They were just faces to me. I wouldn’t make eye contact. Instead I focused on their clothes . . . grey-white sweatshirts, denim shirts, jeans, white sneakers. They didn’t look like inmates, more like janitors to me.
I was invited to the medium-security facility in a program of restorative justice sponsored by the University of Minnesota. I was one of two victims ―or are we survivors― of homicide who were invited to meet with four perpetrators serving long sentences for homicides. It was not a match―I was not facing “our” perpetrator. I would not have been willing to meet the perpetrator who changed our lives.
Our twenty-four year old son, Peter, was kicked to death by bouncers outside a club in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in July 2001 where he was attending a bachelor party. Five men were implicated in his death. One was charged and convicted for aggravated manslaughter for kicking Peter in the head and thereby causing his death. He served six years of a seven-year sentence, and, last we heard, was appealing an order to be deported. We have lost track of him but that is all right.
The four inmates sat on one side of a circle in a large room. Margaret and I sat opposite them. Other chairs in the circle were filled with participants ―not observers, I was told―young scholars from developing countries who came to the university for a week-long seminar on human rights. As we went around the circle for introductions, I felt humbled about what I could say about violence to these young people from volatile and war-torn countries. Then I felt shame that my story of senseless violence occurred in the U.S., the land of milk and honey in the eyes of many foreigners.
I went first. I told how my son Peter did not grow up in a culture of violence, but rather in a comfortable, middle-class, suburban setting with a tight, together family of five. I told how he never caused us any trouble, how he had begun a successful career in investment banking, how he had come home to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday, how eager he was to join college buddies at a bachelor party in a place conveniently located for friends spread all over the East.
I talked of my son partying until four in the morning, taken out of the club for supposedly fondling the dancers, beaten up; then, when he tried to go back into the club, he was attacked at the door by five men, thrown to the ground, kicked even after he lost consciousness, left on the pavement, taken to the hospital after his best friend hailed down a passing patrol car, declared dead an hour later.
I told of the agony of sitting through a three-week trial only to have it end in a mistrial, waiting two more years for a lousy plea agreement, meeting the perpetrator eye-to-eye at his sentencing, yet hearing him deny any role in my son’s murder.
I described the impact of losing our son―hanging Peter’s stocking at the chimney at the holidays though it remained empty in the morning, my husband riding the bicycle Peter built in high school, wearing his clothes, lighting a candle for him every night at dinner, forever missing grandkids he might have given us.
I choked up, I let it all out. I told them that my son’s murder marked the death of my hopes, my illusions, my sense of security. Afterward, I felt drained. I felt listened to.
Then Margaret told about the murder of her husband Bill, stabbed on a bitter cold December night by a stranger at a hunting cabin in the woods, leaving five kids without a father, about her own miserable, meager search for justice, and living still in the same community as the perpetrator.
Margaret and I held hands as each perpetrator told his story . . . a barroom brawl continued outside with a knife in a young man’s back, a young woman stabbed by her jealous boyfriend, a wigged-out addict taking revenge on a former girlfriend’s new boyfriend, a hard-pressed student in a fit of rage throwing his fussy toddler to the floor. Awful, terrible stories.
My stone-faced, I-dare-you-to-move-me attitude gradually softened as I listened to each man tell his story. I looked in each man’s eyes. My stomach turned over, my grip on Margaret’s hand tightened.
Forgiveness was barely mentioned, a lame plea from one inmate who Margaret said would probably be reprimanded because they are instructed not to ask for or expect forgiveness but to respect where victims/survivors are in their own ability to talk about it or to grant forgiveness.
Drugs or alcohol played a role in five of the six murders, I was saddened to learn, for my son too was drunk the night he was killed. I was surprised to learn you can still be an addict in prison. But I was most surprised to hear that perpetrators do not think of the pain and suffering they’ve caused victim’s families, that this process is revelatory to them.
I was dismayed how hopeless they felt . . . though they are living, though they have every chance to redeem themselves, even in prison, to get an education, to learn about the system, to do good for others. My son does not have that chance, I told them.
Gradually, as I listened, disgust and pity gave way to compassion. Tears ran down my cheeks. These men had such sad stories of things they wished they hadn’t done but for which they are now suffering the consequences. It was a hell not unlike our own. Why did I do it? Why did they do it? What am I supposed to make of this? An agonizing, endless search for meaning in atrocity . . . a journey we share.
We went around the circle again after the stories. The young scholars commended our courage and thanked us for our candor. Many expressed hope for our healing and promised to remember this process when they returned to their home countries.
Then all got up. We shook hands. I expressed my personal thanks to each inmate. Then I left the prison. Though I’m still processing what I heard and what I said, I know one thing: those four men are no longer just faces to me.
Mary Rondeau Westra is the author of After the Murder of My Son, published by North Star Press in September 2010. She will be keynote speaker at the closing banquet of the national TCF conference in Minneapolis in July. Learn more about Mary and her family at www.mwestra.com.