Nearly seven years ago, 16-year-old Todd Stansfield was behind the wheel of his car when it smashed into another vehicle on a rural, two-lane road in Douglas County. Four people died. Stansfield lived. And ever since he put pen to paper after the crash, he’s been trying to use the power of his words to make sense of that horrific night.

May 2011

The city college of New York is on a hill that overlooks Harlem, a graph-paper grid of streets sketched among the buildings that constitute the Upper Manhattan skyline. Green lawns dot the neo-Gothic campus; red-brick walk-ups, tenements, cafes, and bodegas line the sidewalks that border the 164-year-old school. To the east sits the historic St. Nicholas Park, where Alexander Hamilton’s post-Revolutionary War home is located. On this busy fall afternoon, students race across the streets on their way to class or to catch the subway home—or to the library, or a bar, or a museum. Amid all of the frenetic activity—the wailing police sirens, the low rumble of trash trucks that barrel through the intersections—Todd Stansfield stands alone.

Todd is 23 now. He’s 5-foot-9, lean and muscular with dark, thinning hair, and a jaw of right angles. His piercing blue eyes look like crystal, so clear and so bright that you trust him immediately. He is polite, perhaps overly so, always wanting to please. He has an almost permanent acquiescence about him—the way he turns his eyes away. People feel his wariness. Todd Stansfield is barely an adult, but he is a convicted killer. A felon. And he worries that is all anyone will ever see.

In Parker, where he’d grown up, Todd felt embarrassed and ashamed. He’d been storefront gossip for years. He was the boy who’d ruined all those families’ lives. He was the boy who’d ruined his own future. He’d done jail time and finished high school, then graduated from college in three years—all while following his probation rules religiously, locking himself inside his parents’ home by seven every night, just like the court told him. He’d wrapped himself in a cocoon of penance, and he’d been good at it. He was one of the best kids his probation officer had ever met. She thought of him as her own son: He was thoughtful, honest—an amazing young man, she said. Still, that wasn’t enough. At home, nothing could change what he’d done.

So in October of 2009, Todd left for New York City. He moved into an apartment with his sister, Lindsay, a hospital pharmacist, who’d offered to be there for him. Todd started to rebuild his life.

Almost a year after his arrival, Todd enrolled in CCNY’s graduate writing program with dreams of one day becoming a professional author. He’d been writing for years now, first at the request of a psychologist, then for his own sanity. He could put things on paper that he’d never say to his parents.

I hate the silence; memories are so easy to come by when there is nothing to listen to…. God, my words are aggravated. It’s amazing, I never thought in my whole life I would end up here.

Back on the CCNY campus, Todd makes his way to North Academic Center, where he shows a security guard his student identification and takes a series of escalators to the sixth floor. The heat is stifling inside his narrow classroom, and the 18 students are fanning themselves with papers and manila folders. A classmate wearing a short skirt shows up late and takes a seat at the head of the long table in the middle of the room.

The students soon review their classmate’s work. Her writing is raw, with lots of sexuality and violence, and the students enjoy it. Todd raises his hand with a question: He isn’t buying one scene in which the protagonist—a young girl—is physically abused in public. “I think that part is unbelievable,” Todd tells the woman. She opens her eyes widely at the suggestion.

Todd eases into his words. The story is good, he tells her: “I just think that someone would help a girl if she were in trouble. I wouldn’t stare and do nothing.”

“Well, that’s how it happens, and I think it’s very real,” the woman shoots back.

There’s an uncomfortable pause. The professor at the other end of the table speaks up. All the students’ stories will need some work if they want a chance at getting published. “Writing is like driving a car in the fog,” she tells the class. “You’re looking at the yellow lines and trying to feel your way home. You need to anticipate the curves in the road.”