I have dressed with care and precision. Jeans creased, designer shirt and jacket, high-heels always high-heels, jewelry, hair and make-up done. My husband wonders at my reasoning, thinks this is an odd thing to do in truth doesn't understand me even questions my sanity each time as I go through my rituals. I can't explain it to him though it is clear in my mind this is proof of victory, but I know I will never explain so that he will understand.
I walk through security, leaving my drivers license and car keys with the guard at the front gate. Then through the first gate, the sound of that gate rattling shut behind me always intimidates as it comes to close. Now I show my stamp under the special black light before the next gate will open. Finally I am in the yard and the final gate slowly shuts behind me with a grinding rattle and clanging that even knowing I will be allowed to leave still makes my heart stop briefly. I am part of the Victim Impact speakers group that travels Texas and speaks throughout the Federal and State penitentary system. This is not glamours by any stretch of any imagination, we are inside the prisons often walking through the same yards convicted felons are meandering on as we make our way to chaples or meeting halls.
I stand before them, seventy men staring intently waiting for me to speak. Behind me the other speakers are settling in their seats. Sipping from water bottles, wiping their noses and brushing at tears, erasing signs of the last emotion laden story of violence, heartbreak, and yet always at the end forgiveness. As I look out over these men I know they are expecting the same from me, forgiveness and proof that redemption is possible, mostly theirs and even mine. They don't know my story, whether I lost a child, a parent, or I was the victim of some act of violence; but they expect the ending to be the same as the others that went before me, that I will tell them I have forgiven my offenders and found some sort of peace.
So here I stand, their gazes expectant, not friendly but not hostile either, they have been primed by the previous speakers they believe they have rhythm now, they have the cadence; even if they don't know the beginning and middle they know the end. In my high-heels I am tall, it is one of the reasons I wear them. I am a surprise as I move the podium out of the way too stand in front of them and speak without a microphone my voice strong, loud enough to carry even in this cavernous room.
"We are going to play a game", I tell them. "Don't be shy, don't be scared. Just shout out your answers."
When I say this they look at each other and the guards, wondering if this is allowed. This isn't what other speakers in other programs have done. They are uncertain they want to play my game, they don't know what the game is yet, I haven't asked my question. I let the idea settle. When the room is quiet again and all eyes are again on me I ask my question.
"When you look at me what do you see?"
A pin could drop in the quite roar that follows my simple question. I know the answers by now. I know all the answers really, no one wants to be the first to speak though so I walk down the aisle and between the rows. I challenge these violent men. I ask them outright if they are scared of me, scared to answer they know I think they are afraid. Really, are you afraid to answer such a simple question as this? Do you think you can offend me? I assure them they cannot offend I have heard it all before. Finally a brave one answers he sees a Woman. Then another sees a White Woman. Then another sees a Rich Woman. Sometimes they see a Pretty Woman, I always like that answer but have to resist the urge to ask how long he has been in for. Usually by the end we have ten sometimes fifteen answers, all of them descriptive of what they see in front of them.
Finally one of them will ask me why I ask this question of them, why is this important. I always smile and say they will understand at the end. We keep the list and we will use the list later. Their class will even get to keep the list. They will understand and might even be able to tell me why it is important. Because I know it is imporant I tell them my story now.
On the evening of February 7, 1992 I stopped for gas and cigarettes, this was before pay at the pump and cell phones; it was approximately 7pm and I was on my way home from work. I didn't drive a fancy car or wear designer clothes. There was a young boy in the store about the same age as my oldest son, he said he was stranded and couldn't get home. He said he didn't live far but it was dark out and it was a cold night, I told him if he would pump my gas I would give him a ride. At the time it seemed like a good deal even though he lived in the opposite direction from where I was going, he was a kid and I was a mom, it was only a few miles. The rest, well the rest is history for me. When I got to my car I was met by three young men not one, I was kidnapped at gun point and for two and half hours I was driven about, periodically pistol whipped and terrified. Ultimately the night ended with me on my knees on the side of the road shot three times point blank; two of those shots where through my neck the other was a defensive wound through my arm. I nearly died. By the time help arrived I was in shock from blood loss and had a stroke on the operating table, lapsing into a coma. When I finally woke I was partially paralyzed. Since that time I have had thirty plus surgeries to repair damages. I suffer from epilesy. I gained over 100 lbs which has been nearly impossible for me to lose and contributes to periodic bouts of depression. My family was torn apart, the anger they felt at what was done to me could not find outlet and so turned inward. This is the story, the short version so it is understood what happened why I stand in front of them now but still not why I ask the question.
Those young men were caught about six weeks later. The youngest was 15 and the other two both 17, they were all three tried as adults. I was not their only victim. In their confessions, which were vicious and ugly, their only excuse, the only reason for their actions, "they wanted to kill white people". They did not go to trial but instead pled out to 26 of the original 71 charges. The youngest received a sentence of 25 years, I was his only victim and he did not have a record prior to his acts against me. The two 17 year olds each received 40 year sentences, they both had much longer and violent records prior to these acts. All three of them have been in prison now since 1993, all have come up for parole at least 3 times each and in every case I fight their paroles and will fight them each and every time. This too is part of the story I tell to those offenders who sit rapt while I pace in front of them, now they want know why after all these years those boys are still in prison and why unlike my compatriots sitting behind me I am so vehement that they serve every minute of the years they have been sentenced to serve.
"Have you forgiven them", I am asked by someone in the audience. "No, I haven't forgiven them it isn't due them". Usually this response will draw some shock from my audience since as we all know God is found, along with Allah, behind the walls of prisons. So now I must tell them the truth, but it is my truth and not a truth that will be easy for them to bear or hear. I believe in redemption but it is not found simply by saying "sorry". In the case of those three in particular, they were handed sentences in years. Their acts, random and ugly, handed me a life sentence; I will live forever with the aftermath, forever with pain, forever with more surgery, forever with seizures that might very will cut my life short, forever with the weight gain that makes me feel ugly and will likely cut my life short unless I have surgery to lose the weight, forever with a bullet in my spine that cannot be removed but might someday move and kill me, forever not doing things I love including carrying my grandchild as he gets older, forever with headaches, and a host of other forevers; I have a life sentence of not so wonderful forevers that I did not ask for and would not wish upon anyone. They have a finite period of time to serve out a sentence the state deemed appropriate at the end of which they can still make a life for themselves should they choose. It would be a choice, one that I do not have, one their other victim also does not have.
My forgiveness is not a function of their redemption. Their redemption is won by what they make of their life, by the choices they make. One choice they could make as far as I am concerned is the choice to remain in prison and serve every day of their sentence as a sign, an acknowledgement that they have done great harm to me and mine. I assure you I will keep them there with every ounce of my being because I demand this of them. When I am asked do I hate them my answer is no, I don't think about them unless something forces me too, a notice of a parole hearing, a Victim Impact Panel, a seizure, a new surgery. But truly hate is an active emotion that I will not waste on them. Each time they come before the Parole Board I ask the same questions and they are enough;
"Is this person remorseful?"
"What has this person done to change their basic world view since being here?"
Redemption is everything and yet nothing also. Whether a person finds personal redemption between the covers of a musty Bible that has seen a hundred other hands or finds it from their victim, it doesn't matter really. I was redeemed the first time I stood before a room full of convicts and told my story and knew I was strong enough too say I am not a victim. I am redeemed a bit more every time I ask them what do you see and then at the end of the day tell them they were wrong in what they saw. Perception and the ability to see beyond the surface is how most of us are redeemend. I leave them with this list and these words;
Wife, mother, sister, friend, daugher, grandmother
It is hard to hurt someone when they are them, when it is personalized.
Funny how you can be fooled by what your eyes tell you is the truth because you haven't asked or looked beyond the surface. The only thing anyone ever gets right is "Woman". I am not "White" although I am a bottle Blonde. I am not rich, although I dress well. Those are always the two that come up, the others are harder to define. Can't argue "pretty", I can disagree but that one is opinion.
You want redemption? Stop making your mothers, wifes, sisters, daughters, sons visit you in this hell hole. Let your children have childhoods and don't let them grow up thinking prison is normal. All three of the young men who hurt me had at least one parent in prison at the time of the incident, they thought it was normal that is how they grew up. It isn't normal. Tell the mothers of your children to stay home, take them to the zoo or Little League. You did the crime stop making them do the time with you.
Some people look at me and think I am cruel and heartless for my lack of forgiveness. Many look at me and think I am very unChristian and they would be right but it is not my place to forgive, God can forgive them if they ask I have no need to do so. I have no burden that I carry that keeps me awake at night prompting me to forgive them so that I may sleep. As I said once, it is unadulterated poppycock that I must forgive to be at peace; nope I checked and I am pretty peaceful that is something someone made up to make a buck. The Lords Prayer in the original language actually says grant me Serenity and grant my enemies Serenity, nothing about forgiving; I can live with that.
Causes Linda Valentine-Dean Supports
Doctors without Borders