‘Grace Will Lead Us Home,’ an Intimate Look at Forgiveness, Anger and Trauma After the Charleston Massacre
Books of The Times
In her classic essay on evil, Simone Weil differentiates between evil as we imagine it (“romantic and varied”) and as it exists (“monotonous, barren”). It is goodness, she argues, that is truly glamorous. It is goodness that possesses the capacity to shock us; goodness alone that is always “new, marvelous, intoxicating.”
It has been four years since Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and killed nine people, including the pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, in a hail of more than 70 bullets. “I have to do this,” Roof said to the group at one point. “Y’all raping all our white women and taking over the nation.” The oldest of Roof’s victims was 87-year-old Susie Jackson; the youngest was Jackson’s 26-year-old grandnephew, Tywanza Sanders, who reached out to touch her curly hair as they lay dying. Tywanza’s mother, Felicia Sanders, survived by rubbing her body in her son’s blood and playing dead.
President Obama was in his Marine One helicopter, formulating a public statement about the tragedy and the recent spate of mass shootings — there had been 23 in the five years of his presidency — when the news broke that family members of the victims had publicly forgiven Roof.
“Hold off on the statistics,” Obama told his staffers. “That’s what I want to put the spotlight on.”
A monstrous act of terrorism became a transfixing narrative of grace and forgiveness. Roof — as banal as Simone Weil predicted, with his garbled ambition for sparking a race war — was eclipsed by his victims, the richness of their lives, the dignity and spiritual power of their families.
Spotlights, of course, reveal by concealing. In “Grace Will Lead Us Home,” Jennifer Berry Hawes, a Polk Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, offers a fuller, more complicated picture of the massacre and its aftermath. A reporter for the Charleston-based Post and Courier (her children attended the school across the street from the church), she covered the tragedy extensively, and drew on her long relationships with the families in writing this book. “They weren’t the homogeneous group of forgiving people the world wanted them to be,” she writes. During sentencing, “some screamed at Roof, calling him evil. Several hoped he burned in hell for eternity. They called him a coward. Satan. An animal. A monster.”
The narrative of forgiveness was alluring, in part, because it seemed to so quickly suture the wound; if the families had forgiven Roof, what need for self-examination or substantive change? White residents of Charleston held that tensions had actually lessened in their city; they were twice as likely as their black counterparts to say that race relations had improved as a direct result of the mass murder.
Hawes is a poised writer and a patient observer who trains her focus on the present. She gestures briefly to Charleston’s role as the epicenter of the nation’s slave trade (“as the Civil War approached almost three in four white families here had owned slaves”) and the long history of attacks on black churches, including Emanuel, which was first burned to the ground in 1822. Her primary interest is in the lives of the survivors and the families of the victims, “the people who will live this story forever.”
For most, trauma begat trauma: health problems, even sudden deaths. One widower lost 60 pounds and became unable to return to work. Bitter divisions flared. Eleven months after the shooting, Sharon Risher and Nadine Collier, two daughters of Ethel Lance, one of Roof’s victims, couldn’t even agree on a headstone for their mother. When Risher finally had one erected over the grave, Collier installed her own version directly in front of it. At one point, according to the author, Risher felt it was more likely that she might forgive Dylann Roof than her sister.
Even those who fought to return to some semblance of normalcy found that their lives had become uncomfortably public. Private people felt forced into activism and advocacy even as the shootings had left them adrift — and they felt spiritually abandoned by their church (which itself became mired in controversy after donations went missing).
Roof remains a shadowy figure in the narrative (see the journalist and critic Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s Pulitzer Prize-winning profile for a more detailed look at his life and radicalization). He is not even named at first, referred to only as “a young white man, lean of frame.” Hawes takes an obsessive interest in his size and fragility, in fact; he is “a slim white man,” a “small man” who looked “so young and out of place” in the courtroom. There are countless references to his “scrawny” frame, his “slender hand” and “thin wrist.” It’s as if Hawes cannot reckon that monstrosity should present in such a package — and these sections want for self-scrutiny on her part, about which bodies might be automatically coded to her as harmless and innocent.
Hawes says that she wanted to write as comprehensive an account as possible. She largely succeeds — if sacrificing, invariably, some depth for breadth. Still, she lands the book with moral force and great feeling, writing about the soil that could produce both the Emanuel Nine and a Dylann Roof.
Follow Parul Sehgal on Twitter: @parul_sehgal.
Grace Will Lead Us Home
The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness
By Jennifer Berry Hawes
Illustrated. 309 pages. St. Martin’s Press. $28.99.