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.”