Most writers have day jobs—probably teaching is the most common career—but my day job is unusual. For almost a decade I’ve been a death penalty investigator. As a death penalty investigator, I am hired by the attorneys who represent men and women facing execution. My first job is to make sure the client didn’t do it. We have now exonerated over 250 innocent people off American death rows, so innocence is always a strong possibility. If they did commit the crime, my job becomes learning why. I dig deep into backgrounds, unearthing records from dusty basements, finding teachers who knew them as children, and long-lost relatives.
I feel so lucky to do this work. I have learned about what causes violence—most my clients come from backgrounds of horrifying childhood abuse and neglect. I have also learned much about what prevents crime, including literacy and human connections. It is often the little acts—the kind neighbor who checks in on the troubled family down the street, the mentor who teaches a child to read—that can change a life. I’ve witnessed the harm people can cause each other, but I’ve also seen the power of hope, faith and love to lift people out of despair. I’ve seen lives transformed by books, children who have broken cycles of abuse, innocents freed from prisons and the guilty accepting their fate. Rather than make me cynical, working death penalty cases has reaffirmed to me our human potential.
My work also inspired my novel, The Enchanted, which is set on a death row. Published in the UK by Orion Books, The Enchanted has won many prestigious awards, including the French Prix and an IMPAC listing. It was recently adapted to the stage, by a company called Pharmacy Theatre, and it will be playing in London at The Bunker Theatre in London Bridge.
The Enchanted tells the story of two men on death row, as well as a female investigator like myself, and a defrocked priest. All are searching for redemption. It is a magical story, neither grim or depressing, but lyrical and tender. It was important for me in telling this story that I honor the gravity of harm and the humanity of victims and offenders. I didn’t want to write a political tract against the death penalty—I wanted to show all sides of the issue, in a story about real people all searching for solace and answers.
Now more than ever it is critical we address issues of violence. How do we prevent crime? What do we do when it happens? What can we each do to make a better world? It is my hope The Enchanted will further important conversations, and I am honored to be joining the cast on June 9th, following the show, for a post-show discussion.
Rene Denfeld is bestselling author of The Enchanted and the forthcoming The Child Finder (Orion Books). The Enchanted will be playing at The Bunker from 6th to 17th June.