Born of a real-world nightmare, Tananarive Due’s The Reformatory is a beautiful and bracing novel that melds historical fiction with speculative elements. Like many masterpieces, it is grounded in a fearsome experience. In late 2012, still reeling from the death of her mother, Due received an unexpected call from the Florida attorney general’s office. They told the acclaimed horror author, screenwriter and scholar that her mother’s uncle, Robert Stephens, had likely been buried on the grounds of the state’s now infamous Dozier School for Boys, a reform school that became a site of grotesque abuse. Researchers and state officials were looking for family members to approve exhumation at the site in order to document what happened.
As Due vividly remembers, “All this came as a shock.” Here was a close relative that she hadn’t even known about, and her family had already seen its share of violent trauma. In fact, she reflects, “When I first got the call, I thought it was in reference to another [boy] on my grandmother’s side who was actually put to death as a juvenile. And that was a family story we had heard about, but I had no idea about Robert Stephens.”
Getting to the root of what happened to Stephens would require excavating a painful history and risking reviving intergenerational trauma, but it was also a way to honor her mother. Due knew she had to see it through. Within months of that call, Due traveled to the town of Marianna in the Florida Panhandle to witness the moment when her great-uncle’s remains were brought to light.
Upon arrival, one of the sheriffs on site pointed her down the road and told her to “follow the mudhole. I was like, what mudhole?” For Due, who was born in Tallahassee and was raised in Miami, with its distinctly urban and Latin American flavor, “this small Panhandle town was a whole new world.”
“The whole experience was so immersive,” Due says. “It was really almost as if history was trapped at that site.” While in Marianna, Due attended a meeting of Dozier survivors. A man recounted “a beating so severe that the poor child couldn’t see his parents on visiting day because his clothes had actually been whipped into the skin of his back.”
What Due witnessed in the swampy Florida heat transformed a strange obligation into a visceral and deeply felt mission, and cemented her desire to write about the boys at Dozier. She “couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be a child at this hell house.”
Finding the right genre and narrative for a subject this brutal, though, was a challenge. Though the former journalist had written a memoir with her mother, Civil Rights advocate Patricia Stephens Due (Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights), excellent memoirs had already been published by survivors, and Due felt too removed from the events to take a nonfiction angle on the subject. Ultimately, what Due really wanted to do was give Robert a better story than he had experienced in his short life. To do that, she needed to write a novel.
Due cares deeply about the social history she’s bringing to life, and sought to make dark realities accessible to readers. But she is also cognizant of the dangers of that quest and was loath to create anything that could be exploitative. This, Due is clear, is one of the greatest hurdles with this kind of material: “When we’re writing about difficult times in history, the line between trauma porn and honoring the past can be very thin.” That said, ignoring the violence that took place in real life was not an option. “I felt I had no choice but to have my protagonist experience at least a taste of what those survivors had talked about.”
Getting it all right felt urgent to Due, but also posed a perilously high degree of difficulty, the literary equivalent of performing a triple axle. In a testament to her skill, The Reformatory deftly delivers on all of its author’s aims.
Though it springs from the same grim institutional history as Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Nickel Boys, Due’s supernatural period thriller is riveting and highly original. Set in the 1950s, the novel centers a fictionalized version of Robert Stephens, a 12-year-old African American boy living in Florida whose life is changed when he tries to rescue his sister, Gloria, from being harassed by a wealthy white teenager. Thanks to the attacker’s powerful father, Robert is quickly arrested, convicted and sentenced to six months at the Dozier-esque Gracetown School for Boys. His stint at the cruel institution, euphemistically known as “the Reformatory,” comes 30 years after a fire that killed 25 boys, many of whom were buried on the grounds along with the bodies of other inmates. The ghosts of these dead boys haunt the school and Robert becomes their emissary, communicating with them and acting as an intermediary between the corrupt warden and the spirits seeking both revenge and release.
This spectral element unlocked something crucial for Due: “The ghosts can represent the violence without me having to basically write a book that is just about beating after beating after beating, murder after murder after murder.” That blending of genres, history and the fantastical, struck an important balance, enabling her to tell hard truths without inflicting maximum trauma on herself or her readers.
Weaving history and the speculative is one of Due’s talents as a writer, but that particular mixture also has an established literary tradition as seen in works by other Black authors, such as Beloved by Toni Morrison. The rich history of how the African American experience has found expression in horror is a story Due has long worked to tell, both as executive producer on Horror Noire, a documentary on the history of Black horror, and through her groundbreaking college courses on the Black horror aesthetic. While the creative path that emerged felt like a fit to the veteran horror writer, it was still rocky. Threading the needle between truth and exploitation required skill and more time than she had ever devoted to a project. Before The Reformatory, the longest Due had spent on a single work was two years. This one took seven.
For part of that time, Due was immersed in and, she admits, “hiding behind” the research process. In 2018, she published a short story also titled “The Reformatory” in the Boston Review that tackled the most difficult scene from her work in progress. Then came COVID-19 and a jolting sense of her own mortality.
“It was COVID that really kicked me in the pants and made me realize on a deep visceral level that I could die without finishing the book,” Due says. The memory of that time is still vivid. “This was before the vaccine. This was when we didn’t know what was going on. So it was during that time that I put myself on a very strict page quota and I kept a chart up on my wall.” The placement was meaningful. “There was a day I didn’t write, and all those zeros were right in my face. That was the kind of discipline it took to finally finish the book. It was a real push.”
That life-altering visit to Marianna was a perfect matching of subject, artist and moment: The result is a genre-crossing masterwork. Ten years after it was begun, The Reformatory has come to fruition.
Photo of Tananarive Due by Melissa Herbert.