Striking Out at the Texas Book Festival

I punched in my computer’s access code, and my homepage gave way to my email inbox. A new boldface email from my publisher, as if a black hole, sucked in all my attention. I saw the subject line, “Texas Book Festival,” and spied that the first line of his message included the word “Sorry.” Instinctively, I knew it was bad news. I opened it – the TBF submission committee had rejected my book. The submission deadline wasn’t even two weeks fresh. Through the brain fog that shock creates, it occurred to me that my book didn’t even make it out of the first round of cuts. I was stunned.

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The 2019 TBF will feature upwards of 300 writers and their books. The festival was established in 1995 by Texas First Lady Laura Bush, a librarian and life-long reading advocate, to support libraries and reading programs throughout the state. On its website, the Texas Book Festival thanks individual and corporate supporters “who believe in the power of reading to change lives.” As the festival nears its 25th anniversary, it has gained in prominence and prestige. Now a national event, the competition to gain entry, for most any writer, is cut-throat.

Fool that I am, I thought my book had a great chance for acceptance. There is a Balm in Huntsville tells the fascinating story of the development of a life-changing restorative justice program that started in Texas. Have you ever heard of “Victim-Offender Dialogue”? It’s a high level restorative justice practice by which a crime victim can meet face to face with the incarcerated perpetrator who victimized them. Today, more than twenty-five other states, through their criminal justice systems, offer a replica of the Texas model. (And for those who wonder why some crime victims desire such encounters, my book answers that question definitively.)

Forgive the redundancy: Victim-Offender Dialogue started in Texas. The Texas criminal justice system still leads the way, having conducted more than 2,000 Victim-Offender Dialogues since the program’s inception more than twenty-five years ago. This is a vitally important story of which few Texans are aware.

Balm also focuses on the transformation of one Texas inmate through the VOD program by which he meets with the parents of the seventeen-year-old girl he killed in a drunk-driving wreck. My nonfiction narrative shows the human side of a prisoner who boldly tries to make amends for the wrongs he committed. The book is a well-written page-turner that has moved readers to tears as it shares the heartening stories of crime victims who have reclaimed hope and light after the deep darkness of crime overwhelmed them. The thought, care, and sensitivity that went into telling this story – from both sides of the dialogue table – has been noted by reviewers.

And if all this wasn’t enough, Balm tells the stories of three incredible Texans – Cathy Phillips, Ellen Halbert, and John Sage – pioneers in both the crime victim rights movement and restorative justice. All Texans should have the opportunity to read their inspiring and life-affirming stories of how they wrested good from catastrophic situations.

But, alas, I’m biased. As is my publisher who says, “Balm is a book that will save the lives of some, and change the lives of others.” As are many readers who have raved about the book and describe it: “gripping,” “compelling,” “eye-opening,” “unflinching,” “hard to put down,” “beautifully written.” As are reviewers who have 5-starred Balm on Amazon and Goodreads.

But even though Balm is touted by some as a life-changing read, it’s a book written by a little-known author (who has no agent) published by a small press. Might this have had anything to do with Balm‘s almost immediate rejection from the TBF submission committee? I get it: The publishing industry itself works as a de facto vetting system for the festival. With so many submissions, a book not from a large publisher or UT Press has to be really good (and never use descriptions like “really good”) to achieve entry status.

Even so, I have to ask: Was Balm judged for the content between its covers, or by the little-known names of author and publishing company on its spine? (For the record, Balm‘s publisher Merle Good has produced more restorative justice titles than anyone else in his long career.)

And, I’m compelled to ask another question: Are excellent, timely, and poignant books written by little-known authors published by small presses that tell influential stories of Texas and Texans welcome at the TBF?

And, a final question: Double-fool that I am, how did I not know that my publisher’s inability to print the first run of my book as a hardcover would help merit its almost immediate rejection from the TBF? Damn.

So, there you have it. A little-known author published by a small press has struck out at the Texas Book Festival, now bigger than Texas itself. I guess I’ll try to find an agent.

Not.


More info about There is a Balm in Huntsville is at http://www.tcarlosanderson.com. Share of this post will be appreciated, especially when done by Texans.

 

 

 

 

The Completion of a Great Idea

Inside a fellowship hall of a church in Austin, Texas, twenty-five people sit upon folding chairs arranged in a horseshoe pattern around a wooden podium. One at a time, they introduce themselves to the rest of the group. The open-circle gathering consists of educators, a licensed counselor, lawyers, prison ministry advocates, pastors, a cop, and criminal justice employees. The release of a new book, There is a Balm in Huntsville, has brought them together. All of them either had a part in its story or a hand in the book’s production.

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The book tells the tale of a tragic drunk-driving wreck and its adverse consequences for the families of two teenagers who perished in the wreck and for the perpetrator who pleaded guilty at his trial and received a prison sentence of forty years. But there’s much more to the story than destruction and pain. Through two prison programs—one institutionally created, and the other a prison ministry—hope and healing emerged for the perpetrator and for some of those affected by the wreck, from the places of the story’s deepest darkness.

It was my idea as the author of the book to gather the group and to host this private event. But it wasn’t my idea originally to write or produce the book. That idea was hatched, eighteen years ago, by the perpetrator of the drunk-driving wreck and one of his crime victims when they met face to face in the chapel of the Walls Unit prison in Huntsville, Texas.

Yes, a face-to-face meeting between an offender and his crime victim—in the prison.

Andrew Papke, the perpetrator, and Martha Early (now Moffett), the mother of Bethany Early who died in the wreck, met face to face in a program instituted by the Texas criminal justice system called “Victim-Offender Dialogue.” During their meeting, supervised by a Texas criminal justice system employee of its Victim Services Division, the two adversaries came up with their book idea. To understand how I came to write the book—eighteen years later—you’ll have to read through the story and continue to the book’s Epilogue section.

Among the twenty-five persons at the gathering in the Austin church are Andrew Papke and Martha Moffett—face to face again after their last encounter in a prison fifteen years ago.

After the introductions, I stand at the podium and thank Andrew and Martha for their idea to write a book of God’s ability to reach down into a horrible situation and produce some good from it. My primary hope for the book, I tell them and the group, is for its readers to know about the healing possibilities of restorative justice.

Andrew Papke addresses the group. He speaks of his regret, still fresh more than two decades later, for what he did. But he also acknowledges, moments later, the healing power that came to him through the process of the Victim-Offender Dialogue program and his participation in a prison ministry called Bridges To Life. He calls out the people in the horseshoe circle who work or worked in those programs and helped bring about his healing: David Doerfler, Raven Kazen, and John Sage. He also acknowledges Lisa Looger, a formidable criminal justice system employee, who passed away in 2004. Andrew shares with the group that he decided to give me the go-ahead to work on this book project toward the end of 2016 because, if Lisa Looger was still around, she’d have told Andrew to go forward with it.

After Andrew finishes his remarks, I return to the podium only for a moment to tell the group that the floor is theirs—open-mic style.

David Doerfler, who developed the Victim-Offender Dialogue program for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, addresses the group. Doerfler is now retired, but the fire in his soul that guided him to create the face-to-face dialogue program, the first of its kind in the nation, still burns.

“This dialogue program didn’t come from me. It came from victims who struggled to stay alive, who, somehow, were able to keep going in the midst of their pain.”

“Healing,” he says, “is about holding opposites together—about facing the pain. Sometimes solutions are found within the problem.” He looks at Andrew and invokes the memories of the two teenagers who lost their lives from his horrible mistake the summer 1996.

“I believe, Andy, that they are urging you on to continue to tell your story.”

Raven Kazen, a woman with a vibrant spirit and a generously commanding tone, addresses the group after Doerfler. Even though she retired from directing the Victim Services Division in 2008, she, like Doerfler, still has a burning heart for crime victims and offenders who, like Papke, choose to take responsibility for their actions.

“The first time I met Andrew, I knew that he was sincere in his sorrow for what he had caused, and for his heartfelt desire to do something to make things right.” Kazen gives the group a bit of a history lesson and thanks crime victim extraordinaire and early-on Texas Board of Criminal Justice representative, Ellen Halbert, for all she did to help build up the Victim Services Division of Texas’s criminal justice system.

Kazen concludes her remarks by looking at Martha Moffett and thanks her for being a participant in the Victim-Offender Dialogue program. There’s nothing more Christ-like, Kazen says, than to forgive. “Martha, thank you for your extreme grace.”

John Sage, who founded the prison ministry Bridges To Life in response to the brutal murder of his sister, looks out at the group from the podium and tells them that none of them ever though they’d be part of what’s brought them all together this night. He explains that Bridges To Life brings offenders and surrogate crime victims together in the search of healing for crime victims, and of accountability for prisoners.

Sage looks at Raven Kazen and smiles: “She was the force that helped establish our prison ministry program.” He then looks at David Doerfler and calls him “the teacher” who taught Sage about “the inner spirit of what we were tying to do.” Doerfler’s guidance, Sage says, helped Bridges To Life attain its crystal-clear vision and mission.

Paul Diaz, a licensed family therapist and pastor, addresses the group from behind the podium and explains that he and Andy were good friends in high school. He turns to Andrew and says, “We were going down parallel paths of destruction in high school. One year after your wreck, I woke up after a rough night. My car was halfway in the grass, halfway in the street—I don’t even remember how I got home.

“That morning, I do remember having the distinct thought that the only difference in the beds that we’re sleeping in . . .” His voice trails off. He looks at his friend and says, “In you, I saw myself. I saw that I was fragile, and not bulletproof.”

Andrew’s experience, Diaz says, was more than a cautionary tale. It compelled him, after that rough night, to look for paths other than the one of destruction he had been favoring.

He continues to say that the great Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel, is one of his heroes. “Heschel says that ‘words create worlds.’”

Before the fires burned at Auschwitz, Paul Diaz says, there were hateful words that helped create the death camps. Heschel teaches us, he says, that we can, by the grace of God, use our words to create better places. “We’re not done creating. I love that you, Andy and Tim, are helping to create, with this book, a much better place—something different, a place of grace—with your words.”

He looks at both Andrew and Martha as he concludes his remarks.

“My life, in a large part, was impacted by your story twenty-two years ago when it happened. It hasn’t been for naught. I’m one, but there many more people who will be touched by your intersecting story.”

The two old high school friends embrace. Those in the group smile and clap.

A few months earlier, Andrew told me that Paul Diaz was the only friend from high school who kept in touch with him after his entry into prison.

The last speaker to take advantage of the open-mic is a woman named Kim Thonhoff. She and her young son were the two lone eye-witnesses to the wreck on South Brodie Lane that summer night in 1996. She tells the group that she’s been nervous for weeks about the gathering, and that she asked her regular Bible study partners for support and prayer in preparation of this event.

She tells the group of a dream that she had two days prior to this event. The number of nightmares she’s had the past twenty-plus years after the wreck have always centered upon moms—like Martha—having to deal with the devastating pain of losing a child.

This most recent dream, she offers, is perhaps an answer to the prayers of her friends.

She explains that she’s at the same wreck event once again. As she walks out of her van to approach the wreck scene, she’s surrounded by harmless glass falling all around her in slow motion, with the light of a full moon glistening in the glass. The glass then becomes incredibly bright—it takes on a radiance she can’t describe. It’s as if a blanket is coming down and there’s no sadness, nothing shattered, no one dead. The other-worldly bright blanket of healing, she says, covers everything.

She pauses in her retelling, smiles and wipes away a tear.

She then says that she woke up with the most profound peace and energy, and most importantly, she felt good about coming here tonight. She says that she wants the rest of us to have this same indescribable peace and undeniable hope that she’s experienced.

The room is silent. The silence isn’t an uncomfortable one, but a concluding one. We’ve been together for more than two hours.

After a few more silent moments, I approach the podium one last time. I invite all to stand and join together in the Serenity Prayer.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.


balm.cover.2Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m the author of  There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

 

Check out my author website: www.tcarlosanderson.com.

Restorative Justice, Face-to-Face

I’m committing the bulk of my attention this calendar year to the fascinating field of restorative justice. I’m writing a new book (available April 1, 2019) that tells the story of a young man who killed two people in a 1996 drunk driving wreck and subsequently received a forty-year prison sentence. He experienced transformation not because he decided to rehab his life, as if it was a do-it-yourself solo job. His reformation came via a gradual process that was greatly enhanced by encounters he had with surviving victim family members, and other victims of crime. His healing was the direct result of face-to-face encounters with those deeply and innocently wounded by the ravages of his crime and other crimes.

State-sponsored retributive justice is a bedrock of modern Western society as understood in the colloquial phrase “You do the crime, you do the time.” Societal order and expectations are positively shaped by laws and corresponding punishments of their violations. In retributive justice theory, the state is the principal victim and consequent administrator of punishment.

Restorative justice—distinct from retributive justice—goes back to traditions that pre-date modern Western societies. Its goal is to restore the relationships damaged by crime and sustain the community where both victim and offender reside (usually the case). In restorative justice theory, the person violated is the principal victim, not the state. Face-to-face encounters between victim and offender aim to match victim needs and offender responsibilities as concerns confession, apology, information, restitution, reconciliation, and future security. In restorative justice practice, offenders take responsibility for their crimes by acknowledging their debt to their victims and by paying them back, if possible, in concrete ways. A grade school teacher, for example, practices restorative justice when she has two of her students, previously fighting, sit down face-to-face to work out their differences instead of sending them to the principal’s office for mandatory discipline.

A restorative approach is not applicable to all situations of crime victimization. Situations of sexual abuse, especially, are not suited to face-to-face encounters. Surrogate meetings, where victims encounter offenders—offenders of similar crimes but not the offender(s) in their particular case—are effective vehicles to positively impact both parties.

Texas’s was the first state criminal justice system to offer a restorative approach for victims of violent crime—its program starting via profoundly unique circumstances in 1993. A woman by the name of Cathy Phillips wanted to meet with the imprisoned killer of her daughter. She didn’t know the man but wanted to tell him face-to-face what her daughter meant to her and what his actions did her family. Anthony Yanez was sentenced to life without possibility of parole for the brutal kidnapping, rape, and murder of Brenda Phillips. Most of Phillips’s friends told her she was crazy, but she was undeterred. As there was no official means by which to pursue her desire, Phillips eventually appealed directly to Texas governor Ann Richards. Richards had previously appointed the first crime victim, Ellen Halbert, to the powerful Texas Department of Criminal Justice Board—and Halbert’s advocacy led to Phillips having her day across the table from Yanez. The meeting, with a trained mediator present, allowed Phillips to unburden a part of her soul. It wasn’t about forgiveness or reconciliation—it was about honesty and disclosure: This is what you did to my family and you need to hear me out. The meeting occurred in 1991. Yanez offered an apology and Cathy Phillips said she felt better after the meeting, with some of her questions answered. She no longer had to play the “What you don’t know will drive you crazy” game.

Ellen Halbert and John Sage receiving TDCJ Board special recognition for prison ministry work in April 2017. Sage’s “Bridges To Life” prison ministry uses restorative justice practices to bring together offenders and surrogate crime victims.

After Phillips’s encounter with Yanez, Halbert helped direct funding to the victim services unit of Texas’s criminal justice system and a victim-offender dialogue program was created and made available to victims of violent crime in 1993, the first of its kind in the nation. To date, more than thirty other state criminal justice systems have followed suit.

My book tells its story in narrative fashion, the specific story of the 1996 wreck fitting into the larger story of Texas’s foray into state-sponsored restorative justice practices. My goal is to reveal the life-changing and -enhancing practices of restorative justice. Before I delved into this project, like many, I was only vaguely aware of restorative justice practices. This book aims to expose many to its healing ways.

A number of friends and acquaintances have asked if this book project has anything in common with my first book, Just a Little Bit More, which exposes economic and social inequalities and offers a better way forward. This new book will be very different in form and message, but, yes, it will lift up, as does Just a Little Bit More, face-to-face meetings as a powerful balm to cure some of what ails us in our current day. The sharing of and listening to a genuine story, told with humility and honesty, holds within it the ability to help us see our shared common humanity. We need more of that today.


Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014) and There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).