July 14, 2024

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A Savannah Site for Emily

A Savannah Site for Emily

She isn’t in the Bonaventure or anywhere nearby the grave of Jim Williams. She wouldn’t have tolerated such positioning. Emily took a stand against the man years ago and wrote it down word for word with a working title of Cannabis and Snowdrops, mainly because her son Danny loved both. Her story is not a sequel to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, though it tells of the aftermath; nor is it a prequel, though it tells of what happened in the years leading up to that fatal midnight. Rather, it is a kind of circling-and-spiraling, which I think of as Around Midnight. And, her story will likely never see the light of day.

In my most recent visit to her grave, the memories of having her as my student over three years poured out. One thing a creative writing teacher must never do is speak of his or her students’ stories in public, unless of course those writers have made their works public. For me that discretion ranks among the rules of priests, therapists and lawyers. And I would hesitate to speak now except for Emily’s prodding. She is as determined as she sleeps in Greenwich Cemetery as she was wide-eyed in my class.

“It’s fiction,” she had taunted from the back of the room that first day she was in my class and whenever I held up Berent’s book or mentioned the title. The thin sassy voice came with rich Savannah accent, from a pugnacious figure then totally unknown to me, one which I was not about to take on in front of my class of urbane aspiring writers.

“Fiction!” came again as loud as a whisper allows. After several more taunts from her it occurred to me that no matter who she is she might have something to add to my lecture on creative nonfiction or on the works that seem to be settling as the benchmarks of the sometimes wooly genre. Little did I know that over time she would modify my teaching of the topic of creative nonfiction, transform my perspective on issues of notoriety and on loss, and teach me much about voice driven writing styles.

Her writing was well underway when she entered my classes. Not a reaction to Berendt’s book, hers is the story of growing up as a “have not” in a world of powerful “haves” in the thick moss and mist of Savannah. Hers is the battle of growing up in the shadow of father old enough to be her grandfather and who gave her off in marriage at a young age, of raising four children virtually alone, of a dogged resistance to growing up ignorant just because you are poor, and of having a son shot to death in the home of millionaire on Bull Street. Emily’s story, written or unwritten, currently sits in the shadow of Midnight, just as she often had sat in dim corridors of the Savannah courthouse because she was not permitted in the court room while the trials went on. Nevertheless, to those who know it her story stands out in factuality and mesmerizing style.

Emily had written much of her story while she was in Savannah, long before she appeared in my class in 2002. The narrative had poured out of her in a compelling voice that few writers find the freedom to release. She wrote about and told us about her unfortunate experiences with people associated with writing and film making. In fact, some such episodes were in her manuscript. I suggested she be careful to not put herself in the position of describing situations that she might not be able to back up in the event someone decided to sue. My statement felt flimsy as it came out of my mouth, directed at a woman who’d lived through infamous trials of conviction and reversal of conviction of the Jim Williams. Williams had money, she pointed out to me, but she barely had “a pot to pee in.” Who could possibly sue her, and what would they get? But, she did take most of those questionable episodes out of her writing.

At first, Emily’s story was bogged down with the inclusion of the transcripts of the four trials, and that weightiness took away from her own incredible narrative of the struggle between the haves and have nots. Finally, at the urging of other writers in our class, she took out the heavy versions of the trials. Then her perspective on the death of her son came through with more force. She said, “Williams was a fifty year old self-made millionaire with long standing involvement in the community, both socially and as an active member of the restoration goals of Savannah. Nevertheless, I knew this man was the person who killed my son. Danny didn’t have the wealth or power needed to be a part of Savannah’s society. He had nothing.”

Emily’s manner of expression is not simple; it is frank yet complex in its straightforwardness. It is voice for which all writers strive: voice driven by passion. Effective narrative voice must come from the heart, from a direct desire to impart something not only true but consequential. Emily’s story naturally had to involve the murder of her son, summaries of the trials, the eventual death of Williams, and the hype that overtook Savannah due to the Berendt’s book and Eastwood’s movie. Yet, Emily’s story is far more than that. That truth came to me early on as I began reading her drafts and found myself drawn into the grip of her early poverty. The voice made me feel anger and bitterness toward society and any family that doesn’t stand up for its children. But then that same voice forced me to realize that I cannot hold on to such feelings if I plan to leave this life unfettered. Her voice allowed me to be transported to become the woman who once packed a gun to even the score but then replaced it with the pen and written word.

During the time Emily was in my class I gained a deep sense of what it might be like to raise a child and then lose him in such a bizarre manner. The loss of a child is not a statistic or a newspaper headline; it’s a life-shaking trauma that demands support from any direction.

Emily had support from her other three children, employers, and some friends, but not from the legal system or society in general. The media focused on Williams and his dilemma. That fact has become ingrained in the mountain of lore of this country, as it was infamously publicized in print and fictionalized on the big screen. There was hardly mention of an Emily Bannister in the Berendt’s book, and in the movie there was no haunting camera shot of the dead boy’s mother sitting in the dim corridors of that courthouse. Only from the grip of Emily’s voice could a reader experience the depth of such loss and the emptiness that engulfed it. Yet, her story is far more than that tragedy; it includes the beauty and humor of life amid adversity.

When Emily depicted Danny he became real and not the invented Billy the hustler on Bull Street as depicted in the movie. She wrote about his first steps and how he was noticeably pigeon toed. Danny was of medium height and weight, and was muscular, with ash blond hair that wanted to curl when it became too long or damp, thick eyebrows and long dark eyelashes that emphasized big blue eyes. His lips tilted upward at the right corner when he smiled. Yes, I could see the resemblance to Judd Law, who play the role in the movie. Emily told about how as a small child, Danny was attracted to all forms of beauty, and cared little for anything competitive, choosing instead crayons, puzzles, and toys that produced music. He spent countless hours picking flowers in their spacious yard that must’ve appeared boundless to a small boy. He particularly liked the yellow jonquil and tiny white snowdrops, calling them bellflowers because of their shapes. She thought that Danny’s love for cultural beauty is probably one thing that drew him to Williams.

Emily’s story marches through cold reality of the murder and its aftermath, to entanglements with the legal systems and the burial, and then it backs up to weave in the narrative of her family and the old father who questioned her birthright and existence, her mother Snooky, the moves from house to house, Emily’s teenage marriage and babies, and the determination to gain an education despite poverty. It is in that texture that the reader is so thoroughly taken into another time and place and a life of which most people never catch more than a glimpse. The narrative takes on the level of a case study in Southern poverty, and then it rises to the escapades of an independent single mother and the challenges of raising children alone. Inevitably the story journeys back to the trials and the eventual acquittal and the death of Williams. After he final chapter, Emily added a “Finale.” It is entitled “Illegitimi non carborundum. (Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down!)”

Why is it that some writers are able to capture authenticity through mundane details and how did Emily acquire that skill, or is it a talent that just comes naturally to some? My thought is that such talent is the gift rising out of a special sensitivity to how life is pieced together. Though she certainly spent ample time studying and learning the craft of writing, she, without a doubt, had something else going in her mind, something that allowed her to see and feel events and to capture them in scenes, always in the strong irony-filled narrative voice. She wrote of her father’s catastrophe in WWI and his subsequent misadventures in civilian life as if she were a historian piecing together the facts of times past.

Emily’s mundane details reveal the cobwebs in which she had grown up. She wrote that her father spent the rest of his life in and out of hospitals because of war injuries. Later, she learned that he had been married numerous times. She said, “I don’t think he even knew how many times until a Superior Court judge presented him with an itemized list, along with a summons to court sometime in the early seventies.” A list of no less than three women was read to her father and as to the whereabouts of these women, and her father replied that he’d “misplaced” them. He didn’t know where any of them were or whether they were still living. He said he’d never gotten a divorce from any of them. When he decided to leave them he just left. With her father in his seventies, and the length of time involved, the judge had little alternative but to perform a “mass divorce,” releasing him from the bonds of matrimony and rendering him a single man. Emily’s mother quickly realized that after thirty odd years of marriage, this also included her!

Emily continued to study creative writing in my classes for several years. In that time she made friends with other writers and she moved her story forward. My students respected her for her writing skills and for her story. Her honesty and humility was always peppered with a sharp-tongued edge of wit about society and the haves and have nots. She made us laugh at life.

My feelings toward Emily included affection and a bit of fear of ever crossing her. I was respectful to her as student, but I was aware that she might have inadvertently placed me in the haves box. On the other hand, she treated me with high regard as I mentored her through revisions of the manuscript. I coached her in steps for getting her story published, but she bulked when I told her she absolutely had to write a synopsis as part of the proposal package so that an agent could see the story in short form. She hissed out the “ssss” in synopsis, saying it brought up her deepest fear: that she could not write that story again. I knew that she meant she could not live the experience again. I understood that.

In the time I knew her she was living comfortably. She cherished the memory of her past experiences, but, she wanted to move further from the darkness, on into the light. I knew that and understood that in the deepest part of my heart. She was ill. She knew that at some point she would be free of life. She confided in me that she had “a diagnosis,” but she did not put a time frame to it. It was something that I could not fully comprehend, but it had the feeling of something arcane.

Through Emily’s story I knew I was experiencing one of the finest examples of litmus test creative nonfiction. The manuscript was finally in somewhat publishable form, but regardless all my honed teaching skills I could not force her steps to publishing. It was only up to her and now to her family. She often told me that all she wanted was for W.W. Norton to publish it and to give her two complimentary copies. I explained that she would need to jump through the hoops of the publishing world and that W.W. Norton might not provide any hoops. One of my students, a radio personality, told Emily that she would need to sharpen her skills as an interviewee for television and radio as part of the marketing plan for a book. Emily became incredibly livid at the idea that anything would be demanded of her. She felt that she had lived the story and wasn’t that enough? I knew she wasn’t being practical, but I also knew she was ill. Toward the end she would disappear from class occasionally and then reappear. One day as I was leaving my classroom, I found her in the hallway standing quietly and shyly alone, as thin as a rail. She told me she’d been hospitalized in relation to the illness and that she was now ready to come back to class, and she did for short while.

The compelling power of Emily’s story was a result how that writer had come to be. I could not toy with that. Emily was going to run her course and I could do nothing more than be her teacher, mentor, and try to be a friend as she would allow. She was going to disappear again and I just had to wait until she would reappear. Finally she did.

Emily came back to me with force. She’d slipped away to Savannah and died in November 2005; nevertheless, once I was able to visit the grave I could feel her spirit again. And, there is the manuscript: its words continue to come back to me with vigor. Though it may never see print, Emily’s story is not over. It still has time to penetrate those of us who knew her and anyone with whom we share her story. And, she lies peacefully yet still determined, in a grave beside her son, in a site that suites her well.