Find the North Carolina Department of Correction Public Information System website.

What Really Happened

The Best American Essays
October 2011

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Find the North Carolina Department of Correction Public Information System website. Enter the name of the offender. Write down the seven-digit offender ID number. Click on the box to see the photo­graph. Or you can do this later.

Write down the name of the correctional institution in which he is incarcerated. Write down the name of the corrections officer who will coordinate your visit. If you are invited.

Ask a friend who is a lawyer to search the record to make sure the offender is not insane. Write down the name and telephone number of the lawyer who handled the offender’s appeal and who is now a judge. Call him. If you must leave a message, say I am considering visiting…and use the offender’s name. Say I am a friend of…and use the victim’s name. Say you would appreciate his thoughts on what to expect, given his knowledge of the offender’s mental state. Be direct (others have called before you with similar questions).

Answer the phone courteously at 8:30 on a summer Saturday evening. Thank him for calling back. Listen to the judge say you should go. Listen to him say that once you’ve been incarcerated 12 years, most people, even mothers, stop visiting. Listen to him say murderers are not like the shark in Jaws, they are not monsters, usually and they are more like you and me than we may want to know.

Thank the judge and walk quickly outside because you know that walking in the city helps everything. Walk to the river. Walk along the river for a while. Watch normal people doing normal things. Find balance.

Return home. Take a note card from the desk by the front door and write the request for an invitation to visit. Be direct. Make it three sentences.

Keep Reading

A reflection on a visit to the killer of a childhood friend, “What Really Happened” first appeared in the July 2010 issue of TriQuarterly. The essay was reprinted as “No Apologies” in the November/December 2010 edition of Utne Reader and was selected for the The Best American Essays 2011.

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