For decades, South Chicago had been one of America’s entry points, a portal through which waves of migrants from Eastern Europe, Mexico, and the American South had come to find their footing. By the time Conroy arrived, the earth had shifted. The mills were on the edge of a steep and swift decline. A way of life was coming to an end. “I didn’t quite understand it on an emotional level at the time,’’ he says. “I wish I had made that connection because I’m now part of a dying industry. I didn’t understand what it means that something that seemed rock solid when you were growing up would become a relic, something people talked about referring to the old days.’’
He wrote a five-part series about what he saw and learned in South Chicago, including the rise of a young politician nicknamed Fast Eddie and a bitter union election. “There was a lot of racism in South Chicago,’’ he says. “And it’s a cliché to call the politics bare-knuckled, but that’s what it was. There were fist fights and people got hurt.’’
When his worthless ’63 Chevy was stolen and one of the people he was writing about threatened to throw him down the stairs, Conroy decided it was finally time to see the world. In 1977, he went to Northern Ireland and freelanced for the Chicago Daily News, which had recently shut down its foreign bureaus as that great paper slid toward its grave.
Conroy spent a few weeks there and quickly realized how “bad the press coverage of Northern Ireland was,’’ he says. “Reporters would fly over when there was a major incident. It was covered like you’d cover a fire. There wasn’t any context to it. People back here couldn’t understand why these two people who had the same color skin and worshiped the same God were fighting each other.’’
He started writing for the Reader in 1978. But he couldn’t get the troubles out of his mind. Both his parents traced their roots to Ireland. His family had visited when he was a teenager. He still had relatives there. In 1980 he returned to Northern Ireland for ten months on an Alicia Patterson Fellowship to work on what became his first book, Belfast Diary. He got more than a book out of it. He also met his wife, Colette Davison, a psychologist.
Belfast Diary was published in 1987. By then, Conroy was back at the Reader. In 1988 Ann Close, an editor at Knopf, contacted him and told him she had read and admired the book. She proposed he write another, this time specifically on torture, which was a way of life and war in Northern Ireland. Conroy had started researching torture around the world when a friend at the Chicago Lawyer newspaper told him about Andrew Wilson, a convicted cop killer, who claimed he had been tortured by police and was now suing in federal court.
Wilson’s suit sounded interesting but preposterous. Wilson and his brother, Jackie, had been convicted of killing not one officer, but two—William Fahey and Richard O’Brien—during a traffic stop in the winter of 1982. Now Wilson was saying he had been tortured by some of Chicago’s finest. Conroy walked into the courtroom, thinking Wilson did not have a chance. “He killed two cops—a career criminal, going up against decorated detectives—no way,’’ Conroy says.
As the six-week trial dragged on, Conroy slowly began changing his mind after listening to the medical testimony and hearing both Wilson and Jon Burge, who at the time was the head of Area 2’s detectives, testify. Maybe Wilson’s charges of being burned by police and receiving electric shocks to his genitals, nose, ears, and fingers were not that preposterous. Maybe they were true. “I can’t say there was a moment when I said, ‘Oh, my God, this is true,’’ he says. “It was a gradual dawning.’’
Something else dawned on him. “I began to realize how important this was,” he says. “And nobody seemed to care.’’