Monday, October 29, 2007

What the World Expects

The interesting new book Wounds That Do Not Bind: Victim-Based Perspectives on the Death Penalty, from which we will likely be quoting and summarizing in several future posts, opens with an essay by MVFHR member Charisse Coleman. In writing about losing her brother to murder and then going through a capital trial as a family member opposed to the death penalty, Charisse articulates many of the subtle nuances and tensions inherent in these experiences. Here’s one excerpt, about what others seem to expect of victims’ families:

What I’ve found, from my own experience, and from time spent among many other families of murder victims, is that the world generally tries to yank victims’ families around in one of two opposing directions. Most often, we are expected to keep our sense of injury and rage whipped into a constant call for retribution (putting many families who do not seek the execution of their loved one’s killer “in the wrong”), as if the only decent way to honor loss is to take another life, to create more brokenhearted families, more fatherless children (it is mostly men who are executed), and to further assault communities already ravaged by violence, poverty, racism, and other problems. The pressures on victims’ families to demand this dubious and macabre tribute to their loved ones can be tremendous, and not least of all from some of the victims’ rights groups themselves. (Need I point out that if the death penalty were not an option, then all of this pressure and manipulation of people already torn apart by personal tragedy would instantly disappear?)

The other extreme, of course, is the pressure to eradicate any strong feelings as quickly as possible. Our culture’s fixation with looking on the bright side, and sugaring up the bitter acid in all the lemons life sends our way, verges on hysterical, if not outright pathological. Grieving families are leaned on in ways small and large, subtle and overt, to hurry up and get better. We are often coerced – smoothly, and under the guise of concern – by friends, family, clergy, even support groups, to quickly turn the rage and devastation we feel into forgiveness. What would happen if we changed our message to families shattered by violence from: “Here, let me help you get over this,” to: “We are here with you. We offer our presence for the duration of your pain and anger. We honor the strength and truth of those feelings. We are here to help to keep you from losing yourself in sorrow, and we will be here when you are able to step more fully into yourself as the weight of sorrow begins to lift.”

What if the town criers for retribution and punishment changed the question from: “Don’t you want to kill the guy who did this to you?” to: “How can we heal this family, this community?” (A community, by the way, that often includes the killer’s family.)

Quoted from Wounds That Do Not Bind, edited by James Acker and David Karp (Carolina Academic Press, 2006). Charisse’s essay in this book is adapted from her memoir A Bad Goodbye: Reckoning in the Aftermath of Murder, which is currently seeking publication.

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