Tag Archives: Cynthia Stewart

Framing Innocence, Writing Truth

12 Mar

When Lynn Powell was my professor a semester ago, I asked her how to get started in publishing. Her answer was not surprising, but it certainly made me think. Start in your community, build a reputation there, and move up, she advised.

At the time I hadn’t yet read her latest work, Framing Innocence. Now, with the book’s 288 pages securely under my belt, that prior conversation is ringing like a bell, because I now have a clear understanding of why community is so important to Powell.

The book, which was published in late 2010, is a detailed nonfiction account of the highly publicized and controversial prosecution of Oberlin local Cynthia Stewart, a mother and bus driver accused of creating child porn. The evidence? Several shots Stewart took of her eight-year-old daughter Nora in the bathtub. Powell follows the Stewart-family story from the shapshots through the arrest, prosecution, and eventual mixed-emotion resolution. What readers gain is a portrait of a flawed justice system, a family nearly crushed, and the vast power of a community to band together and to overcome.

Powell’s writing offers a straightforward depiction and analysis of both the legal and emotional challenges surrounding the case. Her own closeness to the family and her involvement in “The Politburo”—the name given to the community group fighting for Stewart’s acquittal—might make the reader question the objectiveness of Powell’s account, but the obvious and extensive research behind the book crushes these doubts. In fact, it is this commitment to accuracy and to the truth of writing that I found most engaging in the work.

It seems, to me at least, that Powell’s dogged determination to document the events truthfully is a means of paying homage to the ways in which writing impacted the case itself. For Powell, and for Stewart as well, writing is a means of achieving understanding (between Stewart and the prosecutors; self-understanding achieved through journaling), of pressuring for social change (newspapers and media played a strong role in the case), and of expressing an ultimate truth and goodness. I found myself dumbfounded near the end of the account when Stewart, who had been offered a diversion agreement to avoid a messy trial and potential jail time, spent weeks in negotiation with the prosecution over the exact wording of the document. “How do I explain to [my daughter] that I lied,” Stewart says at one point. “[How do I explain] that I signed my name to something that I did not believe to be true?” For these two women—Powell and Stewart—writing has tangible power and therefore comes with a strong sense of responsibility. Framing Innocence is aware of and delivers on that responsibility, restoring innocence, or at the least context, to a set of accusations that were wildly out of place. Writers, lawyers, parents, all those belonging to a community of values, ought to read and pay attention to this book.

Advertisements