It has been said that to know true redemption, one must first know true devastation or destruction. After taking a step into the world of Erwin James through the pages of his transparent and candid memoir, one would agree that he has truly known and experienced both. Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope is the firsthand autobiography of Erwin James, convicted murderer and journalist.
James’ memoir is an equally beautiful and gritty story of a life filled with uncontrollable circumstance and damning response, interwoven with the insights from a writer who injects portions of humanity and compassion into an otherwise dire tale. Redeemable is more than another book on life on the inside; it is a story of triumph, raw humanity, and the depths of the human soul — ultimate redemption placed against the cold and unforgiving backdrop of a prison cell.
As memoirs can encompass a wide gamut of styles, tones, and forms, it is often more challenging to judge one as being “worthy” of a read. As it is a personal expression of life and experience, I find the highest criteria for this evaluation to be the humanity and authenticity of the work. Some prison writings can devote three-quarters of the text to defending the person on the inside, or it exists to incite a level of sympathy or even disgust.
By the time I finished the first chapter, I knew this particular book about life in prison would not fit the stereotype. While he first spoke of his trial and initial incarceration for murder, there was no pleading of innocence and no tragic monologue. His simple acceptance and abject “sense of relief” strikes the reader as altogether human and in no form, merciless. Then, James deftly and fluidly drew the reader back to the point at which he found out he was wanted for murder while serving with the French Foreign Legion. As romantic as his life sounded, the moral consciousness that the Legion had instilled in him compelled him to turn himself in, thus leading to the opening clause of the work.
A large portion of the story was the life that led him to murder, as he would put it. Growing up with an unstable, alcoholic father, a deceased mother and numerous emotional traumas, James began to steal at the age of 10 before being placed in a home. The bulk of his teenage years was spent doing much of the same, living as a drifter with limited education and often sleeping on the streets. His crimes escalated during this season of his life from burglary to assault and higher theft, before he committed murder. This act led him to the life of a fugitive serving in the French Foreign Legion, where he learned a number of key life skills, gained a moral compass and began to live a more honorable life. That life ended when he was sentenced to life in prison in 1984.
James is detailed in his description of life inside prison, as well as the impact of the therapist within the prison. It was during this time when he began to see the impact his upbringing may have had on him, while feeling for the first time “like an ordinary person.” The therapist made him “think that had certain things in [his] early life outside been different then [he] might have been able to have a life like any other right-thinking, normally functioning member of society.” For James, this was the turning point, a thought that “gave [him] hope.” From that point on, he poured himself into education, earning a degree in History and published articles in national newspapers. He was released in 2004, after serving 20 years of his life sentence.
While the events of his life parallel the lives of so many prisoners and ex-cons, James’ story is a unique and rich one because it demonstrates the possibilities. His life shows clearly that a man can not only move past the worst thing he has done, but also succeed and triumph over it. Taking that a step further, James found true redemption, as his own trial enabled him to now be a voice for compassion and change in the prison system and with anti-violence lobbies. This transformation was told in a gripping, honest and simple manner, demonstrating the articulateness James gained while on the inside, as well as the raw, self-aware humanity and wisdom that he developed during those years. This would have wowed me as a fictional work; knowing that it is a true-to-life memoir is even more stirring. As a family member of an ex-con, I can see how his story and his method of storytelling — with its natural ebbs and flows, simple yet precise delivery, and compassionate undertone — would minister greatly to the heart of a felon. I would recommend this highly to anyone who has a criminal background, has been inside, or simply has a past of regrets and wrong decisions to overcome.
A stunning and humbling read, Redeemable does more than tell a story of a life; this well-written memoir draws the reader in to the very pit the author found himself in. As a reader, I walked through the back streets of England, mourning over the loss of James’ mother with him. I felt the despair as he spiraled down into the same behavior he had watched his own father succumb to. I felt the traces of pride he felt as a member of the French Foreign Legion, venturing out even as his past loomed over him like a bayonet ready to slice. I also felt the mix of relief and emptiness upon his incarceration. Lastly, I felt the hope he felt as he identified the things in his past that had contributed to where he was, as he took ownership of his life and sought higher education and in the end, a profession in writing. His journey from darkness to redemption was a riveting one, and his memoir is a beautiful encapsulation through which he invites the reader to join him.
Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope
Bloomsbury Publishing, PLC, February 2016
Hardcover, 352 pages