Sunday, September 28, 2014

Judgment and humility

I went to a wake this week. The deceased was a former policeman and a former criminal. Yeah, both of them. He had been a crooked cop with close ties to organized crime. There were a lot of people at the wake; the man had a lot of friends. In addition to the ordinary assortment of people you see at any funeral, there were a number of rough-looking guys there. Some of them were cops. Others were criminals.

I was there to pay my respects because the deceased and I had collaborated on a book. I’m not going to give you his name because the purpose of this piece is not to promote the book. Instead I want to talk about my complicated feelings about the man, our relationship, and the judgments we make about people.

I’m a law and order guy; I have a brother who’s a cop and another brother who’s a prosecutor. We were raised in a religious household with clear-cut attitudes toward right and wrong. I’ve never felt much sympathy for criminals. And crooked cops have always occupied a particularly low place on my scale of infamy. Betrayal is a powerful aggravating factor.

When an acquaintance e-mailed me a few years ago asking if I would be interested in sitting down with a mob-connected ex-policeman who was looking for a writer to help him do a book, I said yes, with some trepidation. I had never met an actual professional criminal and wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to. The last line of the e-mail read: “He’s a nice guy.” That piqued my curiosity; we were talking about a hoodlum, weren’t we? I gave it a little thought and decided I had to at least meet him.

When I did, I was immediately hooked by his story. This was a man who had rubbed elbows with organized crime his whole life, been close to some of its most notorious figures, and protected its interests as a serving police officer. It was the type of story that shocks us and fascinates us at the same time.

My prospective co-author told it all with self-deprecating humor. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him, but I knew that there was an interesting project here that I would be foolish to pass up. We agreed to begin work as soon as I had spoken to my agent about preparing a collaboration agreement. Over the succeeding months I got 150,000 words of interviews transcribed and cut and shaped into a book. He was frank about his own misdeeds; he was frank about the culture of corruption that he had participated in, with enthusiasm. He cheerfully admitted doing things that appalled me. He didn’t wallow in remorse but neither did he make excuses.

He was generous, funny, courteous and good-humored, if a little rough around the edges sometimes. I wound up liking him quite a bit, in spite of my scruples. I’m still not quite sure what to make of that. “A lot of criminals are charismatic,” my brother the prosecutor told me, by way of a warning against being taken in by his act. I don’t think I was taken in; I cross-checked, fact-checked, prodded and challenged him. I know he wasn’t a choir boy. But he was, as advertised, a nice guy.

That’s not the same as being a good man. I can’t say he was a good man. But I could tell he knew what a good man was, and increasingly, as he saw the consequences of the life he had chosen, including a federal prison term and half a dozen friends slain in gangland killings, he knew he could have been a better one. His father had not been a criminal, and he was haunted by the sense of having failed his father.

We sold the book, got an advance, met with the publisher and started planning the promotional campaign. The book is scheduled for release next year. On a sunny day in late August, my co-author had a severe stroke in front of his house. After lingering for a few weeks in critical condition, he passed away.

I had met his family in the course of doing the book, and I went to the wake for his wife and his children as much as for anything else. His wife knew what he was all those years, and you could call her complicit, but he loved her and they raised a family together and she stood by him when he went to jail. Their children are productive, law-abiding citizens. They loved their father, and they’re hurting. They’re entitled to mourn him, even if his life was in many ways a moral failure.

I had a grandfather who was a racist; he hated black people. That’s a moral failure, too. But it didn’t stop me from loving my grandfather. People are complicated, and we can deplore things they do while cherishing things that redeem them. We are entitled to judge people; we have to, in fact. We have to teach our children right and wrong and hold them accountable. But we should judge with humility. Scorn does not encourage redemption.

Sam Reaves

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