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2 In Blog/ Capital Punishment/ Social Justice

WHEN THE INTERNET HAS ITS SAY ON EMPATHY

Empathy

What a week.

On September 3rd, the Toronto Star released an article written by Amy Dempsey about my relationship with a Texas Death Row inmate named Ramiro Gonzales.  I had thought the story was going to be buried in the Life section.  It was a little crazy seeing Ramiro and me smiling from the front page.  Whoa.

As you can imagine (and as I was prepared for), the reactions to the Star article were very mixed.  I’ve received many supportive messages, and for those, I am quite grateful.  I’ve had the chance to speak with people from around the world.  Some have shared their own experiences with writing men and women on Death Row.  Some have said that because of the article they’ve decided to start corresponding with Death Row inmates as well.  I’ve really enjoyed reading these messages and comments and am touched that so many have felt moved by Amy’s article.

I’ve also read some messages and comments that have been critical of my choosing to enter into relationship with Ramiro because of the horrific crimes he has committed.

These complaints can be roughly and imperfectly separated into the following categories:

  1. I am an attention seeking nut job
  2. I am a bad mom
  3. I am a bad wife and my husband is a loser
  4. I need psychiatric intervention
  5. I should be trying to befriend Bridget Townsend’s family or the relatives of other murder victims

Except for posts to my Facebook Fan Page, I have tried to restrain myself from responding to public comments sprinkled around the internet.  But I do want to answer to some of the general themes.

I’ve included some examples of the public posts.

1.  I am an attention seeking nut job

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I don’t really know how to respond to this except…

I can think of approximately 1654 easier ways of “seeking attention”.

Seriously.  I could shave my head.  I could tattoo Rainbow Brite onto my face.  I could go over Niagara Falls in a barrel filled with lobsters while naked.  All of those would be easier than this experience has been – and it’s only going to get harder.

In my very first conversation with Amy, I asked her if there was any way my work as a singer/songwriter could be left out of the Toronto Star article.  I was worried because I knew there would be accusations of trying to capitalize on Ramiro’s situation to promote my music.  Amy heard me out but explained it was important for people to know what I do and who I am.  Writing music and performing is a fundamental part of this.

I’d also like to suggest that it’s unlikely these accusations of “seeking attention” would be levelled at me if I was not a woman.  Society’s tolerance for women wanting to be seen and heard is much lower than it is for men.  I have never heard of a male activist on either side of the capital punishment debate accused of “seeking attention” when talking about his experience and what he believes in.  Women are charged with this all the time.

 

2.  I am a bad mom

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Ok, here’s the thing – I am with my kids a lot.  I mean a lot a lot.  My oldest son just started Junior Kindergarten this week, and for 4.5 years I have been his primary caregiver.  I spit my coffee out when I read these kinds of comments.  Are you kidding me?  ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?  I don’t know how I could spend more time with them and remain a sane, functioning human being.

And yes, my husband does “pitch in to help” because he is awesome and because we are a team and they are his children too.

I was going to sit here and talk at length about how I write to Ramiro when my kids are in bed and that aside from the time I was in Texas this summer, none of this has taken me away from my children.  But I’m not going to do that because I don’t think I have to justify how I choose to spend my time — also something I wouldn’t be expected to do if I was a man.  Just saying.

Even Bill Carroll on Newstalk1010 suggested he was in a position to judge how I spend my time when I’m not with my children.

 

You can hear Bill discuss how he “finds the whole thing disgusting” at 32:00.  You can also hear how (I think) John Moore received some flak for saying he would “not allow”(!) his wife to start writing to a Death Row inmate.
(The entire segment runs from 21:50 to 35:50 and for the record, Ryan and Jay were quite lovely and polite to me while they were conducting the interview.)

Speaking of wives…

 

 

3.  I am a bad wife and my husband is a loser

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(I had to find the definition for what a “Beta Male” was.  My husband and I had a good laugh about this one.)

 

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My husband, Jason, has been so incredibly supportive of Ramiro and me through this entire experience.  When Ramiro asked if I would go to Texas for his execution, I called Jason immediately.  Without hesitation he said, “If you want to go, we can make this work.”  Comments criticizing my husband, quite frankly, piss me off.

Here’s one of my favourite pictures of us together:

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Aren’t we cute?

 

 

4.  I need psychiatric intervention

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My going alone had more to do with a) the cost of the trip and b) not wanting to expose my children to a maximum security prison environment.  I can’t even imagine how many more “I’m a bad mom” comments would have been put out there if I had brought my children along.  I didn’t go alone because of “unresolved issues”. I went alone because it was more practical and so I could protect my kids.

 

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I am an advocate of therapy for everybody!!!

 

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At the risk of sounding like a broken record, my mental health would not be questioned…

 

 

5.  I should be trying to befriend Bridget Townsend’s family or the relatives of other murder victims

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I’ve left this section for last because I think it is the most important one to address and deserves the most space.

I think of Bridget Townsend and her family ever single day.

Every.  Single.  Day.

I have read all the court transcripts.  I’ve seen the media reports.  I am outraged that Bridget was raped and murdered.  I am outraged it took so long to find her.  Transgressions of this magnitude demand outrage.  But I can simultaneously hold being outraged at the injustice of Bridget’s murder with the injustice of Ramiro’s probable government sanctioned homicide.

We talk about compassion and empathy as if they are finite resources.  If I show compassion for Ramiro, I won’t have any left over for those he has harmed.  If I hold empathy for somebody who has violated women in the most egregious ways, it must mean I’ve turned my back on victims and their own experiences of suffering.  When I hear people assuming I don’t care about those who have been affected by Ramiro’s actions, I want to set the record straight.  In a few years, I will be a psychotherapist.  I will be spending a great deal of my time working with those who are the products others’ violence and failures.

But I also understand that people who perpetrate and perpetuate violence are often victims themselves. My hope is that by working with people who have experienced cruelty, we can help to stop the violence trickling down. Although Ramiro owns his actions and the pain he has inflicted, I don’t believe he would have harmed his victims if he hadn’t fallen through so many cracks. I want to help stop violence on the back end before it blows up. As somebody who has experienced sexual violence themselves, I am desperate to see a change.

And yes – I understand that even if Ramiro receives a commutation of his sentence, he will not be released from prison.  But how we treat those who are furthest on the margins of society is not a reflection of their transgressions.  It is a reflection of our capacity for understanding and acknowledging our responsibility for their failures.   Ramiro is so far out on the margins he is about to be pushed off the cliff.  I am trying to cushion his fall.

As for trying to befriend Bridget’s family, it is not that simple.  Ramiro posted a profile seeking friendship.  I responded to that ad.  Bridget Townsend’s family left Bandera years ago.  I can’t very well track them down, describe who I am, explain that I’ve been corresponding with the person who killed their daughter/sister/niece, but I’d like to be their friend too so let’s get ice cream.  It would be entirely inappropriate and is an impossible standard to hold me to.  If Bridget Townsend’s family were to get in touch with me, I would welcome the opportunity to sit and hear them.

When I was in Texas, I did spend a short time talking with a woman who’s daughter was raped and murdered.  It was incredibly moving, and I am so inspired by her strength and capacity for empathy after this tragedy.  She’s been added to my list of spiritual heroes.

This is a long post, so thanks for making it this far.

Here is your reward.  My jam for the week.

 

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Love & Light,

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3 In Blog/ Capital Punishment/ Social Justice

WE ARE ALL BROKEN BONES

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Today was bittersweet.

I’ve spent 10 hours over the past few days visiting with my friend, Ramiro Gonzales.  Ramiro is currently on Texas Death Row for a crime he committed when he was 18 years old.  Today was originally set to be his execution day.

But I should back up…

Saturday night I drove the 90 minutes from Houston to Livingston to make it to the Alan B. Polunsky Unit, where all Death Row inmates are housed.  I was very nervous.  I was nervous about being in a maximum security prison.  It was pretty intimidating. I was nervous about meeting Ramiro.  We had never spoken face to face before.  I was nervous we would run out of things to talk about.  What if this all went wrong?

My visit was scheduled for 8:00pm.  I was encouraged to show up an hour early to make it through security and get snacks for the two of us from the vending machines.  I was told this would be the best food Ramiro would receive all week(!).  When I walked up to the security building, the officer quickly waved me away and told me to come back at 7:55pm to go through security.  I went back at 7:50pm.

Going through security at the prison is much like going through security at the airport, except you’re always selected for a pat down, and there seems to be more emphasis on the breasts.  The only things that can be brought in are your ID, keys and a Ziploc bag with $25 in change.  In a country without $2 coins, this is a lot of change.  I handed one of the officers my passport and drivers licence.  There was a problem entering the IDs into the TDCJ system because of the lack of ZIP and State codes, so that took up about 15 minutes.  The confusion was now eating away at the two hours I had scheduled with Ramiro.  One of the officers suggested I come earlier next time.  🤔

Because I was stuck behind the rest of the more experienced visitors, I wasn’t able to follow them into the next building where the visitations take place.  The officers in the security building explained to me where I needed to go.  Unfortunately, I am hopeless with directions.  By the time I approached the next building, there were two doors that I could see, and I wasn’t sure which one to walk towards.  Door A was closer.  Door B had a kitty sitting in front of it.  Obviously, I went to the door with the cat.  Door B was the wrong door.  No big deal if I had been visiting a shopping mall.  Much bigger deal in a maximum security prison.

“Excuse me, Ma’am?  STOP! STOP Ma’am!!”

The kitty ran away.  I guess he wasn’t supposed to be there either.

“Turn around and walk back where you were.  You can’t be here.  Go in the other door.”

I went through the door (the one without the cat) and found my way to the visiting room.  Ramiro hadn’t been brought out yet, so I went to the vending machines and bought him some food.  This took quite a while (lots of snacks and no toonies), and the guard had to help me because I was not allowed to touch any of the food that went to him.

Finally, they brought Ramiro out.  He was beaming.  I must have been beaming too.  It was so incredible to see him.   There are no contact visits on Death Row, so I sat in front of the glass with my telephone receiver, waiting for them to take off his handcuffs and lock him in his tiny booth.

Any of the anxieties I had about meeting him melted away instantly.  The time went very fast.  We certainly didn’t run out of things to talk about.  Saturday is photograph day, so we had one taken (see above).  They don’t really train the officers in flattering photo composition.  The camera looked like it was purchased in 2003.

It felt like I was only there for half an hour.  At 10:00pm, I was told to leave.  I was tired but excited.  It hadn’t felt like it was the first time we had met.  It felt like we’d been talking together for years.  We have been exchanging letters for a long time and meeting face to face seemed simplyjust to be an extension of that.

Yesterday I arrived at Polunsky and Ramiro had this piece of artwork ready for me.  It’s a gift for my son.

Artwork by Ramiro Gonzales

Artwork by Ramiro Gonzales

Today was our last visit before I head back to Toronto on Sunday.   As we approached hour three, we both started to acknowledge how sad we were to say goodbye.  We couldn’t even say, “See you in November!” with any happiness, because I won’t be coming back in November unless his execution is moving forward.  I won’t be back until Texas is ready to kill Ramiro.  It was hard to think about before.  It’s even harder now.

I would challenge anybody who is a proponent of the death penalty to spend some time getting to know somebody like Ramiro.  Write with them.  Meet them.  Learn about their life story.  Do it with an open heart and then at the end decide whether or not this person should be killed.  It’s one thing to talk about the statistics and theories around capital punishment.  It’s another to enter into relationship with somebody who has been condemned.  There is humanity in each of us, but it’s frightening to think of sharing in a common humanity with somebody who has caused so much hurt and destruction.  It means we have to confront our own darkness.  By acknowledging the capacity for good that we share, it means we also have to acknowledge our shared capacity to hurt and create suffering.  We don’t want to do that, so we paint these broken people as an Other.  But we are all broken.

“As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is a resetting of a Body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them. There are two things which men can do about the pain of disunion with other men. They can love or they can hate. Hatred recoils from the sacrifice and the sorrow that are the price of this resetting of bones. It refuses the pain of reunion. But love by the acceptance of the pain of reunion, begins to heal all wounds.”

-Thomas Merton

I am sad, but I am also filled with so much love and gratitude.  Sad because I feel like I am abandoning my friend.  It was so hard to walk away.  Love and gratitude, because I know there are many people supporting me through this journey.  To everybody who sent me notes of encouragement, to those who gave financial assistance through The Yellow Rose Cabaret, to my church community for all your prayers, please know how appreciative I am.

Ramiro’s execution date is November 2nd.  His birthday is November 5th.  I am hopeful he will see his 34th birthday.

Love,

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5 In Blog

SOMETIMES (CHURCH) FAMILY IS HARD

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Intention. Love. Time.

Today was a difficult day.

As many of you know, my family and I belong to a United Church congregation in Toronto. Today, our congregation voted on whether to continue the pastoral relationship with our lead minister. We were basically voting on whether or not this minister should be fired.  Continue Reading →