A DANGEORUS WOMAN: Into the Light

On Valentine’s Day I head to Luxor, Egypt to write for two months. Valentine’s Day is always bittersweet, for it is when private investigator Casey Cohen left this earth. In 2000, shortly before he died, he gave me a series of fantastical letters sent to death row inmate, Maureen ‘Miki’ McDermott and made me promise to write about them. Many years later, this 500 page manuscript is the result. In this excerpt we visit the house were the crime occurred that put Miki on death row. From juvenile hall, to death row, to Istanbul and beyond, the truth of how the powerful abuse those beneath them.

Casey called me out of the blue that morning and said, “How about a little adventure? I want to show you something, or rather, someplace.”

I met him in the parking lot of a mini mall near the intersection of the 405 and 134 freeways. We got in his car, a white Ford Taurus. “Private investigators drive nondescript cars,” he said.

“Ah yes, good for tailing people?” I teased.

“Exactly.”

“And does it work the other way around—do you get tailed sometimes?”

“It’s a hazard of the job.” He looked in the rearview mirror. “But not today, not even your ex.”

Automatically, I looked, too, and he laughed. “Relax, Karen.”

“I can’t help it. So where are we going?”

“The scene of a murder.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

We got off the 405 at Burbank Blvd. Casey explained nothing further until we turned onto peaceful, tree-lined Killion Street and we were parked opposite one of the small neatly groomed houses. He turned the engine off and stared out the window, drumming the steering wheel lightly with his fingers.

“Who’d guess that this ordinary façade could hide such a violent history,” he said.

I studied the house. It was a step up from most of the others on the street, dark brown and gabled, reminding me of a miniature English manor. There was a breezeway with a drive that led to the back of the house.

“It’s cute,” I said.

“Karen, I can tell you’re a writer, you’re descriptive abilities are astounding.”

“Thanks, so what exactly happened here?”

“Miki’s what happened.”

“Ah,” I said. He’d told me about her, bits and pieces here and there in conversations.

“Let’s go.” He got out of the car.

I followed. “What are we doing?”

He waved a hand. “Don’t question the expert PI.”

He rang the doorbell and we waited. It was a pleasant day, warm and lazy. A hummingbird glided past my ear and hovered next to a burst of bougainvillea climbing up the side of the house, tiny wings whirring so fast they were a blur. We continued to wait, the silence of the street overwhelming.

“Nobody’s here,” I said at last.

“Hmm, lesson number one: Never try to find someone at home in the middle of the day when people are most likely at work. Visit in the evening.”

He sat down on the front step and I joined him.

“What would you have said if someone had answered?” I asked.

He shrugged. “It would have come to me in a flash of inspiration. You can’t plan these things—except for coming in the evening instead of the day.” He shook his head, mockingly despondent. “You’re going to think me a very bad investigator.”

“No comment. What now?”

“I describe what happened.”

“Shoot,” I said.

“It was done with knives, not a gun.”

I snorted. “Okay.”

“It was an ordinary night, just like all the others in what had become Miki’s ordinary existence. But there were undercurrents of disaster. She just didn’t want to see the signs.”

“I know how that goes.”

“Don’t we all? They’d tried to kill Eldridge before, let’s see, March 21, 1985. That would be fourteen years ago.”

“Do you remember all the dates of the crimes you’ve worked on?”

“No, but I remember this one. It’s important to me. Miki and Stephen Eldridge owned this house together. And they had an insurance policy on each other for 100,000 dollars. Lesson number two: don’t take out insurance policies on those closest to you because if one of them dies suspiciously you’ll be the prime suspect. Anyway, basically, the police were called on this particular night when Eldridge was attacked. Two men he’d never seen before, one black and one Hispanic, had knocked on the door and told him someone was fooling around with his truck. As Eldridge started to unlock the door, they forced their way in. Lesson number three–”

“Let me guess,” I interrupted. “Don’t open the door to strangers, especially ones who give you ridiculous reasons to do so.”

“You’re smart. The Hispanic man displayed a knife and ordered Eldridge to pull his pants down and made him crawl towards the bedroom. The black man held up a bedpost and made the suggestion that they fuck him with it. As Eldridge was being struck with the bedpost he managed to get up and run out of the house. The dog started barking and the men fled.

“Cut to April 29, shortly after midnight, when Detective Melvin Arnold receives a phone call at home telling him a man has been murdered on Killion Street in Van Nuys. The victim, Stephen Eldridge, was killed by two black men and one Hispanic. On this occasion, Miki was at home and she had been assaulted and tied up. It appeared that Eldridge had been dragged across the floor and stabbed forty-four times and his penis cut off after he died.”

“That’s beyond disgusting.”

“Murders usually are, but yes, this one was particularly gruesome and sickly disturbing, which made for excellent theater in the courtroom.”

I studied the front door of the house, closed and secretive. “Who did it?”

“Jimmy Luna, an orderly at LA County Hospital. That’s where he met Miki. She was a kind-hearted nurse and he was a raving lunatic with a history of violence.”

“So what was the motive?”

“Miki was the only person who treated Jimmy with kindness. Other people in the hospital had helped him but they soon grew tired of it, figuring out that he was a loser and worse, violent and dangerous. Miki had pretty much gotten to that point, too, except that she hadn’t cut him off completely. Sometimes, she still accepted his phone calls. He called her obsessively, which was used as proof in the court, except that Jimmy was known to call many people over and over, even assuming other names and accents when he did. Most of the calls to Miki lasted a few seconds, meaning that she never even picked up. In the past, she had loaned him money, even let him sleep on her sofa once when he was sick, so he was attached to her although she wasn’t to him. And now, after all that, Miki was about to leave Jimmy.”

“Leave him?”

Casey nodded. “It seems she’d had enough of the quiet life and was seeking adventure…once again. She and a friend had heard nurses could make a lot of money in Saudi Arabia and they’d made arrangements to go for one year. Jimmy was in a panic. He was losing his only friend, the one person who listened to his problems and who he could go to for help. He knew that Miki and Eldridge had $100,000 insurance policies on each other, not surprising since he was good at finding things out about people that he could use to his advantage, snooping through drawers and files, overhearing conversations. Inside his perverse and confused mind, he thought that if he killed Eldridge, Miki would have to stay and he was sure she’d want to stay because she’d have the insurance money so she wouldn’t need to go abroad to earn more. He didn’t understand that she actually wanted to go. To him, that would have meant rejection. The world revolved around Jimmy and his problems. All that mattered to him was that he solved his most pressing problem—keeping Miki right where she was.”

We were silent for a moment, staring at the unassuming house. I wondered if the current occupants knew about its history. It must have been a horror scene, blood everywhere, maybe there were traces left, unseen by the naked eye. I wouldn’t have wanted to live in that house. But then, I thought back to the places I had lived that had a history of bloodshed and I couldn’t help shivering in the warm air.

I asked, “Why did Jimmy knife him so many times? That makes it a crime of passion, doesn’t it, almost against a lover or a friend? And why cut off his penis?” I shivered again.

“Excellent questions—you should have been an investigator. The prosecutor made a big deal about the violence because it was a powerful image to present to the jury. Yet accusing Miki of ordering Jimmy to do it didn’t add up. This crime was about Jimmy and his obsessions and needs, not about Miki and what she wanted. If Jimmy were a hired assassin as the prosecution claimed, he would not have stabbed the victim forty-four times. Once, twice, a few times to make sure he was dead, but not forty-four. Over half of the stab wounds were fatal on their own. Not only that, it was well-documented that Jimmy was obsessed with cutting off penises. He had threatened others and fantasized about it. And his acts of violence had been escalating over the previous weeks. His co-workers at the hospital were terrified of him. He’d been fired from his job because of it. He was at the breaking point.”

“So why did the jury believe the prosecutor on such flimsy evidence?”

At that question, Casey’s eyes flared with a passion for his work that I rarely saw, providing a glimpse of how relentless his pursuit of uncovering the truth must have been before his illness. “This is the heart of everything, Karen: that people believe what they want to believe. In this case, the prosecutor, Katherine Mader, told the most powerful story, with all the elements that the jury wanted to believe, subtly playing up the homosexual angle. For the ordinary person, the fact that these were a bunch of homosexuals living in what was viewed as a perverted and sordid world, made it easy to turn Miki into an evil mastermind, manipulating the sickos around her.”

Casey gave a mirthless laugh. “It was a well told story, no more and no less. Mader was the best of story-tellers while Miki’s lawyer was a very bad one. A very bad lawyer indeed, whose only interest was in delaying the start of the trial so that he could earn as much money as possible, without doing the slightest bit of discovery. In fact, there was no defense at all. That was a big part of the habeas appeal that I worked on, showing the incompetence of Miki’s lawyer. In contrast, Mader was a master at theatre. She’d defended Buono, the Hillside Strangler. Now, with Miki, she was on the other side. Whatever side Mader played, the truth was inconsequential. Mader could have cared less that Buono was guilty and Miki was innocent. Both were pawns in a game where winning trumped truth. Winning at all costs was the only thing that mattered because in this world, winning means success and success means power. Mader was smart, ambitious and determined to win. And when she did, she was rewarded. She went on to become a Superior Court Judge.”

I shook my head. I understood a little about what he was saying, but not completely, not then. It would take a few more years until I had experienced a powerful person telling a story to destroy me and not being able to do anything to save myself. But on that morning, all I could think was that Miki must take some responsibility for what had happened to her. “You have to agree that if Miki had never let a lunatic like Jimmy into her life, she wouldn’t be sitting on death row. She’d be living her adventures in Saudi Arabia—or somewhere else by now.”

Casey wagged a finger at me. “Lesson number—what number was I on?”

“Four, I think.”

“Okay, lesson number four: don’t befriend lunatics. Not something you’ve ever done, is it, Karen?”

Was he making fun of me? No, he was serious. “Come on Casey. Don’t drag me into the story.”

At that moment, a white van drove slowly down the street, the driver peering out the window as he passed, and I tensed, quickly growing self-conscious when I realized my over-reaction.

“You are in the story, Karen,” Casey observed quietly.

Despite my protests, I knew he was right, my eyes glued to the van until it had disappeared around the corner at the end of the street.

“You want to know the real reason why I brought you here?”

“Maybe.”

He nodded towards the house. “Take a good look—a real good look. It’s hard to imagine that evil occurred in such an ordinary and peaceful setting. No matter how deranged Jimmy was, Miki never thought he’d do what he did. Don’t be complacent, Karen. All the same signs are at your house, hiding behind the perfect facade. Get out while you still can.”

“My lawyer says I should stay. I’ve told him about the threats, everything, and he isn’t impressed, just says that’s how divorces are, people say things they don’t really mean. If I leave, I weaken my position.”

Casey shrugged, world-weary. “Your lawyer’s a shit and probably made a deal with Walter’s lawyer.”

“Are you serious? I’ve paid him. I can’t get rid of him now.”

“That’s exactly what Miki thought. She realized how useless her lawyer was but by that point, it was too late. He’d been paid too much money and she couldn’t afford to start all over again with someone else.” Casey sighed while shaking his head, then gave me such a piercing look that I had to turn away. “Take a step back and observe your situation. You’re an exile—we both are. Our wanderings have fed our imaginations beyond control and as a result we are homeless. You aren’t attached to that house—you told me you hate it.”

I hung my head, his words bringing on a hopeless feeling that I always tried to avoid. Why had things turned out so horribly?

“I want a home. I want to belong somewhere, to have someone who loves me,” I mumbled, sounding pathetic in my own ears. I hated that I was feeling sorry for myself.

He spoke more gently but with no less urgency. “Just get out. Please. If not, it might be you lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Yes, you’ll have stayed in the house—a house that means nothing to you except what other people have told you it should mean: stability, normalcy, social status, success. Holding onto these empty platitudes, well, that’s not you. If you’re going to die for something at least die for something that matters.” He stood up and held out a helping hand. “Yes?”

He tilted my chin up so I had no choice but to look in his eyes and I thought how easy it was with him to look into his eyes where there were no demons, only compassion. For a moment it almost seemed that it might happen right there, in front of Miki’s house, at the scene of that horrible murder; that he might kiss me.

But he only repeated again, “Yes? My assessment of Walter is that he’s a sociopath. He’s incapable of putting himself in someone else’s shoes and feeling what they are feeling.”

I nodded in agreement. “That’s what the therapist said. His stepmom told me once that she always felt like he was watching people carefully and trying to imitate how they acted, so that he would appear normal.” I shuddered at the thought.

“You can’t reason with someone like that, you can’t change them. You can’t even look at it as being his fault. It’s just how he is.”

I promised I would delay no longer.

I’d already started searching for a house but I redoubled my effort with a renewed sense of urgency and by the time Casey returned from his trip abroad and I’d come back from my night in Carmel, I had found one across the border from affluent Calabasas, down on the flats of Woodland Hills. A neat and cozy little A-framed house painted powder blue and built in the 50’s with hardwood floors and a screened porch off the main bedroom. Rent 1,200 per month. With my child support and four years of alimony, I could do it. I would get nothing else out of the marriage, having signed a premarital agreement.
The first night in our new home we ordered pizza and sat on the deck in the backyard. Katya was sixteen, Harrison six and Max four. It was an adventure and we were happy. Walter had scared the children with his aggressive attitude, screams and constant threats. Once, he had punched Katya in a fit of rage for throwing a wayward ball that had spilled his cereal into his lap. He had refused to apologize, ordering that she should.
“And she needs to clean up the mess!”

I will not forget the look of terror on Katya’s face as he chased after her and she tried to get away, his hand balled in a fist, fury on his face, and then the blow and her cry of pain and horror. I had been in the kitchen with a clear view of what was happening. I ran to her aid but didn’t get there fast enough. I screamed at Walter while Harry and Max whimpered on the sofa. Katya stumbled upstairs and I found her lying on her bed, face to the wall. She refused to talk to me and I had left in defeat, hating myself more than I hated Walter, hating the fact that I had exposed my daughter to another abusive man after taking her away from her own father.

I went into the master bedroom where Walter lay on the bed flipping through TV channels.

“I’m not asking her clean up, you should!” I told him.

“It’s her fault,” he said dismissively, his attention on the TV screen.

So, I had gone downstairs and cleaned up just as I had done to the food that Sasha had flung across the room in his rages and my own blood splattered on the floor and walls. Years later Katya told me that she woke up every morning in that house with a knot in her stomach, wondering what battles awaited her with Walter that day. He timed her showers. He ordered her to use no more than two squares of toilet paper to wipe her bottom, even going so far as to dole out the squares by taping them on the bathroom wall in twos.

I was ordered by Walter to always present my grocery shopping receipts to him, and he would inspect them as if I might somehow be trying to cheat him out of his money. Once, when he was in an especially paranoid state and I had thrown the receipt away by mistake, he ordered me to go out to the trash barrel and find it. When I refused, he actually climbed into the trash barrel, retrieved the receipt and triumphantly brought it back into the kitchen, whereupon he proceeded to highlight in yellow the few things I had bought for Katya, such as tampons, shampoo, and the like.

He gathered the products, amounting in cost to not more than $20, and said, “This wasn’t part of the deal, now take them back!”

And again, when I refused, he got in the car and drove down himself to return them, waving his money when he returned with the words, “You can’t fool me or take advantage of me, remember that!”

I didn’t know which marriage had been more bizarre. I suppose they were equally so, but in different ways. How could I have allowed myself to stay in such situations for so long? How had I gotten into such insane situations in the first place? And how had I allowed Katya to be exposed to such torment, and now my two boys.

My lawyer negotiated some money out of Walter so I could buy the necessities and at the end of the first week in our new home we all had beds and a sofa. I bought a small computer table and set it up in a corner of the living room. The day I sat down at my computer and began to write without the fear of someone sneaking up behind me and breathing down my neck, no one judging me, relentlessly spewing insults about how inadequate I was…well, that was the day that I truly felt reborn.

At last, at the age of forty, I had become my own person, no longer defined by the men who had once owned me.

“I consider this to be the day when I became an independent adult,” I told Casey proudly on the phone.

“I can’t resist saying I told you so.”

“You’re wise, so wise,” I purred and he laughed as best he could. Quickly, I continued, covering the pain in a rush. “And I don’t miss that huge generic Calabasas house that had no personality whatsoever. I love it here. The kids are happy—I mean, I wish it didn’t have to happen, I’d much rather not put them through this because I’m sure, although they’re happy and excited now, it will be difficult for them but at least—“

“Karen,” he broke in gently. “You don’t have to justify anything. You did what you had to do. You’re a good mother. Being a bad one would have meant staying in that situation. Okay?”

“Okay,” I said, feeling the emptiness that always came when I remembered how far away we really were from one another. He wasn’t with me. He never would be. We talked, he encouraged me. He loved me, I knew that. He loved his wife and his children. They were what mattered most and I understood that, too. He was dying a little more every day, fading away from all of us who loved him. And there was no relief from that agony.
I was happy. Yes, I told myself that I was. Over and over each day I repeated it. And I was, really. And the way I stayed like that was by keeping Casey in the compartment where he belonged, in a place in my heart just for him and no one else.

“Tell me something, Casey,” I said.

“If I can,” he answered.

“Do you think we deserve the things that happen to us? You know—the karmic thing. Like, you say Miki’s innocent but then, how could she have been convicted? Does it mean she did something in this life or a previous one that she’s now being punished for? And me, I married two abusive men. Not one—two! And my children suffer for my mistakes. I always feel that no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try to be optimistic, believe in myself—you know how people say, be positive, believe? Well, I try that and it doesn’t work.”

“Karen, are you seriously asking me this question—me the most cynical and depressed person on the planet?”

“Yes, and I’m asking you precisely for that reason—and also for your enormous intellect.”

“If my intellect is enormous—which I take issue with, but if it is, it doesn’t make me any more worthy or unworthy than the next fellow. Every single person is capable of the worst and the best. You know that bumper sticker—just say no to drugs? Well, some people can’t say no. They just can’t. It’s not their fault, but we make them into criminals. It’s absurd. I actually don’t think I have a right to judge anybody for anything—not even a child molester or a vicious dictator or a serial killer. Nobody likes hearing that, I know. I once got thrown out of a party for making that statement—of course, there were other reasons, like I was having an affair with the host’s wife…but I digress. There’s always a reason why people do what they do. And who am I to say that if I hadn’t lived someone else’s exact life, I wouldn’t have done the same as they did? Hey, if I had lived someone else’s exact life, I would do the same because I’d be them. People in positions of power—and I don’t like those people, Karen, I can’t help it, even if I say I don’t judge, irrationally, I don’t like those people—are generally very smug and full of themselves. They point fingers at the pawns beneath them and say, come on, you can do it, work harder—look at me, I did. But they don’t really mean what they say. They don’t really want all those poor people up in the clouds with them—hell, they had to do too many unspeakable things to get to their positions of power, they aren’t about to share it, no matter what they say to the contrary. And it would be impossible anyway because each person’s situation is unique and we’re stuck in our own set of circumstances, based on every single thing that has happened that has led us to that place, including what happened in the womb, our intellectual, physical and emotional capacity, our genetic code, even all the way back to what happened to our ancestors.”

I thought for a moment and then asked, “So there is no moral accountability, the person who commits a murder in cold blood is no different from, let’s say, Jesus Christ? They both did what they were programmed to do?”

“Yes. But there is accountability—within the natural world it’s there, forget about the methods we humans come up with to punish one another. There is always a balance of good and evil—for lack of better terms. Jesus was good, he was God incarnate, or so we are told in the stories about him, but look at all the evil that’s been done in his name. Pretty much everyone is in agreement that if someone murders another human being, they should be held accountable. It seems obvious enough. But then comes the fine print, as it were. How can one human, who is no better or worse than the other, really carry out a just punishment on a fellow human? One is not above the other—therefore, one has no more right to judge than the other. It’s an impossible mess to figure out. It’s okay in our society to go to war, to blow the limbs off a million innocent people, leave young boys dying in ditches, kill children in ‘friendly fire.’ But it’s not okay to kill your neighbor down the street just for the perverse pleasure it gives you. If you really, really look at it honestly, one makes no more sense than the other. It’s all madness, Karen.”

I sighed. “Why do I do this to myself? I should know better by now than to ask you these types of questions.”

He laughed and the sound was almost normal. He was enjoying this conversation. “You do it for my sake. Because I, myself, am such a perverse lunatic, it’s conversations like this that make me feel better for a second and that second is an eternity to someone in my situation.”

“Thanks a lot,” I said dryly.

“Life is a mystery. Shall we leave it at that? You always say you don’t know why you went into juvenile hall to teach the kids there. And that’s right, you don’t really know. You can talk to a therapist and they can analyze you and pretend that they’re wiser because they have some degree in something-or-other, but that’s bullshit. You went in there because of all the things that happened to you before, plain and simple. In actual fact, you had no choice but to do it. But like I said, no one wants to hear that because it doesn’t bring satisfaction. It doesn’t make you feel good about yourself. We want to think we have some special dispensation, that we know something that nobody else does, that we’re part of some select club, that we live our lives for larger and nobler purpose—even, perhaps that there’s some master plan to it all and we’re members of the lucky crew, the ‘chosen.’ But the reality is that we simply can’t help but do the things we do. It’s foreordained, not by God, but by each and every action that has taken place previously. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t make choices.”

“Okay, that doesn’t make sense.”

He snorted. “It doesn’t make sense because it is impossible as finite beings, for us to understand anything, especially ourselves. We’re in the middle of our own lives. I don’t have a scientific formula for what I’m saying. I just know it’s the only conclusion that makes sense. We make choices, and at the same time, we are foreordained to do so.”

“My dad would call you a Calvinist, all that predestination blasphemy—well, that is if you believed in God, which you don’t.”

“He can call me whatever he wants. And I would say—respectfully, because from everything I’ve heard about your dad he sounds like an exceptional human being—that Calvin was no different from anyone else. He did what he did because of all that had happened to him leading up to that point of creating his religious theology. That’s how it is.”

I was suddenly back in my dad’s library as a child, listening to him read the Bible, recite poetry, tell us stories. He was the best of story tellers; a charismatic public speaker.
I reminisced to Casey, “My dad used to tell a story from the pulpit about a young man who came to visit him, rebellious and wanting answers. The young man was angry at God and he complained to my dad, ‘I didn’t ask to be born. None of this is my fault. And now here I am and God is dangling me over the flames of hell and saying Turn or Burn, do it My way, or I’ll drop you in. That’s not love, that’s not freewill—that’s coercion!’ My dad tried to minister to this young man. He explained how God loved him and didn’t want him to burn in hell. But, my dad told the young man he had to repent, he had to admit his sin, ask for forgiveness and submit to God’s authority. At that point in the story, my dad would pause, his serious gray eyes raking the audience, hand to his fatherly beard—just like yours, Casey—and you could hear a pin drop, every single person hanging on his every word, waiting to hear the climactic pronouncement. And then he’d say softly, yet with this command in his voice that always sent a thrill through me and made me want to obey whatever he said, ‘that young man went away a sinner still. He would rather rule his own life in hell than submit to God’s will and live in heaven.’ And a single sigh of agreement would go up from the audience and I’d feel so uplifted and as if my dad knew everything, he’d told the story so well, with such conviction. It was only as a teenager that I began to see the holes in the story. The young man was right! A loving God didn’t behave like that. Imagine telling your own child, bow down and worship me, do it my way or I’m going to make you suffer the worst possible agony for eternity. How could anyone in all honesty be fooled and think, oh wow, thanks so much God for the great opportunity to make such a ‘choice?’ I mean, my dad is genius smart—I’m not kidding—but he doesn’t see how horrific and unbalanced his belief is and it’s incomprehensible to me.”

“We all have our favorite stories, Karen. And like I said about Mader, it’s the ones who tell their story with the most conviction and talent that ‘win’, whatever that means.”

Casey sounded tired now; tired and beaten down and immediately I felt the same. Reality had come back to hit us after a few moments of pleasurable conversation.

The last time Casey and I talked on the phone he was very weak but he called to find out how I was doing and to make sure I was okay. Until the end, he was concerned for my wellbeing. I’m sure he was quite addled with pain medications and it drew me back to the day we had talked about suicide and how hard it would be to make that choice.
As if reading my thoughts, he said, “I’m not doing it,” sounding almost apologetic, and of course I knew what he was talking about immediately. “I can’t find the right time, or the right justification.”

In a rambling manner, he started to reminisce, first about how he used to jog along the beach by the Santa Monica Pier. “I could feel the strength of my limbs, the sand beneath my feet and I ran so far that when I turned around, the high-rise building where I had my condo was a distant speck. Oh those days, how I lived for the senses! I loved to go to this little shop where they had the finest imported cheeses and I would buy the most expensive kinds, along with crusty French bread, and then I’d go to another shop and buy a vintage wine and so forth. I indulged myself, Karen. I spent money.”

He carried on and l listened, tears falling unhindered.

“We all take different paths but end up in the same place, that’s how it is. Just think, when you were sixteen and crying your eyes out because your parents were so strict that you never went on a date—remember telling me that?”

“Yes.”

“And dreaming of going to the prom but knowing it would never happen because your parents believed dancing was sinful? At sixteen I was in a brothel in Thailand losing my virginity. Could two paths be more divergent? Look at us then and look at us now, drawn together by circumstances beyond our control. Bottom line, we all get to where I’m at eventually—I don’t care if you’re the homeless guy on the street corner or the pope—eventually we become one and none of it matters anymore. Nothing more happens and all that’s left are memories and then even those are gone. Make your stories real, Karen, make them live.”

“How do I do that, Casey?”

He took a few short, sharp gasping breaths before continuing. “You always have, Karen. Remember when you were eleven and had to take that stupid home economics class, baking and sewing, only for girls, and you couldn’t bear the boredom and unfairness of it and you hid notes to yourself as if they were from some spy and you were a spy, too, and you would come into class the next time filled with excitement to find the note and live the fantasy…”

He paused, gulping air.

“I remember, Casey,” I said. I had told him that story of my childhood and so many more. I listened to his labored breathing and held my own breath, waiting for him to speak again because I knew he had more to say.

“Karen?”

“Yes, Casey?”

“I miss you.”

“I miss you too.”

“What did I want to tell you?” He sounded alarmed.

“I don’t know,” I answered, praying he would remember.

“Ah,” he sighed. “Yes, so, I had a dream last night—a wonderful dream. We were sitting on my balcony in that condo I used to have overlooking the Pacific, you and I were sitting there. It was a warm evening, the sun setting in a bright display and the thing of it was that you were sitting some distance from me on a chair floating in the middle of a pond. We were talking and I saw a fish swimming in circles around your chair. It was splashing and darting around you and having a wonderful time. It was a Coy. And I got very excited and said, ‘Look, Karen, look at that fish! Why, it’s the luckiest fish there is, you’re very lucky, Karen, to have a fish like that swimming around you!’ And you looked down but you couldn’t see it. For the life of you, you couldn’t see that fish. But I could, Karen, I could see it and I can tell you that it’s there, swimming around you. Whenever you doubt, whenever you get discouraged, remember that you’re lucky, you’re blessed. You will achieve your dreams—you have it all there inside of you. Believe in yourself.”

“Thank you.” I choked on the words.

His voice grew fainter. “The truth is close to me now, Karen. Yesterday afternoon I was so tired, I just lay down. I can’t describe it, being that tired, as if my entire being was giving up and letting go. I fell asleep but I don’t know if I really slept. It wasn’t like any sleep I’d ever experienced. Then, this peace washed over me and I felt no more pain. I became separated from my body and I saw a beautiful light and flashes of different colors and I thought, so this is it, this is how it is, just like people say: into the light and all the fear and worry, all the pride and desperation, all the wanting so much to be loved, respected, paid attention to, all of it gone. And then, I came back from the light, I don’t know why I came back, but next time I won’t, Karen. Next time I’ll go all the way.”

“I don’t want you to,” the words came out in a gush, like blood from a deep wound.

“It’s the right time for me, everything happens just when it should. And I’ve left something for you, remember?”

I couldn’t think what he was talking about.

He spoke with urgency. “The letters.”

“Oh, yes,” I said doubtfully. “You didn’t send them yet.”

“I will. And then, you’ll write about them—promise me!”

“I will,” I assured him, adding, “Except I don’t understand what I’m promising, Casey.”

“It doesn’t matter—you’ll know what to do when you read them. I have faith in you.”

He never called again. On Valentine’s Day he followed the light and I felt relief for him and a terrible emptiness for myself. What would I do when I needed advice; when I yearned for his soft, calming voice rationally explaining truths, comforting, encouraging and cajoling me to think and stretch my mind? What would I do?
Then, the letters came and he was with me again and the journey began.

Rules of the Fighting Game excerpt from A DANGEROUS WOMAN

by Karen Hunt

“Guys Beat Up Girls, Girls Beat Up Girls, But Girls Never Beat Up Guys.”

I am sharing this chapter, which delves into my friendships with Sister Janet Harris and Casey Cohen. There are those who did their best to sweep what happened under the mat and me along with it. One day I will, indeed, be gone (and that day is certainly looming on the horizon), but the truth remains. I wrote down many of my thoughts and conversations at the time, so I am able to be accurate. For example, during Silvia’s trial, I took forty-five pages of notes.

A Short Overview: The dying wish of private investigator Casey Cohen that I unlock the mystery behind a series of fantastical letters sent to death row inmate, Maureen McDermott, leads me on a journey from a Los Angeles juvenile hall, to death row, to Istanbul and beyond. Along the way, I discover how the powerful justify abusing those beneath them and the hard choices an ordinary woman must make to resist their control and stand up for her personal freedom.   

A nun had introduced me to Casey Cohen, a highly respected private investigator who specialized in the death penalty phase. Sister Janet Harris was the Catholic Chaplain at Central Juvenile Hall and had been a friend of Casey’s for many years. A petit, strong-minded woman, she favored long dark skirts and crisp white blouses, sensible shoes and colorful shawls thrown over her shoulders. Her white hair was styled in a boyish cut, spiky on top. She wore wide-rimmed glasses behind which small, intelligent eyes viewed the world with a shrewdness that belied her round face and benign expression. Sometime later, Casey gave me a photo of her as a young woman in her nun’s habit, smiling and beautiful, young and hopeful, you could see it in her face, along with the mischievous good fun.

Becoming a nun did not mean seclusion for Janet, she was too strong a personality for that. But it did mean safety through submission to the most powerful male in the universe. That submission gave her the justification to further her good intentions, which were, of course, the intentions of God. In turn, those intentions, as with all religious zealots, justified ambitions that were shrouded in an outward show of humility and passionate words that she fervently believed with all her heart.

“I’m going to have someone call you,” she told me one day, perhaps a year or so after I had first started the writing program in the hall. She was accompanying me as I walked through gates and between walls, heading to the farthest end of the facility, where the girls were housed in one large room called Omega Unit. There were usually around forty girls in the unit and I taught a small group of them.

In 1995 I had gone into Central Juvenile Hall, met with the school principal, Dr. Arthur McCoy, and convinced him to let me try a creative writing class. I have a feeling he was too nice to say no to my enthusiasm. Not knowing quite what to do with me, he had sent me to see Ms. Neely, the teacher in the girls’ school. She had allowed me to teach some sessions in her class. I’d been entranced by the girls, surprised at their honesty and willingness to tell their stories. I had thought about it long and hard for a couple of months after that and had returned to meet with Sister Janet. We had met in the chapel, where she had listened to my vision of starting a writing program. Along with Dr. McCoy, she had offered to help me.

In those first few weeks, with the input of probation staff, I had established a small group of girls that I taught once a week.

“They’re the ones who are here the longest because they’re fighting for their fitness,” explained Ms. Pincham, the tall, powerfully built and abrasive head of staff in the girls unit.

“Fitness?” I inquired, having no idea what that meant.

She did not hide her disdain. “Karen, you better study up. Facing life sentences. We call them High Risk Offenders—HRO’s. They’re the most stressed, here the longest, so maybe you can do something with them.”

She said do something with them with a great deal of skepticism.

Twice a week I made the drive from the idyllic hills of Calabasas and into the heart of East Los Angeles. Central JH was situated just off Mission Blvd, next to USC Medical Center. Much of the original buildings had been destroyed by earthquake and they were still making repairs. In order the get in, I had to knock long and loud on a dirty orange door, with a small window cut out at eye-level. Eventually a guard’s face would appear, scrutinizing me through the window before letting me in. I was never searched, just waved through with my bags of writing supplies and food for the girls. Once I even brought them cappuccinos from Starbucks and fried chicken from Gelson’s, causing my husband Walter to roar, “You’re spending my money on those criminals?”

I kept right on doing it, which was the reason stated on the court papers for our divorce: Karen has chosen to use her free time doing charity work.

It had been while sitting confined in juvenile hall at a cold steel table with those angry and resentful girls, who in the beginning were forced by staff to be in my group and didn’t necessarily want to be there, that I had started to take a hard look at my own life. I had wondered with some trepidation how we would ever relate to one another. But amazingly, it hadn’t taken long before we developed a strong bond and looked forward to our time together. Barriers fell away and we discovered how similar we were beneath the surface–both with me and among themselves. Where they should have been enemies on the streets, they became friends at the writing table.

When the girls found out that I actually boxed and kick-boxed and fought with sticks and knives in the Filipino combat style called Eskrima, they were impressed.

“Damn, you do that? Like, for real. You get hit by guys?” they all wanted to know.

“Excuse me,” I objected. “I prefer to do the hitting.”

They were speechless, as if it was impossible to comprehend such a scenario.

Finally, one of them asked, “So you gonna teach us?” and they all got very excited by that.

I laughed at the unexpected question. “I don’t think I’m allowed to in here. Anyway, I bet you all know how to fight better than me.”

There were seven of them seated around the table. Brittany had helped her uncle to kidnap a girl at gunpoint; Erika had shot someone on a dare; Ipress had participated in an armed robbery with her homeboys; Elizabeth and her boyfriend had stolen a car, run over a police officer and led police on a wild chase almost to the Mexican border; Maria had been left with the gun while her homeboys ran away after a shooting in the park; Silvia and Leonor were accomplices in a robbery and murder on the beach.

Silvia was the girl whose words came to haunt me the most. Little did I know in those first days that we would form a strong bond and twenty-five miraculous years later we would still be friends.

All of the girls were experts in giving and receiving violence, the abuse having started in early childhood and progressing beyond. There were certain rules to their fighting games. Girls beat up girls. Guys beat up guys. Guys beat up girls.

Girls never beat up guys.

“A girl tries that and she gets killed, straight up,” declared Ipress.

“We get even in other ways,” said Maria. “Like, I know a girl bleached all her boyfriend’s clothes. She tried to poison him, too, ‘cept it didn’t work. See, that’s smarter. Girls are smarter than guys. We gotta be, cuz we can’t beat them up. So we gotta use our brains.” She tapped her curly head.

Brittany, who spoke little and always seriously, said, “I stay outta that shit. Do my own missions. I don’t get into it with men. Don’t let them have no control over me.”

I didn’t see the point of reminding her that she was here because she had obeyed the bidding of her uncle. Hopefully, she would someday come to that obvious realization on her own.

“So then, how does a girl protect herself and get respect on the streets?” I asked.

Silvia answered. “You can’t by yourself. You gotta belong to a man.” She looked at me sharply. “But it’s like that in your world, too, right? I mean, you gotta get hooked up, gotta get married or you’re just a Nobody.”

“Not exactly, not these days. It used to be like that,” I said. I spoke the right words; the words that were supposed to make sense in a modern world, but deep inside I knew Silvia was right.

She snorted, “Uh huh?” as if I hadn’t fooled her a bit.

“The best a girl can do is get jumped into a gang, just like the guys do,” said Maria. “They beat you up and if you take it like a man, then you get respect.”

Leonor’s pale face twisted with painful memories. “Yea, I did that. I got jumped into the Playboys, got so fucked over, my face swollen, I couldn’t open my eyes. My lip was cut, my nose broke. Still, it got me no respect. Not like the guys get. And you know what? They beat me up hard. They’re not that hard on each other.”

Maria nodded solemnly and then all the other girls did, as if Leonor had just stated one of the unchangeable laws of the universe.

Leonor was so small and delicate. The thought of her willingly being beaten up by a gang of men was too horrific. And to think she had done it to gain respect.

Maria explained further, “Yeah, well, supposedly, if you get jumped in it means you’re down, a player for real. And some girls do get respect but that’s cuz they dress and act like guys. If you’re a girl straight up, you get used for, whatever. Like, if the gangsters want you to carry a gun, sell drugs, sell your body, you do it. They pass you around like a piece of gum and just chew on you til there’s no flavor left and then they spit you out.”

“Damn, girl, don’t be depressing me like that,” chided Elizabeth. She turned to me eagerly. “So, you gonna teach us how to box? I mean, I’d lose weight, right?”

“Yeah, come on,” they all pleaded.

“You’d have to do sit-ups and push-ups,” I said. “You’d sweat a lot. It’s hard work.”

Elizabeth’s face fell. “Oh God, no.”

Maria threw up her hands in disgust. “You see, heina, that’s what I’m talking about. You get all into it and then when you find out you gotta actually do something, you give up.”
Before Elizabeth could respond, Maria continued, “I just wanna know how to beat up my enemies. Isn’t there something quick you can show us?”

“You have a lot of enemies?” I asked her.

She squinted as if I were stupid. “Hell, yeah.”

“I already killed all mine,” said Erika, her voice disconcertingly soft and devoid of emotion.

The other girls shuffled uncomfortably, none of them meeting Erika’s dead stare. Erika was the youngest of the bunch, just fifteen, and received a lot of attention because of her youth and good looks. She had committed her murder at age thirteen. I knew she hid terrible pain but she never revealed it in the writing group. Erika ended up in prison for over twenty years. To be sent to adult prison at such a tender age is a crime in itself.

Tragically, when it came time for her to finally be released not too long ago, she committed suicide. Freedom was something she had only ever dreamed of and the reality of actually having it was too terrifying to face.

“Everybody’s my enemy,” said Brittany. “I don’t got no friends, just enemies.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Oh, and aren’t you a sad story?”

“I never won a fight in my life,” said Silvia. “But I sure would like to pay some people back.”

I asked, “When you think about revenge, who do you wish you could get even with?”

All of them said either fathers or boyfriends.

Silvia reflected for a moment and then added, “Maybe I don’t want no revenge. I don’t really hate nobody. My boyfriend, sometimes I feel like I hate him. He hurt me so much. Like one time I was waiting for him outside my house and he didn’t come so finally around midnight I went to bed. Then my friend Marisol came and said he was there so I went outside in my bathrobe and slippers. I ran out the gate and followed him but he was real drunk and kept pushing me. I begged him not to walk away but he got tired of my crying and begging so he turned around and punched me in the mouth and I started bleeding. I ran inside my house after that, crying. There was a lotta guys outside and they seen my boyfriend hit me but they didn’t do nothing.”

“Why not?” I asked.

Silvia shrugged as if it wasn’t a big deal. “It was my problem not theirs so why should they care?”

The next time I was in the gym, Silvia’s answer rang in my head. Getting beaten up was her problem. How many women from all walks of life, all over the world, all down through history and until the present time had been told it’s your problem; it’s your fault. Be a better wife, a better girlfriend, a better daughter. Obey.

When I’d returned from London to Los Angeles with Katya, I had started training in martial arts. Simple expressions of inner strength, like letting out a loud kia at the moment of impact, had been difficult at first; but only at first. I had quickly taken to the discipline, training studiously at least four times a week as well as running every morning, continuing the habit I had formed back in London. Within three years I had achieved my black belt in Tang Soo Do. I was awarded my 2nd Degree black belt when I was married to Walter. And then, realizing that I knew very little about practical fighting, I started to train in Eskrima and then boxing and kick boxing. I even trained for a time in Okinawan weapons and the short sword. I loved all of it.

I like the quiet of the gym in the early morning, knowing that before long the room will be filled with bodies moving just like mine, pounding air and earth to the beat of ear-splitting rap music. When I walk in, the gym is clean and the smell of last night’s sweat is a faint memory. The owner, a small slim man with quick, nervous movements, is obsessive about cleanliness and can be seen at all hours pushing the vacuum cleaner or wiping the mirrors and bags with disinfectant, while admonishing everyone to stop sweating on his stuff, a crazy thing to say since that’s what the gym is all about; pushing to the limit of endurance—and that means sweating.

I wrap my hands with long pieces of cotton cloth, like bandages, to protect my wrists and knuckles. All fighters have their own way of wrapping their hands, like a signature. I jump rope or run in place to warm up, do sit-ups and push-ups. When my trainer arrives, we don’t talk much, just get right into it. Three minute rounds in the ring remind me to keep my hands up, never flinch or take my eyes off my opponent, tuck my chin, stay light on my feet, and, for God’s sake, keep moving, never get stuck in a corner, always make sure there is a way out, bob and weave, fake, anticipate, take control.

In the ring a person’s character is quickly revealed. You find out if you are easily flustered and distracted or made angry; or if you can command yourself under pressure, completely focus your energy and master your anger and fear. I face various opponents, each with his or her particular fighting styles, but in the end, winning or losing has nothing to do with them and everything to do with my own, inner battles. What I like best about the ring is that, unlike day to day life, it is clear and absolute. I never wonder if I’ve done right or wrong, failed or succeeded. I don’t have to wait days or years or a lifetime to figure out if I’ve achieved my goals. I know immediately. Either I do a technique correctly or incorrectly. Either I win or I lose. It’s obvious when I’ve given my best and when I haven’t and the reasons why. And each time I overcome my fears by stepping into the ring, I grow stronger mentally and physically because it is a process by which, simply by keeping at it and not giving up, I improve, even on the days when I am a little sick or unenthusiastic. Sometimes, just showing up and surviving the training is the biggest achievement of all.

Yet, there I was, tough, strong, determined—and knowing exactly how the girls in my writing group felt as abused victims. After each session, I took their writing home and it kept me awake at night, forcing me to accept the fact that I was still an abused woman, even though I thought I’d gotten out of it. It was depressing to acknowledge that I had merely exchanged one controlling man for another. Those girls gave me strength to finish my journey towards freedom. I was hooked on them, no doubt about it. I knew I had to keep listening to their stories, even if it meant my husband, Walter, heir to the Leimert real estate fortune, divorcing me.

Walter hated me teaching those girls and when I told him I wanted to sit in on Silvia’s trial he almost had a seizure. I was determined to do it anyway. The first morning I dressed in a suit for court and he watched in disgust as I descended the stairs.

“This obsession’s taking over your life and ruining our marriage,” he said. “Look at you, pretending that you have a job, dressed up like that. You’re not earning a penny. It’s embarrassing, Karen. And what about the kids? You’re abandoning them.”

“Why do you say that?” I hated having to justify my actions when there was no need. But at least in this marriage I wasn’t afraid to look my husband in the eye and express my opinion. At least I had progressed that far. “Katya’s in school. I’m taking Harry to preschool now. Max will be with Estella. I’m only at the trial in the mornings and I’ll pick Harry up on my way back. Everything is fine.”

“It isn’t. I pay for a housekeeper so you can play at this shit?”

Maybe it was the suit that made me particularly authoritative that morning. I walked right up to him and stared down.

“What would make you happy, Walter? If I stayed home and never went anywhere? Or, my other alternative, as you say, is to get a ‘real’ job, but only of your choice and under your conditions. You keep talking to me about being a teacher, or sometimes out of the blue you say I should be an animator for Disney.”

“Exactly,” he interrupted, as if it all made perfect sense.

“Well, you know what? I don’t want to do either of those things! They don’t interest me and I’ve never studied for them. Being a teacher makes no sense. Why would I earn maybe $25,000 a year if I’m lucky and leave the kids all day every day? I’m trying to build something where I can earn a living once the boys get in school full time—like we agreed before we got married—while mainly working from home. Have a little faith. I can do better than what you expect from me.”

I was surprised I’d managed such a mouthful with only one interruption. But I was wrong if I thought he was going to support my decision. He came back full force. “You think you’re better than other people? You think you’re better than me? I have a regular job, what makes you think you shouldn’t, too? I’m not letting you get away with avoiding responsibilities, running around town going to murder’s trials and teaching losers in jail for free. You’re acting like a teacher without doing the work to learn to be one. Why not do it the way you’re supposed to, like everyone else?”

“What do you mean, like everyone else?” I cried. “How dare you think you have the right to discount who I am, to disrespect everything I’ve done in my life to get where I am now. How would you like it if I did that to you? If I had the power to force you to change the course of your life, give up everything you’d worked hard at so you could fit into a mold of what I thought you should be?” I tried to calm down. At least he was listening.

“Look, I’m not saying I’m better than anyone, why do you fixate on that?” I pointed at myself. “This is who you married, and you seemed fine with it then. In fact, why aren’t you proud of me—I don’t get it! I love working with these kids and I want to expand the program. We get results and people are taking notice. It’s amazing to see their minds opening up, starting to believe in themselves. It’s miraculous! Why don’t you come down sometime and see for yourself? I’ve invited you and you never do. Walter, listen to me!” I cried, as he gave a fake yawn and rolled his eyes. How could I get through to him? “Did it ever occur to you that I might actually be doing something important?”

“Important?” His voice dripped disdain, as if I couldn’t have made a more absurd remark. “You’re so full of yourself it’s embarrassing. Sometimes I just listen to you yap-yap-yap, unable to believe you’re actually saying what you do. Okay, I’ll give you this: someone should help those delinquents but someone with the proper credentials, not you. The bottom line is you need to work for your keep. If you don’t want to be a teacher, fine, I never said you have to. Get a job at something else. Like Starbucks.”

I couldn’t help my horrified expression and he nodded with smug satisfaction, as if he’d caught me in a well-sprung trap. “Oh—don’t tell me you’re ashamed to work at a decent job. But of course, you’re too good for that aren’t you, and downright lazy! Welcome to the real world. If you don’t start contributing something around here, you’ll be out on the street.”

“Out? Start contributing?” I fumed. “I signed the premarital agreement. I bore two children, gladly. Now, you want to take away my freedom of choice for the rest of my life. You want me to stop doing everything that fulfills me as a person—stop going to juvenile hall, stop doing my children’s books—.”

“You don’t earn enough money at those books to make the amount of time you spend working on them profitable.”

I threw up my hands in defeat. “Why am I talking to you? Oh, and don’t forget I’m supposed to stop my martial arts training, even though you spend every weekend at the LA Country Club playing golf, at no small expense.” Inside, I hated myself for going down this road of tit for tat. Why did I always do that? There was no winning, just wasted energy.

“You don’t work, Karen, remember? Get a job and you can have the luxury of hobbies.”

I started down the back hall to Estella’s room, where Harry was sitting with her and watching morning cartoons. I threw over my shoulder, “I wish you would have informed me of all this before we got married. I never would have done it.” Not that I really thought this was true. I knew in my heart that once again I had fooled myself into thinking it would all be okay. I had repeated the same mistake of my first marriage, telling myself lies and thinking if I believed enough I could turn them into a secure and stable life after the insane one in London, with a man who I thought was “normal,” whatever that meant. I could not have read the situation in a more muddled fashion.

“We can arrange that.” He yelled, grabbing at my arm. That was one thing I no longer allowed—physical aggression. I shook free, whirling around to confront him yet again.

“You listen to me, Walter! I have a right to make these kinds of choices about what to do with my future. I would understand your complaints if I was running around Rodeo Drive buying out the boutiques, or if I was having an affair, or was addicted to drugs or neglecting the kids, but I’m not doing any of those things. I’m trying to build a creative writing program for incarcerated youth. What’s so wrong about that?”

I stood tense and visibly shaking, feeling the sweat under my armpits, as if I had already lived through an entire day of stressful situations when it was still only 7:30 am.

“Little Miss Self Righteous. Did you ever think that I might be concerned for you, that you’re making a fool of yourself? What do you know about teaching these kids? Nothing!”

“Oh, so now, it’s all because of your concern for me? Please! Have some faith in my abilities for once! Look, I’m going to this trial because I want to address the issues that concern you. They also concern me. After I’ve observed an entire trial, which will probably take no more than two weeks out of my life, if I still feel that I can help these kids and believe in what I’m doing with them, then I’m going to put my whole heart into making a success of it. You might not believe in it the way I do, you might not value what I’m doing, or think I have the ability to make it succeed. But I do—so support me, encourage me, give me a chance! Please, please try to understand its importance to me. I’ve showed you the writing of the kids. I’ve shared the experiences I’ve had with you. I’ve wanted to include you and asked you to come down to special events at juvenile hall. You’ve refused. I can’t do anything more. If you don’t like it, you’re just going to have to put up with it.”

I couldn’t have made a more incendiary remark. He turned livid. “You’re nobody! You’ll be sorry you ever crossed me.”

Where had I heard that before? But now, instead of standing passively, I turned to continue down the hall. He grabbed at me again and tried to strong arm me into staying where I was. I looked straight at him, unafraid. “Let go of me.”

Like Sasha, his eyes were blue. But Walter’s were a flat, calculating blue, whereas Sasha’s had been filled with uncontrollable anger. “Do you have a lawyer?” he asked.

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“No.”

“You better get one.”

“And you do?”

He puffed up like a peacock. “I have a list of lawyers as long as my arm. When I need one, I call one up.”

The door to Estella’s room opened and Harry came out, jumping into my arms.
Walter threw a last jab. “Fine, go play at your pretend job, but I’m warning you—“

By this point, I was fed up with obeying husbands. There was no way I wasn’t going to attend that trial.

Ironically, Walter lost all control over me and over his fortune that he obsessively thought might be stolen from him, through early onset of Alzheimer’s, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. Unknown to me at the time, this started to display itself not long after he divorced me and the beginning of his second marriage. Although, I suppose his increasing paranoia during our marriage could also be attributed to the illness. For years now, Walter is now without power even over his own mind. He resides in an upscale, lockdown facility.

All actions are connected. If I hadn’t met those girls I wouldn’t have met Sister Janet. If I hadn’t met her, I wouldn’t have met Casey. I had my problems with Janet and she certainly had her problems with me but I like to think that at least in the beginning she wanted to do something good when she introduced us to each other.

“His name is Casey Cohen. The two of you should be friends.” Her voice was soft and breathy, always sounding as if she could never quite get enough air.

And so one morning, the phone rang.

“Karen?” I can still hear the hesitant, hopeful lilt of Casey’s voice calling my name through the phone line, from wherever he was, probably in his home, a place I would never go.

From there, the conversation took off and we covered everything from philosophical and historical questions, books we loved, places we’d visited around the world, our pasts, our present situations, his most interesting cases, all of it tumbled out, our connection intense and immediate. At last he began to cough.

“I must have a cold,” he apologized. He excused himself, but not before we had set up a time to meet in person.

That meeting never happened. Instead, Janet telephoned.

“Casey’s in the hospital,” she said.

Hearing those words, I realized how desperate was my need to see him, as if instinctively I had known that fate would try to keep us apart and it was imperative that I meet him right now, this instant, before it was too late. I couldn’t bear the possibility that our interaction might only be that one exchange through a phone line.

“What happened?” I could only imagine that perhaps he’d had an accident.

Janet sighed. “I think he wouldn’t mind you knowing. He has cancer. Lung cancer. He asked me to apologize.”

“How sick is he?” I spoke fearfully.

“Very. It’s not from smoking. He always wants people to know that. He left home as a teenager and joined the Navy and thinks the cancer came from being posted near a nuclear testing site in the South Pacific. Sometimes he has problems with his breathing and he has to go to the Veteran’s hospital so they can clear out his lungs. He’s still quite strong. I’m sure you’ll be meeting soon.”

And so we did a couple of weeks later. That first meeting was at one of his favorite restaurants, El Cholo, in downtown Los Angeles and just a couple miles from Central Juvenile Hall.

“A hangout for lawyers and judges, but don’t let that put you off,” he joked.

He was tall, slim and slightly stooped, led forward by a sharp nose and jaw, wearing a t-shirt, blue jeans and white tennis shoes—his signature outfit. His hair and beard were white; his large brown eyes those of a soulful poet, his hypnotic gaze irresistible to those he interviewed, even the most hardened criminal found himself opening up to Casey. He made them feel as if he was a father confessor absolving them of sin, just as his real name suggested: Kaddish, a prayer for the dying. He was his name. He certainly hypnotized me. Meeting him confirmed what I had already felt through the phone line, that we had an intense connection, as if we had known each other all of our lives, or even in some previous existence. That is not to say that I necessarily believe in reincarnation, but that is how it felt. During the ensuing three years, neither of us visited the other’s home nor did we meet each other’s spouses. Our relationship existed within neutral spaces: in juvenile hall at the writing table where Casey enjoyed talking with the kids; in the courtroom if I was following the case of one of my students; in the law offices of his friend, “attorney to the Stars,” Charlie English.

When Casey wasn’t working for criminal attorneys such as Leslie Abramson on some of the most notorious murder trials in the country, he worked for Charlie, helping him with the likes of Tommy Lee when he got in trouble for allegedly abusing Pamela Andersen, or Robert Downey Jr. when he was picked up for drug or alcohol related charges—these were the old days before he turned his life around. Casey’s job was fascinating and sometimes dangerous, inhabited by a host of characters more colorful than any movie, with him the most colorful of all.

For almost a year he didn’t look ill. It would have been easy to imagine that everything would be all right, that the unpleasant reality would miraculously go away—except that it wouldn’t.

He was frank about his illness, explaining at that first meeting, “I didn’t like to mention it in our first phone conversation—didn’t want to scare you off, at least not immediately, I probably still will—but the fact is, I don’t expect to live very long, so let’s make the best of it, shall we?”

I didn’t know how to answer and when I hesitated, he laughed, as he always would thereafter, with an edge of melancholy and never with abandon, as if too much happiness led to pain. “You don’t have to say anything. I’m just letting you know. I have this thing about the illusion of time.” He added with obvious sarcasm, “Don’t ask me why.”

When the doctor first told Casey he had lung cancer he decided not to go the route of chemotherapy, wishing to continue living as natural a life as possible and to die as natural a death. Upon leaving his doctor’s office, he went home and put his affairs in order, burned most of his files, stopped taking on cases and moved to Thailand, thinking he would stay there until he died.

“At first it was fine,” he explained, savoring his enchilada with molle sauce. I’d never tried it before and he insisted that I do. It was delicious. “I’m not a religious man, I’m an atheist. But I do believe in living a good life and being a spiritual person. If that’s a contradiction, well, I can’t help it. I’m attracted to the Buddhist philosophy. So I went there to live simply, on a beach, without the noise and distractions of the modern world. And I waited.” He shrugged sheepishly. “The problem is I didn’t die. And I guess I got bored. And with the heat and humidity, breathing was difficult. And then, I had to face the reality that there were now Pizza Huts and McDonald’s everywhere. I felt ridiculous sitting doing nothing so I thought I might as well go back to where I’d be closer to medical care. Not a very romantic tale, I know. I should have walked into the sea and disappeared or something but I’m not that brave.”

By the time we met, he’d been aware that he was dying for a few years already and ominous signs were beginning to appear; the worsening cough, the debilitating and overwhelming exhaustion. But he never complained. He made a joke of it, like how he talked about his spiritual journey to Thailand, which I could tell had really been a profound experience.

“Death is what happens. I just wish it wasn’t happening to me—everybody else, yes, but not me.” No matter how he brushed over it with light words, he couldn’t hide the hollowness in his eyes. He didn’t want to die. Who does?

“You make me want to live a little longer, Karen. Your life is interesting and I’m curious to see how it goes.” This, he told me a few months after our first meeting and on many occasions thereafter. He took on the Jeremy Stromeyer case because he felt I had given him the strength to carry on. “I wouldn’t have done it otherwise, not if I hadn’t met you,” he said and I wondered if that was a good or a bad thing.

In the beginning, I had joked that when I walked through Central Juvenile Hall with Casey on one side and Janet on the other and me sandwiched in-between that I felt perfectly balanced—the nun on one side and the atheist on the other. I was happy there in the middle. These were my real friends, unlike any I had ever known. Together, I believed we were a force that could change the world, I was that enthusiastic. But gradually, another view overcame the idealistic one; that I stood between two opposing forces, one for good and one for evil. That might seem extreme but that’s how it began to feel. Casey tried to prepare me for what might happen when he was gone, but even he could not have anticipated how bad it would get.

During the trial of my student Silvia, we had been walking like that, the nun and the atheist on either side of me, heading towards the girls’ class where I was scheduled to teach, Janet giving my arm a light squeeze and smiling sweetly, always ready to insert a needle of doubt or spite, something subtle to cause division without the recipients ever really knowing where it had come from—or if they had imagined it all and should feel ashamed for their distrusting thoughts.

She was saying, “Karen attracts drama, don’t you hon? I dragged her into Gil Garcetti’s office the other day.” This she said with an added dose of mischief.

Casey groaned. “Why do you pander to politicians? They’ll never give you anything.”

“That’s because you don’t believe in miracles,” she chided while patting my arm. “There are a few things that Casey and I disagree on.”

“Your brazen opportunism, perhaps? But you’re so good at playing dumb after you do something outrageous that everybody forgives you. Your actions are perceived as innocent blunders but we know otherwise.” Casey winked at me.

She did her little self-depreciating shrug coupled with soft laughter, just that perfect hint of mischief in her eyes to top it off. I came to know that look very well.

I wasn’t going to say how I felt about the Garcetti incident but it had left me with a bad taste. Even today, it’s hard for me to talk about things I don’t agree with in a way that might be perceived as “complaining.” The culture I’d been raised in of women suffering in silence while never complaining in public had been so powerful.

Janet and I had been at the courthouse sitting in on Silvia’s trial. Janet had called it a “rite of passage” for me.

It was clearly established during the trial that although Silvia had been at the scene of the crime, she had not participated in the murder and had, in fact, refused to be a part of whatever her boyfriend was planning. It was never proven that she knew that a murder was going to be committed. Still, she faced the sentence of life without parole, along with the other defendants.

Evaluated as having a below average IQ and told by educational experts that she would never graduate high school, Silvia had proved them wrong by graduating with all “A’s” and being chosen as valedictorian of her graduating class. During the three years that I taught Silvia at Central Juvenile Hall, also helped along by her teacher and the principal who both believed tenaciously in her abilities to succeed, I saw her transformed from angry and withdrawn to animated and articulate, writing with a perception well beyond her years, her words cutting into my heart. Mostly, she wrote about how and why she had allowed herself to fall into abusive relationships and what she could do to better herself.

That night, why can’t I forget that night? I wasn’t supposed to be there. Me and Claudia, we were supposed to go see some other guys but then Jerry showed up and I was afraid to leave. Oh, if only I’d left before he got there!

I’m trying to let go. I dunno what to say to him or myself. I loved him once, maybe I still do. I’m so confused. He was my teacher and I was the student and I was a good student so I learned.

I wish I stayed in school. I went to junior high after we moved from Bell Gardens but then, when I was supposed to go to high school, I didn’t go the first two weeks cuz I was scared cuz it was in a neighborhood I didn’t like. But then my dad found out and he made me go so I went. But then the ladies in the office they didn’t like the way I looked cuz of my tattoos that I did and my blond hair, so they gave me some forms and said I had to go home and fill them out and then come back. I took the forms home and I filled them out and then I came back, but they said I did it wrong. So then, they gave me some more and told me I had to go away again and bring them back. I said can’t I stay and fill them out here but they said no. When I was going home some enemies came and attacked me and beat me up. The school was in their neighborhood and I came from a different one, so I was in danger. After that, I just gave up and didn’t go back and nothing my dad did or said could make me.

Now I go to school and I like it again, just like when I was little. I wanna graduate. I wanna be somebody in this world. I could be somebody. I could be a teacher for real, or a nurse, or a psychologist. If I get my GED, I’m gonna study psychology. Ms. Neely says I can, and the principal, he says I can. So if they say it then I say it, too. Cuz they should know.

But there’s hope these days. Those women who be independent, who earn money for themselves, women who play sports. They can do stuff just as good as men. Like Serena Williams. I seen her on TV. I bet men are just scared of her. So there’s hope. The day’ll come when women won’t be put down like that.

Maybe I’m gonna get my tattoos removed. All of them, even the ones Jerry put there.

Maybe then I’ll get his poison out of me. I just pray to God I have the strength.

It was after reading the writings of the girls, especially Silvia’s, that I started to gather the strength to write the truths of my own life. This piece by Silvia has always torn me apart. I think most girls know exactly how this feels:

To Be a Girl

To be born a girl, I see it as a punishment. As a little girl, they’d dress me up in a nice, beautiful dress and show me off. As I started to grow older it was, let’s do her hair, show her how to talk and dress her up in a tank top and some short shorts. Now she’s ready to go out.

All you have to do is ask him for a cigarette, smile, thank him and walk away. As a girl, you could walk into any club you want without showing in I.D. You could get away without paying for your meal. That’s what I learned. But then it wasn’t fun anymore. Sure, as a girl I liked the attention but now I was getting attention from the wrong people. Now my uncle looked at me like a piece of meat. His friends would whisper and say, let’s take her out, you know what she wants, just look at her, they all want the Same thing.

I was no longer considered a cute little girl. It was my fault that guy did that to me. I shouldn’t have dressed like that. It was my fault he hit me. I should have said, yes, you could do whatever you want to me because I’m a girl and it’s a man’s world. I should have been at home cleaning and cooking like all girls should. But I didn’t want to be like girls should be. I can’t never change the fact that I was born a girl, so the one time I decided to act stronger than a girl should, I stood up for what I believe and told him no. but still, as a girl, I got punished. I got punished for saying “no” to a man and I’ll continue being punished for the rest of my life.

As a girl, I feel I will always be punished.

I trained single-mindedly in the fighting arts so that I could know what it was like, as a woman, to stand without fear.

Euphorically, to this day, I unwrap my hands at the end of each sparring session. Later, perhaps I will find evidence of the fight—a bruise or a cut on my arm, sometimes a black eye. It doesn’t matter. They are the wounds of a warrior and I wear them proudly, knowing my opponent wears them too. At the end of our bout, we bow to one another with respect. In the London flat, I was terrified of the mirror, not wanting to see my hunted eyes, the bruised and swollen skin. In those days, I bowed to hide my shame.

Who was I back then? It appalls me to think that I stood there and took such abuse. No one would dare to treat me like that now, I would not allow it. Now, I see my former husbands as insignificant insects that I can flick away with one minimal, swift movement. I have no fear, only disdain for such cowards.

At home, still married to Walter, I always opened the folder where I kept the girls’ writing, looking first for what Silvia had to say, wanting to hear her voice, contemplating how it applied to me:

Me, Jerry and Marisol were outside a friend’s house when my friend was talking and Jerry got mad and was telling her to shut up but she was so dingy, she just kept on talking. So he took a knife and Marisol was sitting on the sidewalk and he threw the knife at her and she screamed so he kept throwing the knife at her. Then he saw me standing by the tree and he threw the knife at me and I got scared but I didn’t say nothing.

There was this lady who sells corn passing by and she asked me what my boyfriend was doing and I told her he was playing. She looked at me like I was crazy. But everyone thought I was. So she was just another person thinking I was crazy to be playing with a man who plays with knives.

Common sense should tell a girl to stay away from a man who uses her as a dartboard. Still, incredible as it may seem, it can happen to anyone if the circumstances are right.

It’s easy when you’re on the outside looking in to say that a girl is crazy, that she should just get out. But when you’re the one in the middle of the maze you can’t imagine the possibility of escape. Once, on the streets of London, Sasha kicked me repeatedly like I was a mangy dog and a man passing by reached out in distress, offering to help me. My husband turned on him in a mad fury and the man retreated. I stood in terror, shaking my head and mouthing no, no at the man, praying that he would just go away. It never occurred to me to go with him. The only result I could imagine from his misplaced kindness was for me to suffer even worse abuse when I got home—because I would go home wouldn’t I? I always ended up in my prison.

If I ever tried to argue with either of my husbands, they would say “Don’t fight me.” The message was clear—you have no right. You are a woman and I am a man. I have power and you do not. That is the way of this world. Don’t upset the balance. But even in those dark London days I wondered, why? Why can’t a woman, or anyone who is oppressed for that matter, stand up the way the powerful do? Don’t the oppressed have just as much right to be tough and strong, to speak freely without fear? Yes, they have the right, they just don’t have a way to be heard—and if they do happen to be heard, they must quickly be suppressed or discredited so that no one actually listens.

The girls in my writing sessions never stopped wanting fighting lessons and I never stopped wishing I could teach them.

“Every girl should be able to do that,” they would say wistfully.

I remember Elizabeth slamming the table with a fist and saying to me, “Damn, woman, you’re dangerous—a Dangerous Woman.”

I always hugged each of them good-bye; those condemned young women whose tough facades had been stripped away at the writing table, revealing fearful little girls who passively did what they were told because they never knew they could do otherwise. I understood exactly how they felt.

And now, with Silvia’s trial, I saw how there was little that could be done to change the fate of a passive girl who had never learned how to stand up for herself against abuse because no one had taught her and now it was too late.

I’d been given chance after chance to learn my lesson and I was still trying. It took years, perhaps a lifetime to break free of that stultifying mindset. I had thought that Janet was helping me in that process but little by little I was beginning to wonder. And the trip to Garcetti’s office had really made me uncomfortable.

Janet came to Silvia’s trial sometimes and sat with me. One of those days, we got in the elevator and she pushed the up button when we should have been going back down and out of the building.

“I heard that the illustrious District Attorney is in his office right now.”

I resisted. “So?”

She pouted. “Karen, seize the opportunity. I want to give him a hard time, some serious Catholic guilt. Make him change these terrible laws.”

“I need to get home to my kids.”

“We’ll be fast, I promise,” she assured me.

I sighed and followed after her.

Garcetti was in his office and surprisingly for such a busy man, invited us in, making the standard joke, “No one stands in Sr. Janet’s way,” to which she responded with humble contrition, coupled with a subtle gleam of triumph and a depreciating, “Oh, really now.”
Garcetti was a strikingly handsome man, tall and lean, his white hair in stark contrast to his dark eyes and eyebrows, and with the self-assurance that authority figures wear like a magic cloak. Purposefully, he folded back into his chair and motioned with a regal hand for us to sit as well, offering me an inviting smile along with an inquiring look directed at Janet.

“Oh, this is Karen,” she said brightly. “I picked her up in the hallway.”

Garcetti’s gaze lingered appreciatively, a slow burn up and down my body. “If I saw her in the hallway I’d pick her up, too.”

Janet put a hand to her mouth in mock embarrassment, tittering behind it. Unable to think of a witty come back, I said nothing. The idea that I should think I was somehow lacking because I didn’t have a witty comeback is revolting to me now. It was a continual battle inside of me, feeling such treatment was wrong, no matter how subtle the supposed compliment, while not knowing how to combat it without appearing “unlikeable,” another no-no for a woman.

I was glad when the focus shifted away from me. I listened as they bantered back and forth, realizing I’d been brought along as eye-candy, an experience that I came to expect with Janet. Fortunately, we didn’t stay much longer than ten minutes. Garcetti looked pointedly at his watch and the courtesy meeting was over almost before it had started. I waited until we had left his office and we were on the street walking to my car before daring to voice my objections.

“That felt really awkward to me. I’m not comfortable drawing attention to my sexuality in a meeting. It’s unprofessional. And well, it just seems off somehow, coming from you.”

She pooh-poohed my reaction. “Oh, Karen, stop. These politicians, you know how they are. And you’re nice looking. Why not use it? I don’t expect you to talk much because you don’t have the years of experience that I have.”

I bristled. “How far would you suggest I go in ‘using it’ while you do all the talking?”

We were standing by my car now, me on one side and her on the other, about to get in. The sun reflected off her glasses and I could see nothing behind them, just a frosted white, as if she had no eyes at all. She spoke across the top of the hood, using the same bright voice she’d used with Garcetti. “Let’s not be hypocritical, hon. You’ve taken it pretty far already, haven’t you?”

It was a surgical slice. I had had made confession to her about a lot of things and she had consoled me. She spoke in such a soothing manner, even when she was saying the most degrading things, that it felt like she was trying to do me some good, teach me an important life lesson. I had made mistakes, I had done things I shouldn’t. I couldn’t deny that what she was saying was the harsh truth.

But then I would stop myself from those thoughts. Didn’t I automatically think in such a compliant fashion because of my history of submitting to punishment from my father and then later with abuse from my husbands? Sometimes, it was hard to tell if I was thinking things for the right or the wrong reasons. Every thought I had was influenced by my previous thoughts and experiences. Anyway, it was impossible to have a “right” or a “wrong” thought. They were just my thoughts and I had to untangle them as best I could.

The paradox made me extremely uneasy and I wanted to leave Janet right there and then; get in my car and drive away. Of course I didn’t. I couldn’t leave a nun stranded in a parking lot.

Back on the freeway with her sitting primly next to me, I imagined how she would have told the story, if I had: And then she just left me there! I can’t understand what’s happened to Karen. I’m terribly concerned. She’s been behaving so strangely lately, her words accompanied by a sad, drawn out sigh and an uncomprehending shake of her head.

I suppressed a sigh myself and listened in silence as she conversed about the program, about the kids in the classes, about how it was growing and becoming recognized. And after a few moments, I found myself pushing the awkward incident away. Surely I had misunderstood her. By the time we reached her bungalow in South Pasadena, she was once again the person that I loved, the nun who cared so deeply and who wanted to see what we could accomplish together. Because, after all, I had to have someone in my life who really cared about me didn’t I? And that someone was surely Sister Janet.

Janet and Casey, both street smart, both with the ability to extract confessions, both my dearest friends. And now, here we were, walking together, me between the two of them: Janet and Casey. It felt so right. And then again, it didn’t. Because I knew, or at least I was beginning to know, that I wasn’t as perfectly balanced as I had once thought. It was like the Bible verse I had memorized as a kid; the one that had been pounded into me along with all the others, convincing me that I should be a good Christian girl who meekly obeys those above her. “Now we see through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face.” I was looking through the darkness. I had spent my life in darkness. When would I finally reach the light, and not only reach it, because I’d had glimpses along the way, but actually choose to stay there?

As a servant of God and married to Jesus, Janet deferred to men. But women, that was another story. Women should defer to her. There was a clear order of power. She had power over the women around her, and that was as it should be. In her eyes, I was supposed to comply. When I didn’t, I had to be punished into submission. Which was why she turned me into a criminal later, which, in turn, started the feeding frenzy. Because in her mind, that’s what she honestly believed I was: the usurper who stole everything from her, including her darkest secret.

Like the girls had told me, there are rules to the fighting game: guys be up girls, girls beat up girls, but girls never beat up guys. And those rules extended all the way up to the throne of God.

Where Janet should have had dominance over me, as she believed was her God-given right as a nun who was doing God’s will, I refused. Instead, I turned increasingly toward Casey for friendship, the one man in my life who encouraged instead of suppressed me. Janet lost control and she never forgave me for that.

 

TRAVELING THE HARD ROAD

I just received a phone call.

“Governor Brown signed her release!”

My heart soared. It was Silvia’s sister, Veronica, telling me that after twenty years in prison, Silvia was going to be set free.

I met Silvia in 1996, at Central Juvenile Hall, where she was awaiting her trial for a murder committed by her older, abusive boyfriend. She was accused of being an accomplice. She was sixteen years old. Along with seven other girls, Silvia was in my creative writing group. Twice a week I taught them at a steel table in a big room called Omega Unit. The room was filled with forty girls sitting on bunk beds, or walking around, laughing and talking. Baywatch was usually blasting from the television. It was chaos.

But somehow, we blocked it all out and let loose our imaginations. That steel table was like a little boat sailing us away to beautiful shores. There was magic at that table.

Silvia had a powerful voice and her words haunted me when I returned home at night and typed up the girls’ prose and poetry. Through Silvia’s writing, exploring how she became involved in abusive relationships, I was able to face the truth of my own life. It was the beginning of a hard road.

There are many roads, either easy or hard, and myriad reasons why we travel them. Silvia and I parted ways when she was twenty. She went from being chosen prom queen at the first-ever prom at Central, to serving a twenty-five years to life sentence at Chowchilla Women’s Prison. It seemed that the years would never pass. That the road she had been propelled onto would be endless and filled only with despair. There was no reason to believe that she would ever get out.

But the spirit can be incredibly strong. It can overcome the greatest obstacles and lift us from the darkest prison into the heavens. Times change. Climates can turn from icy cold to warm and caressing.

In one single moment, hearing those words, “Governor Brown signed her release,” all the sweat and the agony, all the tears and depression, all the climbing of the mountains, all the enduring of the dangerous quicksand, the stormy darkness, the feeling of losing one’s way–it all fell by the wayside.

For myself, the doubt and the pain that I have experienced over the years, well, I now know it was worth it.

At the end of that hard road, there is another beginning.

SCALIA THE “MASTER OF WORDS”

Yes, I’ve heard a lot about what a great word master he was since his death. How about this… “Mere factual innocence is no reason not to carry out a death sentence properly reached.” Scalia.

Hmmm, I wonder how he will plead about that now?

Why I Choose to Remember My 50th Blood-Bath of a Birthday Instead of Trying to Forget It

1915192_319421360359_7173893_n[1] A group of Juggalos

Why I Choose To Remember My 50th Blood-Bath of a Birthday Instead of Trying to Forget It

Looking back, what is the birthday that stands out most in your mind?

How about someone else’s birthday that is especially memorable?

Are they remembered with love or regret?

Laughter or tears?

Why do you remember these birthdays in particular?

On June 6th I will turn 59. Birthdays always make me think back to the ones before. I’ve had some doozies. Especially my 50th. In a perfect world (according to the media and celebrities and self-help gurus), turning fifty should be some sort of meaningful Zen-like epiphany, where you realize how wise you have become; you should be pleased because you are still in great shape; you have saved enough in a steady job to be looking forward to retirement, and/or those alimony checks are substantial because you weren’t one of those stupid women who signed a pre-nup; and maybe you even have a loving relationship with someone who gives you sizzling-hot sex…. You know, “fifty is the new thirty,” and all of that.

I only fulfilled one of those achievements: I was in pretty good shape. Otherwise, I was nowhere near where I thought I should be at such an advanced age. Instead of lying in bed beside a wonderful lover, or even just a warm body, by midnight of my 50th birthday, I was standing in a dingy apartment, covered in someone else’s blood and wondering what to do about it.

The day started okay. I went to a lovely, exceedingly Zen-like wedding, and a reception that was held in an exclusive gated community in Calabasas with a breathtaking view of the Santa Monica Mountains. I was high above the messy streets and dressed perfectly for the occasion, wearing a little black and white number that hugged my hips and ended discreetly just above my knees, a string of pearls about my neck, a Kate Spade purse and Stuart Weitzman heels, all carefully preserved leftovers from life before the divorce. I looked good on the outside, and I was sure none of these successful people who lived in the clouds would ever suspect how worried I was inside, as a single mother, struggling to raise three children in an apartment down on the flats of the San Fernando Valley. For a few hours, I drank champagne and danced and forgot my troubles.

Then, I went home, close to midnight, and the phone rang.

It was the mother of a friend of my eldest son and she sounded hysterical. There was a young man in her home that had been stabbed and she didn’t know what to do. She’d bandaged him up as best she could but he refused to go to the hospital.

“I can’t have him dying here,” she said. This mother was a recovering heroin addict and the last thing she wanted was the police on her doorstep. I don’t say that as some sort of judgment, I say it to explain why she was so nervous. She was a good person. She loved her son like most mothers do. She wanted to do the right thing, and mostly, she tried her best under challenging circumstances.

So, what did I do? What I always do when I get calls like that. I got in my car and drove over to where she lived in a small apartment complex in Sherman Oaks. Of course, I first changed out of my perfect outfit into workout pants, t-shirt, running shoes and a hoodie, all black as the night. I wish I could say I felt like a superhero donning my fighting clothes, well I did sort of because I have a sense of humor and a good imagination, and I did feel prepared for the fight, however it might present itself.

The mother answered the door, put the leash on her dog and walked out, saying she needed a break. That was the last I saw of her that night.

Okay. The young man was standing in the middle of the living room swaying and delirious, from drugs or loss of blood, probably both. He was shirtless and there were bandages wrapped around him like a mummy. A lot of blood had seeped through. The place looked like a crime scene. My son and a few of his friends were sitting lined up on the sofa, scared and immobilized.

I hated the direction my son was going, hanging out with Juggalos and wanting to be one. If you, Dear Reader, don’t know what a Juggalo is, I won’t bother explaining. Suffice it to say that you don’t want to know, unless you are unlucky enough to have a kid who thinks he or she wants to be one, then you will have no choice but to find out. On the other hand, I do believe that they are misunderstood in a lot of ways and I would like to write more about them. I don’t believe they are a gang so much as a kind of cult, believing in something called the “Dark Carnival” and appealing to the poor and outcasts who really cannot find anywhere else to belong. My son was and is a  talented artist and writer and I understood his fascination with the dark side. I love him and have faith in him and respect his desire to be true to his art. Being an artist myself, I understand how painful is the road of raw self-expression and I admire the brutal courage that it takes to be true to one’s art.

I didn’t like the young man with the stab wounds, although such a reaction to him made me feel guilty. I worked with youth in juvenile hall who were no different from this young man. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, but if I was honest, then I had to acknowledge that it was easy to care about those who were locked up because I could walk away and they did not invade my day to day life. If I really wanted to live what I claimed I believed, then I had to care about those people who smashed into my safe world and threatened to turn it upside down. Or did I–certainly I was allowed to draw the line somewhere? This was a complex question and certainly there were boundaries that needed to be observed, I just wasn’t sure exactly what they were.

This young man, known as Popeye, was a few years older than my son and his friends. As impressionable teenage boys, they thought Popeye was the shit. I don’t know why. Calling yourself Popeye, that right there, should throw up a red flag. He wasn’t especially smart,  and he certainly didn’t have a nice temperament. He was a small-time criminal with a serious drug problem who thought he was some kind of prophet with a special dispensation from God. He enjoyed quoting the Bible, except that he quoted it all wrong. The thing is, he had charisma. In fact, in a way, he reminded me of a stunted Charles Manson. Sometimes, when he came to my house, he would look at me with an intensity that I knew he used on my son and others and was trying to use on me. He was practicing his style, trying to grow into his “calling” as a leader of the lost and downtrodden. But it fell flat with me. I saw through him, as I saw through those in the boardroom who tried to manipulate me in ways that I saw as perversely similar. Popeye reminded me of countless puffed up pastors, entertainment executives, corporate leaders and politicians I had met, except he hadn’t been given the education or even the “luck” that they had. No matter if the domain is the streets or the churches or city hall, those who feed off of power seem to share the same psychological profile, except that the well-heeled are clearly more dangerous due to their access to resources that can cause havoc and destruction on a world scale. Nobody ever stops them, however, because those who are further down the ladder are way too desperate to climb up a few pegs, grasp at a few more crumbs, fool themselves into believing that they can be powerful too, if they just kiss the right person’s ass. And oh, how the powerful use that hunger to their advantage.

I well know these worlds within worlds, and that night, I crossed, as I have done so often, from the world of the elite into the world of the downtrodden; these worlds that seem so very different on the surface, one dirty and dangerous, the other pristine and filled with opportunity. But the underlying horrors are the same. For example, on the one hand you have Juggalos, a despised and ridiculed bunch, and on the other hand you have fraternities and the god-like status of athletes. Might I suggest reading John Krakauer’s Missoula to find out more about that gruesome culture?

But back to the nightmare of Popeye’s life. He had been stabbed seven times while attempting to enter a house to attend a party. Apparently, someone took offense at his Juggalo tattoos and attacked him with a knife. Popeye kept on fighting, not realizing he was being stabbed, until someone pulled him away and pointed it out to him. Somehow, he had made his way to this apartment.

The mother had been correct in saying that Popeye was refusing to go to the hospital. Even though he wasn’t the perpetrator on this occasion, he was on probation and was afraid of being sent back to jail. And he held such sway with these kids that none of them dared to try and make him go, even though he appeared to be dying right in front of their faces.

“So you’d rather die?” I asked Popeye.

He smirked at that, ever the tough guy. He seemed to think he would be just fine if he could have a few minutes to lie down, which he did, except he fainted, his skin turning a scary gray color. That was when I ordered my son and his friends to help me drag him out of the apartment, get him in the car and to the hospital.

As it turns out, one of the knife wounds had pierced his lung and he was bleeding inside. He would have surely died if he hadn’t made it to the hospital in time. Instead, he lived to cause more trouble. Not long after that, I heard that he leapt out of a moving car on the freeway and almost got himself killed… again. Then, he assaulted a woman at an ATM machine, kidnapped her and ended up in prison for a very long time. I have to say I am not sorry that he is off the streets and out of my son’s life. He is a dangerous and unpredictable person who caused a lot of harm. And yet, I had a profound encounter with him that goes beyond the physical and enters the realm of the spiritual. I saved his life. I cannot help but pray that he is receiving the psychological care that he needs but chances are he isn’t.

As much as this memory might be considered horrible, it happened to me because I am the kind of person that those in need feel they can call on. I don’t say this with any kind of pride. In fact, I often wonder if I am not just a naïve sucker. I can’t help it, though. It is the way I was made, I guess. And going around helping people doesn’t mean that you necessarily get a prize for it or that the result is a happy ending. Nobody would have given me a prize or helping Popeye. He was a person who could well have gone on to kill someone or himself. And indeed, he did something almost as bad.

But we don’t know the future and so we can only do what we think is right in any given moment. And there have been plenty such moments in my life. And even if I had known the outcome ahead of time, it wouldn’t have changed my decision to do what I felt compelled to do.

Which leads me to my memory of someone else’s birthday. Because thinking of my 50th always leads me to think of my friend Silvia’s 18th. It was on that day that she was sentenced to twenty-five years to life for a murder committed by her older, abusive boyfriend. And there I was, in the courtroom, unable to change her fate.

In 1995 I went into Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles and started teaching creative writing as a volunteer to a group of girls who were facing life sentences for serious crimes. One of those girls was Silvia. I worked with her for three years and attended her trial, taking forty-five pages of notes. I wanted to see a trial for myself, and I picked hers because it was the most extreme and I had become close to her. I had decided that by the end of the trial I would either walk away from this difficult work, or I would make a commitment to it for the long term. After what I saw at Silvia’s trial, I was more determined than ever to do what I could to help these young people make their voices heard. And so, InsideOUT Writers was born, with the help of many incredible people.

At Silvia’s trial it was never determined that she knew a murder was going to occur. But she was there when it happened, on Dockweiller Beach, planes screaming overhead as they took off and landed at LAX. Silvia had walked away, angry at her boyfriend because he asked her to flirt with the victim so he could steal the guy’s car stereo. The others were down by the water and Silvis headed back towards the car. She turned around to see the victim falling and not getting up again. Afterwards, her boyfriend threatened that he would harm her brother, Cesar, who was mentally ill, if she didn’t keep silent. Having been abused for years, she wasn’t about to disobey his orders. I could relate to this since I had been in two abusive marriages, was still in the middle of the second one during her trial, and feeling depressed that I hadn’t learned my lesson the first time around. Silvia’s writing spoke to me in a powerful way. Mostly, she wrote about how she had allowed herself to get into abusive relationships and what she needed to do to get out of them. She went on a journey in her writing and I went with her and that journey culminated with her trial. I had entered juvenile hall with the desire to help these girls. Never did I imagine how much they, in turn, would help me to face the truth of my own life.

Seated with me at Silvia’s sentencing was the woman with whom I had started InsideOUT Writers, Sister Janet Harris, and a private investigator who was considered by many to be the foremost authority on the death penalty phase, Casey Cohen. These two extraordinary people were my best friends and mentors. I had contacted Antonio Villaraigosa about Silvia’s case. At that time, he was Speaker of the House of Representatives, before he went on to become mayor. He had put a piece of Silvia’s writing up on the wall in his office and sent a representative to speak on his behalf at her sentencing, a young man named Jimmy Blackman. But it hadn’t mattered.

On Silvia’s eighteenth birthday, despite the lack of evidence, despite the fact that she did not represent any threat to society, Judge JD Smith sentenced her to twenty-five years to life.

“I could have given you life without parole,” he told the girl with the long black hair, fading tattoos and eyes that were now hopeless instead of angry. “You should thank me.”

Silvia said nothing. She didn’t know that he actually, literally, meant that she should thank him. She was in the process of getting the tattoos removed. Besides the tear drops beneath her eye, she had been branded by her boyfriend in many places on her body, and then there was the 213 on her knuckles, the last tattoo Gerardo had made on the night of the murder. I had managed to get a court order from Judge Smith allowing her to stay in juvenile hall until the tattoo removal was completed. She would end up staying there until her twentieth birthday, I believe an all-time record for a juvenile offender.

Judge JD Smith was a big, tough white guy, white hair and a florid complexion that grew redder after lunch. His face was positively crimson after he’d told Silvia to thank him and she hadn’t, perceiving her lack of response as insolence. “I said you should thank me,” he bellowed.

Silvia turned in confusion to her lawyer, who nodded that she should obey.

“Thank you,” she said, her head bowed and in a barely audible voice.

“What?”

“Thank you,” she said louder.

He nodded, satisfied.

And that was the end of Silvia. I had been so angry at the belligerent man but years later I realized that his hands had been tied and how I saw him at the trial represented my own hurt and frustration, because he really had done the only thing he could do to help her. In retrospect, I don’t think anyone in that courtroom wanted to see Silvia in jail for life, not even the prosecutor. But she was no one important in the greater scheme of things and she hadn’t stood up for herself when given the chance. She had refused to take the deal offered by the prosecution out of fear of Gerardo and so there was nothing anyone could do.

Removing the tattoos was a cleansing ritual for Silvia as at each painful session, more and more of the ink was drawn out of her body.

“It burns my skin, it really hurts,” she told to me. “But I can feel the ink going out and it’s like the poison that he infected me with is going out too.”

The State showered Silvia with honors before locking her up forever, choosing her as Valedictorian and then crowning her prom queen at the graduation for her winning essay, “Moving into the21st Century,” written about her plans to attend college, as if she were a free young woman instead of a convicted murderer. At the prom, a picture was taken of her, me and her date, all of us smiling happily. Pictures were taken of each of the youths dressed in their finery, standing in front of a limo that would never drive them anywhere. The party was held in the juvenile hall gym, decorated with balloons and streamers, a band playing. The LA Times even wrote an article about it. A bizarre party where Cinderella’s dress turned back into rags, but with a hopelessness that would never have a happy ending.

Nothing lasts forever. Life comes and then it goes, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, like the ocean tide, big and angry, small and intimate, continually turning from one thing into something else and back again. Silvia left suddenly, before her tattoo removal had been completed and I never understood why. Fifteen years later, visiting her at Chowchilla Women’s prison she told me.

“I was getting too old to be there. The pressure was too much to be the wise old lady, you know?” She shrugged. There was more there, I was sure but it was a world I really could never fully understand.

When it came time to say good-bye, we looked at one another with real, deep love, tinged by sadness. I was always having to leave her and I wished so badly that I could just take her out. Like an angel, like what happened to the Apostle Paul. But that was just a fantasy.

Saying good-bye to Silvia was always painful and the time came when I stopped visiting her because I just couldn’t take it anymore, for various reasons beyond what I can write here. But I will go again. I can’t stay away forever. I will never forget the day of our most momentous good-bye, when Silvia left juvenile hall for the “Big House.” We hugged each other in front of the chapel, the place where I had first met Janet and poured out my heart to her about my dreams to work with incarcerated youth. I couldn’t believe that it was really happening. I’d had such faith in words. I had been raised to believe in their power, by an evangelical father who was a successful writer. “In the beginning was the Word…” That verse had been pounded into my mind from a young age. Yet, my speech, so carefully prepared for Silvia’s sentencing, hadn’t done anything to save her. I had truly thought that if I could find the right words and say them with enough conviction all would be clarified, the judge and the jury would see the light and a miracle would occur. But there was no miracle, only the wheels of fate relentlessly turning with each one of us playing a small part in a bigger story, with my individual actions having absolutely no impact.

“Not on the system,” Casey told me. “But one individual can influence the life of another. Always remember that, Karen. Don’t become obsessed with the political circus and the powerful in society.” He visibly shuddered. “It’s an enticing world but a completely corrupt one, which, perversely, is much of its appeal.”

Casey impacted my life more than anyone else I have ever known. The last time I saw him, we were standing in the parking lot behind “attorney to the stars,” Charlie English’s law offices, above the bluffs of Ocean Avenue. By then, his clothes hung lose on a gaunt frame, cheeks sunken, eyes haunted and avoiding mine. He was dying of cancer. We were about to get in our cars and go our separate ways, just as we had always done, just as people were doing all around us in a normal, everyday manner.

He made his usual joking observation, “We’ve got to stop meeting like this, in parking lots and at crime scenes,” only this time, his words were choking him. “We should be going to a concert together, or shopping, how about shopping? No, what am I talking about? We should be on some small island in the South Pacific, lying on the warm sand, catching and cooking our own fish, drinking rum in some open-air bar on stilts, the ocean lapping beneath us, walking on water, we should be walking on water.”

“Only in dreams,” I murmured.

Yes, only in dreams…. And in remembrances of birthdays.

And now, here I am coming up to 59 and these are my memories, the powerful experiences that I think about in these days leading up to that moment when I magically make it to another number in a long line of numbers. The looking forward can only get shorter and the looking back can only get longer. But the memories don’t change. Not the ones that have been embedded so strongly in the mind. Casey is gone and I miss him every day. Silvia is still here, yet I miss her the same.

I think of Silvia and I think of my own son. Impressionable teenagers, preyed upon by older people who used them to feed their own egos. I understand. I have been there, too. Who hasn’t? And people like Gerardo and Popeye, those who feed upon the weak, what are their stories? What birthdays do they remember? Once they, too, were young and weak, preyed upon by those more powerful than themselves, and so they learned to do the same. The world is a place of eating or being eaten.

I don’t teach in juvenile hall anymore and it is a long story why. But those years left a lasting impression on me. After every class I would take the writing home and type it up, the words of the girls searing me as surely as those tattoos seared Silvia. Opening the folder where I kept the girls’ writing, I always looked first at what Silvia had to say, wanting to hear her voice, contemplating how it applied to me:

Me, Gerardo and Marisol were outside a friend’s house when my friend was talking and Gerardo got mad and was telling her to shut up but she was so dingy, she just kept on talking. So he took a knife and Marisol was sitting on the sidewalk and he threw the knife at her and she screamed so he kept throwing the knife at her. Then he saw me standing by the tree and he threw the knife at me and I got scared but I didn’t say nothing.

There was this lady who sells corn passing by and she asked me what my boyfriend was doing and I told her he was playing. She looked at me like I was crazy. But everyone thought I was. So she was just another person thinking I was crazy to be playing with a man who plays with knives.

Common sense should tell a girl to stay away from a man who uses her as a dartboard. Still, incredible as it may seem, it can happen to anyone if the circumstances are right. It’s easy when you’re on the outside looking in to say that a girl is crazy, that she should just get out. Or that my son should understand to stay away from a delusional criminal who quotes the Bible all wrong. Or, that a mother should be able to keep her son safe from evil.

But when you’re the one in the middle of the maze you can’t imagine the possibility of escape. Once, on the streets of London, my first husband kicked me repeatedly like I was a mangy dog and a man passing by reached out in distress, offering to help me. My husband turned on him in a mad fury and the man retreated. I stood in terror, shaking my head and mouthing no, no at the man, praying that he would just go away. It never occurred to me that I could go away with him. The only result I could imagine from his misplaced kindness was for me to suffer even worse abuse when I got home. Because I would follow my husband home, wouldn’t I? I always meekly walked into my prison and allowed him to lock me in.

If I ever tried to argue with either of my husbands, they would say “Don’t fight me.” The message was clear—you have no right. You are a woman and I am a man. I have power and you do not. That is the way of this world. Don’t upset the balance. But even in those dark days I wondered, why? Why can’t a woman, or anyone who is oppressed for that matter, stand up the way the powerful do? Don’t the oppressed have just as much right to be tough and strong, to speak freely without fear? Yes, they have the right, they just don’t have a way to be heard—and if they do happen to be heard, they must quickly be suppressed or discredited so that no one actually listens.

I went on to free myself as best I could. It took many years and I am still in the process. At the age of thirty I started training in martial arts and learned how to walk tall and without fear. I now teach boxing and kick boxing and self-defense to women and children at a gym called Tarzana Boxing. If anyone would have told me in my first marriage that I would be doing such a thing in my fifties and that I would be in the best shape of my life, I would have said they were insane.

The girls in my writing sessions never stopped wanting fighting lessons and I repeatedly had to remind them that it wasn’t allowed.

“Every girl should be able to do that,” they would say wistfully.

I remember one girl, Elizabeth, slamming the table with a fist and saying to me, “Damn, woman, you’re dangerous—a Dangerous Woman.”

I always hugged each of them good-bye; those condemned young women whose tough facades had been stripped away at the writing table, revealing fearful little girls who passively did what they were told because they never knew they could do otherwise. I understood exactly how they felt.

And that is why, when I got the phone call from that hysterical mother on my 50th birthday, I didn’t hesitate, but went out my door and into the world of suffering and danger in the flatlands of the San Fernando Valley. Honestly, I feel more comfortable in that world than in the shiny one on top of the mountain. At least on the street there is a certain honesty to the crimes, while in the clouds, the hypocrisy is as thick as a London fog.

This birthday, I will be in Ojai, relaxing and writing for a couple of days. That’s the plan, anyway, and maybe it will turn out like that and maybe it won’t. That’s what makes life interesting. I don’t regret those memories. There is sadness, there is pain, but I hold onto them as experiences that have given meaning to my life.

No doubt, there will be more to come.

Istanbul, I love you

10559924_10154442045450360_355461431324110895_n[1]Just returned from five weeks traveling to Lake Bled, Slovenia; Vienna, Austria; Lausanne, Switzerland; and Istanbul, Turkey. I spent two weeks in Istanbul, staying in a penthouse flat near the Galata Tower with a view of the Bosporus from the terrace. I went there to finish writing the last chapter of my book, Letters from Purgatory. Istanbul is where it all begins and where it all ends. I fell in love with Istanbul and want to go back. September 1st an excerpt from Letters, called Death Row Dance, will be published in The Adirondack Review. I can’t wait to share it!

A DANGEROUS WOMAN

Excerpt from my book-in-progress A Dangerous Woman, about my connection to a series of mysterious letters sent to the first woman to be put on death row in California after the death penalty was reinstated in 1979.  Everyone has his or her own version of truth. Here is Jimmy Luna’s side of the story, the man who committed the murder.

 

The Crime

It was another bloody night in Los Angeles. On April 29, 1985, Michael Eldridge, age 37, was stabbed 44 times in the Van Nuys home he co-owned with Maureen “Miki” McDermott. Eldridge’s penis was cut off post-mortem and was not found at the crime scene. Jimmy Luna, a former orderly at County-USC Medical Center was arrested three months later for the murder. Luna implicated McDermott, a nurse that he knew from the hospital, as the mastermind, claiming that it was her idea to cut off the penis because she believed the police would be less likely to investigate a murder that appeared to be homosexually motivated. McDermott was arrested not long after Luna. The police determined that the real motive for the crime was the $100,000 life insurance policy that McDermott and Eldridge had purchased in each other’s names. According to Luna, McDermott had promised him half of it.

Prosecutor Katherine Mader had formerly defended Angelo Buono, one of the Hillside Stranglers. In that case, she had fawned over Buono and treated him like a misguided little boy, a tactic used to humanize him for the jury. Now, the opposite strategy was applied, McDermott being likened to “a Nazi working in the crematorium by day and listening to Mozart by night,” a “mutation of a human being,” a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” a “traitor,” a person who “stalked people like animals,” and someone who had “resigned from the human race.”

Defense attorney Ingber did not assemble much of a defense and the jury found the prosecution’s case to be far more credible. On April 3, 1990 after three days of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of death for McDermott. In exchange for his testimony, Luna received life in prison.

During the habeas appeal McDermott’s new attorney, Verna Wefald, argued that there was no evidence directly linking her defendant to the crime other than the words of a psychopathic killer who got immunity from the death penalty for testifying against her. It was also argued that Ingber had been incompetent and that Mader had committed misconduct by describing McDermott in ways that dehumanized her. Justice Kennard rejected the arguments, in particular pointing out that the analogies were appropriate since it is possible for a person to show “a refined sensitivity in some activities while demonstrating barbaric cruelty in others.”

On August 13, 2002, the Supreme Court rejected the habeas appeal. McDermott became the first woman to have her death sentence upheld since the death penalty was re-instituted in California in 1977.

For Mader, the trial of Maureen McDermott was a great victory in an already impressive career. She went on to become a Superior Court Judge. Luna died of AIDS in jail. McDermott still awaits her death. By all accounts, justice has been served. Those who deserved punishment received it and those who deserved rewards moved on to greater things.

What a relief it is when bad situations are resolved in a tidy manner. If only it could always be that way—with all the mysteries revealed. But then, what would life be without a mystery?

                                                                             Who is the Monster Beneath the MaskJimmy Luna

I don’t feel good. Most of the time I feel like someone flushed me down the toilet. I look like it, too. I used to look not that bad. I get the shakes and I can’t stop. I sweat a lot. I’m suffering and I’m alone and that’s all I’ve ever been. I wish I could have known something different. I used to see kids getting out of minivans and going to the market with their moms and I tried to imagine what that must be like. Why couldn’t that be me? Why should I deserve any less?  It’s an evil world and you can’t tell me otherwise. There isn’t a single person alive right now or ever that can give a good reason why some people suffer so much when others don’t. Oh yeah, the shitheads who stepped on the faces of the rest of us in order to get ahead, they’re the ones who make up stupid reasons, like karma and such, and all the poor people just say, oh, okay, because they feel dirty and unworthy. Over-used and worn to death. Just like me.

That’s why I can say that I don’t really think I had a choice. I was pushed in a corner. I was desperate.

The detective interviewed me after it happened. I don’t remember his name. I don’t even remember what he looked like. He wasn’t a nice person. He didn’t care about me. He didn’t understand my problems. I tried to explain, I thought if I explained he might have some sympathy because he acted sympathetic. But it was just a trap. He didn’t play fair and I don’t think they should be able to do that to a person like me who’s so trusting.

They made me sit in a bare room with bright lighting. I’m sensitive to light and atmosphere. It made me nervous to be there.

“So talk to us, explain why you did it,” said the detective, sounding almost nice—must have some college degree in being able to talk like that.

I wanted to open up. I liked that he was interested, as if he had all the time in the world to listen. Never once did he look at his watch. He wasn’t antsy or rude.

So I really did open up and it felt good. I didn’t mind talking. I didn’t have anything to hide. I wanted him to understand about me.

I told him, just to start off in the right place, “First, I want to say that I’m a very sensitive person.  I cry easy, I’m very emotional. I don’t cry for sympathy, for somebody to feel sorry for me. I cry because I hurt inside. And constantly, each and every day that goes by, I hurt.”

“Okay, I got that,” said the detective.

I felt sort of okay with his response. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but close enough and I felt like if I continued and explained everything, by the end he would feel really sorry for me, as well he should, you know? The words just came out. First to him, and then there was this therapist lady who talked to me. I don’t really remember what I said to her, it’s all jumbled together in my conversation with the detective, I guess because that’s the first thing that happened, where it all started, where the words first came out of me and then it got easier and easier to talk.

“You don’t know how it feels to be so desperate. It’s like all your life you try to do right, you try to make the best of the situation but nothing ever works out. So you try again and you keep a smile on your face but it doesn’t matter. I can’t tell you how many times I got raped by my male relatives when I was a kid. I was small. It wasn’t my fault, I couldn’t defend myself. I had to go down on my older cousin. Do you think a person can turn out normal after that? I mean, do you really?

“My dad tried to kill me by hanging me from a tree. One day he got mad. I don’t know why he got mad. How mad can a dad get to do something like that? How bad can a kid be? He got a rope and put it around my neck and strung me up and left me there. The rope didn’t hold and that was lucky because he meant it to. Can you imagine how my life was after that? You see your dad that night and he’s drinking a beer and no one says nothing when a few hours before he hanged you from a tree? I’d tell myself he didn’t mean it and it was just a joke that went bad. But he did mean it. My entire childhood, all I ever felt was fear. I never knew what it was like to lie down at night and go to sleep. Just close my eyes and sleep. I had to tell myself all kinds of stories to get me through each day, so I could pretend I was someone else and these things weren’t happening to me.

“Let me ask you, why didn’t my dad ever go to jail? Why didn’t my older relatives get punished? Nobody made sure I was safe. Nobody cared.”

I asked the detective that question or maybe I didn’t, I don’t remember, but the thing is, I wanted an answer and nobody ever gave me one.

“How can I get you to understand? Somebody like me who’s been treated like less than an animal since the day I was born, just abused and used and stuffed in the garbage and then every time I tried to climb out just stuffed back in again, well, even if somebody like me tries over and over, it’s like you’re daring people to hurt you—putting it in their face, like you’re saying, ‘see, look at me, I’m not giving up, I want to better myself, I can stand up tall, just like you, I can have a job, I can have an apartment, pay my taxes, I can be a normal human being.’

“And I did get a job and I did work hard. That was a big achievement for me. But then they all turned against me because of my problems. I’m not denying it, I do have problems. But I tried, that’s the point I’m making. I always kept trying until there was no way for me to try anymore.

“Me daring to do that, daring to try and putting it in their faces means they can laugh and sneer and think it’s okay to kick me in the teeth. It’s easy for them to kick me in the teeth, you know? They can do it and nobody even blinks, nobody treats them like they committed a crime by what they did to me. They don’t get in trouble. They can punch the smile right off my already bruised and bleeding face, making it more bruised, more bleeding, swollen, infected, so it’s like I have a big sign on myself—ABUSE ME. But then forget about it if I try to turn around and hurt someone else in order to get ahead of the game. Oh no, not allowed. I get punished.”

“Well, you didn’t just hurt him. You killed him.” The detective said that to me, like a slap, and I didn’t really think it was nice of him to do that. He wasn’t getting it at all. Was he dense?

Not that I can’t say that he was right, in a certain kind of way, and I thought I was being very reasonable and honest to admit it when I said, “True. But that’s what I’m trying to explain about being pushed. It’s not like one day you just decide to kill someone. You get pushed there—and anyway, it’s not like it was my idea, you know?”

“Whose idea, then?” asked the detective.

I think I rolled my eyes at that point because it was pretty obvious where he was leading with that one. I wasn’t an idiot, not like him. They’d made it obvious what they wanted to hear and sure, I’m not going to say anything except the truth, right? And that’s what I did. I didn’t want to end up strapped to that table, all those people looking at me through glass, not to mention the years I’d have to live in isolation before it happened. I don’t do well cooped up. I wasn’t doing well sitting in that interrogation room. Still, I didn’t want to come right out and say it plain, so I talked about other things.

“Miki and me had a special relationship. She cared about me when nobody else did. She was the only one. And then, even with her, I wasn’t sure anymore. She was going to leave me. Leave me, just like, kick me to the curb. I don’t think she really wanted to. I think she thought she had to in order to make more money. She was desperate, just like me. We had a lot in common. We understood each other. I wanted to help her. She’d done a lot to help me and I was willing to make a sacrifice for her sake so she wouldn’t have to leave. I mean, who’d want to go and be a nurse in Saudi Arabia? What woman in her right mind would want to do that? They kill queers like me and her in that place and I think they kill women even if they’re straight, just like for fun. Don’t they make them cover their entire bodies, treat them like slaves? What if she never came back?

“Obviously, she wasn’t thinking right. When you’re desperate you don’t think right. I know what I’m talking about.

“So, I had to do something to stop her from going. I had to keep her here-for her sake and mine. And whatever tears she’s crying now, trust me, she was happy when I did it.”

“So you’re saying she told you to do it?”

You see? That detective knew his job. He wasn’t going to let me out of there until I said it.

I rolled my eyes some more. Eye-rolling is a very good thing to do when you want to make a certain kind of impression.

“She put her blessing on it. It was her idea, why would I think up something like that?” I said it so I could get back to what mattered. “Whatever people tell you, I’m not a bad person—I had a bad life. Do you get the difference? If you had my life, you’d be one sick mother fucker too, you’d have a lot of anger, you’d need someone to help you, take care of you and not throw you out on the street. Miki cared about me when nobody else did so in return, I did something for her that she’d never do for herself. I messed it up, I know that. And okay, I shouldn’t have been so easily convinced to do it in the first place. But my heart was right. All I wanted was for Miki to be safe and secure. If she had that insurance money, she’d be okay and not worried anymore. I bet she’d of let me move in, been her housemate instead of that prick. I never trusted that piece of shit. She always complained how he yelled at her dogs. I mean, who’d yell at a dog? For what? And people call me bad? I don’t yell at dogs.

“He wanted to sell her house. I bet if she’d gone to Saudi Arabia, he’d of sold that house right from under her. I bet when she came back—if she ever did and wasn’t killed over there—she’d of had nothing. He’d of taken it all. And she was such a pushover. She wouldn’t have done anything to punish him. That’s how I know she didn’t see it coming. She didn’t see what he was planning right under her nose. I know about those things. I know about back-stabbers. But Miki was so trusting, only liked to think good of people.

“I feel justified about what I did. I know it was wrong but I think God will forgive me. I think God understands. I think when I stand before God I won’t even have to defend myself. I won’t have to tell my side of the story. He knows all that stuff. I bet we’re all going to be surprised when we find out who’s in heaven and who’s in hell.

“I was just trying to fix an impossible situation. I was trying to do some good, and okay, maybe that’s a stretch, maybe hard for people to accept, but there it is. In my screwed up mind that’s how I saw it. I was trying to do some good. Afterwards, when I got caught and you told me what I did, I couldn’t believe it. Anyone who’d stab someone 44 times must be a maniac. And then I cut off his penis? I don’t remember that. I thought I stabbed him, like seven times or so. Not forty-four. And the penis thing? Come on. And then I took the penis to my aunt’s house and flushed it down the toilet? I buried the knife blade by the clothesline? That’s insane, not to mention stupid.

“But I was drunk. I had to get drunk in order to do what I did. I can’t remember carrying the penis all the way back home with me. Why’d I do that? Was it in my pocket? In a plastic bag? My aunt can’t be happy about that. Every time she sits on the toilet I bet she thinks about that penis swirling around and around and then down it goes. What if it got stuck, what if the toilet overflowed and it spilled onto the floor? And she has to sit there and think about it. That’s fucked up.

“But anyway, my point is you don’t need to have a fancy psychiatry degree to know that somebody who’d do something like that is seriously out of his fucking mind.

“Okay, Miki was the mastermind. I couldn’t have thought up all those things. Like Dewayne Bell. Why would I’ve knifed him like that, what reason would I have if she hadn’t told me to do it? Sometimes I get confused and I wonder if I remember things right. Sometimes I think maybe I didn’t tell the detectives the story in the right way. But that’s just because I’m actually a very honest person who goes to the extreme to make sure and I am continually second-guessing myself.

“I did bad things, I know. I sliced up Dewayne Bell, or at least that’s what I told the police, didn’t I? Or did they tell me that I did it and I said okay. You see, I can’t remember now.”

“Do you think what you did was wrong?”

I’m not sure who asked me that, the detective or the therapist, probably the therapist.

“I keep telling you—it might have been a bad thing, but I did it for a good reason! I agree that a maniac did those things. But that’s not me. I wish for once people could look inside and see who I really am—a sensitive, caring person who’s in terrible pain. I’m like all the other poor, abused and powerless people. I never stood a chance. And now I’m dying of AIDS in prison. A demon with sharp teeth somehow got inside of me and he’s tearing apart my liver and my skin. I saved my skin and now the demon’s eating it.

“This isn’t how my life was supposed to be. I was a little boy once. I had hopes and dreams just like anyone else. I know that I was happy, really, when I was sitting up in that tree and looking down on the world, dreaming of where I’d go, the things I’d do. But that was before I got hung from it and ever since, hard as I try, I can’t remember the happiness. The world looked different after that and I got scared to climb above it.

“I cry for that little boy, filled with so much love. I loved flowers. I loved animals. The fuckers who sucked the love out of me are the maniacs, not me. This isn’t how my life was supposed to be. It’s just not fair.”

When I finished talking I felt like I’d really done my best. I’d told my story with a lot of emotion, with real feelings, not cold-hearted because that’s not how I am. The detective got up and left. That was it. He left me there. I thought I’d feel better after all that talking. But I just felt empty, like he’d used me for what he wanted, like everybody did, and then forgot about me. He was done. He went home after a long day. I came here.

I’m weak. Pain is my world. I try to look back and think of something good to remember, some sweet thing to put on my tongue to make my suffering not so bad. But nothing’s there. I wish I could think of climbing that tree without hanging from it. But that’s impossible.

I lie in the dark, sweating, panting, an agony of nightmares crawling all over me and I say why? There’s no answer that comes to mind, just silence and another needle.

Soon I’ll be dead and Miki will still be alive. She’s the one sentenced to death and I’m the one dying. How about that?

They put her there, not me. I’m telling you, they’re the real Maniacs, those two-faced bastards. It doesn’t matter in the end, though. I’m not going to say sorry for the part I played. I didn’t do anything that bad. I mean, it was bad, but I explained all that, right?

Look at me.

Nobody escapes death row. We all get sentenced, one way or another. I don’t deserve it anymore than you do.

“Given Jimmy Luna’s history of bizarre behaviors, his psychiatric referrals, and his numerous threatening and violent behaviors towards others, resulting in job loss and eviction, it is difficult to understand why the prosecutors in this case failed to have him evaluated psychiatrically prior to accepting his account of the murder and his reasons for committing it.  More incomprehensible still is the failure of Ms. McDermott’s defense counsel to demand that Jimmy Luna have such an evaluation.  Had they done so, they would have uncovered a history of extreme abuse, dissociative states, psychotic misperceptions of reality and fantasies of murder and castration.  Had this condition been recognized, his credibility as a witness would have been destroyed. 

“Mader, a public prosecutor whose paramount duty is to seek the truth, having known all of the above, did not require Jimmy Luna to undergo a psychiatric examination before offering him an “opportunity” (her words) to save his own life by helping her put a “white” woman (her words) on death row. Mader committed grievous misconduct by failing to have Luna examined by a psychiatrist prior to resting her entire case on his obviously delusional account of the crime. Had such an evaluation been obtained, Luna would have been excluded from testifying as a witness period. This Court has a duty to vacate petitioner’s conviction.” 
~Dr. Dorothy Lewis, Psychiatrist, a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical School

A DANGEROUS WOMAN

Excerpt from my book-in-progress A Dangerous Woman, about my connection to a series of mysterious letters sent tothe first woman to be put on death row in California after the death penalty was reinstated in 1979.  Everyone has his or her own version of truth. Here is Jimmy Luna’s side of the story, the man who committed the murder.

 

The Crime

It was another bloody night in Los Angeles. On April 29, 1985, Michael Eldridge, age 37, was stabbed 44 times in the Van Nuys home he co-owned with Maureen “Miki” McDermott. Eldridge’s penis was cut off post-mortem and was not found at the crime scene. Jimmy Luna, a former orderly at County-USC Medical Center was arrested three months later for the murder. Luna implicated McDermott, a nurse that he knew from the hospital, as the mastermind, claiming that it was her idea to cut off the penis because she believed the police would be less likely to investigate a murder that appeared to be homosexually motivated. McDermott was arrested not long after Luna. The police determined that the real motive for the crime was the $100,000 life insurance policy that McDermott and Eldridge had purchased in each other’s names. According to Luna, McDermott had promised him half of it.

Prosecutor Katherine Mader had formerly defended Angelo Buono, one of the Hillside Stranglers. In that case, she had fawned over Buono and treated him like a misguided little boy, a tactic used to humanize him for the jury. Now, the opposite strategy was applied, McDermott being likened to “a Nazi working in the crematorium by day and listening to Mozart by night,” a “mutation of a human being,” a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” a “traitor,” a person who “stalked people like animals,” and someone who had “resigned from the human race.”

Defense attorney Ingber did not assemble much of a defense and the jury found the prosecution’s case to be far more credible. On April 3, 1990 after three days of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of death for McDermott. In exchange for his testimony, Luna received life in prison.

During the habeas appeal McDermott’s new attorney, Verna Wefald, argued that there was no evidence directly linking her defendant to the crime other than the words of a psychopathic killer who got immunity from the death penalty for testifying against her. It was also argued that Ingber had been incompetent and that Mader had committed misconduct by describing McDermott in ways that dehumanized her. Justice Kennard rejected the arguments, in particular pointing out that the analogies were appropriate since it is possible for a person to show “a refined sensitivity in some activities while demonstrating barbaric cruelty in others.”

On August 13, 2002, the Supreme Court rejected the habeas appeal. McDermott became the first woman to have her death sentence upheld since the death penalty was re-instituted in California in 1977.

For Mader, the trial of Maureen McDermott was a great victory in an already impressive career. She went on to become a Superior Court Judge. Luna died of AIDS in jail. McDermott still awaits her death. By all accounts, justice has been served. Those who deserved punishment received it and those who deserved rewards moved on to greater things.

What a relief it is when bad situations are resolved in a tidy manner. If only it could always be that way—with all the mysteries revealed. But then, what would life be without a mystery?

                                                                             Who is the Monster Beneath the MaskJimmy Luna

I don’t feel good. Most of the time I feel like someone flushed me down the toilet. I look like it, too. I used to look not that bad. I get the shakes and I can’t stop. I sweat a lot. I’m suffering and I’m alone and that’s all I’ve ever been. I wish I could have known something different. I used to see kids getting out of minivans and going to the market with their moms and I tried to imagine what that must be like. Why couldn’t that be me? Why should I deserve any less?  It’s an evil world and you can’t tell me otherwise. There isn’t a single person alive right now or ever that can give a good reason why some people suffer so much when others don’t. Oh yeah, the shitheads who stepped on the faces of the rest of us in order to get ahead, they’re the ones who make up stupid reasons, like karma and such, and all the poor people just say, oh, okay, because they feel dirty and unworthy. Over-used and worn to death. Just like me.

That’s why I can say that I don’t really think I had a choice. I was pushed in a corner. I was desperate.

The detective interviewed me after it happened. I don’t remember his name. I don’t even remember what he looked like. He wasn’t a nice person. He didn’t care about me. He didn’t understand my problems. I tried to explain, I thought if I explained he might have some sympathy because he acted sympathetic. But it was just a trap. He didn’t play fair and I don’t think they should be able to do that to a person like me who’s so trusting.

They made me sit in a bare room with bright lighting. I’m sensitive to light and atmosphere. It made me nervous to be there.

“So talk to us, explain why you did it,” said the detective, sounding almost nice—must have some college degree in being able to talk like that.

I wanted to open up. I liked that he was interested, as if he had all the time in the world to listen. Never once did he look at his watch. He wasn’t antsy or rude.

So I really did open up and it felt good. I didn’t mind talking. I didn’t have anything to hide. I wanted him to understand about me.

I told him, just to start off in the right place, “First, I want to say that I’m a very sensitive person.  I cry easy, I’m very emotional. I don’t cry for sympathy, for somebody to feel sorry for me. I cry because I hurt inside. And constantly, each and every day that goes by, I hurt.”

“Okay, I got that,” said the detective.

I felt sort of okay with his response. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but close enough and I felt like if I continued and explained everything, by the end he would feel really sorry for me, as well he should, you know? The words just came out. First to him, and then there was this therapist lady who talked to me. I don’t really remember what I said to her, it’s all jumbled together in my conversation with the detective, I guess because that’s the first thing that happened, where it all started, where the words first came out of me and then it got easier and easier to talk.

“You don’t know how it feels to be so desperate. It’s like all your life you try to do right, you try to make the best of the situation but nothing ever works out. So you try again and you keep a smile on your face but it doesn’t matter. I can’t tell you how many times I got raped by my male relatives when I was a kid. I was small. It wasn’t my fault, I couldn’t defend myself. I had to go down on my older cousin. Do you think a person can turn out normal after that? I mean, do you really?

“My dad tried to kill me by hanging me from a tree. One day he got mad. I don’t know why he got mad. How mad can a dad get to do something like that? How bad can a kid be? He got a rope and put it around my neck and strung me up and left me there. The rope didn’t hold and that was lucky because he meant it to. Can you imagine how my life was after that? You see your dad that night and he’s drinking a beer and no one says nothing when a few hours before he hanged you from a tree? I’d tell myself he didn’t mean it and it was just a joke that went bad. But he did mean it. My entire childhood, all I ever felt was fear. I never knew what it was like to lie down at night and go to sleep. Just close my eyes and sleep. I had to tell myself all kinds of stories to get me through each day, so I could pretend I was someone else and these things weren’t happening to me.

“Let me ask you, why didn’t my dad ever go to jail? Why didn’t my older relatives get punished? Nobody made sure I was safe. Nobody cared.”

I asked the detective that question or maybe I didn’t, I don’t remember, but the thing is, I wanted an answer and nobody ever gave me one.

“How can I get you to understand? Somebody like me who’s been treated like less than an animal since the day I was born, just abused and used and stuffed in the garbage and then every time I tried to climb out just stuffed back in again, well, even if somebody like me tries over and over, it’s like you’re daring people to hurt you—putting it in their face, like you’re saying, ‘see, look at me, I’m not giving up, I want to better myself, I can stand up tall, just like you, I can have a job, I can have an apartment, pay my taxes, I can be a normal human being.’

“And I did get a job and I did work hard. That was a big achievement for me. But then they all turned against me because of my problems. I’m not denying it, I do have problems. But I tried, that’s the point I’m making. I always kept trying until there was no way for me to try anymore.

“Me daring to do that, daring to try and putting it in their faces means they can laugh and sneer and think it’s okay to kick me in the teeth. It’s easy for them to kick me in the teeth, you know? They can do it and nobody even blinks, nobody treats them like they committed a crime by what they did to me. They don’t get in trouble. They can punch the smile right off my already bruised and bleeding face, making it more bruised, more bleeding, swollen, infected, so it’s like I have a big sign on myself—ABUSE ME. But then forget about it if I try to turn around and hurt someone else in order to get ahead of the game. Oh no, not allowed. I get punished.”

“Well, you didn’t just hurt him. You killed him.” The detective said that to me, like a slap, and I didn’t really think it was nice of him to do that. He wasn’t getting it at all. Was he dense?

Not that I can’t say that he was right, in a certain kind of way, and I thought I was being very reasonable and honest to admit it when I said, “True. But that’s what I’m trying to explain about being pushed. It’s not like one day you just decide to kill someone. You get pushed there—and anyway, it’s not like it was my idea, you know?”

“Whose idea, then?” asked the detective.

I think I rolled my eyes at that point because it was pretty obvious where he was leading with that one. I wasn’t an idiot, not like him. They’d made it obvious what they wanted to hear and sure, I’m not going to say anything except the truth, right? And that’s what I did. I didn’t want to end up strapped to that table, all those people looking at me through glass, not to mention the years I’d have to live in isolation before it happened. I don’t do well cooped up. I wasn’t doing well sitting in that interrogation room. Still, I didn’t want to come right out and say it plain, so I talked about other things.

“Miki and me had a special relationship. She cared about me when nobody else did. She was the only one. And then, even with her, I wasn’t sure anymore. She was going to leave me. Leave me, just like, kick me to the curb. I don’t think she really wanted to. I think she thought she had to in order to make more money. She was desperate, just like me. We had a lot in common. We understood each other. I wanted to help her. She’d done a lot to help me and I was willing to make a sacrifice for her sake so she wouldn’t have to leave. I mean, who’d want to go and be a nurse in Saudi Arabia? What woman in her right mind would want to do that? They kill queers like me and her in that place and I think they kill women even if they’re straight, just like for fun. Don’t they make them cover their entire bodies, treat them like slaves? What if she never came back?

“Obviously, she wasn’t thinking right. When you’re desperate you don’t think right. I know what I’m talking about.

“So, I had to do something to stop her from going. I had to keep her here-for her sake and mine. And whatever tears she’s crying now, trust me, she was happy when I did it.”

“So you’re saying she told you to do it?”

You see? That detective knew his job. He wasn’t going to let me out of there until I said it.

I rolled my eyes some more. Eye-rolling is a very good thing to do when you want to make a certain kind of impression.

“She put her blessing on it. It was her idea, why would I think up something like that?” I said it so I could get back to what mattered. “Whatever people tell you, I’m not a bad person—I had a bad life. Do you get the difference? If you had my life, you’d be one sick mother fucker too, you’d have a lot of anger, you’d need someone to help you, take care of you and not throw you out on the street. Miki cared about me when nobody else did so in return, I did something for her that she’d never do for herself. I messed it up, I know that. And okay, I shouldn’t have been so easily convinced to do it in the first place. But my heart was right. All I wanted was for Miki to be safe and secure. If she had that insurance money, she’d be okay and not worried anymore. I bet she’d of let me move in, been her housemate instead of that prick. I never trusted that piece of shit. She always complained how he yelled at her dogs. I mean, who’d yell at a dog? For what? And people call me bad? I don’t yell at dogs.

“He wanted to sell her house. I bet if she’d gone to Saudi Arabia, he’d of sold that house right from under her. I bet when she came back—if she ever did and wasn’t killed over there—she’d of had nothing. He’d of taken it all. And she was such a pushover. She wouldn’t have done anything to punish him. That’s how I know she didn’t see it coming. She didn’t see what he was planning right under her nose. I know about those things. I know about back-stabbers. But Miki was so trusting, only liked to think good of people.

“I feel justified about what I did. I know it was wrong but I think God will forgive me. I think God understands. I think when I stand before God I won’t even have to defend myself. I won’t have to tell my side of the story. He knows all that stuff. I bet we’re all going to be surprised when we find out who’s in heaven and who’s in hell.

“I was just trying to fix an impossible situation. I was trying to do some good, and okay, maybe that’s a stretch, maybe hard for people to accept, but there it is. In my screwed up mind that’s how I saw it. I was trying to do some good. Afterwards, when I got caught and you told me what I did, I couldn’t believe it. Anyone who’d stab someone 44 times must be a maniac. And then I cut off his penis? I don’t remember that. I thought I stabbed him, like seven times or so. Not forty-four. And the penis thing? Come on. And then I took the penis to my aunt’s house and flushed it down the toilet? I buried the knife blade by the clothesline? That’s insane, not to mention stupid.

“But I was drunk. I had to get drunk in order to do what I did. I can’t remember carrying the penis all the way back home with me. Why’d I do that? Was it in my pocket? In a plastic bag? My aunt can’t be happy about that. Every time she sits on the toilet I bet she thinks about that penis swirling around and around and then down it goes. What if it got stuck, what if the toilet overflowed and it spilled onto the floor? And she has to sit there and think about it. That’s fucked up.

“But anyway, my point is you don’t need to have a fancy psychiatry degree to know that somebody who’d do something like that is seriously out of his fucking mind.

“Okay, Miki was the mastermind. I couldn’t have thought up all those things. Like Dewayne Bell. Why would I’ve knifed him like that, what reason would I have if she hadn’t told me to do it? Sometimes I get confused and I wonder if I remember things right. Sometimes I think maybe I didn’t tell the detectives the story in the right way. But that’s just because I’m actually a very honest person who goes to the extreme to make sure and I am continually second-guessing myself.

“I did bad things, I know. I sliced up Dewayne Bell, or at least that’s what I told the police, didn’t I? Or did they tell me that I did it and I said okay. You see, I can’t remember now.”

“Do you think what you did was wrong?”

I’m not sure who asked me that, the detective or the therapist, probably the therapist.

“I keep telling you—it might have been a bad thing, but I did it for a good reason! I agree that a maniac did those things. But that’s not me. I wish for once people could look inside and see who I really am—a sensitive, caring person who’s in terrible pain. I’m like all the other poor, abused and powerless people. I never stood a chance. And now I’m dying of AIDS in prison. A demon with sharp teeth somehow got inside of me and he’s tearing apart my liver and my skin. I saved my skin and now the demon’s eating it.

“This isn’t how my life was supposed to be. I was a little boy once. I had hopes and dreams just like anyone else. I know that I was happy, really, when I was sitting up in that tree and looking down on the world, dreaming of where I’d go, the things I’d do. But that was before I got hung from it and ever since, hard as I try, I can’t remember the happiness. The world looked different after that and I got scared to climb above it.

“I cry for that little boy, filled with so much love. I loved flowers. I loved animals. The fuckers who sucked the love out of me are the maniacs, not me. This isn’t how my life was supposed to be. It’s just not fair.”

When I finished talking I felt like I’d really done my best. I’d told my story with a lot of emotion, with real feelings, not cold-hearted because that’s not how I am. The detective got up and left. That was it. He left me there. I thought I’d feel better after all that talking. But I just felt empty, like he’d used me for what he wanted, like everybody did, and then forgot about me. He was done. He went home after a long day. I came here.

I’m weak. Pain is my world. I try to look back and think of something good to remember, some sweet thing to put on my tongue to make my suffering not so bad. But nothing’s there. I wish I could think of climbing that tree without hanging from it. But that’s impossible.

I lie in the dark, sweating, panting, an agony of nightmares crawling all over me and I say why? There’s no answer that comes to mind, just silence and another needle.

Soon I’ll be dead and Miki will still be alive. She’s the one sentenced to death and I’m the one dying. How about that?

They put her there, not me. I’m telling you, they’re the real Maniacs, those two-faced bastards. It doesn’t matter in the end, though. I’m not going to say sorry for the part I played. I didn’t do anything that bad. I mean, it was bad, but I explained all that, right?

Look at me.

Nobody escapes death row. We all get sentenced, one way or another. I don’t deserve it anymore than you do.

“Given Jimmy Luna’s history of bizarre behaviors, his psychiatric referrals, and his numerous threatening and violent behaviors towards others, resulting in job loss and eviction, it is difficult to understand why the prosecutors in this case failed to have him evaluated psychiatrically prior to accepting his account of the murder and his reasons for committing it.  More incomprehensible still is the failure of Ms. McDermott’s defense counsel to demand that Jimmy Luna have such an evaluation.  Had they done so, they would have uncovered a history of extreme abuse, dissociative states, psychotic misperceptions of reality and fantasies of murder and castration.  Had this condition been recognized, his credibility as a witness would have been destroyed. 

“Mader, a public prosecutor whose paramount duty is to seek the truth, having known all of the above, did not require Jimmy Luna to undergo a psychiatric examination before offering him an “opportunity” (her words) to save his own life by helping her put a “white” woman (her words) on death row. Mader committed grievous misconduct by failing to have Luna examined by a psychiatrist prior to resting her entire case on his obviously delusional account of the crime. Had such an evaluation been obtained, Luna would have been excluded from testifying as a witness period. This Court has a duty to vacate petitioner’s conviction.” 
~Dr. Dorothy Lewis, Psychiatrist, a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical School

Interview with Stan Tookie William shortly before his execution

IOW CHILDHOOD

In 1995 I went into Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles with the vision to start a creative writing prgram for incarcerated youth. Out of that experience grew InsideOUT Writers. In 2005 I left the organization to pursue my writing once again. Something I was most proud of was the magazine of interviews and student writing and the book, What We See, which has been used by thousands of students and teachers. The last magazine issue had an interview with Stan Tookie William shortly before his execution. The interview was an incredible gift to the students of the InsideOUT Writers program. Sadly, the magazine didn’t continue after I left. I would like this magazine and this interview and the incredible power that it had for change in the lives of our youth not to be forgotten.

Here’s a copy of the interview:

Stanley Tookie Williams is the cofounder of the Crips gang and has been living on death row at San Quentin since 1981.During this time he has dedicated his life to ending gang warfare, eaerning him five (2001, 2022, 2003, 2004 and 2005) Nobel Peace Prize nominations and four (2002, 2003, 2004, 2005) Nobel nominations for literature. He is the coauthor of nine books with Barbara Cottman Becnel: Life in Prison and Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence, an eight-book series for children. He has also written his memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption. His transformation into an advocate for peace and education was the subject of last year’s Golden Globe-nominated cable TV feature Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story starring Jamie Foxx.

Interview by Susan Shields

WHEN AND WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO WRITE BOOKS FOR CHILDREN?
For me, writing children’s books was the evolutionary process of my redemption and transition. I wanted–and needed–to warn children about this path of self-destruction.

HAVE YOU CONSIDERED WRITING BOOKS FOR TEENAGERS?
I have written the book Life in Prison, whihc is primarily for middle school level teenagers–and there will be more books for them. Critical thinking persuaded me to begin with the children, then teenagers and, eventually, adults.

HOW HAS YOUR IDENTITY CHANGED THROUGH THE DIFFERENT PHASES OF YOUR LIFE?
Throughout most of my life, I never had a real identity. After educating myself intellectually, culturally and spiritually, I discovered who I am today: a thinking Black man, not a gangster or an animal.

WHAT WOULD HAVE MADE THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE FOR YOU AS A CHILD AND TEEN T HAVE KEPT YOU FROM GETTING INTO TROUBLE?
Among other things, I believe that had I had the consistent presence of a responsible, educated, hard-working, spiritual, and caring father, it would have made a tremendous difference.

YOU WROTE IN Gangs and Self-Esteem, “It took me a lon time to learn to like myself, but I do now and it feels much better than having a bad reputation.” WHY DO KIDS IN GENERAL NOT LIKE THEMSELVES?
In many instances, it has to do with negative racial stereotypes, poor parenting, abuse, social inequality and exposure to verbal degredation. Indeed, when adults repeatedly tell a child hat he or she is worthless, eventually that child will start to believe it–and then live it. Children need encouragement.

WHAT MADE YOU LIKE YOURSELF?
I began to like myself the moment I started to change my negative behavior. It built my confidence.

ALSO FROM Gangs and Self_Esteem: “I believed that because people were afraid of mem they respected me. That was one of my biggest mistakes. When people are afraid of you, they want to hurt you before you hurt them.” WOULD YOU LIKE TO ELABORATE ON THIS?
Any form of respect earned by fear or violence will make you a target for aggression. When people fear you it’s because they worry about you harming them. Others will reason, “Let me hurt him or her before he or she hurts me.”

YOU WROTE IN Gangs and Your Neighborhood: “When you’re truly tough, you don’t worry about what other kids think about you. You care about what you think about yourself.” HOW CAN KIDS TODAY GET “TRULY TOUGHT” WITHOUT RESORTING TO VIOLENCE?
There are simple ways to be tough without resorting to violence. Here’s a brief list of true toughness:
1. True toughness is to attend school, graduate, and then enroll in college.
2. True toughness is to avoid gangs, drugs, weapons, crime, illiteracy and violence.
3. True toughness is to believe in your ability to succeed.
4. True toughness is to ignore people who say you’re dumb and worthless.
5. True toughness is being strong mentally, physically, culturally and spiritually.
6. True toughness is being able and willing to help other people, regardless of their color, race, creed or socioeconomic status.
7. True toughness us acknowledging right from wrong and behaving in a manner that will not harm you or other people.

YOU WROTE in Gangs and Your Friends: “When I was a boy, there were times when I knew that something I was going to do was bad. Just before I did it, my stomach felt strange. A voice inside my head said ‘Don’t.’ But I would do it anyway…. You can learn from my mistakes. Trust yourself.” DOES THAT STRANGE FEELING AND VOICE IN YOUR HEAD GO AWAY EVENTUALLY IF YOU KEEP DISOBEYING IT?
No. It never leaves! If that inner voice disappeared from every human being, all of us would be human automatons, robots. The feeling in the stomach is a reaction to disobeying the voice. The voice itself is the voice of reason, the higher or better part of us. As long as we exist that voice will be our conscience, warning us to do what it right.

WHAT KIND OF RESPONSE HAVE YOU RECEIVED FROM KIDS WHO HAVE READ YOUR BOOKS?
I continue to receive positive feedback. Tens of thousands of youths and students have written me or emailed my website (http://www.tookie.com) along with parents,teachers, principals, professors, counselors and others. Most of the kids claim that they are adhering to my message and that I have changed their lives for the better. Many kids who were about to join a gang email me to say that they changed their minds after reading my books or watching the move that was made about me, Redemption: the Stan Tookie Story, starring Jamie Foxx. I also receive emails from a lot of youths already in a gang who quit their gang affiliation upon reading my books or viewing Redemption.

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR INTERNET PROJECT FOR STREET PEACE–LINKING AMERICAN YOUTH WITH AT-RISK YOUTH IN ZURICH, SWITZERLAND? ARE AMERICAN PROBLEMS AMONG YOUTH UNIQUE?
First, my Internet Project for Street Peace enables youths from two different countries to address social issues and exchange ideas as to how they can participate in resolving these problems. My project also includes mentoring, teaching youths themselves to be leaders and mentors among their peers. The Internet Project for Street Peace also helps youths to become computer literate.
Second, America shares a common thread with most all countries. No country is exempt from poverty, corruption, unemployment, lack of adequate housing and medical care, drugs, crime, violence, racism and gangs–all of the circumstances and conditions that support a culture of youth violence, incarceration and community destruction.

LOOKING BACK, IF YOU COULD, WHAT WOULD YOU TELL THE 7-YEAR OLD TOOKIE, THE 17-YEAR OLD TOOKIE, THE 24-YEAR OLD TOOKIE?
I would tell the 7-year old Tookie to not be in a hurry to become an adult. I would tell him to enjoy his childhood; listen to his parent–or parents–because they have the experience; study hard and obtain the highest education possible, and then use that education to help resolve social problems.
I would tell the 17-year old Tookie that every choice in life begins with him. I would warn him about the perils of gangs, drugs, violence, incarceration, death row, and death itself. I would say, “Don’t follow in my footsteps. However, the choice is yours.”I would explain to him that it’s all about him making positive choices that will prevent him from ending up in Juvenile Hall, California Youth Authority, prison, death row, hurt or killed! I would remind him that change begins with him. I would ask him not to become a victim of self-pity or a victim of the negative social conditions that surround him, like thousands of others have done. I would say, “Be a consistent survivor.Pisture your seuccess and then work towards achieving it.”
For the 24-year old Tookie I would say, “Look, you’re wasting your life. The only people benefiting from your gang-thug-criminal lifestyle are the police, judges, prosecutors, jails, prisons, death rows and morgues. You, Tookie, are becoming a modern-day slave. Though you might feel offended and are likely to deny being a slave, I can prove it. Here are the recognizable signs:
1. A modern-day slave will neglect to educate himself or herselfor to develop a legitimate trade.
2. A modern-day slave will commit robbery, theft, burglary, and other crimes against his own people–and others.
3. A modern-day slave will perpetuate self-hate, chaos, violence and senseless murder against his own people–and others.
4. A modern-day slave will buy, use and/or sell street drugs, causing his own people and others to becomes slave addicts to drugs, slaves to crime, slaves to misery and slaves to death.
5. A modern-day slave will hustle, degrade, abuse, disrespect, rape and/or prostitute women.
6. A modern-day slave will deprive his or her children of financial and/or emotional support, as well as abandon them.
7. A modern-day slave will inevitably end up incarcerated and will make no attempt to break the chains of his or her mental and physical bondage.
“Now, Tookie, I challenge you to rise above your present situation, a circumstance that can destroy your life. I challenge you to become a better ‘you’ and work to resolve your community’s social ills.”
I would also encourage a 24-year old Tookie to watch movies like Redemption and to read books like my memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption. I believe a 24-year old Tookie could empathize with the type of analysis that I made about myself in Blue Rage, Black Redemption, including my self-healing process and my redemptive efforts to assist others.

IF YOU WERE OUT OF PRISON, HOW WOULD YOU SPEND THE REST OF YOUR LIFE?
I would spend it promoting peace and helping youths as well as adults throughout America and around the world.
Amani–that’s Swahili for peace.