Because of my position in the support group for parents of murdered children, I was able to persuade other members of the group to come and join me in a 'face-to-face' program that was just starting and needed volunteers- victims of serious crime to tell their stories. I was thrilled. They were stuck in their grief and I was looking for anything that might help them move on.
We drove to Stony Mountain Institution. At the security gate of the penitentiary, we met with the Justice Program organizers. Nervously we locked our purses and wallets away, and walked down a long corridor that twisted and turned just enough to lose our entire orientation. We landed up in a gymnasium that had been carefully set up according to the diagrams we had exchanged.
We had planned for this well. They had sent their agenda; I had sent ours – and we blended the two.
As we were entering, someone told us that it was going to be well attended. In fact, even the “Kingpin” – the most important inmate in the organization – was going to attend. When we asked what constituted a Kingpin, they said, “Oh – he is the one who has killed the most people in prison.”
We sat down at a long head table in the front with glasses of water. I had insisted on the table. There was a large picture hanging on the wall behind us – a winter scene of a riverbank – ironically, a picture of serenity.
By the time we were ready to start – there were about 100 inmates in the room. Even though they looked very ordinary, we knew that every one of them was a law breaker.
We began – introductions of us, our program – and then into our stories. I was the one to start with my story – almost as an icebreaker. It was to be a simple version – basic facts.
As I was concluding, suddenly there was movement in the room – I had obviously triggered them and everyone was getting up to get coffee. The president suggested that we take a break.
When we came back, some men expressed a huge appreciation for my courage.
Then I asked our next storyteller to tell his story. The father of a murdered daughter got up. In the support group, he had always presented himself as a very conservative, soft-spoken, gracious man – with a bit of a chuckle – but now he was changed. He preached hellfire and brimstone – not literally – but that’s how it felt. His anger was palpable. His language colorful.
After his story, the first question from the audience was whether we believed in capital punishment. We avoided answering this…sensing that it was a challenge to us.
We broke again for coffee. They needed it. The air was so tense.
During this break, our next speaker, the next story teller, told me that she wasn’t going to tell her story. I was surprised – she was usually so vocal. I was disappointed. She had this wonderfully deep voice – and colorful language – that would connect with this group – but I had no intention of pressuring her.
So, we opened up the next segment with an open floor discussion. I noticed that the Kingpin – who had started the evening by sitting in the back of the gym, was now sitting close to the front, it was as if he was inching forward… Was he warming or threatening?.
The first men to speak responded to the father’s story, and expressed their gratitude for his courage. They liked his honesty and colorful language.
Then an inmate, who had been scowling at us the entire time, stood up. “All of you victims appear to me as if you are monkeys carrying your dead on your backs.”
The room went very quiet.
Apparently, this is what Japanese macaque monkeys do. The mothers sometimes persist in carrying infant corpses until they are covered with flies and completely decayed. “Occasionally, a corpse may be carried until it is mummified.”
This was not a pretty image. Not a pretty image of us.
Then the mother of a murdered son, who had told me she wasn't going to tell her story, suddenly stood up. She seemed to grow in size. “I don’t care what we look like to you – but I will never ever forgive the person who killed my son.”
Her anger was frightening. The whole room was electrified.
My heart stopped. There were 100 of them, three of us – six including the organizers and support staff. I was worried. I was the one responsible for this meeting I had recruited the storytellers. If it exploded, I would never forgive myself. That’s when I noticed that we didn’t have any correctional officers in the room and the organizers that were in the room weren’t the type that could have handled a prison revolt.
No one moved. You could have cut the tension with a knife – literally.
And then the Kingpin, – stood up. “I can’t forgive either,” he said.
He turned to the crowd of inmates. “Face it – that’s why we are all in here. It’s because we can’t forgive.”
There it was – the word forgiveness.
It gave her permission and she launched into her story.
She told it with gusto and the men loved her – identified with her.
In the end, we broke into discussion groups again. Out of the corner of my eye – I saw the father walk over to the Kingpin – and shake his hand. They were greeting each other as friends. The father was no longer full of dark despair - he was alive.
It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. - C. S. Lewis