deborahjross: (croning)
Yesterday I spoke at Stanford Law School, part of an organizing event for SAFE California Campaign, that would put an initiative on the November ballot to replace the death penalty with life without possibility of parole, plus some provisions for work to pay restitution to families and earmarking funds from savings in the first few years for investigating unsolved murders and rapes.

The talk went great -- well attended by law students and the public. This stillness settles over me -- plus I've done so much public speaking at science fiction conventions over the years, I love talking to an audience. My own story and perspective changes the conversation from academic arguments and statistics to a human dimension. What I hear back is how valuable this is -- and the power of the moral authority to say, "I'm the family member of a murder victim and I oppose the death penalty."

I always get lost driving to these things, and last night was no exception. But my Prius has a GPS and I eventually get there. So there's a sigh of relief once I walk in the door -- the hard part is over!
deborahjross: (Default)
From Stowsentry.com

"We need certainty, we need healing," Chris Stout [murder victim family member] told the House's criminal justice committee. "We need to not be hauled into court again and again for 27 years and ... traumatized over and over.

"I need this system to stop, period," he added. "I need the death penalty to be over and I need people to listen to me when I say, do not do this to me or my family. Don't kill John David Stumpf because of me. We've been through enough, and we want it to end. All this system does is create more victims...." [italics mine]
deborahjross: (crone with wreath)
Normally, I don't do a lot of mirrored posting, but I feel so strongly about this issue that I want to share my perspective with all my friends. So here's my personal essay on healing from a private grief in the midst of national remembrance.

At this time of year, I often feel out of step with the rest of the country, at least as portrayed by the media and demonstrated by election results. This year is different.

Like just about everyone else I know who's old enough to remember the events of 9/11, I have a vivid memory of how I learned about them. I was driving my younger daughter to high school and we were listening to the news on the car radio. We heard the announcer cry, "The second Tower is down!" and the rest of the story tumbled out. The way the events unfolded reminded me poignantly of John F. Kennedy's assassination. I was in high school in 1963, just about the same age my daughter was on September 11. Listening to the news broadcast with her, I experienced a parallel of my own youthful experience. Once again, the world became to be a dangerous and unpredictable place, but for me it was not the first time. I too responded with a feeling that the world has changed forever, but I also had the memory of having walked through this before -- and not just the Presidential assassination.

For me, Septembers will never be solely about 9/11. Twenty-five years ago this month, my mother was raped and beaten to death by a neighbor kid on drugs. It was a spectacularly brutal, headline-banner crime, but only part of a larger tragedy, for his own family had suffered the murder of his older brother by a serial killer some years before. My body knows when the anniversary is approaching, even when my thoughts are distracted. The shift in the quality of the light at summer's end reaches deep into my nervous system. The scar tissue on my heart aches. The ghosts of things that once held the power to drive me crazy stir in the darkness. My sleep becomes fragile, even though I no longer have nightmares. It's a hard time, an intensely personal time.

One thing I have learned over the years is that grief isn't fungible; you can't compare or exchange one person's experience with another's or say, This one's pain is two-thirds the intensity of that one's. Grief is grief; loss is loss. There's no benefit to anyone in comparisons. And no one else can do the hard emotional work of healing for us.

Around me and in the media, I see public displays of remembrance and more often than not, I feel reluctant to share mine. For one thing, I've lived with my story for over two decades and I've had extensive trauma therapy, but the person I tell it to is hearing it for the first time. "My god," they say, "how did you live through that?" At most times of the year, it's a gift to be able to sit with them, give them time to catch up, and to share a little of what I've learned about healing. But not this season. I need to have a time just for my own grief, a time that is just for my mother.

If someone says they lost a loved one in 9/11, or they had to pass the rubble every day on the way to work, or they were involved in some other way, they have no need to recite the circumstances. Because those events are known to the greater community, there is a sense of shared experience or at least an appreciation of the horror and grief of those directly affected. Individual losses occur in much smaller communities. I have come to believe that none of us can truly understand what another's loss is like. We are all individuals with our own histories, our own resources, our own lurking insanity. But we can say, "Even though I don't know what you're going through, my heart goes out to you." In my own life, I have found this deeply supportive.

I don't want to minimize or take away from the feelings of anyone affected by 9/11. We should be allies, for surely there is enough compassion, enough tears, enough fury, enough mending of hearts, to go around. Sorrows shared are divided, or so it is said. Until now, I have not found a way to both acknowledge the collective grief around me and to maintain the separate integrity of my own. What we share, in many variations, is the darkness and the long slow journey to the light. We share the craving for justice, the moments of irrational fury, the struggle against a world that seems capricious in its viciousness. We share the desperation to hold someone accountable, to inflict blame, to punish that person to the utmost in the hope that somehow it will make us stop hurting. That desire to lash out and make the perpetrator suffer is a universal human impulse, but I believe it is only one part of the initial reaction to a horrific tragedy. It is something we pass through on our way back to wholeness. Anger and adrenalin, with their energizing power, help us to get through the early stages. However, both are anesthetizing, numbing to both emotion and spirit. If we remain there, frozen, we cannot wrestle with the deeper issues of healing from trauma.

What has changed for me this year is that I have begun to work for the abolition of the death penalty. Speaking only for myself, I see strong parallels between a murder victim family seeking this form of revenge and the vilification of the Muslim community concurrent with the invasion of Iraq. Of course, justice is desirable. Criminal acts call for appropriate consequences. I would never say that it's okay for my mother's killer to walk the streets or that those responsible for the 9/11 attacks should not be prosecuted according to law. Setting aside the politics of that invasion and the problems with the application of capital punishment, however, my concern is with whether retaliative actions help or hinder the recovery of the survivors.

My own experience is that revenge does not. I want to emphasize that I do not speak for anyone else. We all have different experiences. For me, focusing on wishing harm to the one who had harmed my mother might well have kept me locked -- incarcerated -- in a state of bitterness and hatred. While I was in no way to blame for what happened, I still bear the responsibility for what I do with it. It's like the adult child of an alcoholic getting herself into therapy instead of whining helplessly, attributing all her problems to her upbringing.

I have to ask myself, What do I need? What do I want? One of my inspirations was a woman of astonishing kindness and grace, whose daughter and son-in-law were murdered and whose bodies she discovered. She told me that she faced a choice of whether or not to let herself be driven crazy by what she experienced. I think we all have that choice -- to succumb to the darkness of our anguish and righteous fury, or to walk through it, to move beyond it.

I remember the scene in The Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya finally tracks down Count Rugen, who begs for his life and offers anything. Inigo says, "I want my father back!" (and then kills him). I want my mother back, too. All those who lost loved ones and colleagues want them back. We know that's impossible, but what is possible is to get our own lives back. Our own selves. Our best selves.

My experience of healing is that I get myself back when I focus on re-engaging with life, on fully experiencing my feelings, on understanding what I have lost and what can never be replaced, but what can be restored. The more I stop looking to an external event (the execution of the murderer) to somehow make me feel better or "achieve closure," and instead focus on taking care of my insides -- my heart, my spirit, my body -- the better I fare.

So I've been talking about my own healing process and what I've learned. I've been meeting with other family members and with people who've been sentenced to death and then exonerated. I've been looking for ways to build bridges, to nourish tolerance and reconciliation, to create understanding. I make an ongoing conscious decision to not harbor hatred in my heart, but to fill it instead with what I want in my life.

Love. Compassion. Gratitude. Joy. Wonder. Peace.

I can think of no more fitting memorial for my mother . . . or for those who died on 9/11.
deborahjross: (Default)
In yet another of his wonderful "Link Salads", [livejournal.com profile] jaylake linked to an article about Rick Perry's draconian anti-choice agenda, more properly termed forced pregnancy. I'm deeply disturbed by the tactics of regarding every conception as viable (which is medical nonsense) and as having "rights" that take precedence over those of the woman. There's even a move to criminalize women who have miscarriages.

Sometimes, a miscarriage (we should say, "spontaneous abortion") comes as a relief. Indeed, many occur before the woman realizes she is pregnant; her period is just "late." The better we get at the detection of early pregnancy, the higher we place the percentage of spontaneous abortions. The rate may be as high as 75% (including fertilized ova that fail to implant); the current statistic for clinically demonstrated pregnancies is about 25%. One in four. This does not include life-threatening, nonviable pregnancies like ectopic pregnancies, or fetuses with conditions incompatible with life (anencephaly) or situations in which the products of conception do not give rise to a fetus (teratoma).

But a miscarriage can also carry all the grief of the loss of a child; not one who has been born and held, but one that is just as real in the hearts and hopes of the parents. I lost four pregnancies between my two children. The issue is painful and complex and deeply personal. It is unspeakably cruel -- not to mention scientifically idiotic -- to imply that a woman is in any way responsible for the loss of a pregnancy, wanted or otherwise.

I've said this before. I understand that the issue is not about "protecting life" but about depriving women of agency. Most -- although not all -- of the anti-choice/forced pregnancy mob are also opposed to sex education and effective contraception, and oppose any laws to restrict gun ownership... and support capital punishment.

This time the issue dovetails with a case I learned about in my (new) advocacy for abolishing the death penalty. How would you feel if your child died in a fire, and then you were charged with homicide...and faced the death penalty? It's heart-breakingly tragic to lose a child, but then to be wrongfully accused of it is horrible beyond belief. This happened to Cameron Todd Williams, who was executed in Texas for the murder of his three children, even though experts now agree that the fire was an accident and he was innocent.

Are we so intimidated by grief that we must constantly rush to assign blame? Why do we buy into the idea that the only way to deal with tragedy is to punish someone, responsible or not?
deborahjross: (Default)
So, as posted earlier, I've either fallen into or been led (in the sense of a spiritual leading) into speaking out as a family member of a murder victim against the death penalty. The word "abolition" comes up in reference to ending the practice, and it has interesting resonances. It's quite different in my mind from "prohibition," which means "nobody should be allowed to do this and we want the government to enforce it." Abolition in the sense of both the death penalty and the practice of slavery (more about that in a bit) means, "the state is doing this or sanctioning that and we want the state to stop."

I've been working on a sort of Quaker-Underground Railroad-Steampunk story, and in the process have been reading about Quaker history, their attitudes toward slavery, and how they saw their own leadings. They (and others) were the abolitionists of their time.Thomas Garrett, one of the most well-known "conductors," is said to have worked “without concealment and without compromise,” even though what he was doing put him at risk of criminal and civil proceedings. (In a famous 1848 trial that inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe, he and fellow Quaker John Hunn were convicted of aiding fugitive slaves and fined so severely that Garrett was forced to sell his iron and hardware business along with his personal property at auction. Friends purchased Garrett’s property, allowing him to use it and buy it back when he could. And then, of course, he went right on doing what he had been.) (Garrett was also an ally of Harriet Tubman, who used to hit him up for money for shoes for escaping slaves.)

Early Quakers (and contemporary ones) considered equality a spiritual testimony, a fundamental religious tenet. From a 1836 Address" from Farmington Quarterly Meeting to Quakers in Western New York: "A mere theoretical belief in Christ is of no avail. Living faith calls for the exercise of active virtues. The practical Christian... considers all mankind... as his brethren, and himself under solemn obligations to use all in his power to ameliorate the condition of his fellow men, of every color and every condition in life.... When a plain and positive duty is enjoined, no excuses... can shield us from responsibility."

For me, death penalty abolition work has somewhat of the same quality, which is that the motive force is not academic but personal. I'm not interested in giving a lecture on how capital punishment has failed to deter violent crime. I am, on the other hand, inspired to talk about my own healing journey and the crucial aspect of letting go of bitterness, of turning away from revenge and retaliation. I'm not prescribing what worked for me for anyone else. On the other hand, I'm not giving anyone else the privilege of passing judgment on my own experience, either. This has the effect of creating a space of safety and solidity for me, which in turn makes it easier for me to speak from my heart. Considering how many others are screaming at each other, or pontificating based on the illusory need to appear "tough on crime," or out of bigotry, this opportunity to be tender and authentic could be a very good thing.

We'll see how it goes.
deborahjross: (Default)
I so appreciate your love and support in my speaking out against the death penalty. It's taken me a long, long time to come this far. It's still scary, but I think with a little practice and as receptive an audience as I had on Wednesday, I'll be less nervous.

Amazing things are happening. Partly as a result of my participation in that meeting, I've been invited to attend a one day training in death penalty abolition advocacy, held by Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. It's in mid-September in New Orleans.

I have no idea what I'm getting myself into. I'm just doing the next right thing...and the next.
deborahjross: (crone with wreath)
Today I drove down to Watsonville, an hour south, to meet with California State Assemblyman Luis Alejo as part of a group working for the passage of SB 490. The bill would allow the people of California to vote on replacing the death penalty with life without possibility of parole. We were a mixed group - a Salinas city councilwoman, a priest who's done chaplaincy work in prisons for many years, a representative from Death Penalty Focus, and a woman whose husband was wrongfully convinced, later exonerated, and now works for the Innocence Project. And me. I got into this through California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. As a family member of a murder victim, my opposition to the death penalty carries special weight.

There are many arguments against the death penalty: it doesn't deter violent crime, it is detrimental to public safety by diverting funds for law enforcement, it risks executing the innocent, it is obscenely expensive (cutting it would save $1 billion over the next 5 years). The viewpoint that I bring to the discussion is that it does incalculable harm to the families of victims (and those of the accused).

In the years after the murder of a loved one, survivors are desperate for anything that will ease their pain. But state-sponsored premeditated killing cannot heal; it can only perpetuate the myth of restorative violence. This illusion deprives those who suffer of the tools and skills necessary to become whole once more. The death penalty keeps the survivors focused on punishment and revenge, and forces them to remain emotionally engaged with the person who killed their loved one. It becomes impossible to let go of hatred. We are told that the execution will "bring closure," as if some external event could substitute for the internal emotional and spiritual work of grief and re-engagement with life. In my experience, it can't. I am appalled at the idea that the cycle of violence is being perpetuated as if by my consent and for my benefit.

This is the first time I've so publicly told my story and talked about healing. It went very well. Alejo's own background includes grassroots civil rights activism and youth outreach for crime prevention. His family were migrant farm workers, United Farm Worker organizers. I couldn't have asked for a more sympathetic audience. I came away heartened that there are a few politicians out there who don't need to bluster about being tough on crime, but instead are committed to improving the communities they represent.

If all goes well, we hope to see this on the November 2012 ballot.

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Deborah J. Ross

May 2017

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