On the shelf: ‘Things I’ve learned from dying: a book about life’ by David R. Dow 

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


Before counselor Dow sees a new client, he reads through the case carefully. Six years back, four young men went on a week-long crime spree that ended in the murder of an 84-year-old woman in her home. One of the gang shot Miss McClain in the head, and Dow’s client took the gun and shot her again, stating, “That’s how you smoke a bitch.”


Dow’s clients are all on death row in Texas. Many are not sympathetic types. Discussing his new case with his father-in-law, Peter asks him, “So, why do you want to save this man?”, and Dow answers that he doesn’t know yet.


There are a lot of surprises in this book, starting — but not ending — with Dow. Although he’s a professor, a death penalty lawyer and the founder of the Texas Innocence Network, he tells us that, “It’s important to understand that people who defend murderers aren’t necessarily opposed to killing.”


An avid shooter, known as “Grudge” at the range, due to his habit of pinning photos on his targets, Dow’s wife convinced him to give most of his guns to a friend after their son was born. 


“But I kept the shotgun. I’ve got a family to take care of. If anyone ever climbs our stairs at night and doesn’t turn and run when he hears the whoosh of the pump chambering a shell, I’ll know that if the dog doesn’t kill him I’m going to have to.”


OK, so he’s not a pacifist. We have to piece together his reasons for his strong commitment to his clients as the book goes along, but he isn’t shy about revealing the legal and political machinations that go into a death case, and his opinions on them.


Anybody who tells you the criminal justice system is an even playing field has no idea what she’s talking about. Rich people can make it close to even. Poor people—which is to say, everyone on death row—don’t have a chance.”


It’s not all about death row though, and what sounds like a depressing treatise, Things I’ve Learned… reads more like a medical, legal and psychological thriller, shot through with dark humor and hope.


The book intertwines three lives and deaths as part of a whole, pulsing web of life, where each twitch ripples out to affect the immediate family, friends and finally the whole ecosystem of society. There are no “minor” characters in these true stories. The themes of mortality are deep as the wise friend, beloved dog, even the remorseful client, confront our oldest mystery.


It is, as the title promises, a book about life, and a strangely beautiful one.