next Move

Jens Soering
Jens Soering

A lot has changed and a lot has stayed the same since the publication of Nathan Heller’s “Blood Ties” in The New Yorker magazine a month ago. The article charted the torturous situation and complicated criminal case of our author Jens Soering, who was convicted of a double murder in the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1986, and who has long asked to be repatriated from the U.S. to his native Germany to serve the remainder of his sentence. “Blood Ties” was long and involved, and was read, according to Heller in a private correspondence with me (Martin R0we), “apparently avidly and closely” by around a million Americans. Soering’s response was a combination of despairing and furious. He considered the article an unmitigated disaster for his case and wrote me and others to tell me so. He demanded (because I was a “fair” man) that I post his correction/rebuttal, in which he details the errors, as he sees them, in Heller’s piece. You can read it here.

In his email to me, Heller observed that one (perhaps incidental) result of his article was that “Richmond has seemingly been feeling new pressure toward a repatriation decision.” One fascinating wrinkle of Soering’s case, which “Blood Ties” (for reasons of room, perhaps, as much as anything) had not delved deeply into, was that, in 2009, in one of his last acts as governor of Virginia, Democrat Tim Kaine had signed a repatriation order for Soering. This order was then rescinded by incoming governor, Bob McDonnell, a Republican, in a decision apparently unique in U.S. history and possibly unconstitutional. McDonnell will soon enough find himself a prisoner, convicted of fraud and extortion. In 2014, McDonnell was replaced in the governor’s mansion by Terry McAuliffe—and it is on him that Soering’s legal team are applying “new pressure” to reinstate Kaine’s order.

Almost from the outset, Soering’s case acquired a political dimension. In Germany, Soering has been profiled on national media and his case has become exemplary for everything the Germans consider cruel and unusual about American criminal justice. Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the issue of Soering’s repatriation with President Barack Obama, and the case was examined by Eric Holder, then the U.S. Attorney General. But many in the Commonwealth of Virginia—the home of Thomas Jefferson and, in some ways, the omphalos of “states” rights—have always dug their heels in whenever the name of Jens Soering is invoked. This time was no different. On December 6, the Lynchburg News & Advance, the local newspaper that has covered the murder story for thirty years, wrote an editorial that Soering should do his time where he did his crime. Four days later, Nathan Heller wrote a follow-up piece on The New Yorker‘s website, in which he revealed that, following the editorial, eighteen Republican state delegates had written to McAuliffe not to allow the repatriation—a decision that Heller found puzzling, especially since, he wrote, the case against Soering wasn’t strong and that he might, indeed, be “possibly innocent.”

Before he was governor, McAuliffe was a head of the Democratic National Committee (2001-5), and before that a prolific fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton. As the more perceptive of you may have noticed, it is now campaign season, and it is likely that Soering will become even more of a political football than he always has been. No Democrat will be want to be painted as soft on crime, especially in a swing-state like Virginia, and especially on a matter that pits international and federal interests against states’ rights. It is an irony lost on no one—including Soering or his supporters—the best option for his repatriation might be that he’s whisked away on a plane without anyone noticing he’s gone. That solution, which would solve a lot of peoples’ problems, is one that Soering, Heller, Lantern Books, and yours truly (at the request of the prisoner himself) are making less likely to happen.

A Serial Offender: Jens Soering

Jens Soering
Jens Soering

In the latter part of 2014, I (Martin Rowe), like many fans of public radio, was transfixed by Serial, the Peabody award–winning podcast hosted and produced by journalist Sarah Koenig. Serial told the story of how Adnan Syed, a Baltimore high-school student, was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999—and the doubts that attended the case from the beginning. In twelve absorbing and beautifully constructed episodes, Koenig explored the murder in fascinating detail and from apparently every angle. She uncovered inconsistencies in the prosecution and defense cases; she interviewed a witness not called by the defense; and she examined the multiple internal and external relationships among the students, their families, and their societies. She also told listeners about her doubts and puzzlements. She worried on air that she was being played by the charming Adnan, and how infuriatingly unforthcoming were some individuals at the heart of the case. As well as being a compelling use of radio, Serial made abundantly clear not only how difficult it was to establish what had actually happened that day fifteen years previously, but how hazy and unreliable memory was—even among those who had very good reason to want to remember everything that went on.

Beyond a love of public radio, I had a compelling reason to listen to Serial. My company, Lantern Books, is the publisher of four books by Jens Soering, a convicted double murderer, who has currently served 29 years in prison and is the subject of an extensive profile by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker magazine (“Blood Ties” November 9, 2015). Jens was very different in many ways from Adnan: he was awkward and naïve where Adnan was popular and gregarious; he was the privately educated son of a German diplomat, whereas Adnan was the child of Pakistani immigrants and attended public school. However, both were bright, with a touch of the grandiosity that sometimes makes young men think themselves untouchable; both protest their innocence.

The question that most friends who listened to Serial asked was, “Do you think Adnan did it?” To the consternation of many, and perhaps even herself, Sarah Koenig denied everyone the kind of neat wrapping-up and comforting condemnation of the guilty and vindication of the innocent that attends almost every whodunit, crime novel, or murder mystery, by admitting that she genuinely wasn’t sure. Not only that, but for all the tenacity of Koenig’s reporting and the dedication that she and the other producers demonstrated in their analysis of the facts and incisive investigation of the various narratives, I fancy she didn’t want to have to answer that question either. She was, in some ways, too knowledgeable about the case, too familiar with the people involved, too close to the realities and conflicts and human failings to come to a conclusion—no matter how complicated and nuanced—that would satisfy our deeply held wish for good guys and innocent victims to be vindicated and villains and perpetrators to be convicted.

When Heller came to talk to me about Jens, I too dreaded the innocence-vs.-guilt question, and wondered how I would answer it, if he posed it. If I said that I thought he was guilty, I’d rip up the trust that Jens and my epistolary and book-bound relationship is founded on, and, I think, leave Jens feeling even more isolated than he already is. It would go against the judgment of his original editor and my business partner, both of whom have (unlike me) met him in person. Yet to proclaim his innocence wouldn’t feel quite right, either. It would feel like I was protesting too much.

The truth is that, like Koenig, I don’t know. Like Koenig, I hold some (perhaps too much) store in not being played. Adnan and Jens are both persuasive and passionate advocates for their own innocence; both are in some way baffled at the young man who so apparently blithely sleepwalked into prison; both have been deeply schooled by incarceration and matured by time served. As Koenig noted on the show, it is hard not to warm to Adnan. Jens is a conscientious and elegant writer—remarkably so, given that English is not his first language. He is also diligent, punctilious, self-deprecating, and generous to a fault in thanking my company for its support for his work over the years. His moods swing from despair to hope—sometimes in the same letter. He can be self-righteous and self-pitying. But these are all forgivable flaws in a human being who’s spent thirty years in prison.

But there’s a more important reason why I don’t want to say whether I think he’s guilty or innocent. In his books and articles, Jens has thrown light on the lives of the poor, the insane, the illiterate, and the sick who populate our penitentiaries. He has shown prison to be inhumane and counterproductive as well as inefficient in its use of taxpayer funds. With mordant wit he’s illustrated how a dysfunctional system rewards duplicity, corruption, and criminality (among prisoners and their guards) and keeps people locked up long after they pose any kind of threat to society. In so doing, Jens has—along with many others in recent years—drawn attention to a collective shame that, finally, both the political left and right are recognizing has to change. We need prison reform desperately.

We publishers like to concoct all sorts of theories as to why our books don’t sell as well as we think they should. In Jens’ case, I’ve sometimes wondered whether the lack of support for his written work from faith-based organizations and others wanting to reform the prison-industrial complex was because Jens didn’t fit the profile of the worthy prisoner. I’m probably not unique in wanting my dose of the harsh reality of prison life to be administered by the manifestly innocent, the victim of an incompetent lawyer or a corrupt police officer or a society that locks up a disproportionately large number of those who are poor, people of color, or mentally incompetent. Jens was a white, privileged foreigner; he went on the lam following the murders and initially confessed to the crime to protect a woman he loved; he was arrogant and supercilious during his trial. Unlike Adnan, he was not easy to warm to.

However, it’s precisely for these reasons that I resist the comfortable absolutes of “Guilty” or “Not Guilty.” Yes, Jens is understandably eager to make the case for his own innocence—not least through the forthcoming movie The Promise. At Lantern, we’re aware that his books are meant to serve as exempla of his usefulness not only for society but for the attention of the parole board. Yet none of these invalidates the knowledge garnered from years of incarceration—sometimes in isolation or in a maximum-security facility—that would test the ability of anyone to possess an iota of humanity, let alone retain the presence of mind and equanimity to concentrate on the lives and experiences of those even less fortunate than you. For our understanding of life in prison, the liberating practice of centering prayer, the redemptive power of faith, and the casual cruelties and rank absurdities of our criminal justice system, Jens is not only as good a rapporteur as anyone but perhaps all the better for the time he’s been behind bars. His guilt doesn’t invalidate his insights; his innocence doesn’t make the conditions for him and his fellow prisoners any less harsh or infuriating.

It may be that, as with Serial’s Adnan, once Jens’ story becomes more widely known, the Innocence Project will take on his case, using the newly discovered DNA and a witness who never testified at Jens’ trial as a reason to reopen his case. Once again, many will find themselves in the discomforting situation of wondering whether in fact he’s guilty of the crimes to which he confessed. But, for me, as Jens’ publisher, that question isn’t the point.

 

Beyond Good and Evil: Jens Soering

Jens Soering
Jens Soering

Jens Soering, the subject of a profile by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker (“Blood Ties,” November 9, 2015), and a convicted double murderer, is the author of four titles for our publishing company, Lantern Books: The Way of the Prisoner (2003), The Church of the Second Chance (2008), An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse (2004), and One Day in the Life of 179212 (2012).

The first two books are part of our publishing program in centering prayer and Christian spirituality. Jens first came to us through the auspices of another of our authors, Fr. Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk who lives in St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, and who is known as a pioneer of centering prayer. Jens had found centering prayer to be an effective method for dealing with stress, depression, and violence in prison, and had sent the manuscript of Way to Contemplative Outreach, which had an active prison ministry program. Keating then commended it to our attention.

Not only was The Way of the Prisoner a guide to centering prayer practice, but it, and Jens’ other books, fit into a number of our other programs—particularly on matters of criminal justice, law and order, violence, and trauma. In the last decade and a half, we’ve produced titles from law enforcement professionals attempting to tackle the problem of PTSD in their officers and in controlling potentially life-threatening situations before they get out of hand (Force Under Pressure by Lawrence E. Blum, and Sound Doctrine and Field Command by Charles “Sid” Heal). Lantern published a book on the Columbine school massacre (No Easy Answers by Brooks Brown and Rob Merritt) and has also examined the criminalization of dissent regarding animal and environmental activism (Muzzling a Movement by Dara Lovitz, Burning Rage of a Dying Planet by Craig Rosebraugh, and Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? edited by Anthony J. Nocella II and Steven Best). It has also produced efforts to extend racial justice (Nonviolence Now! by Alycee Lane and Sistah Vegan! edited by A. Breeze Harper) and reduce trauma (Aftershock by pattrice jones).

Jens is far from the only one of our authors to be in prison or who has served time. The Terrorization of Dissent, edited by Anthony Nocella II and Jason Del Gandio, includes interviews with prisoners convicted under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) and earlier legislation. The late Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai (author of The Green Belt Movement and the subject of Wangari Maathai) was imprisoned more than once during the regime of Daniel arap Moi, and Hector Aristizábal was tortured in prison in Colombia, an account he writes about in The Blessing Next to the Wound. Our publishing company is actively involved with an organization called Books Through Bars, which sends books to prisoners that they may not otherwise have access to.

But, we hear you say, none of these were convicted of murder, as Jens was. To which our reply is, so what? The literary world has been populated by writers who were, to put it mildly, morally compromised. Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and Anne Perry were killers, as was William Burroughs. Norman Mailer (who stabbed his wife), championed the release from prison of author Jack Henry Abbott, only for the latter to commit another murder within weeks. T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Céline (to name only a few), were explicit, even vehement, in their anti-Semitism; Knut Hamsun, W. B. Yeats, and Gabriele D’Annunzio were Fascists; Jean Genet was a thief. And, as for the Marquis de Sade. . . .

Indeed, Jens confronts this issue of guilt and innocence in Church of the Second Chance. He describes the numerous criminals, murderers and would-be killers, adulterers, and other sinners who populate the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and yet who are all redeemed, even though they may neither confess to their crimes nor even be held accountable by their own for what they did. He then relates stories of those who, like their biblical counterparts, are criminals and yet have not found redemption in a prison-industrial system that is dedicated to punishment and has no interest in mercy.

Is this special pleading? Is Jens trying to cloak his refusal to admit his guilt (having revoked the confession he made before the trial) in these stories of holy men and women who committed crimes? Perhaps. But simply to dismiss what Jens has to say because one assumes his guilt merely draws attention to our blithe and blinkered assumption that only “good” people have valuable lessons to teach us, or, conversely, that “bad” people cannot learn the errors of their ways and offer service to the society as a whole—even if posterity (as with Moses or the writers above) whitewashes or downplays their “crimes.”

We certainly have no qualms about being Jens’ publishers. We’ve learned an enormous amount from him; we’ve read the stories of individuals we’d never have ordinarily encountered; and he’s persuaded us of the prison-industrial complex’s gross inefficiency and numerous cruelties. Like many of the people he writes about in his books, he is merely being warehoused, even though we’re convinced that he (unlike Jack Henry Abbott) poses no threat to the citizenry at large.

We understand the simple attractions of retribution: that life in prison should mean life; that the more Jens proves his worth, the more exquisite and torturous will be his continued and perpetual confinement, and the more profoundly will be understand the consequences of his actions. Such justice has all of the stringency and sharpness of concentrated chlorine on a public washroom’s floor. Yet, after a while, the pungency makes you gag, or fades and the original stench appears.

So, given our intimate knowledge of Jens’ situation and our role in his rehabilitation, what course of action would we recommend? It seems to us logical and compassionate that the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Virginia should be relieved of the burden of keeping this German citizen in prison, and that he should be returned to his home country to serve out the rest of the sentence, which may or may not be curtailed under German penal laws. Even if he were to be freed, Jens wouldn’t pose a threat to the U.S. since he’s indicated he would welcome a ban on ever visiting again the home of the brave and the land of the free. He’s spent more than enough time in the U.S., he says, and has no wish to return. Keeping him in Germany seems to us a reasonable outcome to this three-decades-long story.