During a recent writing class, we discussed Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “The Trespasser” (reprinted in American Salvage, in case you’d like more). We’ve been discussing a lot of literature themed around addiction and recovery, and in this short story a family walks into their summer home to find the wreckage left by a quartet of trespassers who broke in and used the place as a meth lab.
The family — especially their thirteen-year-old daughter — feels violated. Their belongings rearranged, their kitchen charred, a mattress ruined, their sense of security shattered. But the piece doesn’t dwell on the family’s reaction. Instead the story presents, through a series of contrasts to the thirteen-year-old’s life, the horrors that may have led one of the trespassers — a sixteen-year-old girl, violated in turn by the men she was with, who stayed alone in the house to hide in a closet and shoot up until the family arrived — to make the choices she did.
There is a sense of forgiveness to the piece. Because, yes, the sixteen-year-old’s actions were wrong. She should not have broken in to the house with those men. She should not have stolen methamphetamine they were cooking from them. She should not have stayed living in another family’s home, rearranging their possessions, dragging comforting items to a closet, dragging a mattress — emblematic of her own violation — outside.
And yet. Campbell presents the ways in which that sixteen-year-old trespasser has already been punished, brutally so, before she committed her transgressions. She did wrong. Perhaps some punishment would be appropriate. But she was punished, arbitrarily so, by the universe at large. Born into a life where she was violated by her mother’s boyfriends, burned by cigarettes, treated as worthless so long that she may have begun to believe it. Those preemptive punishments were quite likely the reason why she committed her later crimes.
It is human to want vengeance against people who hurt us. It is especially human to want vengeance against people who hurt those we love. But something that’s often missing from our criminal justice system in the United States is an acknowledgement of the punishments already doled out to innocent children, punishments that harmed their developing minds and may have increased the likelihood that they’d be tangled up in future crimes.
Joanna Connors’s I Will Find You is a hard book to read — a beautifully-written exploration of a bleak topic — but she presents this contrast perfectly. If you can handle reading a detailed, nuanced investigation of a sexual assault, I highly recommend it.
Connors was hurt. Connors, as best I can tell, is hurt. The psychological effects of torture can linger for decades, and sexual assault, despite the inappropriate term (personally, I far prefer using the phrase “violative assault” to better distinguish it from sex, but then people sometimes don’t know what I’m talking about), is an act of torture.
She was, from the perspective of a prosecutor, the perfect witness. She was educated, sober, unacquainted with her assailant… and a white woman assaulted by a black man.
All those characteristics make it easier for the state to win a conviction.
(A quick note: though she was harmed, Connors was a witness, not a defendant. That’s how our judicial system treats the victims of sexual assault. At least that’s better than the old system, in which Connors’ husband would be considered the defendant because his property — his wife — had been tarnished through unauthorized use.)
Indeed, Connors’s assailant was convicted, was sentenced to many years, and eventually died in jail. A rarity, as most of us now know.
But Connors’s pain did not go away. A corrections officer at one of the prisons where her attacker was held told her — in an attempt to cheer her — that her attacker was probably brutally abused while incarcerated. That particular prison, the correction officer acknowledged, had a well-deserved dismal reputation.
Hearing that the man had suffered more did not help Connors heal.
And so Connors decided to learn about her attacker: What was his life like? Why had he ruined hers?
Indeed, the innocent child who would grow into the man who raped her was wretchedly abused. Connors could not interview her attacker — he had died in prison before she began this project — but she met with the man’s siblings. One wondered what he had done to be born into a life of such misery.
Everyone in the attackers’ family had been raped. Repeatedly. Connors cried alongside the attackers’ sisters. I was stupid, I deserved it, each said in turn. The exact words with which Connors had castigated herself after she was assaulted.
Those words were not true in Connors’ case. And they were not true for the attackers’ sisters. No one deserves to be tortured.
And, in contrast to the outraged response from her family and from the criminal justice system after Connors was assaulted, no one cared about the crimes perpetrated against the attacker’s family. Connors does not belabor this point. She was white, well-educated, graced with the sobriety that comes easily to those with no childhood demons to escape — she received justice.
Others, who through no fault of their own were born to uncaring, abusive, impoverished parents, did not.