Archive for April, 2013

The political is personal–and literary

April 14, 2013

If you are interested in the politics and feminist movement of post-Franco Spain, chances are you already know the work of author and activist Lidia Falcón. If you don’t, you should. Throughout her novel No Turning Back (Camino sin retorno), the protagonist, Elisa Vilaró, a former political prisoner, is confronted with questions about the relationship between the political and the personal. As a reader, I find myself considering the political and the literary.

From a literary standpoint, this is not a perfect novel, maybe because Falcón had content she wished to include but didn’t find a way to incorporate gracefully into the narrative. But any writer can learn from and be inspired by her masterful treatment of memory and time. I wish US authors felt free to be as fearless as Falcón. In the first section of the novel, Elisa’s memories of prison invade her dreams and occur as intrusive and disturbing flashbacks when she’s awake. Then, during a five-hour conversation with her ex-husband Arnau, Elisa seeks to understand her past as a good little Catholic schoolgirl, an unconditionally loving wife, a committed Communist, a confused feminist, and a woman seeking her share of happiness and peace.

Though Elisa looks back intentionally, her memories are not wholly volitional. A word from Arnau triggers a thought which leads to another memory without any transitions in the text to guide the reader. Whole events and conversations spill out in the midst of their meeting. And so we read about the particular tribulations of women in prison–their pregnancies; a secret abortion; their desperate wait for news of their lovers, some of whom face execution–and how after release through a political amnesty, they can be adrift without the solidarity and political faith that once gave them strength. As Elisa remembers how she was confronted with doubts about the Party and about Arnau, the reader is simply carried along, often uncertain for a moment who is speaking or when or to whom. So what? You just keep reading and it all makes sense. It works.

As for the political aspect of the novel, many readers may be less than engaged in parsing out the ideological differences among various leftwing factions and splinter groups and tendencies. But many will smile, as I did, at Elisa who daydreams through some of the interminable, pointless meetings.

While the very specific context of post-Franco Spain can’t be glibly equated to the experiences of other countries undergoing the so-called “transition to democracy,” Falcón’s novel still holds up a mirror to upheavals occurring today. During decades of repressive dictatorship when an opposition has to operate clandestinely and armed resistance seems the only option, what happens after the dictator dies or falls? Is it possible to compromise in the name of national unity and peace? What if bourgeois democracy was never the opposition’s goal? Is the armed struggle revolution or is it terrorism? What reinforces an insurgent’s faith and what shakes it? Is the leadership in touch with life at the grassroots? Do slogans reflect reality? Who can you trust? Who is betrayed?

Here in the US., once Franco died, I’d blithely assumed that Spain was “free.” I had no idea of the struggles and uncertainty that followed. This novel opened my eyes.

A disclosure: I know Jessica Knauss as a very astute and intelligent editor. What I didn’t know–because she never told me–is that she is also a literary translator. When I came across No Turning Back, she confessed, yes, the translation was her work. I am grateful to her for making this novel available in English.

Unlikely Friends: When Victims and Perpetrators Meet

April 11, 2013

Unlikely Friends

A few years back, after I spent an evening at a halfway house for men on parole, Sister Mary Sean Hodges challenged me. She has worked tirelessly through the Office of Restorative Justice, LA Archdiocese, on behalf of incarcerated men and women and those seeking to reenter society. She liked what I’d done advocating for gang members, prisoners, and criminal justice reform, but in her view I had fallen short. “You have to meet the victims, too,” she said.

I did, and soon felt overwhelmed and helpless in the face of so much pain and rage. I wished there could be another way–a better way–to cope with such grief, but when I heard of other ways, I was cynical. I loved Reginald Denny for forgiving the teens who beat him unconscious during LA’s civil unrest, but, hey, with his head injury, he remembered nothing of the attack and I figured that made it easier to forgive. As for other cases I heard about, seriously, would you open your heart to your child’s murderer? I wanted to admire such compassion but it seemed more like delusional naïveté. You’d have to be a saint–or crazy.

So it was with a sense of relief, hope, and gratitude that I watched a sneak preview of Leslie Neale’s new documentary, Unlikely Friends, [] about victims who reached out to the perpetrators whose brutal crimes had caused so much hurt and pain. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the remarkable relationships she documents is that they actually make sense.

Click for the trailer:

The seed for the film was planted about 20 years ago by a bank robber named Nelson who was featured in Neale’s first documentary, Road to Return, about an innovative post-release program for the formerly incarcerated. After serving his time, Nelson had returned to the crime scene out of an urgent need to apologize. What struck Neale was not only Nelson’s sense of guilt, but the impact his act had on the teller who’d had his gun held to her head. For twelve years, she said she’d lived with the fear he would come back and kill her. Meeting him, sharing stories and family photos, and hearing his apology freed her at last from the terror that had refused to let go. There was a bigger story here, and Neale knew immediately she wanted to tell it from the victims’ perspective.

Leslie Neale

As she recently explained, “Just as reformers say that prisoners need to be involved in prison reform, I think victims need to have more of their voice heard as well.” Usually when that voice is heard, it’s from survivors such as Harriet Salarno who appears in the film and founded Crime Victims United, a nationwide organization that has been in the forefront of putting victims rights on the public policy agenda. Her work lobbying for tough-on-crime legislation, supporting victims and their families as they attend parole board hearings to present their objections to release, is both easier to understand and strongly validated by the adversarial system. “Victims who choose to forgive aren’t really given the time of day,” Neale says. People are enraged by them. People call them crazy. Some keep quiet about the choice they’ve made, but some are willing to speak and Leslie Neale wanted their stories told.

She began to learn about the movement for restorative justice which is based on the understanding that when a person commits a crime, it’s not just a law that’s been violated; someone–or a whole community–has been harmed. Punishment alone–though necessary and often satisfying–will not repair damage or help victims move forward with their lives. Restorative justice brings offenders and victims together to provide a chance for perpetrators to make amends and to promote social and individual healing.

In recent years, some California schools have successfully used the restorative justice model to address school discipline issues. Some police departments have worked with community-based facilitators to address offenses such as vandalism and shoplifting. But could restorative justice really be appropriate for murderers? After watching Unlikely Friends, I began to think that victims of violent crime and their perpetrators are the people who need it most.

To cite just one of the unlikely friendships in the film, there’s Steve Watt.

Self-described as pro-gun, pro-Republican, he was a Wyoming state trooper who believed “if you’re not a cop or a family member of a cop, you’re a dirtbag.” Not exactly a bleeding heart. Then a bank robber named Mark put five bullets in him, taking out one of his eyes and leaving him in constant pain, unable to get around without crutches. “I wanted Mark dead,” he recalls. Today he calls Mark one of his best friends.

Mark and Steve

Please watch the documentary before you jump to the wrong conclusion that Steve Watt must be soft in the heart or the head.

Steve and other crime victims in Unlikely Friends didn’t met the offenders in order to love them. They went seeking relief and answers, sometimes confrontationally as when Debbie in Arizona insisted that her son’s killer look at photos of the young man whose life he had taken. For Debbie, who had been obsessed with the desire to see her son’s killer dead–whether by the death penalty or by her own hands–what she calls “forgiveness” was at first simply saving herself from that all-consuming hatred and bitterness. Today she is grateful that capital punishment was not imposed.

According to Azim Khamisa, whose son Tariq was shot dead by a 14-year-old boy, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for your enemy to die.” The author of the book From Murder to Forgiveness, Khamisa reached out to the shooter’s grandfather and together they founded the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, dedicated to stopping youth violence. He says, “Forgiveness is a gift I am giving myself.”

But if victims reach a place of peace for their own well being through forgiveness, Neale found while doing research and interviews that offenders were also deeply affected. Profound transformation can occur in the perpetrator when victim and offender meet in dialogue–something usually prevented under our adversarial legal system. Victims usually address perpetrators only at sentencing hearings when, still reeling with shock and loss, they may call the offender a monster and demand the most severe punishment. Defendants are told not to apologize to their victims and victims’ families. If they ignore their lawyers and try to plead guilty and accept responsibility, the judge may refuse to accept a guilty plea. Many prison officials refuse to allow victim-offender dialogue. (And even when they do, many stories don’t get told–including those that Neale had to leave out of the film when prison authorities did not allow access.) Upon release, ex-offenders are often prohibited under penalty of law from contacting their victims–a protection that may be essential in some cases but also prevents victims like the bank teller from finding relief.

from Unlikely Friends

Mark admits that when he shot Steve, he didn’t see him as a person but merely as an object standing in his way. Now he sees many prisoners who twist everything around so they can blame the victim for their circumstances. He cannot do that. Every time Mark sees Steve or hears from him, he can’t avoid facing the awful reality of the impact of his crime. If you never see the pain you’ve caused, he suspects you’ll never learn empathy.

And that affects everyone. Most incarcerated people are eventually released and if they return to society filled with resentment instead of insight, we’re all in trouble.
In Unlikely Friends, I saw a demanding kind of forgiveness: one that insists first on punishment according to the law but doesn’t stop there. It moves beyond the law to catalyze rigorous self-examination and moral growth on the part of those who’ve done wrong. If it’s love, it starts as tough love.

“Most offenders suffer from guilt,” says Khamisa, and as I watched Unlikely Friends, I thought about how easily a person can twist the facts and seek out someone else to blame when the burden of guilt is just too much to bear.

What I witnessed in the film was mutual recognition of shared humanity, a connection that may lead to forgiveness or friendship but is healing to both parties even if it doesn’t. Some offenders may be–at least for now–beyond reach. For many, I think the victim reminds the perpetrator of that all but unbearable guilt but by recognizing the offender’s humanity makes it possible to acknowledge the guilt and carry it.

Ideas planted by Unlikely Friends are still revolving in my mind. It occurs to me that when the perpetrator becomes human to me, I can’t hold the same volume of hatred inside me. Besides, I would rather accept that we live in a world in which we all experience pain and sorrow than believe we live in a world populated by monsters.

* * * * *
A special screening of Unlikely Friends on April 27 in Los Angeles will benefit the Amity Foundation. Among its many programs, Amity provides services to incarcerated men and women as well as men, women and families transitioning from residential treatment or incarceration to the greater community. Amity has used Neale’s earlier documentary, Juvies, about teens tried as adults, extensively in their educational programs. For tickets, please click here. (Incidentally, Juvies features the case of Duc Ta, the young man you’ve read about at this site. When he is released in August, he will go to transitional housing run by Amity.)

If you are interesting in hosting a community screening of Unlikely Friends, please request more information here.

You can also check the website for updates, to sign up for the newsletter to be informed about additional screenings, or to contact the filmmaker if you wish to order a copy.
To learn more about restorative justice around the world, please click here.

This article appeared in New Clear Vision on April 10 and in LA Progressive today, April 11.