Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.2 -- May 1998
Life After Death
by Elizabeth S. Menkin
My sister Elaine was killed on one of the rare dry April nights in southwest Washington state, she was returning from a night school class in payroll accounting and was halfway through the 57-mile drive home. As she rounded a curve on the dark two-lane highway, she probably averted her eyes from the headlights of the oncoming vehicle and did not see that it crossed the center line. She was 47.
The other driver had been drinking peppermint schnapps at the house of friends, who persuaded her to stay for dinner to give the liquor time to wear off. "We watched her walk down the stairs and to her van," they later told the police. "She was fine." Two miles before the crash site, she stopped at a roadside tavern to use the bath room; there she tried and failed to get a ride home. When the ambulance reached the emergency room, her blood alcohol measured .20, twice the Washington state legal limit.
My immediate shock and grief were mixed with an upwelling of vengeful anger. I was furious with the drunken driver and with those who had let her drive home that night. When it appeared she would die from her injuries, I wanted her to live to suffer horribly. When she pulled through, I wished she could be blinded so she would never drive again. I wanted revenge.
I tried to focus on dealing with my grief. Having worked three years as a hospice physician, I had some idea about what I needed to do to grieve. I helped plan the funeral, and there I was comforted by friends of Elaine, many of whom I had never met; they filled and filled and filled the community hall of that tiny rural town. Among family from six states and local people from three counties, there were some who wore sweater vests of wool that Elaine had dyed and spun and knitted, some who had been inspired by her radio show on rain-forest gardening, and others who had known her for her pottery. We shared recollections of Elaine's skill at making dripless stoneware teapots, her "secret formula" for growing robust broccoli, and how she had tried to improve the viability of that economically distressed area.
During those first days, I tried to give comfort and solace to my daughter, who had lost her special aunt, and to my brother-in-law, David. The day we were planning the funeral would have been their 27th wedding anniversary. We cried together.
After I returned home to San Jose, I sat shiva, stood for kaddish, and felt the support of my Jewish community in observing customs that carry the wisdom of generations who knew how to mourn. Friends gathered around and encouraged me to talk about Elaine. I recalled how she had comforted me when I was recovering from back surgery. She had not tried to stop my tears, but remarked that sometimes things hurt so much that there's nothing to do but cry. Now I cried again. I found inspiration in Elaine's practice of celebrating each new moon. It gave me new connections with her and her earth-mother view of God, and it helped soften my patriarchal deity into one more comforting and nurturing.
I even examined my sister's wrecked car at the police impound yard. I read the coroner's report. I wanted to piece together the details of her final moments, and was relieved to conclude she died quickly.
But in spite of my best efforts to "process my grief," I felt helpless, frustrated and angry. I bristled at the idea that the drunken driver might plead not guilty. She had a prior record of drunken driving, and she was only 25, so even if she got the maximum sentence, she might again drive drunk. My rage was fueled rather than assuaged by going to meetings of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Many others there had experiences with repeat offenders. I was not alone in my feelings of impotence and bitterness, and there seemed to be no satisfying solution.
The seed of compassion that eventually grew to help my family find a way out was planted by my 14-year-old daughter when we were at the police impound yard viewing the wrecked cars. Noticing "kids' stuff" on the floor of the other driver's minivan, my daughter pointed out that the other driver must have small children. Over the following weeks, my father's thoughts returned to those children, and the perpetuation of tragedy that extended across both families' lives. He wanted the tragedy to stop.
The preceding January he had heard a presentation by Marty Price, founder and former director of the Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program of Clackamas County, Oregon, one of 300 such programs. In face-to-face encounters with the offenders, victims have a chance to speak their minds, express their feelings about the incident, show the offender the human impact of the crime, and many times, receive an apology. Successful meetings usually result in a restitution agreement between the offender and the victim, outlining actions the offender will take to right the wrong. in cases where a restitution contract is signed, over 90 percent of the contracts are satisfactorily completed. In contrast, studies of court-ordered restitution show 30% compliance as typical. More importantly, offenders who mediate are less likely to return to crime.
My father contacted Marty Price in June 1993, and told him of Elaine's death. My father said he didn't think he could ever forgive the woman, but he didn't want her children to grow up with their mother in prison, nor to be raised by an alcoholic. If confronting her with the enormity of his pain and loss might contribute to her turning her life around, he wanted Price to help him do that.
Price explained that most victim-offender programs, including his, limit their work to juvenile or property crimes. Cases of seriously violent crime have rarely been mediated. But Price agreed to assess our case. He emphasized that often months of preparation are needed before victim and offender are ready to face each other, participation must be entirely voluntary for all involved, and the accused must admit guilt. In our case there had been no admission of guilt, as far as we knew.
At the end of summer 1993, the driver was formally charged with vehicular homicide. She entered no plea at the arraignment, but requested a court-appointed attorney. In early September, Price sent a letter to the defense attorney, explaining the victim-offender mediation process and indicating my parents' interest in a mediated meeting with the offender.
That September, the Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with their liturgical themes of remorse, repentance, and forgiveness, were a different experience for me than before. In prior years, the offenses I had suffered were minor, and forgiveness came easily. This year I felt excluded from the process. "If we forgive others for wronging us, God forgives us for our wrongs." I was unable to feel any forgiveness for the woman who had killed my sister.
In mid-November, the driver entered a guilty plea, and sentencing was set for late January. Before the sentencing hearing, the court allows family members to submit to the judge a statement describing the effect of the crime and giving us a chance to request restitution.
I wondered what the offender could possibly do to "make it up to us." As I drafted my statement, I recalled the five R's of Yom Kippur: recognition, remorse, repentance, restitution and reform. This enabled me to imagine what the drunken driver might do that would allow me to forgive her.
I decided I could stop hating her if I felt she was really sorry. I wanted her to recognize that what she did was wrong, to feel remorse for the far-reaching terrible consequences of her crime, and to feel regret, shame, suffering and humility. In short, I could let go of wishing her physical pain, but it was essential that she feel rotten about what she had done.
But "I'm sorry" does not suffice. Having said it, she must still feel a need to prove it, not expecting to be given forgiveness, but to earn it. She must make restitution , though in this case, there is no way to right the wrong: She cannot be a sister to me or an aunt to my daughter. She cannot continue Elaine's gardening program on the local public radio station. She cannot run Elaine's business. The only restitution she can make is a life-long effort to turn as many as possible from drunk driving and to make the world a better place for her having survived the crash. She must reform and become abstinent, admitting she is an alcoholic and that she can never be even a social drinker.
Once I figured out what I wanted her to do, I could imagine telling her face to face. I finally decided to join my parents and my older sister in mediation with the offender.
Over the next four months, Marty Price and his co-mediator Brenda Inglis made the preparations that were essential for a successful mediation. Price, a self-described "recovering attorney," had enlisted the interest and support of the defense attorney, who in turn arranged for the mediators to meet with the driver. I later learned from Price that at this preliminary meeting, the driver didn't know whether or not she was an alcoholic or had a drinking problem. The mediators strongly suggested that she obtain an alcohol abuse evaluation so that she could come to the mediation with more information about her use of alcohol. They also gave her a "homework assignment" to do some thinking and writing about how Elaine's family might have been affected and what she might say to them or what she could offer them.
The mediators also met with my family to hear us discuss our loss and what we might consider a meaningful restitution. No one was interested in monetary compensation. Our concerns were: first, how could we be assured that the driver would not repeat this crime; and second, how could she raise her children so that they would have a chance to do better in the world than their mother had? Marty and Brenda suggested we brainstorm ideas for specific requests that we might make of the driver.
As our family meeting with Marty and Brenda progressed, more of us decided to attend the mediation. My older sister's husband decided to be included; several years ago he had been in a collision in which the other driver was killed. My 10-year-old daughter, Aileen, also asked to be there. Elaine, herself childless, had been Aileen's favorite aunt. Elaine's husband, David, who had initially felt he would be unable to contain his hate and anger, not only decided to attend the mediation, but recognized that with the growing number of "us" who would be there, the offender would need a support person too. He suggested she should be invited to bring along someone who cares about her to sit next to her and hold her hand in the difficult task of facing us.
We felt the benefits of the decision to mediate even before the actual meeting. While the offender was still in the hospital, she had sent David a condolence card. She appeared to be staying sober, as required by the court when she was released without bail. Her fiance, who does not drink, had stuck by her and cared for her kids while she had been hospitalized. She had pleaded guilty, sparing us the agony of a trial, and showing some contact with reality and willingness to face the consequences. But the greatest benefit for all of us was to feel that we were trying to make something positive out a very negative situation, as Elaine would have wanted.
The mediation meeting took place in January 1994, in a small conference room at a hotel, a rather austere but neutral setting, with 12 chairs around a tight group of four tables. The beginning of the meeting was delayed because of an accident on the same highway where Elaine had been killed. The offender, her lawyer, and her best friend arrived an hour late, having taken a detour over miles of logging roads.
She entered looking as though she expected to be torn apart by a pack of dogs. Her small build, ponytail and side-brushed blond bangs looked her age of 25, but her face showed a strain and fatigue uncharacteristic of that age. My physician eyes noticed that she was gaunt and walked with a limp, there were scars on her legs and a vertical scar showing over her blouse on the center of her chest. I had heard that after the wreck she had been airlifted from the local hospital to the nearest university medical center for treatment of a cardiac rupture, multiple fractures and multiple internal injuries. I wondered about the invisible scars, and how she felt about having survived.
The meeting began with introductions, and the participants indicated how they wished to be addressed. The ground rules, explained ahead of time, were reiterated: no interrupting, listen respectfully, answer honestly; confidentiality is assumed unless specifically relinquished. The driver has asked that I not use her name; I'II refer to her as "Patricia" or "Patty."
The mediators gave Patty the opportunity to speak first. Initially she was too overcome with tears and sobs to speak. Struggling for composure, she said, "I just want to tell you I'm sorry. I know that's not good enough, though. I thought, "You're right, it's not good enough." However, I was impressed with her simple statement. She didn't contaminate the apology with defenses or excuses.
Each of us had a chance to speak about what the crash and the loss of Elaine had meant to us and to ask all our questions. The main question on my mind was: "How could you do such a thing?" Instead, I asked her what she could recall about the decisions she made that day-the decision to drink as much as she had, and to drive herself home.
The answer was disappointing and blunt: "I don't remember nothing." Her injuries had been so severe she had no recollection of an entire week preceding the wreck. All she knew about what she had done and what had happened she had learned from others or the police report.
Aileen asked, "What did you do when you found out you had killed someone?" Patty answered simply, "I cried," her eyes filling with tears again. She went on to describe herself as a soft-hearted person who even carries spiders out of the house rather than killing them. She said she had been depressed and had lost weight since learning of Elaine's death. Seeing her tear-swollen eyes, trembling voice, and shaking hands, I thought, "Well, maybe I don't have to hate her."
My father explained that he had initiated the mediation with the hope it would help him feel he could do something positive, not just suffer the pain of losing his daughter. My mother tearfully expressed her resentment. Not only had she lost a daughter, but the violent tragedy had so changed her husband she felt she had lost him too. Elaine's husband had much to say. He had lost his partner in love and in work, and Elaine had been robbed of her future at a time of wonderful personal, professional and spiritual growth.
Patty listened intently to each speaker without averting her gaze and without fidgeting. She wiped her tears frequently.
After her initial statement, she tended to speak only when someone directed a question to her, but spoke at some length to my older sister's question about past problems with alcohol. She recognized that she was a beginning-to-intermediate alcoholic. She had not realized it previously because her own drinking seemed normal among her friends, and there wasn't much else to do in her town. "Now I know that it's not normal," she said.
She was frustrated when she had tried speaking to her friends and acquaintances about their drinking and driving and telling them of the horror of what she had done; she thought that knowing what happened to her would change their behavior, but it didn't. She had already figured out that to stay sober she had to keep different, non-drinking friends, such as the woman who accompanied her to the mediation meeting.
(In retrospect, I can see the importance of the pre-mediation preparation by Marty and Brenda. Had Patricia denied she had a drinking problem, I might have gone into a rage. Instead, I felt no need to beat her up, because she was already down. Also, she was doing what I had wished: recognizing the wrong she had done, feeling and expressing remorse, and being willing to discuss restitution.)
When Patty answered questions about what she expected to do with her time in prison, she mentioned some of the things we had planned to ask of her, and easily agreed to our added suggestions. Later, each of the rest of us spoke about what we wanted for the future, trying to state our wishes as specific requests to Patty. She had a chance to comment on each request. With some further discussion, we compiled the requests and concluded the five-hour meeting. We achieved a contract.
The contract was signed as a witnessed personal agreement between the offender and Elaine's family. Patricia agreed to write letters weekly to each of her children while she is incarcerated, and to write a letter to Aileen, sharing her feelings about what it is like in prison. In addition, she agreed to build her parenting skills, to work to get other drunken drivers off the road, to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly, to work toward a high school equivalency degree, to contribute 10 percent of her earnings to charity, and to attend church. She will write a quarterly progress report to my father on each of these items, as well as any other activities she chooses to do to help better the world. My mother agreed to send her a book on parenting skills, and my older sister agreed to provide special stationery for Patty to write letters to her children. All participants agreed to submit the contract to the court for its consideration in sentencing, though we knew a prison term of 26 to 34 months would be mandatory.
The day after the mediation session, I could feel that a lot of the tension I had been carrying around had vanished. I had a sense of relief and realized it was because I had let go of feelings of vengeance and despair. The mediation had allowed me to turn my thoughts back to constructive directions and to feel optimistic about the future.
David wrote in his journal, " What a wonderful effect of last night's mediation-I have regained my brightness and vigor." He found himself walking with his arms and legs swinging freely and feeling he was a renewed man. He once again felt on top of things in a business meeting, alert and aware of little details and how they fit together.
A week later, I made another trip to Washington state to attend the sentencing hearing. The judge gave Patricia the maximum sentence, 34 months, and said that under the law he was unable to include any of the contract elements as directives in the sentencing. However, he agreed with the prosecuting attorney's suggestion that, if Patricia adhered to the contract, her parole officer will be permitted to waive the $1,000 fine that she is to pay to the state victims' fund after her release from prison.
Patricia is serving her sentence in the Washington Correction Center for Women. Her letters to my father have become an ongoing correspondence rather than just the progress reports on the contract. She has also has exchanged letters with my daughter Aileen, responding to questions of what the prison Iooks like, how she spends her time, whether she has made friends with other inmates.
Aileen sent Patty a picture she had drawn after a recent trip to a sleep-away science camp. She had been feeling a little homesick and her counselor had suggested it is comforting to look at the stars at night and think, "We all sit under the same sky." Aileen drew a woman in a small room with a single window, looking at the stars, and two children in bed looking out the window at the stars, too. "I was thinking of how much you must miss your kids," Aileen explained. I was so proud of my daughter, and so impressed that mediation had fostered this kind of empathy and compassion.
One of the most difficult things to do following the mediation was to explain it to friends. If I began with, "My family had a meeting with the woman who killed my sister," the listener seemed to find the idea as unpalatable as I did on first thought. "Why would you want to do that? I hoped that in writing this I would adequately answer that question.
I sent a copy of my article to Patty, so that she could see what I intended to write and have a chance to restrict any parts she wanted to remain confidential. I hope she will eventually be able to view herself not as one who made a terrible mistake, wishing to remain anonymous, but as one who, having made a terrible mistake, did a courageous and honorable thing.
In my work in hospice, I have seen how families can be torn apart by a tragedy. Family members may have different styles of grieving, and not comprehend the others, saying, "I can tell you didn't love her as much as I did; you're not grieving like I am!" In mediation, all members of my family were encouraged to bring our own grief to the table. Each of us had the details of our loss acknowledged, and each of our desires for what the restitution should include was incorporated into the contract. Thus we were brought together in our grief.
On the new moon in early April 1994, my family gathered to place a headstone on Elaine's grave. We marked the occasion with a ceremony to change our focus from how she died to how she had lived. The gravestone reads:
SHE NURTURED THE EARTH
AND ENRICHED THE LIVES
OF THE PEOPLE AROUND HER
In September 1994 I wrote about a mediated meeting between my family and the woman who had killed my sister in a drunken driving crash in April 1993. At that meeting we drafted a restitution contract in which "Patty" agreed to write individual letters weekly to each of her children, to build her parenting skills, to work to get other drunken drivers off the road, to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meeting regularly, to work toward a high school equivalency degree, to contribute 10 percent of her earnings to charity, and to attend church. She wrote letters to my father to report on her progress on each of these items.
"Patty" served 19 months of her 34-month sentence in the Washington Correctional Center for Women. There she finished her high school equivalency degree in the first six months, earning an A average in her classes. She then completed courses in parenting skills, office skills and a series of counseling and alcohol recovery programs. She attended religious services twice a week, and AA meetings twice a week.
In August 1995 she was transferred to a work-release program in Longview, Wash., closer to her family. Using her real name, Susanna Cooper, she made her first public appearance, speaking out against drunken driving at the Nov. 17 taping of a TV talk show, and my family appeared with her. The next day, she spoke, along with two others convicted of vehicular homicide, on a panel sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She will be making those appearances, aimed at DUI offenders, monthly. MADD in Longview also has her scheduled to speak to high school classes in her county, with the cooperation of her work-release supervisor. Susanna continues to attend AA meetings twice a week, and church on Sundays. She was eligible for parole on Dec. 30.
People often ask me if I have forgiven her. I recoil from that term, because it does not make clear that we continue to hold Susanna accountable for her actions and expect that her work to repair the wrong she has done will be a lifelong project.
But I harbor no bitterness or hate toward her. I respect her for having the conscience and the courage to face us, express her remorse, and take responsibility for what she had done. I rejoice at each of her accomplishments on the job of repentance and repair, and sincerely wish her well in making a better life for herself and her family.
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