In a pathbreaking series of talks on the psychological impact of slavery, “Soul Murder and Slavery,” historian Nell Irvin Painter asserts that considering soul murder might contribute to a “completeness of historians’ descriptions of American society.” Soul murder, she contends, is essential to a revisionist narrative of American history because it challenges us to acknowledge the far-reaching consequences of a culture that sanctioned the physical and emotional terrors of enslavement. “No matter how much American convention exempts whites from paying any costs for the enslavement of blacks, the implications of slavery did not stop at the color line,” Painter argues, “rather, slavery’s theory and praxis permeated the whole of slaveholding society.” (Painter, 9) Imagining slave personhood, she tells us, allows us to see the society slaves lived in, the injuries that slavery brought not just to individuals but nation. We can imagine the agency of slaves while still seeing clearly what slavery cost them (Painter, 12).
Leonard Shengold, quoting Henrick Ibsen, defines soul murder as “the destruction of the love of life in another human being.” Shengold, writing about his research on child abuse survivors, noted that his study was naturally limited to those who had experienced soul murder but not those “who ended up in the law, courts, hospitals, or morgues— whose souls, and sometimes bodies, have been fully murdered.”
Last July, I gathered with Chicagoans to grieve the death of Sandra Bland, a Chicagoland woman who died in police custody in Texas. Amidst questions of whether her death was the result of murder or suicide, one organizer pleaded, her voice breaking:
“I want them to stop killing us.”
Her words have been hanging on my heart ever since. My job as a historian is to think about the context that produced them.
As I revised my dissertation this semester, I came to realize in writing the history of jails— something that for me started out as a fantasy that I could write sterile, “objective” policy history of carceral institutions— I became a historian of state violence. After years of research, it shocked me to read the story all the way through, to see it all laid out. I tried not to engage with it too much; I thought it was just an emotional response that was my own, something I could tuck away when it came time to write. Over the course of my crime and punishment class this semester, my students challenged me to acknowledge the absolute relentlessness of the violence I write about. It shocked me to call the everyday governance of jails state violence. I danced around the idea of soul murder, with its implications of intentionality and willfulness, reluctant to engage what it means for the institution I study.
But my students persisted. “How do you deal with this?” they asked. I had to be honest with myself: In cataloguing the mass “destruction of the love of life” wrought within the walls of Cook County Jail, I have encountered devastation on a scale so unimaginable that I have wished for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help me do the work.
I have wished for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Can you appreciate how strange a sensation that is?
Like Painter, I share a degree of reticence about imposing psychological labels on people in the past. I do not presume to comprehend the traumatic effects of jail detention on the individual psyche or the extent of their ripple effects in families; that is not my area of expertise. But I do think that in looking at the historical contours of mass incarceration at Cook County Jail, we can come to imagine, in broad strokes, the degree to which soul murder was and is a central function of local governments.
Where do I begin? Maybe we start with the physical violence. With mentally ill inmates handcuffed to cell bars, left to defecate on the floors? People being served food so putrid that they would rather go on hunger strike? Beatings from corrections officers and wardens that yielded broken arms, people being kicked in the head by those charged with their safety? Rape and murder among the jail population whose humanity has been degraded at every turn?
Maybe it happened decades ago; maybe it happened last week.
What if we look to the psychological? The slow and steady decay of family bonds over the course of a long detention? The fear and weariness that comes from being so controlled, so limited in one’s range of options and movement? What if we acknowledge the sensation of being handcuffed or being deprived of loving touch? What of solitary confinement, the practice of putting people in closets devoid of stimulation in order to produce obedience, compliance, a broken heart and a broken spirit?
Maybe it happened decades ago; maybe it’s happening right now.
Or what if we just looked incarcerated people in the eyes? What if we noticed the pallor in their faces from the lack of sunlight and a sickening diet? What if we acknowledged the hurt and vulnerability? You don’t have to go far in a jail to see it.
When we say that at least an institution is not as bad as it was, does that mean we can outrun its legacy? Can we ignore traumas that are lasting and multi-generational, pains that are more likely to be secret than public, written on the spirit long after the bruises fade?
When we talk about reform, we pretend that we are dealing with institutions that are value-neutral; we assume that policy and law and institutional culture are surely changeable. Change over time is the central faith of the historian— my central faith as a historian. How do I make sense of an institution whose consistent mission has been to destroy? The rationalizations change, the tools change, the buildings change, the people change, but fundamentally, the outcome remains the same.
The Department of Justice will investigate the Chicago Police Department. This investigation is long overdue. The murder of Laquan McDonald, and so many others, is an affront to human dignity that undermines the democratic aspirations that our society is based upon. We cannot pretend, however, that the murder started or ended with Laquan McDonald or the Chicago Police Department. We cannot console ourselves in thinking that people who are not murdered in the course of their arrest access a pure and clean justice when they come before the courts or when they are sent to jail. To survive the police does not mean the killing stops. This is a system that takes, and takes, and takes.
Constitutional standards are but one way of measuring the impact an institution has on human subjectivities. The long and troubling history of Cook County Jail suggests that these standards are inadequate; the courts tell us there is space within “due process” and “cruel and unusual punishment” for physical, emotional, and spiritual violence. How much pain is too much? After over fifty years of scrutiny, the jail remains a tool of soul murder.
Cook County Jail, the Cook County Criminal Courts, and the Chicago Police Department have interconnected destinies. Even if one institution comes come to meet some low bar of standards, it will not erase their collective impact. To paraphrase Painter: The theory and praxis of soul murder in these institutions permeates the whole of our society.
The stakes are that high.
We must gain clearer understandings of who has been complicit in the use of the “destruction of the love of life” as a punishment for those who are presumed innocent and those found guilty. We must catalogue and testify. There must be accountability; it cannot come only from the DOJ. We cannot limit our focus to just one institution, but rather, we must investigate to the point that “the eyes of our eyes are opened” so that we can see how they have functioned together. We must reject the everyday acts of soul murder that take place in our names. Only then can we begin to comprehend the depth and breadth of the task of the transformation ahead.