Reviewers rarely mention “Little White Sister” from First, Body, but it remains one of the most revelatory, transformative fictions I’ve ever explored.
In October 1989, Charles Stuart shot and killed his pregnant wife Carol and wounded himself after attending childbirth classes at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He claimed they’d been victims of a violent carjacking attempt as they drove through the mostly African American neighborhood of Roxbury. The shooter, he said, was a “black man with a raspy voice.”
Police surged into Roxbury, interrogating and searching every dark-skinned man within a ten-mile radius if he was tall enough and not too old. Days later, Charles Stuart identified Willie Bennett as the attacker.
When the case against Bennett collapsed in early January 1990, Stuart’s brother Matthew revealed Charles was the killer, and that he, Matthew, had disposed of the gun. The next day, Charles Stuart, terrified by the new accusations and suffering the afflictions of a wound that had caused far more damage than he’d intended, leaped from Boston’s Tobin Bridge into the Mystic River.
I lived in Boston at the time, and I remember walking through the city that blisteringly cold January day feeling personally responsible, deeply ashamed—I wanted to apologize to every dark-skinned person I saw—I wanted to make amends for the way I and so many others had been duped by Stuart’s ridiculous, now utterly transparent, wildly unbelievable story.
“Little White Sister” irrupted from this intimate crime, my own transgression. We may read or hear many stories that disturb and grieve us, but unless I am pierced, unless I feel personally implicated, I don’t believe any part of the story is mine to reinvent.
I allude to the murder of Carol Stuart in a single paragraph of “Little White Sister.” I wasn’t interested in dwelling in that place. The story that swirled in my heart and mind came through the voice of Jimmy Diggs, a man whose life I began to imagine, a black man who hears a woman crying in the night, who looks out his window to see a fragile, bare-legged girl running in the snow. Jimmy convinces himself she’s just a “crazy crackhead, a white girl who don’t know enough to come in from the cold.”
He chooses not to help her, and through the long night, we hear his passionate monologue, his reasons for being afraid to follow, to touch her—his legitimate fear that he will be accused if she’s hurt, his belief that her enraged, abusive boyfriend might come after him, looking for an excuse to shoot.
Jimmy, a former heroin addict and jazz musician, is a 54-year-old African American man who’s spent nine years in prison for thefts he committed with his Anglo girlfriend. No one could possibly blame him for the terrible decision he makes. But when the girl is found dead the next day, he blames himself, and will forever.
For me, the revelation of this story came in part from my resistance. I was 34 at the time, fair-skinned, female—what right did I have to speak in Jimmy’s voice, to presume I had any apprehension of his life? But fragments of his story, images from his childhood, phrases with his intonation, kept coming to me as I walked the streets of Boston, as snow whirled up, as my hands went numb and brittle hair froze around my face: I was the woman he’d mistaken for a girl—and I was Jimmy. Our lives were inextricable, forever bound by shared sorrow. As the long night ends, Jimmy hears the girl’s words: I’m your little white sister—I know you—we’re alone.
Our only hope of finding grace was to tell our stories to each other.
In her introduction to Fires in the Mirror, Anna Deavere Smith asks, “Does the inability to empathize start with an inhibition, a reluctance to see?” And Ian McEwan says, “Imagining what it is like to be someone [something!] other than oneself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.”
When my students question their right to represent the lives of people different from themselves, I tell them we not only have the right, we have the obligation to enter the stories of others with extravagantly imaginative compassion, desperate curiosity, and crazy faith: the hope that whatever understanding we gain will transform our spirits. The journey, the adventure, the leaps of love, the heightening of sensory perception, the expansion of consciousness—these things will deliver us from the misery and isolation and prejudice of our limited lives.
I lived in my story for 18 months. I wrote over 300 pages of exploration, including 50 in the voice of the girl who speaks only a few lines. I wanted to know and love and hurt as much as possible. I wanted to hear the sounds of my city as Jimmy did, as a jazz drummer. I walked everywhere, always listening for “the sound underneath the sound”: the rain, the cicadas, breaking glass, my own blood and breath, birdsong, whispers. I believed no one would publish my story. I didn’t care. I made 20 copies, bound them in snow white folders, hand-lettered the title in metallic gold, and gave “Little White Sister” to the few people I thought might read it. No publication has ever made me happier than this limited edition of 20.