The 7th Man is a prison guard’s fevered confession to his role in 131 executions. As a member of the strap down team, he is compelled to rehearse, to perfect his timing and skills, to synchronize his movements with the precise choreography of the team. Each member takes his turn playing the role of the condemned, the 7th man, “because no body is the same, and every man responds differently.” After witnessing a prolonged execution — “43 minutes to find a viable vein, another 59 to complete the procedure” — Valen Arnoux begins to feel an uncanny sense of identification with the men he’s killed. Mother Teresa prayed, “Lord, let my heart break open wide enough for the whole world to fall inside.” The rehearsals heighten Valen’s belief that any man might be himself, his closest friend, his brother — every suffering mother seems to be his own — every victim his wife or child. This devastating flood of compassion cracks and transforms his spirit. Through his own startling revelations, he reminds us: the whole world is and always has been inside: our bodies and our lives forever bound, infinitely intertwined and interchangeable.

Forty years I’ve been contemplating this story, trying to tell it more than twenty. I thought it must be vast, historiographic, multivocal. So strange to hear one voice, Valen whispering and repeating:

You can’t believe how graceful we are, six men moving as one, each sensing all others — but not watching: the eye need not see the hand to know how the hand moves, to feel what the hand is doing:

We are watching the 7th man, the one between, the heart at the center, the one who brings us here, strange and beautiful: we are dancing the man down the hall, strapping the man to the gurney:

A question I am always asking: Does the inability to empathize start with an inhibition,
a reluctance to see?

Anna Deavere Smith, Introduction to Fires in the Mirror

Why not believe: There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination … there is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another.

Elizabeth Costello in J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals

Why not keep faith with Hafiz, the Sufi poet: All I know is Love, and I find my Heart Infinite and Everywhere.

At the edge of sleep, I float free of my body into a profusion of flowers, petals lit from inside: gold, orange, rose, violet. Too radiant, too intense and holy to sustain their shapes, they dissolve and dissipate, particles of light, fiery sparks spreading through infinities of time and space across the dark cosmos.

Then bliss comes, and sleep takes me.

By some miraculous grace, I’ve entered Rabbi Luria’s vision, witnessed with him the beginning of the still-expanding universe: these sparks of holy light are hidden in everything and everyone, everywhere in our broken world. It is our blessing and our joy to recognize and restore them.

Yes, Rumi says: You become bewildered; then suddenly Love comes saying, “I will deliver you this instant from yourself.”

Through the heart and mind and body of Valen Arnoux, I sat with the condemned in the hours before their executions. I knew them as human beings like myself. I sang and prayed with them. I walked them down the hall, strapped them to the gurney. I couldn’t go home at night, couldn’t bear to touch my wife or hear my daughters laughing. I felt the suffering of victims, the grief of families. As a child with Valen, I remembered cows crying from the field after a fire. I found one calf alive, burned skin peeling off her. My father handed me the gun: It’s time you learned how to do this. I did learn. With Valen, I killed: over, and over. Now we are waiting by the side of the road, repeating Rumi’s words, hoping by our own love and sorrow, by the mercy of those we’ve harmed, to be delivered.

For the curious

Through my decades of exploration, I’ve read dozens of books, thousands of pages in journals and newspapers. Here, in no particular order, is a short list of some of the works I’ve found most compelling. Forgive me in advance for my inevitable omissions. My research has taken me far beyond these sources. If any links I provide become inactive, try a Google search or contact me directly: I have most of these articles on file.

  • Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean, film version directed by Tim Robbins.
  • Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore
  • Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault
  • Demands of the Dead edited by Katy Ryan
  • Capital Consequences by Rachel King
  • No Matter How Loud I Shout by Edward Humes
  • Women in Prison by Kathryn Watterson
  • You Are Going to Prison by Jim Hogshire
  • Life Sentences by Wilbert Rideau and Ron Wikberg
  • The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson
  • Don’t Kill in Our Names by Rachel King
  • Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
  • The Exonerated by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen
  • The Gospel According to Jesus translation and commentary by Stephen Mitchell
  • The Last Face You’ll Ever See by Ivan Solotaroff
  • Autobiography of an Execution by David R. Dow
  • The Stranger by Albert Camus (translation by Matthew Ward)
  • Resistance, Rebellion, and Death by Albert Camus
  • Damballah by John Edgar Wideman
  • Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist
  • Cambridge by Caryl Phillips
  • “Lethal Theatre”  by Dwight Conquergood
  • “The Truth About Forgiveness” by Karen Houppert
  • “Witness to an Execution”
  • “Hellhole”  by Atul Gawande
  • “Life, with Dementia” by Pam Belluck
  • “Moral Luck”

Melanie Rae Thon is the author of Silence & Song (2015) and The Voice of the River (2011) from FC2.