[personal] My Mother Was Murdered — and That’s Why I Oppose the Death Penalty

The Department of Justice recently announced its intention to resume executions. I am appalled by this decision, and this is why.

In 1986, my 70-year-old mother was asleep in her own bed when a teenaged neighbor broke into her home, raped her, and then beat her to near death and left her face down in a partially filled bathtub. It was a spectacularly brutal, banner headline crime, called by the District Attorney one of the most heinous in the history of the county.

Even in light of what happened, I am opposed to capital punishment, and I’d like to tell you why. I want to emphasize that I do not speak for anyone else. We all have different experiences, different histories, different internal and external resources. If there is one thing I’d like you to take away from my story, it is that not all the families of murder victims want the perpetrators to be executed.

I believe that capital punishment harms the survivors by interfering with the natural recovery process. In other words, when we focus on revenge instead of healing, we never heal.

A number of years ago, when I was being interviewed about my mother’s death, the interviewer said to me, “You seem like such a sweet person. Most of us just aren’t that spiritual.” What she meant was, “How could you not want revenge?” What I thought was, You have no idea how angry I was and how much I wanted to hurt the man who did this.

The rage I felt and that I’ve heard expressed by other murder survivors is so overwhelming, it’s hard to find words to describe it. You feel as if your skin is going to crack open and out will pour enough molten hatred to incinerate the entire world. For years after my mother’s murder, I obsessed over exactly how I would kill the perpetrator with my bare hands and how much I wanted him to suffer for every moment of terror and pain he’d caused her. The images were so vivid, I couldn’t tell if I was awake or dreaming.

Adrenaline-fueled anger enables us to get through those early days and weeks. It sharpens our senses and focuses our thoughts. Our hearts pump faster. Biologically, we are primed to do whatever is necessary to meet the threat. We don’t feel our own injuries, either of body or of mind or spirit. All our resources are devoted to our immediate survival. In some circumstances, this lasts only a short period of time. I know people who have lost loved ones to murder, but in that same incident, the murderer was also killed. At the other extreme are instances where the perpetrator is never discovered and the survivors must cope with the nightmare of walking down the street, suspecting every passer-by or wondering if the murderer has taken another life. I know people in that situation, too.

Anger and the craving for revenge are normal reactions when someone you love has been viciously attacked, their dignity as well as their lives stripped from them.  At the same time, these feelings fuel the illusion that retribution erases pain, and popular media constantly reinforce this illusion.

We human beings aren’t meant to stay in this hyper-alert, super-reactive, primed-for-battle state indefinitely. Mental health suffers as well as physical health. Most of all, we lose our selves. When we re-organize our thoughts and our lives around the goal of retaliation, we have nothing left over for the difficult work of healing. Even the process of grieving becomes distorted. We become focused on one single goal: making the perpetrator suffer.

This is what happens when someone – the District Attorney, for example – says to us when we are at our most vulnerable, when we’re in so much pain we can’t think straight: “When the person who did this is dead, you will have closure. It will all be over. You will feel better and get your life back again.”

Please understand: This is a cruel lie. We can never go back to the way things were before the murder. But the death of another human being cannot ease our agony. All such a promise does is keep us locked — incarcerated — in a permanent state of bitterness and hatred.

So what’s the alternative? On hearing my story, many people ask me, “How did you survive?” But I don’t think survival is the question. Although numb with shock and drenched in grief, we get up in the morning. We brush our teeth. We go back to work. I had two daughters to care for, one almost seven and the other three months old; their need couldn’t wait. We take on the trappings of an ordinary life, carrying on in the blind faith that our insides will someday match the artificial normality of our outsides. In other words, we do what seems best to us in order to survive.

I was fortunate enough – and desperate enough – to seek out skilled professional care with a therapist experienced in treating PTSD. Because the kid who killed my mother was an alcoholic/addict, I attended Alanon meetings for over 20 years to work on those issues.

We can never go back to who we were before the murder, but we can go forward, re-engaging with positive, meaningful aspects of life, fully experiencing our feelings, and understanding what we have lost and what can never be replaced, but what can be created.  By acknowledging and experiencing our painful emotions, we allow fresh air and sunlight into our wounds. That’s how healing takes place. The more we stop looking to an external event — the execution of the murderer — to somehow make us feel better or to “achieve closure,” and instead concentrate on taking care of ourselves — our health, our hearts, our families, our spirits — the better we will fare.

Almost every family member of a murder victim has lost not only a loved one but our belief in the decency of our fellow humans and our sense of safety in the world. Over the years, I found comfort, understanding, and strength in sharing my story with others who have endured similar losses. In listening with an open heart with families of those who have been executed, I recognize their loss because it is the same as my own. I can tell you unequivocally that I never, ever want anyone to suffer as I have. The life of their loved one has been taken not in a moment of anger or passion but with cold, deliberate malice on the part of the government. I refuse to allow my personal tragedy to be used as justification for state-sanctioned murder.

“No killing in my name.”

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[personal] My Mother Was Murdered — and That’s Why I Oppose the Death Penalty — 4 Comments

  1. I know too the obsessive incandescent anger that comes with this sort of horror committed upon someone much loved — in my case, my baby sister. She hadn’t even reached puberty, kidnapped, tortured and raped, left for dead. She survived, but the rest of her too short life was one long suicide.

    I disagree to a degree with not receiving some closure, for I remain convinced that my sister’s chances for living would have improved if the FBI — somebody — had informed her, that the monster who did this to her — and others, who were all much older than she was — had been, indicted, tried, convicted and imprisoned. They never told her this. The other victims, living closer to where the trial took place, and adults, provided enough witnesses the prosecutors thought they’d spare her testifying. But nobody told her! I found out much later, by doing some research. I know she had nightmares that he was coming back for her, because the last thing she heard before losing consciousness was that he was bringing friends back to do more.

    Everything that could be done wrong with what happened to her, from the cops, to the medical profession, to her family, to the very end, was done.

    I am still so furious I could choke.

  2. Foxessa, I am so sorry about what happened to your sister, I have no words. Not what happened to her — inspeakable in itself — but the criminal neglect that followed. The people and agencies who ought to have been vigorous in her care failed her abysmally.

    So the question then becomes, what do you yourself need? How are any of us to put our lives back together after something (or in your sister’s case, an entire circus of things) that can never be made right?

  3. This happened long ago, as have other terrible events, to myself and others close and dear.

    One can only go on. When someone who is deeply loved is gone, they don’t come back. The wave of loss and anger and grief will return, though less frequently. But the loss is always loss. That hole that shouldn’t have been, didn’t need, to be there, alters one’s own life permanently in ways that one cannot know until time has also gone on. It ripples out through the family, through the community even, as well as in lives of circles of the lost one’s friends.

    This isn’t the sort of loss of a loved one that comes naturally with aging or a killing illness, that I’m speaking of, but the loss that comes from violence.

    I am sure that my anti-war activism has remained as strong as it has always been, my anti-gun stance (except for farmers and such other professions where they are needed), all the rest of my political actions and convictions — and ya, I am fairly anti death penalty too, because those who fairly earned it are way too often not those who suffer it. The guy who did this to my sister and so many others learned this kidnapping, imprisoning, torture, and the rest while in Vietnam. He’s white — and he served his time and got out. I learned that too, from my research. I do believe in strong penalty for rape and other crimes of this nature, if the perpetrator is the real one though.

    Only time, and the love and support of one’s own loved ones — and, I suppose — working on behalf of others who have suffered this, working to make safe places at least, for children and the young from the seemingly every-growing cadres of vicious predators out there, can help. But it’s not as though I have virtuously chosen that. I simply cannot help it. My anger drives me.

    The worst thing is that my family, to this day, WILL NOT ALLOW ANY OF US TO EVEN SPEAK OF WHAT HAPPENED TO MY SISTER. Because in the best of times they won’t talk about anything except the weather. One can and does rant and rave about the weather, one can and does analyze it, plan around it, plan for it, plan for its aftermath, and that makes sure nothing else gets through.

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