Will the Circle be Unbroken?
On July 6, 2005, as I stood waiting my turn to walk through the metal detector at the California State Prison in Vacaville, California, I was overwhelmed with despair, remembering that day forty-two years earlier, when I was forced to try to survive in a world turned upside down, where I was stripped of all power and shown not even the most basic courtesies. That is why, when Marcia Blackstock, the Executive Director of a local rape crisis center, asked if I would consider participating in a special program between victims and violent offenders, I was not certain it was something I wanted to do.
I am from a middleclass family that was both loving and distressed. My mother was gregarious, beautiful and entertaining. She was also over-bearing. My father was unpredictable, and by the time I was four years old, I was afraid of him. By the time I was nine, I was already conditioned to internalize knowledge while at the same time externalizing compliance. This conditioned ability to know, but remain silent, became the mechanism of my survival after I was kidnapped on November 29, 1963.
On the day after Thanksgiving, I was up and out of the house early. I was on my way to my friend?s when I heard a loud screech from the tires of a car. Next, I heard a car door open and felt the force of strange hands rip me from the street and throw me to the floor of an unknown vehicle as it sped away.
When the car came to its final stop, I was hauled into what later that day I would determine was a house under construction, ironically, not far away from my own home. After I was carried into the house, I discovered that I was not alone. There were two other young girls, who appeared to be about my age, and three men, who spoke mainly to us--and not to one another. Initially relieved to discover that there were other young girls there, I quickly grew to dread their presence: throughout the day we were pitted against one another.
That day was the beginning of the death of my ?self? as I and my friends and family recognized me. Those who have known me best can attest to the inner turmoil that became a cornerstone of how I responded to people, places and things that had only the day before represented ordinary elements of my existence. Without an ability to explain why, I re-entered my family system afraid of knives, people with blue eyes, competition, and men who were silent. Overnight I was transformed into a raging, brooding, inaccessible young girl, at war with everyone in her family, especially her parents.
How did this happen? Mostly through a sophisticated style of manipulation. The men who had kidnapped me took a familiar concept, love, and repeatedly asked me if I wanted to be ?loved.? As the day progressed, ?love? moved from generic violence into various forms of rape, all of them terrifying. I was repeatedly ?loved,? until I felt that I was about to lose my mind forever. Each time one of the men offered me a choice, I would search for an answer that I hoped would spare me from having to feel pain. Of course there never was a pain-free answer, so the day became one long progression of failed choices that left me shipwrecked on the shores of insanity, hanging onto one small shard of self as best I could.
Well into the day, when I was feeling overwhelmingly defeated, but knew that I should not allow any of my hopelessness to show, I was asked yet again, whose turn it was to be loved. While I and the other two young girls being held captive had repeatedly been forced to decide each other?s fate, this time when asked, I felt as though I could not go on. As I wrestled with the question, I heard what was a most benevolent and loving voice inside of me, ?Today is not the day to try to understand what is happening to you. Someday you will be strong enough to know the truth. Today, all you have to do is survive.? Though this was the first time that I had ever encountered that voice, for the rest of the day, I drew upon the insight and guidance it offered at each critical juncture. In spite of all of the violence that I had witnessed already, when I heard that voice, I knew without a doubt that I must trust it. And trust it I did, as I began to suspect that if I did not try to leave, I might not ever see anyone in my family again.
I managed to escape later in the day. I had been placed in a room, alone. As I listened to the men dragging things across the floor in another part of the house, readying the stage for the next round of attack, the drive to be reunited with my family was so great, that I was able to find the courage to cut the ropes that bound my hands and crawl out of a back window in the house.
So, I did indeed escape. But for many years, it was as though a screen had been erected inside of me. I, a despondent, meek and depressed young girl who lacked knowledge of the events that had resulted in my despair, lived on one side of the screen. For years after the assault, I tried many different iterations of anger management, most of them with life-threatening outcomes: alcoholism, anorexia, suicide, and finally a commitment to forgive myself and the people who have harmed me. I did not come easily to the conclusion that I wanted to embrace forgiveness. It was during an extended psychiatric hospitalization aimed at preventing me from committing suicide that I was at last able to consider the question of what would be necessary for me to give up my drive to annihilate myself.
It took almost 21 years for me to decide that I was worthy of surviving whatever had happened to me. I was 35 years old when I was able to assume rewarding professional responsibilities and 41 years old when I completed graduate school. Though I met, and in 1983 married, a kind and compassionate man whom I love deeply, the early years of our marriage were devoted to learning how to live with the upset and despair that periodically erupted because of internal battles that were waged in the external world.
In addition, the question of what love is represented my most fundamental challenge. It took tremendous effort to unbind the pairing of such extreme violence to the concept of love. What were the chances that I would ever be able to trust any man after living through an assault that portrayed love as the most violent construct that I could imagine? How was I to ever learn to trust anyone who had the same color blue eyes as the man who hurt me the most on the day I was taken? What was I to do about the problem of my mother having that exact same eye color? These are some of the wounds that I have had to heal.
I had no idea how my life would be reshaped when I was finally able to consider the possibility of trying to forgive myself. I began to realize that I would have to look at how my rage and despair had resulted in hurt to those who loved me the most: my husband, family members and friends. From there, it was not difficult to recognize that if I was going to forgive myself for hurting others, then I ought to consider forgiving those who had hurt me. Forgiveness was not achieved in a single moment, but has unfolded over two decades. Along the way, I have both resisted and embraced my decision.
By 1988, I had fully dissected the impact of the violence that I had experienced in my home and at the hands of strangers. Though decades of personal transformation still lay ahead, I felt compelled to join a unique multidisciplinary group of activists committed to advocacy and education aimed at breaking the cycle of violence against women and children. Much of my early work centered around educating survivors and their significant others, the public, government leaders and professionals about the signs, symptoms and impact of violence on the individual, the family system and society. While I found this work rewarding, I continued to struggle with questions of strategy and purpose. I felt as though something was missing.
I suspected that victims and perpetrators were uniquely bound to one another, that we shared an intimacy. Though I had always felt enraged by the way I was beaten and raped, I had also always feared that I might be far more like my perpetrators than I cared to discover. I suspected that to participate in violence, either as the victim or the perpetrator is to be thrust into a mode of survival. Through my own experience I knew how my world had changed at the hands of others and had a hunch that inner peace would elude me until I understood more clearly the anatomy of violence. Though deeply ambivalent about her request, when Marcia Blackstock invited me to participate as a surrogate victim in a dialogue with violent offenders, I sensed an opportunity to begin to appease my own anxiety about demonizing those who harm others.
My participation in the July 2005 dialogue represents a pivotal juncture in my healing. It was in this dialogue that I first found the path that would lead me the rest of the way back to my self. Over the next two years I participated in a number of panels with men who had committed a variety of violent crimes: rape, murder, kidnapping and violent burglary. With increasing frequency I recognized the sorrow and personal disruption that I had experienced etched into the lines of their lives. As they shared information about their early lives, I began to understand how familial and societal failure had set each of these men on a path of personal destruction that culminated in an act of rage. An act that sometimes lasted only seconds and at other times days, months, and sometimes even years. An act that when completed would tear apart the measly underpinnings of life as each man had previously known it.
Eventually, I decided to train to become a facilitator of the 22-week Victim Offender Reconciliation Group (VOEG) restorative justice curriculum that each of these men had participated in prior to my speaking with them. In June of 2007, I completed my facilitator training and was in discussion with Rochelle Edwards about co-facilitating a VOEG group at San Quentin, when I received disturbing news. Upon waking from what was to be a routine surgical procedure, I was told that I had ovarian cancer. While this was not the news I hoped for, I was not completely surprised. Immediately, I understood that this next part of my life would be devoted to physically releasing the last vestige of my past. Several days later, as I lay in the guest bedroom in my home, surrounded by light and the beauty of my garden, my priorities realigned. I finally understood my purpose.
That day I knew beyond a doubt that there is no better way to break the cycle of violence then to work in the prisons with those who have committed violence. It was then that I vowed that with whatever time I had left on this earth, I would devote myself to working in the prisons with violent offenders.
My own journey allows me to understand the importance of holding the men accountable while at the same time facilitating a process that supports personal healing and transformation. The truth about violence is that it wounds all those it touches, including the offender. While no violent act can ever be undone, offenders who have committed those acts can make a decision to work to repair the harm.
These days I am cancer free and blessed to have the opportunity to watch men transcend their own grief, shame and self-loathing. I have come full circle and understand that I have found the greatest inner peace I have ever known by supporting the healing of those who have been cast out by society. I never imagined that at the end of the first five-hour dialogue I participated in with nine violent offenders, I would feel as though I had finally found my way home. Today I understand that forgiveness is a grace-filled act that upholds personal accountability while offering relief to suffering, so that a person may find wholeness and hope through dedication to acts of reparative good.