discussion, interview

A conversation about “Truther Love” on Nonfiction Podcast

A couple of months ago Longreads published “Truther Love,” my story about the dating (and mating) habits of conspiracy theorists. I am honored to be featured on the Nonfiction Podcast, in conversation with “lifelong nonfiction geek” Matt Pusateri. Listen to Matt and me talk about how the story originated and what the reporting and writing process was like.


Other notable contributors include Jessica Ogilvie talking about her story “The Revolutionary Routine of Life as a Female Trucker” and Lane DeGregory, about “The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck.”

Among Murderers, interview

My favorite prison books

For her article “Beyond ‘Orange is the New Black’: 8 eye-opening prison books” Carolina Miranda interviewed Patricia Zamorano, Pete Brook and me for the Los Angeles Times:

Like a lot of people, I got sucked in by the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black”: the totally backstabby soap operatic twists, Lea DeLaria’s comedic awesomeness as Big Boo, the luminosity of Samira Wiley as Poussey (memo to execs: please cast her in everything!), all of the inventive tampon sculptures, and the fact that there exists a buzzed-about show with a bunch of African American women and Latinas. (…)

“With all of that in mind, I thought this represented a perfect time to take a look back at the body of literature about incarceration. Rather than choose the books myself, however, I’ve turned to three cultural figures who are interested in the topic of prisons, and they each share works that they consider insightful or influential. They include…

Read more…

Among Murderers, interview, murder, rehabilitation, writing

The Rumpus Interview

…with yours truly. Look at Amanda Green’s beautifully written introduction to the interview:

There’s a tragedy that my family doesn’t like to talk about, so naturally I’ve always been drawn to it. In the late 1970s, my dad’s older brother James was shot and killed by a friend of a friend. In one version of the story, it starts with a verbal altercation. My mom says it happened on a dark road in South Texas. James was in the passenger seat of a friend’s car when the killer pulled up beside them and shot James point-blank in the head. He was twenty-one years old.

I’ve wondered about James for years—what really happened that night, who he might have been if he hadn’t been killed. I never thought of the young man who shot him and the years he spent in prison. When we think about crime, we immediately envision the victims—the wounded, the dead, and their grief-stricken survivors. We forget about the other life that has been irrevocably changed. For the criminal, murder is a life-long sentence, even if granted parole.

James’s murderer went on trial and was sentenced to prison. Eventually, he was released. If he is still alive, he must be around sixty years old. I sometimes wonder what happened to him. What kind of life does he lead, and how does he feel about having taken my uncle’s life? Is he tortured by guilt, or does he still try to justify what happened on that dark road in Texas more than thirty years ago?

“In terms of empathy, murderers are obviously very low (if not lowest) on our list of priorities,” Sabine Heinlein writes in her book Among Murderers: Life After Prison. She spent more than two years at the Castle, a prominent halfway house in West Harlem, following three native New Yorkers who took other people’s lives. Her subjects Angel, Adam, and Bruce were released after serving several decades in prison. Among Murderers depicts the challenges the men encounter on their journey to freedom, from finding work to forging new relationships to forgiving themselves. It also explores the various ways the men live with their remorse. In the tradition of Susan Sheehan’s A Prison and a Prisoner and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, Heinlein puts a face to a population that evokes strong feelings while remaining largely unfamiliar. Among Murderers is an eye-opening look at life after prison and our society’s thirst for vengeance.

Read the interview here.

art, interview, outsiders

A Talk with a Modern-Day Petroglyphist

My second piece for Hyperallergic, out today:

Three years ago, the artist Kevin Sudeith left New York City to create stone carvings on immovable rock outcroppings across Canada and the continental US. A modern-day petroglyphist, he has also created more than two dozens images on rocks in undisclosed locations in New York. While this isn’t exactly legal, it can be viewed as a kind of thoughtful and permanent graffiti. (And speaking of illegality and disclosure: When I buried my cat Mietzi in my Queens backyard, Sudeith carved a tombstone for her.)

Sudeith’s work primarily documents the lives and stories of people who live near the carving sites. Other petroglyphs pointedly contrast with the ancient subject matter of his art form by depicting satellites and space vehicles.

In a world exceedingly characterized by high-speed technology, virtual reality, and surveillance, Sudeith’s carvings of human narratives — of human struggles and rewards — unfold slowly, both in their making and in that they’re meant to be discovered rather than exhibited. The narratives on stone beg to be touched and felt, but for the most part are hard to access. The relative inapproachability of the works collides with an art world that believes it can access (and acquire) everything at its fingertips.

Kevin Sudeith’s first solo show of pigmented impressions of his carvings, photos, and time-lapse video opened earlier this month at 308 at 156 Project Artspace in Manhattan. I spoke with him about the exhibition and his work.

Sabine Heinlein: What’s in your backpack?

Kevin Sudeith: My van is one big kit. For carving, I have two backpacks: one for heavy duty tools and one for lighter power tools and hand tools, as well as chalk for drawing compositions. There is a photography kit for shooting time lapse and a big beanbag with colors, brushes, pressing tools, and an old-fashioned painters palette. I have a large and a small tent, a tub of cooking supplies, and a couple of Persian rugs because they’re great for camping. Then there’s the general survival kit with compasses, knives, first aid, and a gun, and the tuck sack with yogurt, homemade jerky, cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, cured meats, nuts, dried fruits, and homemade preserves from friends.


Kevin Sudeith, “Original European Settlers,” Ingomar, MT (2010)

SH: It seems like much of your work is based on narratives you discover coincidentally. How do you come up with your motifs?

KS: I had a vague invitation to Ingomar, MT, population: 7. I was eating breakfast in the cafe when a man in his 70s barks out, “WHOSE VAN IS THAT OUT THERE!?!” I jumped up to say, “Oh, that’s mine … ” He bellowed, “WHAT ARE YA SELLIN’?!” I told him I’m an artist, and he looked at me real hard and said, “Are you drawing unemployment?” Surprised, I stammered, “No! I live by my own means.” I showed him my portfolio, and he said, “I’ve got some rocks. I’ll take you out there.”

He had the best rocks for 100 miles, and we became great friends. I helped him with his farming, and he let me camp and carve on his land. A few weeks later, when I was showing his son my carvings, he asked whether I could carve his grandparent’s wedding photo. His grandparents were the original European settlers on the land where I was working. His grandfather had come from Czechoslovakia in 1905 and homesteaded in Montana. He wrote back to Czechoslovakia, and his village sent him a girl. They were married at the train station and a photo was taken. They were married for 50 years and had nine kids.

Another time I was making a jerky and cheese sandwich in my van when a guy in a ’70s Suburban pulled up for a chat. He asked me if I do memorials or gravestones. (Oddly, this had not occurred to me.) He said a little girl was buried on his land, and he wanted to mark the spot. I thought it was his niece or granddaughter, but it turned out she’d died in 1904, as her family passed through town. No one knew her name, only that her parents were artists. As the sun set over the glacial moraine, he showed me the one big stone that seemed to adorn three graves. Before I left town I carved “Daughter of Artists 1900–1904” in the pouring rain.

Read more…

Among Murderers, interview, murder, rehabilitation

Among Murderers on Jefferson Exchange

Today I was interviewed by Geoffrey Riley on Oregon’s NPR affiliate Jefferson Public Radio. The call dropped three times during the one-hour (live!) interview, and I was searching for words more than usually. But somehow—miraculously—I survived. You can listen to the interview by clicking on the image below.

interview, literary journalism, mental illness, murder, prison

Longform Radio Journalism, with Laura Starecheski


Laura Starecheski at the U.S./Mexico border (credit Bob Torrez)

Recently, while accompanying one of my interviewees to an apartment go-see, I met Laura Starecheski, a reporter for NPR’s State of the Re:Union. As it turned out, Laura and I had chosen the same subject! (Or maybe the subject had chosen us?) As I was watching Laura do her job—geared up with huge headphones, recorder and mic—I was struck by how different our journalistic approach is. After the go-see, while having lunch at a little Guyanese restaurant way out in Queens, we realized we had a lot in common. Laura, too, has done feature stories on prisoners, immigrant communities and the mentally ill. She often follows her subjects for months, sometimes years. And most importantly, she seems to genuinely care about her protagonists.

Laura has created stories for The World and Latino USA and won a Third Coast Silver Award for Best Documentary for her story “Goat on a Cow,” which aired on WNYC’s Radiolab. She was a National Health Journalism Fellow at the USC Annenberg School and most recently received a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.

I’m thrilled that Laura agreed to answer some questions about “longform radio reporting.” (A reverse interview with me by Laura will follow).

Sabine Heinlein: For your Ozarks story, which aired on State of the Re:Union in May 2012, you followed the family of CJ Mahan who is serving a life sentence for murder in a maximum-security prison in Missouri. How did you find the family?

Laura Starecheski: I found the Mahans through a program called 4-H LIFE that teaches inmates how to be better parents. The program works with mothers too, but I was curious about the particular challenge of fathering from behind bars—especially in a maximum-security prison with long sentences. How do incarcerated fathers stay engaged with day-to-day parenting? How do their kids relate to them? The 4-H LIFE staff put me in touch with the Mahans and helped facilitate the process of getting permission to record and take photographs inside the Jefferson City Correctional Center during one of their meetings, which happen just once every two months.


Cindy and CJ Mahan and daughter Carlie

SH: What did it feel like to go to prison and talk to the Mahans? Did you get to meet and observe any other prisoner families? What was the setting like?

LS: Once we were inside, I saw ten loving, excited and emotional families flood into the room for the 4-H meeting. I wished we had enough time to do stories on every family. Each one was so different. There was a man whose sister had brought her kids to visit from another state; a young father with two daughters being raised by their grandparents while he served his time; an older man everybody called “Uncle Walt” who didn’t have family but was sort of a patriarch to the whole group. The stakes at the meeting felt very high. The inmates must earn a place in the prison’s “honor wing” just to be a part of the group. That alone can take years, and they can lose the privilege at any time for any infraction. I got the sense that many of the inmates worked extremely hard to stay out of trouble so they could attend the special 4-H meetings, where they could share hugs and laughter and feel like they were truly parents for a few hours. Almost everyone in the room had broken down and cried—in gratitude, in frustration, in love—at least once by the time the meeting was over. I also felt that in that room I was more welcomed as a reporter (and a person) than most of the other places we reported across the Missouri Ozarks, which was a striking feeling.

When we interviewed CJ Mahan alone in a separate room, though, I got a glimpse of what life in the rest of the prison must be like. It was clear that CJ was bound by the rules of day-to-day life on the inside, no matter how much he longed to be a full-time father and husband. He had a reputation to uphold, and it seemed to be an incredible challenge for him to stay away from the fights and violence that dictate much of the social order. His desire for another future, outside, was intense and palpable to me. And yet even as a temporary visitor, the razor wire and heavy doors of the prison seemed to enclose a universe that felt almost impossible to escape. Getting access to any prison to report these days is difficult, but some day I would like to do a story that could shed some light on that world of life on the inside.


Laura recording Cindy and CJ Mahan at the 4-H LIFE meeting

SH: I recently watched you interview one of your subjects. I noticed that, while we may ask the same questions, the answers to those questions vary (if not in content than in emphasis). Some people appear to become self-conscious in a very particular way. Do you feel like people respond to you in a certain way because you’re wearing headphones and holding up a microphone? Do you think there’s a difference in how a subject responds to a radio reporter as opposed to a print reporter? Continue reading