A spiritual response to violent crime
“One should not have to lose a child, especially in the violent manner in which mine was murdered, to learn the things that are indispensable to living.”
Linda White’s workshop at the Happiness & Its Causes Conference in San Francisco was co-sponsored by Soul’s Code. A doctor of psychology, Linda specializes in restorative justice, and finding ways for victims and offenders to reconcile.
BY LINDA WHITE — It was November 18, 1986, and my mother’s birthday. I had planned to spend the entire day with her, doing anything she wanted, since it was “her day.” I awoke, however, not to that pleasant expectation, but to a phone call from my five-year-old granddaughter, Ami, telling me that she was home alone and she didn’t know where her mother was. That was the beginning of the nightmare, and the start of a whole new way of life for me. With time, we would find out where she was and what had happened to her, but on that day, all we could do was make phone calls and worry — and, of course, attempt as best we could to field the questions of a five-year-old who had no idea of the horror that the rest of us were gradually coming to fear.
Our 26-year old daughter, Cathy, was missing from Tuesday to Saturday. Finally, a Harris County officer came to the house to tell us our daughter had been found. Though the pieces of the story are still somewhat sketchy, she was apparently abducted from a convenience store or service station where she had stopped on the way home Monday evening.
The friend she had met for dinner told us that she was having car problems and intended to find a place where she could put water in her radiator. Apparently, it was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The two fifteen-year-old boys who abducted her also raped her prior to shooting her with a twenty-two pistol they had found in the car they stole before kidnapping Cathy. She was originally shot in the leg only — to disable her and prevent her from getting help before they could get away in her car. Unfortunately and tragically, they had second thoughts and subsequently shot her three times in the back of the head.
After killing her and hiding the gun, they drove her car to Greenville, Texas, where one of them had grown up. They were eventually apprehended by an officer who recognized one of them and knew he was supposed to be in custody for drug rehabilitation. The authorities in Houston were notified and several officers were dispatched to Greenville to question the boys. They ultimately confessed to murdering Cathy and, sadly, theirs is the only account we have of our daughter’s last night and subsequent death.
Initially, of course, my family and I went through the usual emotional reactions that follow such an event — shock, disbelief, emptiness. The emptiness was the feeling I remember best — that, and the dry mouth that accompanies a shock reaction.
We were so fortunate in being surrounded by friends and family during those early days that one of the first positive emotions I remember feeling was that of being loved. Even the law enforcement people we came into contact with were compassionate — something I had not really expected. At the victims’ group we attended that first year, I heard that this is fairly unusual. Often, the authorities are not very sensitive, and victims feel doubly abused — first by the perpetrator and then by the system and its representatives.
From the beginning of our ordeal, however, to the eventual sentencing of the two boys, anger was not the prevailing emotion we had. Rather, it was a profound feeling of loss, a feeling that our lives were forever changed.
My husband and I would talk on the way home from our victims’ group meetings and wonder where they got the energy for all that anger. Perhaps we disconnected from the anger early in our grief because of Cathy’s daughter, Ami (now an adult, in the picture above), and our need to help her through the difficulty of her own response to the loss of her mother. We didn’t have a clue how to deal with all the issues we were facing because of her young age.
It may be that the professional help we sought for her ultimately helped us just as much, and that we were able to move through the grief process more “smoothly” than some do, if the word “smoothly” can ever be used to describe the maelstrom that is grief. I do know that some people whose loved ones have been murdered get stuck in the anger forever, which is quite understandable, but I am confident that my “grief walk” has been what is appropriate for me, and what Cathy would have been comfortable with.
Almost a year after my daughter’s death I decided to return to college. The two boys had not yet gone to trial and I hoped that returning to my education would help me feel less “in limbo” than I had felt since Cathy’s death. I had decided to study psychology and philosophy in order to become a death educator and grief counselor.
I had felt so lost in the beginning due to the enormity of what I didn’t know: Should Cathy’s five-year-old daughter attend her funeral? Should we keep the truth from her? How should we talk to her about it? The questions were endless, and the professional advice we received was so helpful that I wanted to pass it on to others in my own way. One should not have to lose a child, especially in such a violent manner, in order to learn certain things that to me, by now, seemed indispensable to living. In providing death education I would find some measure of meaning and renewal in my life, or so I hoped.
Eleven and a half years have passed since I returned to college. I received my bachelor’s degree in 1990 and my master’s in clinical psychology in 1994. I have, indeed, become a death educator, but the only grief counseling I do is through my church and the grief groups that I help facilitate there. I do teach other psychology courses, as well, but my primary interest is in teaching Death and Dying.
I have found that not only is it about death and dying, it is about life and living. I believe passionately that we cannot wait until death is either imminent or has already struck to develop a philosophy of either death or life. Loss of all kinds is too important an issue for us, too much a part of living, to leave it to the end of our lives. The fact that we are mortal is what makes us who we are, makes life so very precious, and guides the values that we live by.
Because it is integral to a study of death and dying, and because it cost me my daughter, violence has become another of the subjects that I spend much of my time exploring. The third reason has to do with a frightening experience I had in one of the psychology classes I taught in a community college one semester. It had been disclosed the night before that Susan Smith’s children were not abducted as she had reported, but had been killed by her. Some of the students in my class couldn’t wait to discuss it and tell me how they would punish her. The methods were varied and inventive, and all quite punitive — they almost seemed to be competing for how much they could make her suffer.
One very kind young man, a good student I had really enjoyed, told us in very deliberate terms how he would tie her in a car and drive it into the water and watch her die the same way in which she killed her own sons. The expression on his face spoke volumes. I stood there in horror as this proceeded, slowly shaking my head at the display of raw violence I was witnessing, and realizing that few, if any, of them would ever associate their behavior with violence. Since that day, violence and its alternatives have become the major focus of my work.
My interest in alternatives to violence has led me into reading and researching a concept called Restorative Justice (RJ, for short) an alternative to our current system of Retributive Justice. It is a different paradigm, a truly distinct vision, and one that is being used successfully in a number of places across the nation, as well as other countries.
Restorative Justice seeks to restore, perhaps even heal, all affected parties as much as possible after a crime is committed. It asks different questions than Retributive Justice — not who did the crime, but who has been harmed?
And what do the victim, the offender, and the community need to fully address the harm? RJ sees the harm done as personal — harm to people and relationships, and believes that only more personal solutions to crime will be of any real worth in establishing the peace or reestablishing relationships.
I have gradually come to believe that this kind of justice, that which is restorative, is the only solution to our crime problems — along with a major focus (of our time and money) on the root causes of crime and violence.
The current emphasis on punishment without true rehabilitation is counterproductive to our needs and enormously cost-ineffective. A friend of mine says that the “warehousing” of criminals is an interesting metaphor; would we accept our furniture, for instance, back from the warehouse if it were as damaged as many, if not most, of our offenders are at the end of their sentences? How long will we continue to attempt to fight violence with more violence and yet expect our offenders not to act in a like manner?
Today I teach in prison. It has been a long, and often circuitous, road to the place where I am today — physically and psychologically. I teach college courses to men who are incarcerated for fairly long sentences, some of them what many would consider “hardened criminals.” I see only human beings when I look at them.
Most of them I like very much. A few of them I find very difficult to deal with — human beings, basically. Many have “found themselves” in prison. They have accepted responsibility for their actions and are trying to find a better way to go forward. But most, our recidivism rates signify, will eventually be only more lost than when they came to prison, especially when they get out and try to live better lives with the label “ex-con.”
One kind of rehabilitation that appears to promote significant change in recidivism rates is education. Sadly, educational programs in many states have been cut completely, or considerably curtailed, by policy makers wanting to appear “tough on crime.” The public’s perception is that by making our correctional systems more punitive and less rehabilitative, more criminals will be influenced to turn from a life of crime. This is incredibly naive. If they do make such a decision, though, what tools have we provided to enable them to turn their lives around?
The only tool that I personally can provide is that of education, only one part of the solution to our crime problems, but an important part. Fortunately, Texas hasn’t yet eliminated all its college programs in prison, so I am afforded, for now at least, the opportunity to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. For now, that’s almost enough for me. And I know that my daughter Cathy would approve of what has become, for me, a memorial to her.