- Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption
- St. Martin’s Press, 304 pp.
Two Characters in Search of an Author
In 1984, Jennifer Thompson, was a 23-year-old college student in Burlington, North Carolina. Like many of her peers in the U.S. at the time – young, white, from small towns – she had no reason to doubt that, if minimal precautions were taken, the world, or at least the part of it which she inhabited, was a safe place. “I had done everything right,” she writes in Picking Cotton, a recently published memoir, more or less half written by her. “All the things girls are told growing up: Don’t go out jogging by yourself at night. Lock the doors in your car. Avoid dark alleys. I knew them all.” Whether she is referring to all the dark alleys or all the things girls are told when growing up is ambiguous. What is definite is that her world was shattered one July night that year when a man broke into her apartment and raped her.
Perhaps as a consequence of being black, Ronald Cotton – essentially responsible for the other half of Picking Cotton – had a somewhat more sophisticated world view than Thompson. He was 22 in 1984, living with his mother and her boyfriend in a Burlington housing project. As a child, he wanted to be a policeman, but when he was 12 years old, he saw some cops give chase to several other black boys. One of the officers tackled a child and put a gun to his head. Cotton overheard the policeman say, “If you breathe too hard, I’ll blow your head off.” The incident put an end to Cotton’s dreams of a law-enforcement career.
Inconvenient for a black man in small-town North Carolina, Cotton also had a taste for white women. At 16, while drunk, he entered a friend’s house and got into bed with the friend’s sister, who screamed. Her mother appeared with a shotgun and pressed charges, which she later dropped. In the book, without going into any cumbersome explanatory details, Cotton writes that the same charges came up again a year later. He says a court-appointed attorney railroaded him into pleading guilty and spending a year and a half in Polk Youth Center in Raleigh.
After his release, Cotton committed some petty crimes, but writes that when he was caught breaking and entering, he saw the light and renounced the criminal path forever. His transformation went unnoticed by Burlington prosecutors who, perhaps because of Cotton’s history with white girlfriends, found it entirely commonsensical to pin him with Thompson’s rape, as well as that of another woman. When confronted with Cotton in a police lineup, Thompson had nary a shred of doubt that he was the man who had violated her. He went to trial and, after conviction, to jail.
The only problem was that Cotton was innocent. As DNA evidence would prove eleven years later, Thompson had in fact been raped by a man named Bobby Poole, who served time for other offenses in the same jail as Cotton. (As photos in Picking Cotton attest, aside from the fact that both men were black, Cotton and Poole bore virtually no resemblance to each other. The cliché that to whites all blacks look alike would appear to have long legs in North Carolina.)
After Cotton’s release from jail, he was finally able to make his way down that high, straight and narrow road. He married, had children, took several jobs (according to the book he “currently works at an insulation plant”) and built a house in the woods. Thompson, mortified at having wrongfully convicted an innocent man, has made something of a cause of helping innocent, convicted prisoners (aside from raising three children with a husband from New York). Most improbably, Cotton and Thompson (now Thompson-Cannino) have become, if not precisely bosom buddies, friends of a sort, who sometimes speak on the phone, or find each other at rallies such as the Community March for Justice for Troy Anthony Davis. They have even appeared on TV together.
Theirs is an extraordinary tale that does not precisely get told in Picking Cotton, the memoir in which they collaborated with Erin Torneo. The book is divided into three sections: Jennifer (which tells the story of Thompson’s rape until Cotton’s conviction), Ronald (which mostly recounts his eleven years in prison trying to convince the courts of his innocence) and Jennifer and Ronald (which outlines their lives, and eventual rapprochement, after his exoneration). Although the book weighs in at nearly 300 pages, it never feels like anything more than a sketchbook – a list of incidents, a smattering of details, which, oddly, never quite bring their protagonists to life.
If they are not quite caricatures, Thompson and Cotton are painted in bold strokes without subtlety. She is a sheltered woman of some privilege and an implicit sense of entitlement whose consciousness is expanded by two tragedies – the rape, and the recognition of her accountability for Cotton’s bum luck. (A reader can imagine, had a movie been made twenty years ago, that Sally Field would have played her role.) Cotton is the stalwart, long-suffering black man, whose perseverance translates into triumph (the kind of part frequently played by Don Cheadle today).
But there is no intricacy, nuance or shading to their characters, no breadth or depth. Nor is there a serious examination of the criminal justice system that was so unfair to Cotton. Even solemn subjects are enhanced when told with humor, an element of which Picking Cotton is singularly, blindingly lacking.
It is a story worthy of more accomplished writers. I couldn’t help but wondering how it would have been handled by a first-rate, compassionate but unsparing novelist with no vested interests. What would Russell Banks or Tom Wolfe have done with such material? In any case, as slight as Picking Cotton is, one cannot help but wish its authors well, particularly Cotton, who of course got by far the shortest end of the stick (and, if a between-the-lines reading is serviceable, has a far flimsier safety net than Thompson).
It is even possible to muster up some good will toward Torneo, the only putative writer of the three, whose sole credit as an author on the book jacket indicates that she won a New York Foundation of the Arts non-fiction fellowship in 2007. One hopes she will have learned how hard it is to write a book, and will choose for her next project a subject about which she can evidence some passion.