Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison
2016. Convergent. Hardcover. 268 pages.
In the memoir Writing My Wrongs, Shaka Senghor describes the events that led up to committing murder in 1991 Detroit at age 19. In alternating chapters, he also describes the arc of his nineteen years in prison, as he gradually transforms himself through education and religious conversion. He takes the reader into his mindset at these different points in his life.
I had a mixed opinion about this book, but I definitely think his story is worth hearing. What came through clearly for me was his emphasis on the psychological and emotional scars that drove his young self onto the wrong path. Among other things, Senghor’s parents separated when he was a teenager, and his mother sent him to live with his father, a move which felt like rejection to him. When she took him back later, she dealt with his rebellious behavior by beating him. He began to have suicidal thoughts, and made one attempt. Later, while selling drugs, Senghor was shot in the leg and was subsequently filled with rage. He began carrying a gun himself. Senghor definitely takes personal responsibility for his wrong actions – especially the murder. However, it’s also clear that he had no outlet for addressing the emotional tumult of his life, and no one around to help him out of his downward spiral.
It reminded me of This American Life’s episodes on Harper High School in Chicago, where in one year 29 current or recent students of that school were shot. No one is immune in an environment of violence. It will take its toll.
I thought Senghor’s story was hampered at times by some of his writing style choices. I thought he too frequently injected his current self’s understanding into his description of past events. Take this excerpt:
Within a few weeks, I had immersed myself fully in my life as a hustler. The money came quick, but I found ways to spend it quicker. I decked myself in the latest gear, and I felt proud, walking around with a wad of money in my pocket. But in truth, I was overcompensating for the things that had been missing in my life – the most important of which were love and acceptance, things my new life couldn’t give me.
On the one hand, Senghor is reminding us of the emotional wounds that hid behind his tough exterior. However, the way he expresses it is so on-the-nose diagnostic – and he adds this kind of retrospective analysis throughout the text.
Indeed, a few pages later, he describes watching customers hallucinate and crawl around and adds: “At the time, I was ignorant about their plight and the seriousness of addiction, so I laughed at them until my stomach felt like it was going to burst. I didn’t realize it then, but I was growing desensitized to the suffering of others and developing a warped view of adults and authority.” I kept wishing he would let the story alone and let it speak for itself, at least for longer stretches. I think the retrospective analysis has its place, but here it just seemed to keep me from getting immersed in his narrative.
All that said, Writing My Wrongs displays Senghor’s thorough processing of his life, an honest reckoning of his own failings as well as the failings of institutions, especially the prison system, which I didn’t really touch on in this review, but is certainly a large part of the book. Today, Senghor works for #cut50, a criminal justice reform initiative that aims to “safely and smartly reduce the U.S. prison population in half by 2025.”