by Holly West
The other day, Ben LeRoy shared this link on Facebook:
My Mother Wasn't Trash
The post resonated with me, not because I have personal experience with the type of extreme poverty the writer describes, but because my recent work has me researching the lives of people who do. All I can think of as I piece together their stories is, christ, they never really had a chance, did they?
Before I continue, I don't mean to imply that anyone's life is hopeless. As an outsider looking in, I can't make assumptions about others' lives based on what I think makes for a satisfying existence. Nor do I think a person's unfortunate circumstances, no matter how bad, excuse bad behavior and/or choices (and murder is about as messed up a choice as you can make). We're all born to disadvantages of one sort or another and we must power through without inflicting too much damage in the process.
But I think we can all agree there are disadvantages and then there are disadvantages. Let us not forget a large percentage of the population has been dealt a tremendously difficult hand and if you're tempted to shout "but, personal responsibility!" in response to this truth, you might be letting your privilege get in the way of compassion. Either that or I've just outed myself as a bleeding heart liberal.
As if you didn't know that already.
I've written before about the case I'm researching. Three teenaged girls were murdered in my hometown in 1984. A year later, a man was convicted of all three killings based on witness testimony alone. Note there was no physical evidence, largely because the victims' remains were reduced to bones by the time they were found. He was sentenced to die for the crimes. It's 2017 and he still sits on California's death row, awaiting execution.
Some people might be outraged to read that thirty-two years have past since his sentencing and he's still alive. I'm not one of those people. I used the word 'compassion' above and while I reserve mine solely for his victims, I've never favored the death penalty. Quite simply, I don't think the government should have the legal power to kill its citizens.
Instead, I'm compelled to take a closer look at the players involved, the victims, the witnesses, and yes, the killer. What brought them together? Why did this happen? What's the story behind the story?
My heart aches for the victims, two of which lived in foster care (they were two of a set of identical triplets). One of my first questions when I learned about the case was, why were they in foster care? I learned that their mother's first husband died unexpectedly when she was pregnant with one of their older siblings and that the man she re-married, their father, was at some point convicted of sexual assault. He's required to register as a sex offender but hasn't done so for a number of years.
I don't know whether their father's violent behavior contributed to their move into a foster home, but according to a post on a message board on Ancestry.com a few years ago, the surviving triplet hadn't seen her father since 1985, the year after her sisters were killed. I don't know what kind of support she had after her sisters' deaths, but a loving father wasn't part of it. I haven't yet interviewed the remaining triplet. I don't know if I ever will.
What about the witnesses who testified at trial? At least two of them also lived in the same foster home as the triplets. Again, I had to ask, why? In both cases, I uncovered generations of drug addiction, broken families, and poverty--cycles that continue to this day. A friend of mine recently told me she'd read a passage claiming violence (or, for our purposes, dysfunction) takes at least three generations to overcome. I'd suggest that in many cases, it takes far longer than that.
Finally, we have the killer. Much of his misfortune in life was laid out by the defense during his sentencing hearing, so I didn't have as much digging to do to find it. None of it excuses what he did. Let me repeat: None of it. But daily beatings and molestation by his stepfather (among other things) contributed to his rage, alcoholism, and drug abuse. And as with the teenagers he murdered and the girls (now women) who testified at his trial, the cycle of dysfunction continues in the family today.
I know far more about these stories than I'm revealing here and as a result, my argument is rather flimsy. I get that. I still don't know what form my telling will ultimately take and I won't go into it more fully until I do. But Ben's link was so reminiscent about the lives I'm reading about lately, I wanted to talk about it today. I firmly believe approaching life with compassion rather judgement can go a long way in helping victims and ourselves break these cycles.
Maybe this is the reason I'm doing this?