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Walking On the Edge: A Biography of Jill McDonough

Kristina Katz

Joshua Jerome

Philip Tang

Malden High School AP Literature

Ryan Gallagher

15 February 2011

1. The Beginning

Kristina Katz

        Although born in Hartford, Connecticut, Jill McDonough spent most of her early life in North Carolina. The 1970’s in North Carolina, for McDonough, consisted of “watching a lot of T.V., reading a lot of books,” and spending all of the time she had in between to “write in her journals.” She joked that “nobody understood her genius and she felt what other people could not” (McDonough, “Questions For Interview.” par. 12).

        While in North Carolina, McDonough attended “a little grade school in Alexander, North Carolina, and then middle, junior, and high school a few towns over in Asheville.” She “immediately realized she was sick of living in North Carolina” (par. 11) and transferred from UNC Chapel Hill to Stanford University, where McDonough “received a Bachelor of Arts in English.”  Stanford was not enough for McDonough though; she wanted to learn more. Once she graduated from Stanford, McDonough “went on to Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences, where she acquired a Master’s degree in Creative Writing and Poetry” (“Jill McDonough: Long Biographical Note.” par. 2).


2. Creating A More United America

Kristina Katz

        Even earlier than many people realize, the battle for the rights of homosexuals began in the late 1700’s where “Thomas Jefferson proposed a law that would mandate castration for gay men and mutilation of nose cartilage for gay women” (Head, Par. 1).

        The idea of homosexuality was suppressed for years, until small groups of men and women stirred up the idea in the 1950’s. The 1950’s in America “was a decade of prosperity” for most, but “for lesbians and gay men it was both a time of great fear and immeasurable courage” (“Coming Out In America” par.1). The early 1950’s were especially unforgivable to homosexuals. At the end of World War II, the psychiatric community in America “labeled homosexuality a mental illness” (par. 5), which started a new branch of scientific research for doctors across the country. Luckily, in 1951, the first gay rights organization was founded. It began as a small group of “gay men and women who created the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis who had to protect themselves by using code” (Head par. 4). But then, in 1953, “President Dwight Eisenhower signed an Executive Order mandating the dismissal of all federal employees determined to be homosexual” (“Coming Out In America” par. 3). It wasn’t until the late ‘50s that the idea of homosexuality became “tolerable.” It wasn’t that society understood it or even accepted it, but homosexuals began to gain the recognition they needed in order to obtain the rights that they deserved.

        1965 and 1969 marked two of the largest efforts of the LGBT Community to fight for gay rights. In 1965, “homosexuals picketed the White House and Pentagon against discrimination in the military and for civil rights” (Head par. 8). Although this received national recognition, the LGBT Community was not giving up. June 27, 1969 was the beginning of the Stonewall Riots in New York City. These riots and protests “were held each night for the five following nights to call attention to how police had treated the gay community” (“Coming Out In America” par. 30). Within a year after these riots, “Gay Liberation organizations were formed throughout the world” (par. 33). The 1970’s opened up the LGBT Community to the rest of America and the world. June marked Gay Pride Month, political figures began to work openly gay, and the end of the 70’s saw the “first Gay March on Washington” (par. 50), where the rainbow flag was appointed to be the symbol of the gay community. 

        The 70’s, more specifically, the year 1972, was the year that Jill McDonough was born. She was born into a one of the most revolutionary decades, and she was able to experience the struggles and hardships that the LGBT individuals had to push past in order to be truly free. Although McDonough is a part of the LGBT community, she asserts in an email that she was, in fact, “a poet before she was a lesbian.” She thinks that being a poet actually makes her “more of an outsider than the gay part" (par. 6).

        While working as an educator and as a published author, McDonough met Josey Packard, who is now her wife. McDonough knew Packard was the one and “won her over by writing her a poem called ‘Ghazal for Josey’” (McDonough, “A Natural History of My Marriage” par. 2). They were “civilly united in Vermont, had all the clerks of North Hero in tears” (par. 7).  2001 was the year that Packard and McDonough wanted to “lawyer up.” The had a lawyer “hook them up with wills and health care proxies and powers of attorney so it was like they were married” (par. 9). Once the state of Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in 2004, McDonough and Packard were legally married in Massachusetts. But that also involved more lawyers and “a special lady gay smart accountant to help them with their taxes and health insurance and understanding ‘non-relative resident’ and ‘imputed income’” (par. 9).

        The fact the McDonough is a part of the LGBT Community is not as major an issue as it would have been 40 or 50 years ago, but it still raises some skepticism and questions among some of her readers. McDonough has continued to be a poetic role model in society, but it worries her to still be a witness of some of the ignorance of the American people. Her colleagues from Brigham Young University “didn't officially tell her that she should pretend to be a straight person when she visited, but [made it clear] to her that she should present the historical poems, and not the poems that talk about her wife, for instance" (McDonough, “Questions For Interview” par. 6).

3. An Offering of Solace

Philip Tang

        McDonough’s critical eyes have had their sights on American society long enough to comprehend the injustices it has doled out over the centuries.  A particular injustice that she has gone in depth with is the matter of the American death penalty.  McDonough chose to create Habeas Corpus, a compilation of poems regarding those who were executed, in order to explore “a secret history, a forgotten side of American Law” (McDonough “Questions For Interview” par. 4). Secrecy, as McDonough describes it, is a fitting word to define how America has treated the issue of execution within its own borders, considering that the results are permanent.  What if a person accused for a crime is killed, but was innocent?  What if cruel and unusual punishment is issued in the face of a supposedly fair legal system? Such peculiarities go largely unnoticed, which in and of itself is an incredibly heinous act of negligence.

An example would be Willie Francis, a man innocent of his crimes but convicted anyway based on his skin color. He was set to die by the electric chair, but even as he “screamed and writhed under his restraints”, he did not expire.  (“The Execution of Willie Francis .”  par. 2).  And so, he was sent to be electrocuted.  Sent to die – for a second time. Inhumane actions were even more prevalent hundreds of years ago, when things were even easier to keep under wraps from the general public.  McDonough treats her book as a “eulogy or gravestone that these people did not get" (McDonough “Questions For Interview” par. 4).  Out of respect, she committed herself to investigating the mysteries of the past, to uncover the reality of what happened behind these so often ignored executions and to identify how these events impacted society as a whole.  More importantly, she often unfolds each individual tale of execution through the eyes of a witness.  Considering how Habeas Corpus spans centuries when pulling certain executed individuals under its wing, it’s quite clear that McDonough ensured herself an optimal level of background knowledge through some deep historical research.

4. Passing the Bloodied Baton

Philip Tang

The death penalty is not wholesomely unique to America.  Its origins can be traced from Britain, which "influenced America’s use of the death penalty more than any other country. . .  The first recorded execution in the new colonies was that of Captain George Kendall in the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608", consequently also a subject of one of McDonough's poems (“The Death Penalty in Massachusetts Facts and History.” par. 4). Executions in America were carried out using various lethal tools including but not limited to: guillotines, hanging by the noose, drowning, burning at the stake, and later electric chairs, gas rooms, and lethal injections.  Case in point: executions varied in their level of pain, speed and efficiency - a discrepancy that not all people would come to appreciate.

However, Britain is not solely responsible for a sudden creation of the death penalty.  The western ideal of punishment relied largely upon “personal retribution”, and idea cultivated throughout ancient history as observable by the desire for vengeance being traceable even to Hammurabi’s famous eye for an eye concept (“America’s Tug of War...” par. 2).  For centuries, the basic principle of killing the one who wronged the victim reigned supreme.  Although it is undeniable that the basic ideal of retribution was often tempered by attempts at humane rationale, over time, effort began to be poured into determining whether or not the accused was truly responsible for the alleged crime.  The Enlightenment was certainly a shining point for the side that favored morality over brutality.  But nothing could stop the atrocities that were to come in America – atrocities that provided writing subjects for McDonough, such as Mary Dyer, who for just being a Quaker faced unjust execution “with the zeal of a martyr” (“Mary Dyer: A Quaker Martyr” par. 15).

5. Ethics of Execution

Philip Tang

Objectively, it can be fairly reasonable to see execution as a method of deterrence for criminal behavior, general disobedience of order, or heavy disruption of society.  Whether or not it was absolutely necessary to deprive a subject of life in order to set a stunning example is another matter entirely.  However, the death penalty itself may have been greater than the sum of its parts, as “the emergence of the prison marks the institutionalization of the power to punish, or, to be more precise: will the power to punish be better served by concealing itself beneath a general social function, in the ‘punitive city,’ or by investing itself in a coercive institution, in the enclosed space of the ‘reformatory’?"  (Foucault 129-30).  Closely related to execution is incarceration, as both fall under the category of punishment for severe crime.  In a way, it would appear punishment rendered by the state conceals itself by pretending to be a public service.  Perhaps, but placing itself under a light that's not negative, yet not radiant either, allows the institutions of punishment to keep a steady public image while enacting abominable horrors behind the scenes.  Perhaps the death penalty was merely a natural byproduct of the development of American social structures.  Execution and punishment rendered by the state may have served as a reminder to people across the country that the higher-ups at the top of the government are a force to be reckoned with, and treat life as a mere toy to which they hold the power to decide whether it lives or is torn apart.  Speculation aside, it's an undeniable fact that execution has cemented itself into American history and even in modern times, is still alive in some states.  Foucault also mentions that "each punishment should teach a lesson; each punishment should be a fable" (Foucault p.113.).  Excessively cruel or not, it can be said without doubt that tales of people meeting an excruciatingly cruel end at the hands of the death penalty have certainly become legends or fables.

However, are abstract concepts such as fables or legends enough to deter further crime or other undesired behavior?  What if, in some cases, it promotes more out of spite?  The moral ambiguity of execution has led to an unsurprising opposition throughout American history, particularly at the hands of a strong Abolitionist movement that has made enough progress to ban the death penalty in many states.  Massachusetts, for example, has “eliminated the death penalty altogether under Massachusetts law” (“The Death Penalty in Massachusetts Facts and History”  par. 6).  Massachusetts and its peers are the minority in this battle, as only fifteen states take this standpoint.  The others continue the long tradition of execution. And so the controversy rages on - making execution a unique topic that certainly piqued McDonough's interest.  After all, legends and fables do make for potential good material for poetry.  As for McDonough, it was also a chance to give voice to the people who were silenced forever, some unjustly.  For them to be heard rather than forgotten amidst a sea of cruelty was enough reason for her to pick up the pen and write – as an offering of solace.

6. Teaching At Prisons

Joshua Jerome

    Rehabilitation and a shot at a second chance are two principles that allow Jill McDonough to continue her work with prisoners. McDonough became involved with teaching at prisons when one of her grad school professors who also taught at prisons invited the entire class to accompany her for a reading. This initial experience with the prisons, in accordance with McDonough’s heightened interest for researching and experiencing new things, allowed her to continue teaching at prisons, a subject with which she was highly intrigued (“Questions For Interview” par. 4). As time progressed, so did McDonough’s involvements and interest in teaching at prisons. As a matter of fact, through Boston University’s Prison Education Program, which “was founded by a labor organizer, tenant activist, and poet Elizabeth Barker,” McDonough began teaching in Boston Prisons (“About the Prison Education Program”). However, McDonough found that at times, it was not easy maintaining her cause because of different levels of treatment socially: McDonough even recalls having to take “chalk and smuggle it into the prison” for the reason that the prisoners were not being provided with the materials that they needed to learn (Jones-Pruett sec. 38). Despite these obstacles, McDonough was able to find many similarities between the inmates she taught, and the college students she taught, the main one being that she has “seen students who did not take themselves seriously as students, or as writers, over the course of a couple classes with me start to take themselves very seriously and do extraordinary things with their writing” (Jones Pruett sec. 42). It is clear that McDonough understands the implications of teaching at prisons, as she claims that she wants to “have something to do with changing” the way that prisoners are treated in the United States, in addition to continuing her teaching of prisoners (“Questions For Interview” par. 6).

7. McDonough’s Life Now

Joshua Jerome

   Currently, McDonough continues to teach as a visiting professor in Utah and intends on staying there until April. While in Utah, McDonough has engaged in extensive research regarding “the history of Utah and the Mormon Church”, which she has already begun writing about (“Questions For Interview”.par.6).

   Hoping to have some free time this summer, McDonough plans to “write new poems, take some days off, and go to the beach with her friends, who are mostly poets and bartenders.”  Her plan is set: keep teaching, writing poems, and publishing more of her work. McDonough “likes her life” (McDonough, “Questions For Interview. Par. 17.”) and she hopes to continue to fulfill her dreams of creating a change in American society.



Works Cited

America’s Tug of War over Sanctioned Death The U.S. History of Capital Punishment.Random History.  19 Sept. 2009.  Web.  11 Jan. 2011.

"Coming Out In America - A Historical Perspective." Cowboy Frank. 2 Sept. 2007. Web. 07 Feb. 2011.

Foucault,  Michel.  Discipline and Punish.  France: Gallimard, 1975. Print.

Head, Tom. "History of the Gay Rights Movement - An Illustrated History of the Gay Rights Movement in the United States." Civil Liberties at About.com. 2005. Web. 07 Feb. 2011.

Jill McDonough: Long Biographical Note.Salt Publishing. Web. 10 January 2011.

Jones-Pruett, Daniell. Interview with Jill McDonough. Breakwater Review. 10 January 2011.

Mary Dyer: A Quaker Martyr.”  The Colonial Gazette.  Web.  8 Jan 2011.

McDonough, Jill. "A Natural History of My Marriage." The Owls. 12 Sept. 2009. Web. 07 Feb. 2011.

McDonough, Jill. “Questions for Interview.” E-mail from Kristina Katz. 11 Jan. 2011.

The Death Penalty in Massachusetts Facts and History.”  Resources for keeping the death penalty out of Massachusetts. Death Penalty Information Center.  Web.  8 Jan. 2011.

The Execution of Willie Francis.” The Execution of Willie Francis.  Gilbert King, 2007.  Web.  8 Jan 2011.   

Image citation:

Packard, Josey. "Untitled photo of Jill McDonough." Salt Publishing. Web 20 Feb. 2011.