“Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalization—myself.
Here was the lesson: I was not an innocent.”
–Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between the World and Me,” 2015
By the time Matthew was murdered in 2008 I had been “ruthlessly” interrogating myself for thirteen years. I am not entirely sure how I came to this excruciating effort by which I had gradually come to know myself—to know that “I was not an innocent”— to accept responsibility for the harm I had done to those I had thought to love.
But three days after the murder, I awoke and for a precious moment or two I had forgotten that Matt was dead. After the realization that he was gone hit me, as I lay in a liminal state—half-awake/half-asleep—I saw that I had killed Matthew, that I had “pulled the trigger . . . laid his body out cold and stiff/on the coroner’s table.”
The emerald flash
We stood on the deck together at the end of the day,
high up the hillside in Pacifica, facing the Farallones,
this young adolescent boy and me—quietly
watching the sun slip into the sea,
hoping to catch that rarest of moments, the emerald flash.
And there it was!
The fire red sun turned green—
hardly a second—then gone!
Nearly ten years on, now, from that day
and three more away from the muzzle flash,
I wake in the pre-dawn dark
and know a fleeting moment of grace—
oh, blessèd moment of grace—
before the terrible weight descends.
Matt is dead! Gone in a flash!
And I pulled the trigger,
stole his warmth,
laid his body out cold and stiff
on the coroner’s table—
a liminal image
in my mind.
Oh, how I know the truth of that—
how I am alive, how Matt is dead.
My boy is dead! He is my boy, yes!
Though we shared not a single gene,
his death is my weight to carry.
I hear your doubts, your wish to comfort
but hold your tongue and listen.
Do not tell me I did the best I could,
for I know the story, the whole story.
Yes, we had spoken truth to one another.
We had connected, healed to some degree,
but blowback is forever and in the end,
our time too short our efforts not enough.
And here I am alive, my boy is dead.
I am the adult, he was the child—
this one’s on me.
Yes, we saw that emerald flash together.
Not knowing what made the fire go green
nor how the end things would come,
we loved the joy of beauty shared.
And I hold that moment,
as I hold Matt’s body, cold,
laid out on the coroner’s table
and know I have no time left
to try to love myself.
And I don’t need to tell you
how painful and how hard
this work of love is!
Day 3, September 7, 2008
And, so, two years and seventy-five days later—remember the poem at the end of Part II—O felix culpa! Oh, light from darkness, November 21, 2010—I was able to see my liminal insight as a gift.
I was able to see that I was no different from Luis, Eddie and Josue, though it would be another seven and a half years before I knew their names. I could see, if I interrogated myself ruthlessly, that even though I had never pulled the trigger and killed someone, literally, I had and I do kill metaphorically with each unfounded judgment I pass upon another, with each lack of caring attention for another, with each time my heart is closed to the suffering I encounter in my world, my ever-shrinking world.
It is true that I took Matthew into my home when he got out of prison and it is true that we worked on healing our connection, on building trust. But even though I believe we made some progress in our efforts, that Matthew did believe I had changed from the person he had known as a young child—the enforcer in an emotionally abusive extended family, in which all the boys ended up in the criminal justice system and all the girls ended up with PhDs—an extended family made up of my first wife, her second husband, her ex-lesbian lover and mother of my second son, myself and eight children—and even though Matthew did have my name and telephone number in his wallet when he was murdered, there were limits on his ability to trust me. When he was living with me his second son, Makai, was born. I had no idea. We were not close enough for Matt to share that incredible experience with me. In Matt’s eyes, understandably, I was still someone who was not to be trusted.
So, what has this to do with justice?
From my point of view, this is the starting place for justice—a world where each person is seen as a human being deserving of love and respect—both victim and perpetrator—where each person is seen as capable of doing great good and capable of doing great harm, where each person, through a ruthless self-interrogation, is responsible for his or her own behavior—good behavior and bad behavior. This point of view encompasses all of humanity. It crosses all cultural and political boundaries. It is the foundational basis for thinking about the question: what is justice?
Nearly eight and a half years ago in Tallahassee, Florida, a young man, Connor McBride, shot and killed his fiancée, Ann Margaret Grosmarie, following an extended fight that went on for nearly forty hours (https://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/06/magazine/can-forgiveness-play-a-role-in-criminal-justice.html). Connor turned himself in to police. Ann survived the gunshot wound to her head but was only kept alive for four days on a ventilator. The first night in the hospital, Ann’s father, Andy, was alone with his daughter. His wife, Kate, had gone home to try to get some rest. Andy, a devout Catholic, was praying and listening intently for his daughter to speak, to say something. Though her brain was dead, he “felt her say, ‘Forgive him. Forgive him.’”
And though Andy felt his daughter was asking too much and there was no way he could forgive Connor, he kept hearing her request and just prior to his and Kate’s decision to turn off the ventilator, he became aware that it was Jesus Christ who was also asking him to forgive. It was this imperative and their close relation with Connor’s parents, Julie and Michael, that led them to seek a “restorative justice” solution to the murder, something they had heard about from Allison DeFoor, an Episcopal priest, though the priest told them he had never heard of restorative justice being used in a murder case. Andy shared this conversation with Michael at one of their regular lunch get togethers. And then Julie began an online search that turned up Sujantha Baliga, a former public defender, who was the director of a national restorative-justice project in Oakland, California.
This story is a story of possibilities, of human imagination.
It is a story of what can happen when people see each other as human beings, as essentially the same as themselves—when Andy saw that Michael had also lost his child, for example, when Michael went to the hospital the night of the shooting and embraced Andy, though he had thrown up five times on the way, when Allison DeFoor spoke with Andy about restorative justice, when Julie, Connor’s mother, created the opportunity for a restorative justice experience, when Sujatha Baliga agreed to help, when Jack Campbell, the Leon County assistant state attorney, was open to having a pre-trial restorative justice type of conversation among all parties—a conversation he later characterized as being “ as traumatic as anything I’ve ever listened to in my life.”
None of this could have happened without each person exercising their own imagination—putting themselves into the other person’s experience. None of this could have happened with each person’s ruthless self-interrogation.
Bishop Desmond Tutu told another story of possibilities in his book, No Future without Forgiveness—the story of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Bishop Tutu is an African Christian who speaks in an inclusive way about how all people are children of God. He also references the African concept of ubuntu—which might be loosely translated as “I am because we are”—in other words, we exist only in relation to one another. We are all the same. We find our identity in that relationship to one another—how we respond to and treat each other. The TRC functioned, then, to give voice to the experiences of the victims of apartheid. It also allowed those perpetrators who were willing to take responsibility for their actions to face their victims. This process allowed individual people, both perpetrators and victims, alike, to tell their individual stories—to be human in all the broadest ramifications of what that means—capable of doing great good and capable of doing great harm.
Whether the story is of a restorative justice conversation in Tallahassee, Florida in 2010 or of the testimony offered before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa a decade-and-a-half ago, the focus is upon allowing ourselves to imagine that we are all the same, all connected by our humanity and that that likeness ties us together, actually binds us together, and calls upon us to do the excruciatingly hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation.
I want you to think about something . . . not something easy. I want you to imagine yourself in a difficult situation—this situation:
an automobile tire
hanging around your neck,
resting on your shoulders,
its weight forcing your head forward just a bit
as if you were praying
which you may very well be doing—
this tire filled with petrol
and lit ablaze by your brother
who does not feel . . .
who does not feel . . .
who does not feel like your brother
who only feels that you are the other
and so cannot feel . . .
the penetrating power
of a face in flaming agony
seeking the smallest crack or crevice
in that self-constructed shell around a soul
we know is there, somewhere
behind the hand that held the match.
Imagine that hand to be our own.
Imagine that shell to be our own.
Imagine that memory to be our own
and follow that thought where it takes us.