I once worked for a brilliant and caring lawyer who was trying to help a young person gather up whatever pieces of his broken life were still retrievable. Having grown up with money himself, this lawyer’s heart was still always with the underdog. His goal was to right some of the wrongs, and make his clients whole, as far as the legal system can make anyone whole.
This particular client had been manipulated and abused from childhood by an adult in a position of trust – a teacher, in fact. I remember sitting in the law library, back when we had to check out and review paper files, with tears streaming down my face as I read the details of the abuse in the hand-written scrawl of the young boy, in his own words. It was heartrending and visceral. I will never forget it, and I will never forget how painful it was just to know about. Not to have lived it – just to know about it.
According to that boy who by now was a young man, he was so dominated that the abuse lasted for a decade – until he was in his 20’s – in total secrecy. It ended when he finally cracked because the aging pedophile started pressuring him to find new young victims. The young man then had a psychotic break. He started hearing voices, and one was the voice of God urging him to kill the abuser, and then the slate would be wiped clean. Then he would get his life back, the voice told him. It was the only way.
There was a lot of evidence at trial about delayed self-defense, psychological enslavement, and competency, and most spectators expected some kind of mental health treatment rather than a long prison sentence. But due to a number of mishaps, he was straight up convicted of first degree murder. His self-defense claim was completely rejected and he was given a 30-year sentence. He was in his early twenties, but with all the trauma of his young adulthood, he had not developed the maturity or mindset of an adult. He didn’t seem able to understand what had happened.
I remember going to meet with him in custody to have him sign some paperwork. He was a mild-mannered young man. I asked him how things were going, and he said things were okay. He had just been made a trustee – he got to help in the prison cafeteria and sometimes he would get some leftover food that way. When I used to do prison counseling, I met many people who were in prison for trying to fend off a long-term abuser. It is a sad and complex issue, and the jury has a tough time deciding what is self-defense and what is revenge.
My lawyer friend undertook to help the young man appeal his conviction and sentence, and get him some compensation from the school district. The school had notice about the teacher’s suspicious behavior but had failed to take protective action. The idea behind the legal action was to have the school become more accountable, get the young man some money for treatment and schooling, and hopefully get him out of prison before he was middle-aged.
The lawyer succeeded in “making him whole” within the limitations of our legal system. He prevailed in both the criminal appeal and the civil lawsuit. The young man was released from prison after less than a decade, and he was given an amount of money that would not set him up for life, but would help in getting some mental health care and some job training. That was what the legal system could offer. But he was still a very shattered and broken person.
I never heard about him again, until very recently, when I was doing some research on another case. It turns out this same man is now accused of beating his girlfriend to death. So it looks like he never got a happy ending, and of course his girlfriend certainly didn’t.
I wish to be very clear – I do not believe that victims are condemned to become perpetrators. Some of the most absolutely gentle and kindest people I know have lived through indescribable violence as children and adults, but for whatever reasons, they have become compassionate, careful, and soft-spoken in their dealings with others. I cannot say if it is something within their core that makes them more resilient by nature, or what other variables are at play.
It is so heartening when survivors of abuse can and do turn their lives around. It is wonderful. But not everyone can find the superhuman grace, strength of heart and willpower to be a shining light in the darkness. To turn the other cheek, and transform hatred and violence into love and peace in all their words and deeds. So we as a society need to look for more ways to prevent violence, protect the vulnerable, and provide better support systems for recovery. Punishment has its place. But the more we can break the patterns of abuse through prevention, the safer we will all be.