Bisexual author Craig Bennett Hallenstein tackles a controversial subject in his debut novel The Dolphin (Storyville Press, 2016). Registered sex offenders are not among the most highly regarded members of society, in The Dolphin, Hallenstein attempts to put a human face and story to these regularly maligned people. His main character, Sean, is a man still paying for the sins (or crimes) of his youth when, at 18, he had an interaction with a 15 year old girl. Sean’s struggles are wrapped up in a murder mystery and crime spree taking place in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. I spoke with Hallenstein about his book during the spring of 2016. [Hallenstein reads at the Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln in Chicago, October 19, at 7 p.m., as part of the Local Authors Series.]
Gregg Shapiro: The Dolphin is your debut novel. What were you doing prior to writing it?
Craig Bennett Hallenstein: I wrote an earlier novel, The Garden, that I put on hold when I came up with the idea for The Dolphin. Prior to The Garden, I wrote a musical for the theater, magazine articles, and a couple of screenplays. I’ve always been a writer, but The Dolphin is my first major project to see the light of day.
GS: What can you tell me about the inspiration for the story?
CBH: It occurred nine years ago. I was scanning the radio and suddenly heard, “We ought to burn ‘em in ovens and send ‘em to hell!” I couldn’t imagine who was being talked about. When I realized it was sex offenders, I thought, “Of course!” Sex offenders are so despised in our culture that radio personalities can disparage them on air, using the hateful language of Nazi Germany, and actually get away with it. I figured there might be a story in that. After months of research, I realized that our nation’s one-size-fits-all sex offender registry makes no distinction between violent sexual predators and 18-year-olds having sex with their 17-year-old girl/boyfriends—and that punishment for one single mistake follows young people for the rest of their lives. Not only was there a story, it turned out to be one of epic proportions in its utter disregard of human rights.
GS: Can you please explain the definition of a “dolphin”?
CBH: “Dolphins” are innocents, caught in the net of sex offenders’ registration. In the book, the police detective, Owen Dupree, tells Sean Jordan, the protagonist, a sex offender himself, “When the law goes fishing for sharks, it casts a wide net. Sometimes it catches a dolphin. Not supposed to. Just happens. Unfortunately, after they’re caught, most dolphins die in the net.” I liked the metaphor and thought, if there’s going to be a categorical distinction between predators and “near-innocents,” why not call the latter group “dolphins”?
GS: How much of Craig is in any of the characters, if at all?
CBH: You, as a writer, know every character in our work is a projection of ourselves. I’m the good guy, the bad guy, the bartender, and the girl. I think what makes characters believable and compelling is when their thoughts, words, and deeds are grounded in truth. Only when an author mines his own deepest truths and hands them to his characters, breathing life into their forms, do the characters become knowable. Writers in real life don’t have to do all the things their characters do, but writers do have to explore the darkest corners of their souls.
GS: Sean is the kind of character who can’t catch a break – beginning with the death of his parents through his outing as a registered sex offender and the horrible murder of his close friend Doug. What’s the attraction in writing about a character that seems to have a perpetual black cloud over his head?
CBH: There really isn’t any attraction to writing about someone living the life of Job. Most such characters come off as two-dimensional, depressive, and unattractive. I’m not interested in that guy. My intent was to present a person with depth and likability who is born with overflowing potential, has greatness within him, has some wonderful breaks along the way, and also suffers adversity. Getting caught up in sex offender registration, however, takes him suddenly to a much higher level of misfortune, because the system renders him powerless to do anything about it. In fact, in listening to the hair-raising stories of actual offenders, I realized what I put Sean through pales by comparison in many cases.
GS: The Dolphin is a murder mystery/detective novel. Is this a genre in which you plan to continue writing or are there other genres you would like to explore?
CBH: My next book, The Garden, is also a thriller. It takes place in a different setting with all new characters, but the genre’s the same. I’m not hung up on thrillers, but I find it a breezy, easy-going-down form in which to sprinkle complex social issues—like hiding pills in mashed potatoes. For a long time, I worried about The Dolphin being rejected as a “message book.” Yet reviews have proven otherwise with reviewers seeming to appreciate being nudged (gently!) to look at things from different perspectives. Challenging perspectives is at the core of everything I write.
GS: There’s a lovely example of Sean’s playful relationship with daughter Ren, early in chapter 22. As a father – did you draw on your own experiences with your children?
CBH: Throughout the book [laughs]!
GS: The Dolphin highlights the potentially destructive nature of certain types of talk radio.
CBH: Talk radio—yes. Very destructive. Even more so is cable news. The “sex offender industry” was born in the late 1970s and early 1980s when cable news, in its infancy, wanted desperately to find a way to compete with the networks. When youngster, Etan Patz, died in 1979, cable news covered the story with a sensationalistic flair that had never been seen before. What they discovered was an audience eager for more—blood and gore; tearful, pleading parents; terrified neighbors; square-jawed, determined cops. So they gave the public what it wanted. A few more child deaths followed in the early 80s, most notably that of Adam Walsh, son of John Walsh who later joined – guess what — cable news. Suddenly there was talk of “thousands of kids gone missing.” Pictures of missing kids began appearing on milk cartons and hardware store windows. Dog leashes, modified for kids, were sold to parents to keep kids from being ripped away. Parents took kids to police stations to have them photographed and fingerprinted. Soon, children were no longer allowed to have paper routes, play unaccompanied in parks, or even walk to school. Parents became “helicopters”, hovering over their kids’ every move. The ensuing hysteria, fueled by cable news, caused parents to demand of legislators that they keep kids safe at all costs. The result was a new layer of laws passed on top of the murder, rape, and kidnapping laws already on the books, extending punishment indefinitely beyond probation and/or time served.
When the Justice Department finally got around to scrutinizing the actual number of kids who were going missing at the hands of strangers each year, they determined the number to be 100, approximately the same as it had been each year for 50 years. Nothing had changed except the advent of cable news, which to date has never corrected thirty years of misinformation. The damage was done. We now need Lenore Skenazy to remind us that kids were once “free range” and real-world-experience-based, resulting in their developing an enduring sense of independence.
GS: You make use of the word “outing,” which for many years was associated with the gay community, and the act of forcing a closeted person, often a celebrity or politician, out of the closet. What do you think of the way the word has come into common usage?
CBH: It was a great metaphor then and still is. The LGBTAQ struggle for civil rights is years ahead of that of “dolphins’.” AIDS brought many gays out of the closet, and the great discovery in that was: In visibility, there are numbers, and in numbers, there’s enormous political and economic strength. “Dolphins” remain in the closet, terrified of their status being found out in a culture that despises them and would just as soon see them dead. As a result, they have no numbers, no money, and no clout. They remain totally invisible. Everyone hates “sex offenders” but nobody actually knows one, just as it was for gays before characters on Will and Grace, Friends, and Glee, joined a million brave others who found the courage to step forward.
GS: At the heart of the novel are the issues of sex offender registration, and the reforming of sex offender laws, which is a controversial topic to say the least. Please say something about your interest in the subject.
CBH: My parents fought for civil rights in the '60s. Here’s a time capsule…they did so as Republicans [laughs]! My kids and I have been fighting for LGBTAQ rights for years. When I became aware of this issue, I couldn’t walk away. It’s our equivalent of the communist witch hunt of the 1950s. In Kansas, for instance, they’re trying to pass a law that would make teaching sex education a felony! They want to force sex-ed teachers into sex offender registration for showing “dirty diagrams” to “impressionable kids.” What’s next? Scarlet letters, right? Speaking of which, part of the new criminal justice bill Obama just signed into law is the requirement that sex offenders have stamped on their passports “Sex Offender” in bright red letters. This is clearly a nightmare we’ll one day wake up from and look back and say: “What were we thinking?”
Let me be clear…there are many, many persons who have preyed on kids who have been or are being punished for their misdeeds. Every bit of that is appropriate. They are the same people who need, and hopefully will receive, treatment to restore their lives by learning to make better choices in meeting their needs—choices that protect them as well as others. Some people should continue to be incarcerated for years to come. Some people should be tracked by police after incarceration. But shaming people through blanket, public registration serves absolutely no purpose. For no one is this truer than dolphins.
GS: New Orleans is its own character in the novel. What can you tell me about your relationship with the city?
CBH: I remember putting together my first bucket list on a beach in San Diego when I was 23. The thing I most wanted to do was to someday visit New Orleans. When I arrived 13 years later and the cab driver turned into the French Quarter, chills immediately coursed my spine. They were accompanied by an overwhelming sense of having been there before—as if I’d somehow returned home. Yet neither me nor my family had ever been there before. That was 30 years ago this year and those feelings have never gone away. I love the city and spend time there every year. The principal reason I chose New Orleans as the backdrop of the book—beside wanting to mine its phenomenal vibrancy and idiosyncratic nature—was to show the contract between a city in which sex is free-flowing and available everywhere, and a life in which sex is unavailable and viewed with deep suspicion.
GS: Speaking of New Orleans, I met you at the Saints + Sinners Literary Festival there in April (2016). What was your experience of the festival like for you?
CBH: Saints + Sinners was the first literary festival I ever attended. Reading from The Dolphin and taking part on a panel to discuss “Writing as Activism” was my baptism by fire. But being surrounded by friends who had flown in from Chicago, friends I’d known for years from New Orleans, and a roomful of literary friends I’d just met pulled me through. I had a great time, realized I have years of catching up to do, and couldn’t wait to get home to once again tackle The Garden.
GS: If there was a movie version of The Dolphin, how would you like to see it cast?
CBH: By wonderful casting agents who know what they’re doing [laughs].