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.

Book of Angels Released Today!

Book of Angels $4.99 @Evernight Teen

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All Sera ever wanted to do was to solve the mystery of her dad’s death and find out if the Night Angel, Peter, really loved her. Now, there are bigger issues at stake. After being saved from death by the Night Angels, Sera returns to Oak Haven to find her brother, Salem, has been saved by her nemesis, the sinister Los Angeles mayor-to-be, Fabian Gore. Sera and Salem meet again, in their hometown, as powerful denizens. And as enemies. Someone is channeling power to the Queen, imprisoned in St. Catherine’s Monastery. If she escapes, the Ancient Ones will rise up from their sarcophagi beneath churches throughout the word and wreak vengeance on denizens and humans alike.

To thwart the Queen, Sera has no choice but to form an uneasy alliance with Gore. Meanwhile, Sera’s power and her connection to the Key of Mystery is growing. Only she can open the Book of Angels. But whoever does that will become something that Sera never wants to be: the Seventh Angel. How can Sera solve her own problems when everyone else wants her to solve their problems as well?

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Book of Angels in an Editor’s Pick.

Excerpt:

The next thing I knew, I had leaped into the air, my mind on St. Catherine’s Monastery, and I found myself hurtling through the Passage, horribly aware of every atom in my body and the indomitable forces of the universe that were trying to pull me apart.

As if it were a part of my very being, I held myself together, “remembered myself,” and traveled through the Passage.

Within seconds I was floating down from the sky, surrounded by the immense, desolate beauty of what looked like a moonscape. Except that the moon shone brighter and bigger than I had ever seen. Behind me, sand stretched, wave upon wave of it, with not a hint of grass or trees, while in front rose a sheer cliff, taller than a skyscraper. The monastery seemed to grow out of the rock, so closely was it pressed against the cliff.

“All looks peaceful,” observed Peter.

“Maybe too peaceful,” said Blanca.

Together, we jumped over the fortress walls, landing in the empty courtyard. We entered the sixth century basilica. We walked from the vestibule into the ornate nave and down the aisle, toward the sanctuary. I gazed in awe at the ancient artifacts and the icons shining with gold.  Hundreds of lamps hung from the ceiling like glittering galaxies, bathing the vast room in an eerie light. Out of the shadows the figure of the Abbot appeared, wearing a long gray robe and a cylindrical, flat-topped hat. His long black hair was tied in a knot at the nape of his head, a frizzy beard spreading out from his face ling tangled wire. His large, hooked nose resembled a bird’s beak and his dark eyes burned uncannily from deep sockets.

He greeted us with a humble bow and wordlessly led us through a dark and narrow arched doorway, and into a small circular, windowless chamber, padding silently on bare feet. The chamber was empty except for one plain wooden table. On the table sat the black lacquered Life Box, looking just as insignificant as the Object Holder had when I had first seen it and fought over it with Salem. This box, though, was about twice the size of the one that had held the key. And whereas the Object Holder had a gold lock and a tiny gold key to open it, the Life Box had no key and no visible way to open it.

On either side of the table stood two impressive Bedouin warriors. Each had one hand resting on a curved scimitar and the other hold the hilt of a knife, tucked into a belt. Their faces were lined and weather-beaten and expressionless, as if carved from the rocks of the mountain. The desert surrounding the monastery was home to many Bedouin. They were devout Muslims with a long history of guarding the monastery. They had made a vow to guard the Life Box with their lives.

The Abbot motioned for the Bedouin to stand at ease.

Bowing low to us, the guards said in unison, “Assalamu Alaikum.” It meant, “peace be upon you.”

Along with Peter and Blanca, I responded, “Alaikum Assalamu.” This meant, “upon you be peace.”

Like everything else in my crazy life these days, I had no idea how I knew to say that, but I did.

The Abbot didn’t speak, just gestured for us to gather around the box.

“He has taken a vow of silence and hasn’t spoken in thirty years,” said Peter.

My attention was drawn to the box. I realized it vibrated and hummed in an almost undetectable manner. Only when I remained completely still and stared fixedly did I notice it.

“This is does without stopping, and just today it gained in force,” said one of the Bedouin.

Sure enough, as we watched, the box jumped slightly, shuddered, and jumped again before falling back into its continual vibration. It hummed a little louder now.

As I watched in fascination, I slowly became aware that the key around my neck was growing heavier and beginning to burn.

The box vibrated more violently and hummed louder. As it did, it rose into the air and hovered about two feet above the table. The vibrating and humming grew so loud, I thought the box might split apart.

The key was searing my skin and I yelled in pain. I tried to tear it off but it was stuck to my chest and my hand burned when I touched it. I felt the Queen’s presence, reaching out to me. It was pure evil and I felt attracted to it. I wanted to bow down and worship the Queen, give her the key. I became brutally aware of her perfections and my own failings. I loved the Queen! I despised and hated myself! Horrible thoughts rose in my mind, the impulse to do horrible things.

Blood was pouring from my eyes. Tears or something worse, I didn’t know.

“Take me away!” I cried out to the others. “She’s grabbing at me. Take me away. Please!”

The Bedouin had drawn their swords and whipped out their daggers, but there was nothing they could do except stand there, at the ready. Blanca and Peter had drawn their swords, too. They’d placed themselves as a shield between me and the box. The Abbot ran in front of us all and pushed Blanca and Peter back.

He turned to face the box, as if bracing himself against a great wind, and raised his hands to heaven to pray.

Peter and Blanca were then able to pull me out of the chamber. I don’t think I could have moved before the Abbot faced the box. As soon as we were back in the nave, I collapsed onto the ground, gasping great gulps of air, thankful to find the heat of the key subsiding. With a great cry, I tried to take it off, but it was stuck. Completely stuck now. To my skin.

“Fuck this key! Why am I cursed with it?”

My entire body was bathed in read sweat. I looked down at myself in horror. What had I become? What nightmare had I entered? I pushed back my hair and swallowed, my throat dry and constricted. I breathed in and out deeply.

“She’s getting stronger all the time. She’ll get out. Maybe soon. And I was going to help her!” I shuddered.

“But you didn’t,” said Peter.

“At least now we are sure she is still inside,” said Blanca.

“She won’t stay there.” I could see my fate as I had already seen it in my Turning, and it was clearer than ever. One day I would face the Queen.

And I would fail! How could I not when she was so easily able to deceive and confuse me?

One of the Bedouin exited the chamber. “The Abbot wants you to know he is now sure someone is channeling power to the Queen, but he cannot see who.”

“It’s just not possible,” said Blanca.

The Bedouin bowed respectfully. “I only tell you what the Abbot believes.”

“Thank you,” said Peter.

He bowed again and returned to the nave.

“He’s right,” I said, as we walked out of the sanctuary and into the vestibule. “She and her sons will kill me and take the key.”

“Coward!” Blanca kicked the church door open with her foot. “We might as well be protecting a pile of trash. If it weren’t for the key around your neck, I’d kill you myself.”

For the first time, Blanca’s words didn’t bother me. “You can call me what you want, I don’t care. But you better listen because she will escape and we won’t be able to stop her. We need to figure out what to do instead of arguing all the time.”

“Well said,” said Peter. “Let’s get back to the castle and tell the others.”

We were outside of the basilica now and we stood for a moment, surveying the courtyard, the full moon casting eerie shadows across the ground. I looked more carefully and saw that some of the shadows moved like living things.

“What’s that?” I asked.

Peter and Blanca looked up at the sky and I did the same. A gathering storm of wispy black tendrils snaked across the sky, mirroring the moving shadows on the ground.

“What the hell…” I said.

“Wind demons,” said Blanca.

I looked at Peter inquiringly. “Seventy-two demons were captured by King Solomon and then released by mistake. Up there you see maybe twenty of them.”

The Abbot and the Bedouin had joined us in the courtyard.

“We have never seen them here before,” said one of the Bedouin.

“And so many,” said Peter. He sighed. “I hate wind demons.”

The Abbot was motioning us to follow him. We hurried across the courtyard, which was now filled with a howling wind, the shadows of the wind demons slithering back and forth across the stones like snakes. A group of monks appeared, running in the opposite direction, heading for the church.

“They will pray,” yelled one of the Bedouin above the din.

This was not making me any happier. I had just escaped the clutches of the Queen and now I had to contend with wind demons? Was there no end to the problems I had to face in one day?

The Abbot led us into the Fatimid Mosque that stood across from the church. Standing on its own, opposite the gigantic bell tower was the minaret and we entered and climbed swiftly up the stairs. It was from this highest point that the muezzin sang across the desert, calling the followers of Islam to prayer, five times a day. We climbed out onto the little platform that ran around the top of the minaret, and from here, I felt the full force of the gale. The shadows screamed and I could see cavernous, greedy mouths appear and disappear as they whipped around the tower, creating a whirlpool of darkness. Only when I looked straight up could I see clear sky and stars. But that opening was growing narrower by the minute. All around was completely empty of light, as if the very sky itself had been sucked into a giant black hole of whirling mouths and tails, into which we, too, would be sucked if we tried to fly upwards.

Peter and Blanca unsheathed their swords and I did the same.

Peter pointed with his sword. “We must fly straight up. They don’t dare come to c close to the minaret.”

The Abbot nodded, making motions that we should hurry.

“Put your sword away,” Peter said.

I began to object, then obeyed. This didn’t seem like the time to argue.

He gripped my arm. “Listen carefully. Jump onto my back. Once we’ve achieved the Passage we’ll be safe. Until then, you must hold your breath–don’t breathe, understand? If you do, the shadows will enter and steal your soul.

I nodded, terrified.

I jumped onto his back and held on tightly.

The Abbot raised his arms, while the Bedouin brandished their swords at the swirling darkness. It seemed to abate a bit, and Peter and Blanca seized that moment to leap into the air. I breathed in deeply and held onto my breath.

All was chaos in the tunnel through the shadows, the terrible wind trying to push us back. down, a screaming noise, like a thousand pigs being gutted. Flying straight upwards, the two Night Angels fought the demons with their swords, slicing into the tendrils that tried to encircle them.

I was sure we had almost made it when I felt an icy tendril touch my leg. I almost opened my mouth to scream. As it was, I let go of Peter with one arm and tried to reach down to bat at the tendril. I felt myself slipping halfway down his back and scrambled to pull myself back up again.

I was falling!

The snaky thing had my ankle now. I tried to kick with my foot to shake it off, while struggling to get a better hold on Peter. I was growing weaker. I had to take a breath. My chest was exploding.

And then, the Passage was achieved and we were through. I pushed away from Peter with relief, feeling the now familiar force of my molecules trying to split apart and me holding them together as we rocketed through space and time, landing within seconds in the little garden of the castle.

 

 

 

 

 

Do Artists have a Responsibility to Society?

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Inspiring view from my balcony, Lake Arenal, Costa Rica.

It is my opinion, as an artist, that we do not have a responsibility to society. We are not answerable to anyone other than ourselves.

As artists our struggle is to be true to our own voices, not some else’s. An artist shouldn’t feel a burden or obligation to set an example for the entire world. They shouldn’t feel that they have to reflect the beliefs or opinions of a certain segment of society. Pressure should not be put on an artist to “set a good example.” Or to change people’s political or moral views.

The first books I created were beautiful and sweet children’s books. The Rumpoles & The Barleys series, which I wrote and illustrated, will always be favorites of mine. I am blessed to know they have been a positive force in the lives of children around the world. On the other hand, I always knew I had so much more to say and I fought for years to be able to say it. With my creative nonfiction works and the publication of the NIGHT ANGELS CHRONCILES, I feel I am finally an artist who is true to myself.

Artists create from a deep place inside. It takes courage to go to that place and to let it out. Sometimes this can be horrifying. Sometimes it can be beautiful. Sometimes it can be painful. Sometimes it can be sweet and innocent. Playful. Brutal. Violent. X-rated.

My art (and I mean my paintings and drawings and writing) is mostly fantastical worlds of escape. This is because I find the real world to be horrifying on so many levels. I don’t have answers to the world’s problems. Well, actually, the world doesn’t need answers, it is humanity that needs a makeover. I don’t think we have even come close to figuring out those answers. Or perhaps we are afraid of them…or…I just don’t know. Due to my personality, my life experiences, my spirit, I am compelled to create art that uplifts and brings a ray of light to the darkness. That said, my art can be quite dark in its reflection of my own experiences and the suffering that I see around me.

As a woman artist, once I was married and had children, I was told over and over in many different ways, all of them painful, that I should put aside my compulsion to create, for the sake of my family. That my art should no longer be important. I had a husband and children now. They should be my focus. Of course, they were my focus. But I did not understand why being a good wife and mother and being an artist wasn’t possible. I couldn’t give up creating on paper. I couldn’t give up my imagination or the stories inside of me. Not any more than I could give up breathing. This was a difficult time for me as an artist and as a woman. And it went on for many years.

At various times, I have been told by the men in my life, that they needed to guide me. That I wasn’t a real artist, I was just pretending. That I needed to stop because the amount of time I spent doing my art didn’t make sense monetarily. Once, a drawing that I had worked on at night when my family slept, was thrown in the fire the next morning because it was “worthless.” My nose was broken as a punishment when I painted a picture that did not measure up to my husband’s standard. My writing was ridiculous and why would anyone ever want to read it? I should give up. I was a bad wife and mother because my focus wasn’t completely on them. Anyway, I was far too shy and I had no ability to “sell myself.” On and on. Even when I was finally a free woman and I was seeing someone “in the business,” he told me I should leave it all to him. I didn’t have the experience or the personality to know what was best or how to present anything.

My children are grown now and I am without “entanglements.” I am traveling and writing. I embrace all my life experiences. It comes out in my work. It is coming out right now as I write this! I have remained true to my love of fantasy and now I can indulge it. Fantasy is what got me through the darkness. I love creating that darkness in my writing. And then filtering in those moments of light. I know how it feels. I lived through it. How tragic it would be if I had given up. To think that if I had listened to those voices I would never have written Key of Mystery or Book of Angels, or gone on this NIGHT ANGELS CHRONCILES journey.

We all live through darkness. We are all artists trying to express ourselves. Art is so powerful. It can uplift us. It can spiral us further down. A song or a poem can inspire kindness to a neighbor. Or it can lead to murder and suicide. It can incite riots. It can spark a revolution. It can bring reconciliation. I can’t judge any of that. I don’t understand enough about the forces and motivations behind it all, on a spiritual level.

For so much of my life I was bombarded with angry, resentful voices of society, telling me what I should do with my art. If I had listened to all those voices and let them guide me, I would have lost my balance and fallen too far into the darkness. With my spirit, with the way I see the world, how would I have faced each day?

How can I breathe if I can’t tell a story?

 

 

Interview about MY WORLD PROJECT

The Missing Slate, Interview with My World Project Founder Karen Hunt

For me, this is a way of life. It isn’t a “cause,” it isn’t a “movement.” I can’t put some spin on it. There aren’t any buzz words. It is how I choose to live, and I really can’t help it. It is so much a part of who I am.”

Honored to have this interview, by Constance A. Dunn, published in The Missing Slate, an international arts and literary magazine. The interview tells about My World Project and the backstory leading up to it. Here is a brief excerpt from the backstory…

“I went on a personal quest…I met a woman named Alma Woods, who was responsible for single-handedly getting the Watts Library built. And to illustrate the politics, they didn’t want to name the library after her, they wanted to name it after some big-wig politician and there was a huge outcry and they had no choice but to buckle under public pressure and name the library after her. She was a simple lady, lived in a simple house in Watts and I would go and visit her and “sit at her feet,” as it were, she was a real guru, she taught me so much! She would take me around her neighborhood and I saw Watts through her eyes. If there were kids loitering outside the liquor store she would reprimand them and they would hang their heads in guilt and listen to her. She was respected. She was fearless. I grew to love her. She encouraged me to follow my heart and not be afraid of where it led me. It was after that that I went into Central Juvenile Hall and talked to the principal, Dr. Arthur McCoy, an older version of the nutty professor and the most amazing human being, and he let me start teaching there, along with the amazing teacher in the girls’ school, Cheryl Neely.

Like a beautiful, magical web, one person has led to another in my life. Not big celebrities, or what you would call “movers and shakers,” but the salt of the earth people. The ones who really have the power because they don’t care about it. They are the ones who truly balance the good against the evil. The ones we never hear about. I know I use the word amazing a lot, but really, there is no better word for all these people.

The Meaninglessness of Trying to Find Meaning–Random Thoughts

I have been silent so far on this tragedy, the killing of innocent children. I don’t have enough information. I want to know about this young man’s mother, about his father, about his childhood. There is always an “answer,” and yet, everyone seems to have a dfferent idea of what that answer may be. In fact, our propensity towards being convinced that we all know the “answer” has contributed greatly to our violent history, when really we don’t know much of anything. We are no nearer to understanding what matters–those cliched questions “who am I?” “how did I get here?”, “what is the meaning of life?”; and what is “truth,” who is “right” and who is “wrong”? We have some sort of compulsion to want to know the answers and we come up with answers through the stories that we tell ourselves. My best friend was Casey Cohen, private investigator who worked on many of the most notorious death penalty cases in the country. His last case before he passed away from cancer was that of Jeremy Stromeyer, the young man who took the little girl into the bathroom in the Reno casino and killed her. Casey worked for the defense in many such cases. He came to know the “monsters” of our society. His job was to tell the story of the killer’s life, go back in time and explain what had led up to the present. Because there is always a past, there are always reasons leading up to the heinous act. Casey would say that these people are not monsters, they are human beings, like you and me. He would say that if I were Jeremy Stromeyer, if I had lived his exact life, I would have done as he had done–because I would have been him. What makes one person react in one way and someone else react differently. What makes one person a drug addict and another person not? The one who is not attracted to drugs cannot look down his nose on the person who is. It is simply the way we are. The person who faces a life long battle with drugs and tries to overcome is more worthy of respect than the one who never has a problem! Yet we demonize the drug addict. I was married to two abusive men. My first husband almost killed me by strangling me. Yet I never thought of killing him. Why? I don’t know. Most women on death row are there because they have killed an abusive spouse–or their own children. Does that make me better than them? No, it only means I had a different past that led me to the present choice of not killing, whereas those women, when presented with that moment of choice, did what every moment before had led them to do–to kill. And I am me and you are you because of our genetic structure, because of our upbringing, because of a billion little things that have molded each of us. This means that we are all who we are, not because we are good or bad, not because we choose to be a certain way, but because we have been built little bt little by genes and circumstances and the stories that we have told ourselves along the way to solidify in our own minds who we are and why.

In my book A Dangeorus Woman I have a section where I go into the mind of a killer, Jimmy Luna, and I explain what he did and why, from his perspective. I read over a 1,000 pages of court documents, I interviewed many people, and Casey opened my mind to the killer’s world, so I would be able to understand him to the best of my ability before talking about him. Luna stabbed a man numerous times and cut off his penis. As a child, Luna’s father hung him from a tree–that is just one of a long list of horrific circumstances. I have never been hung from a tree. I do not know how it would affect me if this had happened to me. If I had had Luna’s exact background, I would have done exaclty what he did because I would have been him.

We are a violent and perverse race. We justify certain actions while demonizing others. It is somehow okay to go into another country and kill and maim in war, yet it is a crime to go into your neighbor’s house on your street and do that same thing. One is “Justified” by the stories that we tell ourselves, so that we can live with ourselves in society, while the other is an evil act of an individual maniac. None of this makes any sense. Yet in order to stay sane, we have become adept at telling ourselves stories, as individuals and as societies to justify our own actions. Really, all that we know for sure is that we live–short or long–and we die. The fact that any of it matters is all in our heads.

Having said that, I want to live a life of meaning. I want to do something “good” with my life. That is the story that I have come up with and it is what gives my life meaning. We all need meaning because we are intelligent beings who have a strong sense of “self.”

This young man who killed these children had reasons for his actions, just as our politicians and corporate leaders have reasons for the massive bloodshed that they cause. I don’tknow what the answer is. I don’t think there is an answer because we are all too much in the middle of this mess. We are like ants who have crawled up on a blade of grass and think we see the world when we haven’t even explored the front lawn. We cannot even begin to comprehend how limited we are. We have just enough self awarenes (I was going to say intelligence, but I think self-awareness is a better term) to think that we have important stories to tell that make sense. But we aren’t enlightened or honest enough, or something of that sort, to accept that our stories are just that–stories. There is something really wrong with the set-up of humanity on this planet. We inundate ourselves with “information” yet it is information signifying nothing. Somehow along the line, we went down the wrong path. Any beautiful thing that humanity has created has its dark side. Look at a cathedral, so beautiful, to worship God. And yet, the politics, the power, the control that the church exerts over those who walk into that church–the “little people. Is it not obvious that over and over and over and over down through history, it is the same story–those in power use and abuse those who don’t have power. It’s all perverse and it does not change.

So when we look at the senseless act of a lone gunman killing innocent children, we must find justifications, reasons why it was just him, experts to come forward to explain why he did what he did. And then, we can hear about the heroes–the teachers who shielded the children and gave their lives. But how sick this all is–that we must find ways to make ourselves feel better about something that we should never feel better about. No act of heroism can ever overcome the dark side of humanity. Because in order for heroism to occur, something evil has to happen. That is the disturbing thing about the set-up of this world.

I am rambling on here, I am aware. But this is what i talk about in my book that I have been writing and I am completely filled with it in my mind and heart. The question of “free will.” Less and less do I believe in such a concept. less and less do I believe in good and evil. More and more do I believe that we are ants desperately fighting with each other to climb onto a blade of grasssop we can look down our noses at those below, willing to kill in order to be above, to stand out, to have a moment of meaning, before we die ourselves, living lives of fear of the unknown–with a media that more and more feeds on that fear. I am one of those ants, by writing this, I contribute to the desperation of trying to figure it all out when I am incapable of doing so. But I am compelled to try, or what else would I do with my life that would give it meaning?

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

CONFESSIONS OF A ONE-TIME MURDERER

Why do we humans torture and kill? Oh, it’s one thing to kill in a moment of passion or for survival. But to concoct a simple or an elaborate plan, analyzing and calculating with cold-blood precision the best and most efficient ways in which to take the life of a single individual or of a million. Where does that urge come from? Why do we like to watch it endlessly and pretend we are doing it ourselves in games? And then, what makes us turn the idea of killing–the tantalizing fantasy of it in our minds–into reality?  

I have felt that detached curiosity, that heady grip of power over another. I have taken that leap and experimented through actions. I have tortured and murdered. I did it once. And then I stopped. But why did I stop–because some people don’t. Some people keep on going.   

In the two-storied house my family had animals. I was five when we moved there and I hardly remember the house before that one. It had been in the country, near Merced, and there had been a big field in the back with cows. When we moved to the two-storied house in Los Angeles, Dad wanted to bring the country with him. He loved animals. Mom didn’t. Actually, she liked them well enough as long as they were in the wild where they belonged and not in our house. Although, now that I think about it, Mom would have loved to have a lamb if it would have stayed little and cute and never grown up. Or maybe a goat because they eat anything and they might have eaten some of the other animals, which would have made Mom happy.

But we didn’t have a goat or a baby lamb. We had geese and ducks, chickens and roosters, a guinea pig, a cat and a German Shepherd named General. The geese and ducks were ill-tempered and made big splats all over the backyard, which I hated as much as Mom did. They lived in a pen at the way back of the yard but Dad liked to let them out so they could run around and flap their wings. At the end of the day it was nearly impossible to catch them. They were almost as big as me and would bite if I came near. When I waved my arms and stomped my feet, trying to herd them towards the cage, they backed up for a second, but then they’d realize my plan and hiss and spit and come at me worse than ever, like zombies from a horror movie. I always ended up running away, crying.

Dad was the only one with authority over the animals. He’d shake his head at our feeble attempts, give a command and a whistle and somehow or other, amazingly, they obeyed. Much as Janna and I tried to imitate exactly what he did, it never worked for us.

None of the animals belonged to me. I thought when we got the guinea pig that maybe it could be mine but the first time I touched it I found out I was allergic. My sinuses closed up and I couldn’t breathe. My skin became covered in itchy bumps and my eyes swelled shut. It was horrific. After that, I used to stare at the guinea pig in its cage and wonder what it had against me. Whereas before it had looked sweet and cuddly, it now looked sinister and monstrous, beady little eyes staring back at me with malicious intent.

One day, my older sister Janna came home with a mouse. I don’t know how she got so lucky but she did, and I didn’t, which seemed to be the story of my life. The mouse was adorable. It was brown with a twitching nose and whiskers and bright, lively eyes. Janna named it Jasper. She kept it in a cage by the back porch and she loved to take it out and play with it.

I asked if I could, too, but Janna refused.

“Baby!” she said. “If you touch Jasper I’ll kill you!”

I hated being called a baby. I didn’t mind being threatened with death. Of course my sister would never actually kill me.

One afternoon when Janna wasn’t home, I took Jasper out of its cage and went into the family room with it. I sat on a chair and looked at the mouse. It was wriggly and nervous. It wouldn’t stay still. I hadn’t realized how wriggly and nervous a mouse could be and I worried, on no, what if it does get away, Janna really will kill me.

The mouse climbed up my arm and tickled my chin. I put it back on my lap. It climbed up again and I put it back again. It wouldn’t stay still. I held it a little tighter. It wriggled furiously, right out of my grasp and onto the floor, immediately trying to scurry off. I grabbed it and the little creature twisted like a contortionist, back-flipping out of my hands and down to the floor. I quickly grabbed it again.

“Bad Jasper,” I said, squeezing tighter.

It wouldn’t stop wriggling, so I decided to punish the mouse and teach it a lesson. I dropped it on the ground and then picked it up before it could get away.

I continued to do this, dropping the mouse and picking it up again. As I did, I became acutely aware of how delicate the mouse was, how tiny and vulnerable. I marveled at how perfectly it fit inside my hand, which was small because I was small.

But the mouse was much smaller and more vulnerable than me. Before holding the mouse, I’d felt like the most vulnerable person in the world. But here was something much more vulnerable. It had a little heart that beat in such a frantic way, I was sure it would burst right out of the mouse’s chest. It had bones that could crack; teeny, tiny bones thinner than twigs, maybe even as thin as straight pins. It had flesh that could be cut and blood that could flow from the inside out. When I squeezed the mouse, I felt how the little body yielded to my strength and power.

Once again, I dropped the mouse on the ground and watched as it tried to run away. Then I grabbed it, squeezed a little harder… and dropped it again. I kept doing this, watching dispassionately, and after a while the mouse didn’t try to get away so quickly anymore and then, it hardly moved at all, just feebly fell on its side, its legs not working and splayed at odd angles.

Eventually, it didn’t move at all.

At that point, the mouse felt different in my hands. No more twitching whiskers, no more beating heart, no more squirming body, just a limp and lifeless ball of fur. The body now felt terribly heavy, an unnatural heaviness that was out of proportion to its little size. Its eyes darted no more, just stared, empty black holes with the light forever gone.

How was it possible that a few minutes before the mouse had been filled with life, absolutely filled with it, and now, the life was gone? What had happened?

I had a sudden realization. I had done this! I had taken the life away.

In that moment, a sort of evil came to me. I might have only been five, but I understood that I had the power of a god and it was a heady, delightfully sinister feeling, that feeling of power, the power to inflict pain and even death on another.

It wasn’t that I, myself, was evil. It’s impossible to know exactly what evil is. You can’t say, “Here is evil,” in the same way you say, “Here is a cat.”

Evil isn’t a thing. It’s not like you can find evil at a certain location, as if someone could say, “Okay, just drive down this street, up that hill and around the bend and there it will be, you can’t miss it—a cloud of evil by the side of the road.”

You can’t order a cup of evil. You can’t rub it on your body like lotion or eat it like bread.

Evil isn’t a person, either. People think of Satan as evil, and yes, Satan is evil—if you believe in Satan, that is. But, still, Satan isn’t EVIL.

Evil’s a word, just like truth, justice, love, and hate. And who knows exactly what they are, either?

Nobody knows, not really. Nobody knows if any of those words actually exist apart from we who have created them.

So, that afternoon, holding the dead mouse in my hand, I felt surrounded by evil and the desire to let it enter me, fueled by the heady feelings of power and control that killing the mouse had aroused.

At the same time, I felt horror and guilt—not that I’d taken a life, because that reality hadn’t yet sunk in, but that I might be found out by my sister.

And then, the most terrorizing realization of all made my insides churn uncontrollably. My parents would find out!

And this was where the real horror of my actions began to sink in. First, with fear for myself because of the consequences I would surely suffer when my crime was discovered. I hadn’t known it was a crime until I’d realized there were consequences that went with it. Consequences beyond myself, because what I’d done affected not only the mouse (it was undeniably dead and had probably suffered pain) but also my sister, since she would be mad at me and heart-broken to have lost her mouse.

Then, there were my parents who would be disappointed that I’d not only killed the mouse but that I’d hurt my sister. Most importantly, I had disobeyed a command not to take the mouse out of its cage. Because of my disobedience, disaster had fallen upon me and my family.

That was about when I looked at the limp form of the mouse and was hit with a sudden epiphany and I thought, with a whole new understanding, “I killed Jasper!”

The mouse was dead, the life gone, and I could never repair the wrong. Or maybe I could?

I shook the mouse, talked to it, pleaded with it to wake up, come back to life. But it just lay there.

I didn’t actually know why it was so terrible that the mouse was dead. During the act of killing it, I couldn’t deny that I’d felt some kind of pleasure, the pleasure of power.

About ten years ago I founded a creative writing program for incarcerated youth. The kids in the program made all kinds of interesting confessions in the course of their writing. One teenage boy talked about how as a child he’d enjoyed chopping worms with a Swiss Army knife.

When I asked him why, he simply said, “Power.”

He liked the feeling it gave him.

Eventually, though, he stopped doing it. When I asked him why, he couldn’t articulate a reason.

Then I asked him, “What would have happened if you’d decided to keep cutting up worms, maybe moved on to bigger things?”

He grinned knowingly. “Then I’d be a psychopathic killer!”

Most people decide to curb those feelings of pleasure and power that they get from killing. I don’t know if it’s because of that process of thinking—the fear of retribution or of being an outcast, because really you can’t have a society where everyone is going around wantonly killing each other. There have to be rules to the killing game.

Or perhaps it’s because we know, even from a very young age, that this is the path of madness, the path towards the center of evil and once we let evil in so completely, it controls us and we lose control of ourselves.

The thing is, we do kill and it is a part of us. In fact, on this planet, every species kills. Humans think up ways to kill that we can justify. People don’t dare say they’re killing for pleasure. They have to say it’s for necessity.

How twisted it is to commit murderous acts and then justify them to ourselves because we know that what we’ve done is depraved and yet we do it anyway. We can watch death and torture in a movie or act it out in a virtual world and feel the pleasure and the power because it isn’t “real,” it isn’t us doing it, even though we are feeling it and living it vicariously. So we justify these terrible acts to ourselves and get rid of the urge by watching it or by waging wars in far away countries that we can feel righteous in supporting because they are “necessary” and we are on the “right side.”

As soon as I realized I’d killed the mouse, I started rationalizing what I’d done inside my head. I started telling myself I hadn’t known what I was doing. It wasn’t my fault. The mouse had kept trying to get away. I had merely been doing my best to keep it safe. It was the mouse’s own fault for being so disobedient. It hadn’t paid any attention to me. I had tried to warn it by squeezing it just a little bit and telling it not to run away and it had still kept running.

There, in front of me, lay the evidence. Staring at the dead mouse, I thought, “What will I do with the body?”

Could I hide it, say it had run away? If I did, how would I explain that it was out of the cage? No one would ever believe it had escaped on its own without me having taken it out.

Okay, then, I would put it back in the cage and just leave it there. Then, when Janna discovered it she would assume it had died of natural causes. It would be sad, but no one would blame me and no one would ever have to know the truth.

So, I put the mouse back in the cage, relieved that no one had seen me take it out and no one saw me put it back. I was safe.

Janna came home and the first thing she did was go to the cage, eager to take out her new mouse and play with it. Her scream traveled all the way upstairs to our room where I was acting innocent and unconcerned, playing with dolls. I didn’t really like playing with dolls very much, but I was playing industriously that afternoon. The next thing I knew, Janna had burst through the door and was demanding that I tell her what had happened.

I tried to self-righteously deny that I’d had anything to do with the death of the mouse. I lied, putting on my very best lying face and using my very best lying voice. She believed none of it. I began to feel offended. How dare she accuse me in such a mean fashion? In my self-righteous indignation, I almost began to believe my own lie.

But then, Dad came home from work and what was always my greatest fear happened: he looked me in the eyes and told me to tell the truth.

None of us children, when looked in the eyes like that by our dad and told to tell the truth, could ever look back and tell a lie. My cheeks grew red with shame and before I could stop myself, I was crying uncontrollably and blurting it all out and the relief of the confession was like a wave of cool water washing over a fevered body.

I pleaded for Janna to forgive me and my parents insisted that she did. And eventually, when we began to plan the funeral of the mouse and Janna took charge, imagining the drama of the ceremony, she really did forgive me and we became friends again. We made a coffin out of a shoe box and my mom sewed a little blanket for the mouse to lie on. We picked flowers and placed them inside and put the mouse in the center of the box. We invited all the neighborhood children and they arrived with condolences, solemn and sympathetic. We set the coffin up on some bricks, like an altar, in the backyard and everyone viewed the body. We gave speeches about the mouse and how we’d loved it and what a good mouse it had been, noble and well-behaved.

This, I knew, had not been the case since the mouse would still have been alive if it had just obeyed and not tried to run away, however, it wasn’t right to speak ill of the dead and so I agreed that it had, indeed, been an exceptionally well-behaved mouse. Then we cried and wailed and rang our hands. We said a prayer for the mouse, put it into the earth and Janna threw a handful of dirt on the coffin. We filled up the hole, put a cross made of two twigs tied together at the head of the mound and that was it.

I never killed again.

Well, except for bugs. Anytime I see a fly I kill it. And I’ve eaten my fair share of dead animals—cows, chickens, pigs, baby lambs, goats, all the acceptable ones. That is until I realized that our modern society murders animals in far more tortuous ways than what I did to the mouse.

But apparently, it’s not evil to torture and kill animals if it’s done inside government sanctioned facilities.

Because anything that is accepted as normal by the majority of society isn’t evil, it’s good.

Right?

For eight years I was married to a Slovenian “rock star” and lived back and forth between London and a small village in Slovenia (but that’s a whole other story). Life in the village was very different from how I’d grown up in Los Angeles. People kept chickens in their backyards, for eggs and for food. Only no one really liked having to ring the chickens necks. Except for one feisty old lady who lived a few houses down from us. Whenever a neighbor wanted to kill a chicken they called Urska and she did it quite happily, for free. The creepy thing was that years earlier, Urska’s husband had hung himself in the attic. He was the only person in the village that anyone could remember ever committing suicide.

I used to think about that–Urska’s husband hanging by his neck, neck broken, just how Urska liked to break the necks of the chickens. Did she get the irony of the situation? It didn’t seem like it. She wasn’t self conscious at all. She didn’t apologize or act embarrassed. She was proud of her ability. Really enjoyed it.

Had Urska perhaps driven her husband to suicide? Or had she rung his neck herself, and then made it look like suicide? I would never know.

But it was like Urska had found her calling, killing those chickens. I couldn’t have done it. Nobody else in the village wanted to. But they sure were relieved that she did. They found her strange, thought of her as a bit crazy. But they appreciated using her services.

In kindergarten, I encountered kids who loved nothing more than to knock stuff down. I would no sooner finish building a tower out of blocks, carefully and with great pride placing the last block on the tip top, and a kid would come along and smash it, just swing his or her arm with total delight, or kick it down and sometimes even stomp on the blocks to ensure irreparable destruction. I didn’t dare try to stop them. If I did, they would most likely turn from stomping on the blocks to stomping on me. It was always the same kids. The Destroyers.

In this world, there are Builders and Destroyers. What would happen if the Builders just kept on building without anyone ever tearing the towers down? Eventually, the entire universe would be filled with towers of blocks, until we ran out of them. If you look at it that way, then the Destroyers are very necessary. They just need to be polite about it. Say and do it in a manner that is acceptable by society. Destroyers come along and tear things down, bring things back to neutral. They take great satisfaction in doing this, just as much as the Builders take in creating.

What would happen if nobody ever died? As far as I can see, that would be a disaster. The necessity of death and destruction is a terrible lesson for a child to learn. Good and evil relentlessly balancing each other out. I’m not even sure if we choose which way we’re going to go—left or right, up or down; to Build or to Destroy.

That day, I think I made a choice, although it was probably inevitable. I had tasted evil and while I found it intoxicating, I also found it to be terribly wrong. And since acceptance in my family and in society is determined by me making the right choices, I turned away from evil, resolving to follow the path of good.

I even made a sort of restitution as an adult by publishing a series of books about cute little mice titled The Rumpoles and The Barleys, which I wrote and illustrated.

            But I still wonder why I ever did such a thing in the first place. Why do we humans feel pleasure from cruel acts?

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