When Benjamin Rachlin ’08 was studying English at Bowdoin, he wanted to be a rich short-story writer despite the paradox. But when he returned on Tuesday, it was to discuss a work of nonfiction, Rachlin’s first book, titled “Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption.” The book follows the true tale of a man who lived a life unimaginable to most Bowdoin students and delves into the ugly and overlooked cracks of America’s criminal justice system.
Rachlin’s book follows the lives of Willie J. Grimes, a man wrongfully convicted of rape, and Christine Mumma, his attorney and co-founder of North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission. Often people are quick to assume the work is only about Grimes, which Rachlin is quick to correct, saying there are two threads to this riveting story. One depicts Grime’s innocence, nearly 25-year stay in prison and subsequent retribution. The other shows Mumma’s tireless efforts both to free Grimes and to improve a dysfunctional system.
“There has been an ideal set in American history that [the criminal justice system] provides unflawed care to the accused,” Rachlin said in a phone interview with the Orient. “The reality is that there have always been people who have been wrongfully convicted, and this is just now coming into the public’s view.”
At the reading, Rachlin spoke at length about his experience as a writer and how he found such a thrilling story.
After mostly writing fiction during his time at Bowdoin, Rachlin found a love for nonfiction prose while in graduate school at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. It was there that he found a small excerpt in a local newspaper about Grimes’s exoneration, which sparked intense curiosity. After months of the news clipping rattling in his brain, Rachlin finally succumbed to the artistic and intellectual drive of how to put this story into words.
The investigation started with Rachlin trying to get his hands on as many pieces of the case as possible on his own, though he quickly ran into obstacles. Problems with consent and power-of-attorney prohibited him from getting a full picture of what had happened in the case.
So Rachlin went straight to the source, traveling five hours on a whim after a brief phone call with Grimes to ask him if he would allow the writer insight into his life. This was a gamble, as Rachlin didn’t want to trigger any past trauma.
“I went there knowing I had to be okay with him saying no. I had to let him say no,” Rachlin said on Tuesday. “If he did, I would look for another story.”
But Grimes didn’t say no. Instead, he waived power-of-attorney, giving Rachlin full access to any and all records about his life, in and out of prison, and relevant court proceedings. Rachlin spent the next four years researching and writing the book, poring over tens of thousands of documents and visiting Mumma’s North Carolina home, where powerful players had met a decade ago to discuss criminal justice reform.
The book, however, is not just a critical look at America’s incarceration problem, but a portrayal of people’s lives. Rachlin does not believe that everyone in the criminal justice system is corrupt, but he sees fundamental problems both with how the system is structured and how some of those within it see their jobs.
“If you ask a bad prosecuting attorney about their job, they will say they need to get convictions,” Rachlin said. “If you ask a good prosecuting attorney about their job, they will say they need to find justice.”
It is the need to both expose the faults of America’s system and to portray the modern champions of this reform that compelled Rachlin to work furiously on the book. Its duality, with both Grimes and Mumma’s storylines—the wrongly convicted and the believer in the need for justice—is what gives “Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption” its brilliance.
The book, which has been praised by publications such as “The New York Times Book Review,” “NPR” and “The San Francisco Chronicle,” is a monumental achievement for a young author like Rachlin. Published by Little, Brown, and Company, Rachlin can now attach himself to one of the biggest names in the book business. Nevertheless, he remains thankful for his Bowdoin roots.
“I got really good advice on this book from people who knew better than me,” he said. “Including some of those in this room.”
Bringing authors like Rachlin to campus demonstrates the English department’s goal of expanding its creative writing program to nonfiction.
Assistant Professor of English Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, who teaches courses in nonfiction writing, spearheaded the effort to bring Rachlin to campus. Their students have received lessons this semester that follow many of the skills Rachlin had to learn on his own and in graduate school.
At Tuesday’s reading, Rachlin gave students insight into the hardest part of nonfiction writing, something that can’t be easily taught in a classroom: making connections with real people who live lives very different from your own. This aspect of nonfiction, as Marzano-Lesnevich pointed out in their introduction of Rachlin at the reading, is the most valuable part of this line of work and what makes it possible for powerful narratives to incite change.