Writing through grief: the Dozier School and my novel-in-progress, The Reformatory
This week, on the anniversary of the death of Emmett Till, I reflected on how grief has both stalled and driven me as I’ve been writing my novel The Reformatory. Many of you are writing through tears every day, so you’ll understand when I say that grief is the reason it has taken me this long to write this book. But grief is also the reason it exists.
I will finish my project soon — and, given time and healing, so can you.
The Reformatory is inspired by a tragic event in my family history: in 1937, at the age of 15, my great-uncle, Robert Stephens, was sent to a notorious reformatory, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, which was a prison disguised as a school. He never came home, buried at the makeshift cemetery known as Boot Hill, where Colson Whitehead opens his novel The Nickel Boys. (I’ll read beyond page one after I finish The Reformatory.)
I never knew my great-uncle’s story until 2013 — when the Florida Attorney General’s office called to tell me about Robert Stephens and to ask me to join other relatives in giving permission to try to find his remains for a proper burial and to see how he had died. An untold number of children, most of them black, were buried at that cemetery: at least 55, it turned out. After learning more about the story and attending the opening day of excavation at the site, I knew I had to write about Robert Stephens. I had to give him a chance for a different story.
Years before, in my novella Ghost Summer, I’d written about bodies being discovered on a developer’s land in my fictitious town of Gracetown, an anecdote I was sure I’d heard from my mother. (She denied ever telling me such a story.) Spoiler: Ghost Summer ends with an exhumation of bodies, giving closure to two families, black and white, over the disappearance of black children that had torn the town apart for generations.
Then I learned about Robert Stephens and the children buried at the Dozier School. Steve and I have a son who is now 15 like Robert Stephens, and who was only nine when they accompanied me and my father to the excavation that oddly mirrored the one in Ghost Summer. The Reformatory breaks my heart daily because I am writing in the voices of a 12-year-old child and his 17-year-old sister, and I loathe the nightmare I am conjuring for them.
The Reformatory is a ghost story, but the monsters are human. History is the monster.
Often, I hide the core of my grief even from myself: Robert Stephens was the uncle of my late mother, Patricia Stephens Due — who died in 2012, about a year before I ever heard of the Dozier School for Boys. Gloria, the older protagonist in my book, has my late mother’s middle name. As I write, I keep asking: What would Mom have done?
When my mother was 12 and growing up in segregated Belle Glade, Florida, she insisted on going to the Whites Only counter for ice cream. When she was 14 and a ninth grader in the wake of Brown v. the Board of Education, she caused an uproar at her segregated school when she circulated a petition to fire her principal for incompetence. By the time she was 20, in 1960, my mother and her sister, my Aunt Priscilla, were among seven Florida A&M University students in Tallahassee, Florida, who spent 49 days in jail for sitting in at a Woolworth lunch counter, the nation’s first “Jail-In.” And Mom’s fearless activism was just getting started. In 2017, she was inducted posthumously into Florida’s Civil Rights Hall of Fame.
In so many ways, I am writing The Reformatory for my mother, who is not here to read it. I am peppering old family references throughout a novel that fewer and fewer people would remember: like how my grandmother, who was married to Robert Stephens’ brother, used to keep a chilled mason jar full of water in her refrigerator. My mother’s siblings — my aunt, Priscilla Stephens Kruize, and my uncle, Walter Stephens — are the only ones left to remember living with my mother during the era I’m writing about. My father, John Due, who is 84, is my mother’s griot, but I want this novel to help preserve a part of his story too.
Injustice hurts. The hurtling speed of time hurts. Losing family hurts.
When I sit to write The Reformatory, that pain sits beside me. Or on top of me.
This is what writing through grief feels like: I pause to breathe. Wipe my eyes. Get up and walk. Play my piano. Flee to Twitter. Flee away from Twitter. Pet my cat. Grade a student paper. Or two or three. Or a hundred, literally. Joke with my son. Dream new stories or watch TV with my husband, writer Steven Barnes. Load the dishwasher. Do a kettlebell workout. Listen to stand-up comedy. Check the fridge. Call my father. Close my eyes. Pray. Pause to breathe. Breathe again.
I don’t feel grief every time I sit to write. Not every page. But grief reared up even before I’d written a word as I read and heard heartbreaking first-hand accounts of survivors of the Dozier School. [Look for the list of recommended reading at the end of this essay.] And Dozier did not emerge in isolation, so I researched the contemporary horrors of juvenile incarceration. And Florida’s civil rights history in 1950.
The research is horrific. I feel so lucky that I wasn’t a black child in Florida, or the U.S., in 1950. The thought of it is almost too much to bear. This cuts so deeply about Emmett Till, who died five years after my novel is set: he was a 14-year-old boy, and by chance and circumstance he might have been us. And it feels like we’re going backward in time.
Donald Trump’s presidency means that rather than moving away from those bad times, however slowly or clumsily we were moving, we are now quickly fulfilling my late mother’s lifelong dread of “the clock turning back.” Mom did not live to see rise of Donald Trump, but she saw it. All of her civil rights activist friends, black and white, saw it. They knew their gains were fragile and saw the signs that the tide was receding fast. She celebrated Barack Obama’s inauguration in Washington, D.C. shortly before she learned she was sick, and President Obama was still in office when she died, but nothing happening today would have surprised her.
The daily news cycle is fresh grief unto itself.
Given all of that, this book has been so, so hard to write. The only rival in my experience was the 2003 civil rights memoir I co-wrote with my mother, Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights, where we chronicled the courageous civil rights activists my parents knew in the 1960s and the toll of activism on their lives.
I never thought of giving up on that memoir, but I cannot count the number of times I have wanted to quit writing this novel. I have been working on it since 2013 and I wanted to quit within the past nine months. My husband, my friends, and my agent said to keep writing.
So I have. And because I’ve had a great writing summer and am feeling confident I can meet the deadline my father gave me — my late mother’s birthday — I’m sending a love letter to all of rest of you pushing through grief and trauma in your writing.
It’s critical that we all try to understand the difference between struggling with a creative work because it’s too technically challenging or conceptually flawed — or because the emotions entwined in the work make it harder to write. This happens often in memoir writing.
We have to go easy on ourselves. And sometimes we have to take our time.
As a pro-level writer, I have started a novel I didn’t finish only once — a manuscript either right before or after my first novel, The Between. I wanted to write a vampire novel as a metaphor for drug addiction and family trauma, adding vampires to a novella I’d written in college, and it never clicked for me. I tell my writing students that it’s all fine if a novel doesn’t “take.” Before I was published, I started many novels I wasn’t ready to finish. (I concentrated on writing short stories for a long time before I wrote The Between. That helped.)
After 100 pages, I let my vampire novel go. Sometimes it’s healthiest to let go of a story that isn’t working, at least for a while. Writers not only hide in challenging projects, sometimes they can get lost inside of them — losing their taste for writing at all. It happens.
When I abandoned that novel after 100 pages, I asked myself all of the usual panicked questions, chiefly: Am I really a writer? My current book’s long process stirred similar panic, never mind that I’ve published eight novels and co-authored six with Steve. I’ve written a novel in as few as six months (though I don’t recommend it); the longest it took me to finish a novel previously might have been My Soul to Keep, which took two years.
I’ve made significant progress on The Reformatory this summer, thanks to my summer break from teaching and more advanced multitasking skills as I juggle Hollywood pitching and projects. My progress is the only reason I’m allowing myself to take time to write this essay.
I’m more conscious than ever that everything I write takes time away from my novel.
It’s possible to talk a project to death, so after two blog posts and a few social media updates, I tried to limit how much I talked about Dozier publicly. I did, however, publish an excerpt from my novel in The Boston Review in January of 2018 and read an unpublished excerpt during a group reading at an Afrofuturism event this past February with N.K. Jemison and Airea D. Matthews at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
I’ve kept busy other projects over these years: two pilot scripts I was hired to write with Steve, who is my screenwriting partner; and at least three original spec feature scripts, not including the one we’re outlining now. I sold my short story collection, Ghost Summer. I wrote new short stories for several anthologies. I also took a job as a lecturer teaching Black Horror and Afrofuturism in the African-American Studies Department at UCLA. Most recently, I was an Executive Producer on Shudder’s Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, directed by Xavier Burgin.
All of those adventures have been exciting and rewarding, but they also meant I always had pressing excuses to avoid my novel, even under the “Sentence A Day” method Steve and I teach our Lifewriting students. The principle that even a sentence counts as writing kept my creative embers burning over the years, but many days, or weeks, I didn’t write even that on The Reformatory.
The truth is, I haven’t been too busy.
Sometimes this story has been too hard.
Erin Kimmerle, the University of South Florida researcher who led the excavation project at Boot Hill, told me that Robert Stephens had an ear infection so bad at the time of his death that evidence of the damage was visible in his skull. His own parents and my grandfather never knew. Robert Stephens died in 1937, and many who would have needed so badly to know what happened are long gone. The official reason listed for his death: stabbing by another prisoner.
This week, I had a good reminder of why it has taken me so long to get this far: I was clearing out old DVR recordings and discovered I’d never watched a 2016 documentary about the Dozier School called Deadly Secrets: The Lost Children of Dozier, which I knew showed footage of the formal family burial of Robert Stephens’ remains.
Because of my blog posts about Dozier, a producer asked me to take part in a video shoot years ago, but I shied away — both because I live in California, not where they were shooting in Florida, and also because I wanted to leave room for closer family members to tell their own story. I do not know my mother’s paternal side of the family well because my mother left northern Florida for Miami when I was four. I did not want to intrude in their narrative. I talked to one family member, Robert Stephens’ namesake Bobby Stephens, on the phone for the first time after I heard about Dozier.
Like Bobby Stephens, my second cousin who appears in the documentary, I never knew that Robert Stephens existed before I got that call from the state. My mother’s parents divorced when she was young, so I’m sure she never knew she’d had an uncle who died at Dozier. The silence didn’t surprise me; Mom and I often faced families’ unwillingness, or inability, to talk about trauma while we researched Freedom in the Family.
But the story of Robert Stephens moved me profoundly from the moment I heard it. I attended community meetings, came to the start of excavations at the grave site with Steve, our son, and my father, interviewed survivors black and white, talked to lead researcher Erin Kimmerle (who called to notify me that Robert Stephens’s remains had been found), read everything I could find, and visited the location of the now-closed school at least a half-dozen times.
I hadn’t known the story before my research, but in my bones I knew. We always do. The impact of a child ripped away from a family, never returning, lingers for generations, with wide ripples. Robert Stephens’s brother — my grandfather, Horace Walter Stephens — carried the trauma of losing his brother with him to his marriage to my grandmother. She remembered him as angry, and their marriage did not last. My grandmother’s relationship with him affected their children — my mother, aunt and uncle, Walter Stephens.
And on. And on. And on. A piece of all of us — the piece that might have been — was buried at the Dozier School.
When the documentary was released in 2016, I’d written about 100 pages of The Reformatory and I was already exhausted. I’ll watch it later, I told myself.
I finally watched it two days ago — three years later.
I cried all the way through.
The documentary was all of my Dozier experiences flayed open: the reporter, Ben Robertson, whose research for the Tampa Bay Times would not let the story die. Erin Kimmerle, the University of South Florida forensic anthropologist who stood with me in the sun in the woods at Boot Hill, both of us talking about our love for our children as the excavation began. Glen Varnadoe, who told me about his passion to bring closure to his father, whose brother also died at Dozier in the 1930s. And footage of the buildings I had walked through both in real life and in the imagination of my story. The documentary’s re-enactments and additional research — for instance, the family in Philadelphia that exhumed their son’s casket only to learn it was filled with wood scraps and the Dozier School never sent this child’s body home — were gut-wrenching.
Then there were the funerals. My aunt, Priscilla Stephens Kruize, attended the burial for the tiny box of Robert Stephens’s remains in 2015, so I had seen photographs from the service. But until I watched the documentary, I had never seen the footage or heard the voices raised in sad song. The documentary gave me a seat at the funeral too.
Family after family told their stories, and lucky families were able to rebury the remains of the lost children whose stories had haunted them most of their lives. Glen Varnadoe was able to give that profound gift to his aged father, Richard Varnadoe — bringing his lost brother Thomas home.
Because there were so many nonfiction books about Dozier, I decided early on to write a novel fictionalizing the name of the reformatory, using supernatural horror as a partial metaphor for the harsher real-life horrors I would not have the heart to subject my characters to. The Reformatory is a ghost story set in the fictitious town of Gracetown, Florida — not in Marianna. (Although references to Marianna abound.)
I decided to set my book in 1950 rather than 1937 because I know the 1950s so much better from conversations with my mother about her childhood growing up in Quincy, Florida — about 44 miles east of Marianna on the I-10. My main character (whom I am calling Robert Stephens in the draft stage, though I published his name as Walter in the Boston Review excerpt), is 12 instead of 15. I’m hoping to capture the essence of his story — the story of all of the Dozier boys — through the prism of fiction. And with a sense of hope and rebellion.
I’ve sent my father, John Dorsey Due, Jr., drafts to read as I go. He even helped me plan a scene in a judge’s chambers based on his own experience as a “Freedom Lawyer” during Jim Crow and the civil rights era. Dad was one of the lawyers who helped pioneer the tactic of taking civil rights cases from state court to federal court, called Petitions of Removal, thus evading Jim Crow judges. Last year, Dad also was inducted into the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame. His face appears on a civil rights mural in St. Augustine, Florida. I’ve named a character after my father: a young NAACP attorney named John Dorsey, who has an impactful scene.
The excerpt I read at the Shakespeare Library focused on an 80-year-old character named Miz Lottie after my grandmother, Lottie (Stephens) Sears Houston, who was married to Robert Stephens’s brother. My book also has a smattering of Florida civil rights history, with appearances by assassinated civil rights icon Harry T. Moore and Ruby McCollum, who made headlines when she shot and killed a white physician whose child she had borne and was silenced from telling her story of abuse because she was black.
But The Reformatory is primarily about incarceration: the quiet, hidden monstrosity of a cruel, profit-based labor system with its origins in slavery — for children. (If you haven’t already, watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th and read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.) It’s also about how a “pleasant” community, or a nation, allows horror to thrive by keeping it just out of sight.
The story is simple: a 12-year-old boy is locked up and his 17-year-old sister, Gloria, will stop at nothing to get him out. Separately, they are experiencing their own versions of hell; one inside, one outside. It is 1950 in Florida, the true source of the story’s horror — but ghosts and corrupting forces represent the influence of power, profit, dehumanization and the normalization of brutality.
At Dozier, they beat the skin off of children’s backs during an era in Florida history when flogging adult prisoners had been outlawed. Survivors have described a room they called a “rape room” where children were sexually assaulted. Survivors report that guards shot at escaping children, which could help account for the unreported number of deaths, secret burials, and an empty casket.
In 2019, we can’t ask ourselves how Dozier happened, not when thousands of U.S. children are incarcerated — some on charges like truancy — and migrant children are crowded in concentration camps. We know exactly how it happened. What we have to ask ourselves now is how to break this country’s addiction to cruelty and incarceration to keep it from happening again and again and again.
On those days when I wanted to quit writing my novel, a photo or hashtag would pop up on my social media and remind me why I was really writing The Reformatory. One face, Tamir Rice’s, probably spurred me on most of all. He was the 12-year-old boy gunned down in Cleveland by officer Timothy Loehmann while he was happily at play with a toy gun in 2015.
I’m not just writing this book for my family and Robert Stephens, although I do want to give him a different story. I’m writing it for Emmett Till. And Tamir. And Sandra Bland. I’m writing it for my 15-year-old son, Jason, who is very much still a child but has discovered that his 6’1” height makes some police officers nervous, and he must endure The Talk every time he leaves the house alone. I’m writing it so that families caught up in the gears of our “criminal justice” system will feel seen and empowered.
Even when I felt I couldn’t go on just for me, I could go on for them.
In my own time, I write past the tears.
Additional reading on the Florida School for Boys (Dozier School):
The Nickel Boys (novel) by Colson Whitehead
The White House Boys: An American Tragedy by Roger Dean Kiser
The Boys of the Dark: A Story of Betrayal and Redemption in the Deep South by Robin Gaby Fisher with Michael O’McCarthy and Robert W. Straley
The Bones of Marianna: A Reform School, a Terrible Secret, and a Hundred-Year Fight for Justice by David Kushner
They Told Me Not to Tell: Dozier Reform School was a Living Hell by Johnny Lee Gaddy with Antoinette Harrell
The Dozier School for Boys: Forensics, Survivors and a Painful Past (Sept. 3, 2019) by Elizabeth A. Murray
Background reading on Jim Crow in Florida and mass incarceration:
Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights by Tananarive Due and Patricia Stephens Due
Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King (Pulitzer Prize)
The Pain and the Promise: the Struggle for Civil Rights in Tallahassee, Florida by Glenda Alice Rabby
Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison by Nell Bernstein
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander