It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me well that I’m a dragon-slayer. I place myself squarely between my loved ones and anything that threatens them. It’s a longstanding family joke that the only time I used the physical aspect of 30+ years of Chinese martial arts was when I jumped between my preschool-aged daughter and a rampaging swan (and kicked the swan in the head). Now I’m in the position of the taken-care-of, the protected, not the protector.
This sea change came about as a result of a series of family conferences about the upcoming parole hearing. I mentioned earlier that I’ve learned to pay careful attention when people who love me express concern for my mental health. They have good reason to. At every parole hearing I’ve attended in person, I have been the family spokesperson. That meant staying focused and present, no matter what was happening. It meant putting my own needs and reactions on hold so that I could act. The first hearing took place in San Quentin State Penitentiary. I cannot begin to tell you what a not-nice place that is, even if you know you can walk out. Yet I was so focused on my responsibility to prevent the perpetrator from hurting anyone else, I never thought twice about attending or speaking, and it took a terrible toll on my health and sanity. My family and my close friends know what a dark time I went through and how hard I worked to recover. I have learned the hard way that just because I am capable of doing something scary and hard does not mean that I have to.
The last hearing took place in 2008, and neither my sister nor I attended it. We arrived at our decisions independently but in conversation; we each supported the other’s decision, recognizing that we don’t have to do make the same choice in order to support one another. A month before the hearing, the inmate – Sean DeRutte — sent a letter to us via Victim Witness Services. When mine arrived, I asked my husband to look at it first. When he read it, he turned sheet white and said, “Don’t read this.” On the first page was a description of the sexual assault, containing details never before divulged.
In all the years since his incarceration, De Rutte never admitted to the sexual assault. Doubtless his attorney counseled him to not mention any crime for which he was not convicted (and this was a plea bargain, so he was not convicted of rape). However, the Parole Board Commissioners had previously made it clear that until he was able to express understanding and remorse, he was never going to be released. That he chose to inflict the details of a violent sexual assault on the daughters of his victim demonstrates he has no empathy for other people’s pain.
Once I stopped shaking and made some outreach calls, I tried to telephone my sister. I was too late in reaching her, for she had already opened and read her letter, and while in a public place, the post office. She was terribly distressed by it, as any person with a shred of sensitivity can imagine. I had my husband fax the letter to the District Attorney to use during the hearing. Apparently, even more shocking details came out then, so much so that the D.A. cautioned us to not read the transcript.
Fast forward 5 years to the current hearing, I contemplated whether or not to attend, resolved not to, and decided furthermore that since I have so far been spared these additional, appalling details of the assault, it would be in my best interest to continue to shield myself and to allow people who love me to help me.
Not knowing things doesn’t come easily to me. Most of my life I’ve used knowledge as a way of gaining control over my life. I found much truth in the saying, “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” So to deliberately not open a file or a letter, to not search out facts that have great emotional importance in my life, feels cowardly and counterproductive. And yet that is also what seems healthiest for me to do now. I truly do not want to know any more about what my mother suffered in the last minutes of her life. It’s easier to remember that and respect the boundaries I’ve set for myself if I have help.
This means, among other things, that not only am I not going to attend this hearing – at which time the letter and other aspects of the crime will undoubtedly be discussed – but I must guard myself carefully in the weeks to come. At the same time, I must remember that I am not alone. How does this translate into action? It means two things. First, it’s up to me to ask for help. This is both difficult and easy. Easy because it feels active, and I’ve found that taking empowering action lowers my anxiety. I’m doing something. At the same time, it’s hard to step away from the solo paladin, front-line role. I have a long-time habit of mistrusting any action that I haven’t done myself or personally observed when it comes to this area of my life. Now I must shift to relying on the judgment of others, to take their word on what is safe for me. I know they’ll make errors, but I hope these will be in the direction of protection I may not actually need and not in the other direction. If one of them misjudges the emotional pain something might cause me and as a result I don’t learn certain details of the assault or subsequent events, that is not a problem. It doesn’t endanger my safety.
For someone as information-centered as I have been, it’s a big deal to relinquish specific accuracy for the bigger picture. I am not a prosecuting attorney arguing the case, requiring that high degree of precision. I already know far more than is emotionally healthy for me. At one time, I believed that no information could be worse than what I imagined, but as I have learned more with each successive hearing, I see that is not true. Rather, the reverse. I have learned more than I ever wanted or needed to, and now it is time to close the door and say No more.
My gratitude to those loved ones who are willing to act as buffers for me is immense. I understand that the same details that might give me nightmares for years are horrific but not nearly as traumatizing for them. Nevertheless, it is sometimes a struggle to allow them to place themselves between me and the fire. I wrestle with stepping back and accepting their help. That part feels passive in the sense of not doing anything but is actually receptive. I think of how a gift enriches both the recipient and the giver, and how good it feels when I am able to help someone else. When I see that I am offering that same opportunity to my loved ones, I feel empowered rather than indebted. This isn’t charity, it’s compassion in action. And for that to happen, I have to hold open the space for others to act on my behalf.