Nicole Van Cleve

Nicole and her family have been members of Old Pine for several years. Nicole was recently featured on the Rachel Maddow show where she discussed her new book Crook County.

This book was an accidental journey. When I was younger, I wanted to be a prosecutor because I thought it would be a way to fight for victims’ rights. Then I had the chance to work alongside prosecutors in Chicago. I discovered that some of the people doing the victimizing were the very prosecutors and judges who were sworn to protect people’s rights.

It was lawlessness. Judges who knew that police doctored cases would let them get away with it. Prosecutors would mock victims and their families, often in racist ways. I can remember one case in which a defendant asked for a jury trial. During a recess, with the judge and prosecutors watching, the sheriff wrapped a cord around the defendant in his chair and imitated electrocuting him.

Once I saw these things, I felt that I needed to get a PhD so that I could research them in a systematic way. Crook County is the result of 10 years of research, using 130 research assistants. My hope is that people take the work seriously. I want to bear witness to these injustices and the paralysis that surrounds them.

One of my strongest memories is from third grade. My teacher had us write letters of encouragement to the Americans who were held hostage in Lebanon. One of these men was a Catholic priest named Lawrence Jenco.

After being freed, Father Jenco came to our school to thank all of the kids for our letters. He told the story of being blindfolded and held in prison for months on end. He said that, in order to maintain his sense of peace, he made a rosary out of rocks and string. There in the prison, subjected to isolation and torture, he would pray the rosary, running the rocks through his fingers.

As a child growing up in an abusive home, his story gave me hope: hope that I could survive and also that I might be able to help people.

One of my favorite quotes is from Bell Hooks, the wonderful African-American writer and scholar.

My strength comes from the spirit that called me to write those books. I am a servant. Those books do not come from some egoistic Bell Hooks brilliance. They come from the light of grace. Sometimes I sit in my study and see this body of Bell Hooks’ books. This is what it means to be a child of light and grace, because I was given the grace to be the messenger in those books.

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