On horror, healing, and Joanna Connors’s ‘I Will Find You.’

On horror, healing, and Joanna Connors’s ‘I Will Find You.’

amsal_pbDuring 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.

71O975JXqtLJoanna 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.

On Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.

On Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.

9780812984965Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy was published over a year ago, but the queue at my local library was incredibly long.  I didn’t get to borrow the book until last week.  Three days later, I was done — if I didn’t have parenting duties to attend to, I assume I would’ve finished within a day.  It’s a phenomenal book, one for which I would’ve been happy to skip class during my student days.

If you haven’t read it yet, you should.  To help you out, why don’t I slather this post with helpful links?

Even if you’ve read Just Mercy, maybe you’d appreciate a link directing you to the “Get Involved” page of the Equal Justice Initiative.

While reading Just Mercy, I felt teary-eyed many times … as early as page 11, when Stevenson describes his experience visiting a death row prisoner as a law student.  At the end the visit, the gruffly manhandled prisoner took great efforts to cheer Stevenson.  Many emotionally-charged scenes appear throughout the book.

One of the most powerful occurs during a judicial hearing for a wrongfully-condemned man.  Stevenson received three days in court to present the evidence that the condemned man was innocent and only a blatant miscarriage of justice had led to his conviction, being sentenced to death, and spending six years on death row.  The State’s judicial team must’ve been shocked by the preponderance of evidence of the condemned man’s innocence, and was clearly shocked by the number of supporters who came to observe the trial — there was little security on the first day, but on the second day black visitors were denied entrance to the courtroom and forced to file through a metal detector and past an intimidating police dog.

For visitors who’d suffered police abuses in the past, this was too much.  Stevenson describes consoling an elderly woman who broke:

          “Mrs. Williams, it’s all right,” I said.  “They shouldn’t have done what they did.  Please don’t worry about it.”  I put my arm around her and gave her a hug.

          “No, no, no, Attorney Stevenson.  I was meant to be in that courtroom, I was supposed to be in that courtroom.”

          “It’s okay, Mrs. Williams, it’s okay.”

          “No, sir, I was supposed to be there and I wanted to be there.  I tried, I tried, Lord knows I tried, Mr. Stevenson.  But when I saw that dog–”  She shook her head and stared away with a distant look.  “When I saw that dog, I thought about 1965, when we gathered at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and tried to march for our voting rights.  They beat us and put those dogs on us.”  She looked back to me sadly.  “I tried to move, Attorney Stevenson, I wanted to move, but I just couldn’t do it.”

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          As she spoke it seemed like a world of sadness surrounded her.  She let go of my hand and walked away.  I watched her get into a car with some other people I had seen in the courtroom earlier.”

. . .

I arrived at the court early the next morning to make sure there were no problems.  As it turned out, very few people showed up to support the State.  And though the metal detector and the dog were still there, no deputy stood at the door to block black people from entering the courtroom.  Inside the courtroom, I noticed one of the women I’d seen leave with Mrs. Williams the night before.  She came up to me and introduced herself as Mrs. Williams’s daughter.  She thanked me for trying to console her mother.

          “When she got home last night, she was so upset.  She didn’t eat anything, she didn’t speak to anybody, she just went to her bedroom.  We could hear her praying all night long.  This morning she called the Reverend and begged him for another chance to be a community representative at the hearing.  She was up when I got out of bed, dressed and ready to come to court.  I told her she didn’t have to come, but she wouldn’t hear none of it.  She’s been through a lot and, well, on the trip down here she just kept saying over and over, ‘Lord, I can’t be scared of no dog, I can’t be scared of no dog.’

          I was apologizing again to the daughter for what the court officials had done the day before when suddenly there was a commotion at the courtroom door.  We both looked up and there stood Mrs. Williams.  She was once again dressed impeccably in her scarf and hat.  She held her handbag tight at her side and seemed to be swaying at the entrance.  I could hear her speaking to herself, repeating over and over again: “I ain’t scared of no dog, I ain’t scared of no dog.”  I watched as the officers allowed her to move forward.  She held her head up as she walked slowly through the metal detector, repeating over and over, “I ain’t scared of no dog.”  It was impossible to look away.  She made it through the detector and stared at the dog.  Then, loud enough for everyone to hear, she belted out: “I ain’t scared of no dog!”

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          She moved past the dog and walked into the courtroom.  Black folks who were already inside beamed with joy as she passed them.  She sat down near the front of the courtroom and turned to me with a broad smile and announced, “Attorney Stevenson, I’m here!”

I hope this passage helps convince you what a powerful book Just Mercy is, because it cost me a lot to include it.  I do a lot of my work in the snack lounge at the YMCA while N plays in the childcare room, and tears were dripping from my eyes while I typed this passage.  I must’ve looked ridiculous.  And yet, my suffering is small change — think what it must’ve cost Stevenson to write this.  Think what it must’ve cost Mrs. Williams to live it.

Stevenson also describes his work to enact sentencing reform for children.  Before Stevenson’s efforts, many children were condemned to die in prison, even children whose rash actions had not resulted in anyone’s death.

K & I would be fools to organize our lives the way we do if youths weren’t incredibly malleable.  The entire motivation for education is that it’s possible for people to learn and improve.  I think all people, at all ages, are capable of surpassing their past, but this should be blatantly obvious with children.

And yet, if not for the efforts of Stevenson and his team at the Equal Justice Initiative, many children would still be condemned to death in prison for mistakes made at thirteen or fourteen years of age.  Even his team’s eventual victories are bittersweet because so much suffering has occurred … and still goes on today.  From Just Mercy:

          Ian spent eighteen years in uninterrupted solitary confinement.

          Once a month, Ian was allowed to make a phone call.  Soon after he arrived in prison, on Christmas Eve in 1992, he used his call to reach out to Debbie Baigre, the woman he shot.  When she answered the phone, Ian spilled out an emotional apology, expressing his deep regret and remorse.  Ms. Baigre was stunned to hear from the boy who had shot her, but she was moved by his call.  She had physically recovered from the shooting and was working to become a successful bodybuilder and had started a magazine focused on women’s health.  She was a determined woman who didn’t let the shooting derail her from her goals.  That first surprising phone call led to a regular correspondence.  Ian had been neglected by his family before the crime took place.  He’d been left to wander the streets with little parental or family support.  In solitary, he met few prisoners or correctional staff.  As he sank deeper into despair, Debbie Baigre became on of the few people in Ian’s life who encouraged him to remain strong.

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Solitary cell at Alcatraz.  Photo by Wally Gobetz on Flickr.

          After communicating with Ian for several years, Baigre wrote the court and told the judge who sentenced Ian of her conviction that his sentence was too harsh and that his conditions of confinement were inhumane.  She tried to talk to prison officials and gave interviews to the press to draw attention to Ian’s plight.  “No one knows more than I do how destructive and reckless Ian’s crime was.  But what we’re currently doing to him is mean and irresponsible,” she told one reporter.  “When this crime was committed, he was a child, a thirteen-year-old boy with a lot of problems, no supervision, and no help available.  We are not children.”

          The courts ignored Debbie Baigre’s call for a reduced sentence.

It’s hard to read something like that without wanting to reach out to somebody unfairly stuck in solitary.  If you’re near Bloomington, you could volunteer with either New Life New Leaf or the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project.  If you live elsewhere, you could look for volunteer opportunities in your area or donate to Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative.

Bryan StevensonBecause, as Stevenson describes beautifully in his book, we all have an incentive to reach out and help others.  By setting aside time to put the needs of others first, we have an opportunity to be our full selves.  In Stevenson’s words:

It took me a while to sort it out, but I realized something sitting there while Jimmy Dill [an intellectually disabled man with a deep stutter and a rotten childhood who shot someone during a drug deal.  The victim survived.  But then, nine or ten months later, after being abandoned by his wife, the shooting victim fell sick and died.  Which let the state charge Dill with murder and seek the death penalty, since Dill had not yet been tried for the shooting] was being killed at Holman prison.  After working for more than twenty-five years, I understood that I don’t do what I do because it’s required or necessary or important.  I don’t do it because I have no choice.

          I do what I do because I’m broken, too.

. . .

          We have a choice.  We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing.  Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.

I hope some of what I’ve written convinces you to read Just Mercy.  (Did you miss the last few links?  Here’s one more!).

I’d like to end this post by mentioning that Bryan Stevenson is an excellent candidate for inclusion in the Heroic Human Rights Workers trading card game.

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Lydia Cacho, a personal hero. Photo by Steve Rhodes on Flickr.

I’ve previously mentioned that Lydia Cacho, who has been tortured by murderous cartels for her efforts to fight sex slavery, ought to be featured on a trading card.  When I finally set aside Just Mercy for a few minutes to go jogging, I spent a while thinking about what their card game should be like.

I think the game will turn out nice.  It’ll take a year or more to put together, because I’m unfortunately working on too many other projects at the moment, but here’s a sketchy description:

Theodoor_Rombouts_-_Joueurs_de_cartesIt’ll be a cooperative game for a few human players.  There’ll be a central deck with dystopian events & circumstances drawn from our world, things like human trafficking, innocents sentenced to death, police brutality, politicians engaging in politics as usual, etc.  And the players will use decks they’ve put together (subject to certain cost restraints — if you’ve added too many pricey, powerful cards, you’ll be required to fill out your deck with zero-cost public defender cards) to save the citizens of the world.

Maybe that sounds too sledgehammer-y moralizing, but I’m fairly certain that the Ferretcraft team can take the idea and make it fun.  It’ll need trigger warnings and all, what with the bleak, scary things that would have to be included — there are, of course, bleak and scary things described in Just Mercy and Cacho’s Slavery, Inc. — but I think it’s acceptable to depict horror for good ends.

In any case, it’s very clear that the Bryan Stevenson card is one you’ll always be happy to see.