The second speaker at TEDxAustin was David R. Dow. He is a litigator, a professor, and the author of Autobiography of an Execution. I think this paragraph from The Huffington Post article about his book says everything you need to know about his advocacy work:
“As a law student, I remember being offended by the legal principle that regards children as a form of property owned by their parents. Since I started representing death row inmates twenty years ago, I’ve seen one concrete ramification of this principle: executions. Most of my clients, the ones that are not innocent, did something terrible. Most of them did something terrible because, when they were young, neither their parents nor our society paid them any heed.” In regard to his mission, carried out through his job of death penalty lawyer, Dow says, “I can’t bring myself to leave until it’s done.” I know I speak for many when I say I’m grateful that Dow is leading this battle for justice in our country, day in and day out.
My first real, thorough, education about our country and the death penalty came from the book Women On the Row: Revelations from Both Sides of the Bars, by Kathleen O’Shea. In addition to some legal system basics of the death penalty and what it’s like to attempt to navigate trials and appeals, the real gift of Kathleen O’Shea’s book is the sharing of the women’s stories, and the sharing of O’Shea’s own personal story, as well. In reading Women On the Row I came to the heart-stopping realization that, with the slightest shift of circumstances, a few degrees this way or that, my fate might’ve been tied up in a similar tangle of legal twists and turns. I read the testimonies of these women on death row and heard my own voice in many of theirs.
In spite of having read O’Shea’s book and seeing glimpses of pieces of what could’ve been my life, when David R. Dow was introduced by the host as a “death penalty lawyer,” I felt not the slightest connection to those words, to that topic. With the introduction of the first speaker, Chris Riley, and his topic heavily themed with storytelling, my immediate response was Yes! I was plugged in before Riley’s feet hit the stage. But the death penalty? I felt “apart” from all of that. Not that I’d forgotten the experience of O’Shea’s book and the stories, though I guess the bright connection I felt originally had faded a bit with time, with distance.
Those who study human behavior and the brain tell us that our consciousness holds apart and away from us – at a “safe” distance – that which threatens us, so that we can go about our daily lives, so that we can function and thrive. I can only imagine that a big part of what my brain keeps partitioned from me is how closely Dow’s advocacy for those on death row matters to me. I could’ve been the daughter of a woman on death row, or it could’ve just as easily been me.
My mother was a mentally unbalanced woman. She was emotionally, psychologically abusive; she was violent. For the duration of my childhood and early teen years, I responded in the play-dead possum way. It kept me alive and in one piece (physically, at least). In my middle-teens I began to stand up for myself verbally, and while that sometimes felt better – in that I was no longer a completely passive victim – it only served to fuel my mother’s rages even further. In my late teens I grew taller than her by a couple of inches, but my level of righteous indignation was growing leaps and bounds. My mother’s various means of manipulation and humiliation were extraordinary. I’d taken psychological, spiritual and literal slap after slap, kick after kick, for too long. No one – not my father, other family members, neighbors or teachers, Girl Scout leaders or my friends’ parents – intervened on my behalf.
In fact, some of the nuns at my school added to the burden of my mother’s abuse by blaming me for it. They punished me. They told me God was disappointed in me for my failure to respect and honor my mother. They condemned me for all the “lies” I told about her. There was no refuge from my home life anywhere. I was bullied at school by other kids, and the teachers who could have, should have been advocates, some of them only shamed me further and made me feel more alone, helpless and hopeless.
As much as I wanted to, I never responded to my mother’s violence with violence. Well, to say I “wanted to” is not accurate. What I mean is that I wanted for it to stop. My mother, I mean. I wanted her to stop; I wanted the abuse to stop. I was desperate for a way out, a way for the never-endingness of the pain to be over. In the voices of Women On the Row, that’s what I heard ringing out: desperation. I recognized that above all else, because desperation has been my voice. That’s how I know how easily my life could’ve turned into a barbed-wire tumbleweed of police-car sirens flashing red and blue, the cold metal crush of handcuffs, interrogations and courtrooms and confinement. It takes just one act of desperation to ruin a life.
One night, when I was seventeen, my mother picked up a knife in our kitchen. She’d had one too many amber glasses of Jack Daniel’s (with which she self-medicated). My mother came toward me, forcing me backward until I was trapped in the angle of the L-shaped kitchen counter with nowhere to go. She was screaming, irrational, her brain’s faulty chemistry and the alcohol were doing their Jekyyl & Hyde monster show. Her grip on the knife was tight and the blade was flashing like a crazed one-winged silver bird, darting and diving, no more than three feet from my face. My modus operandi of survival – playing possum – was not going to save me this time. Drying in the dish rack next to the sink was another, bigger knife. I grabbed hold of it. In that burning, shrinking into tunnel-vision, merry-go-round dizzying and disorienting, nausea-inducing moment, I was sure it was going to come down to her or me. And I did not want to die.
The realization that I didn’t want to die surprised me.
I had been praying that I would die. That my mother would finally kill me and put us both out of our misery. I was so tired. Utterly exhausted. I was hollowed out to a thin shell from the constant hypervigilance required on the daily battlefield of the homefront. So weary of crafting camouflage, foxhole digging and diving, the minefield tip-toe-walking existence. I was worn down by all the secret-keeping that goes along with abuse, all of the lying to protect my family, and all of the repeated heart-crushings that attended not being believed on the rare times I mustered the courage to reach out and ask for help.
“Do it! Do it! Do it!” my mother taunted, daring me to use the knife I was holding. She was barefoot, wearing a tangerine nightgown, her hair a wild mess. She was lit up and frenzied, something like mania. She had it in her mind that I’d stolen a necklace from her. She was prone to paranoia and would hide her jewelry, then forget where she’d put it. Logic would not be a weapon I could use in this fight, that would be useless and much more likely to inflame her further. She spat “Bitch!” and “Slut!” at me. She raised her knife-wielding arm higher and cocked it back – so I raised my knife too. Her expression shifted then, into something different, into something I didn’t know. She was a new version of herself that I had not met before. In her trembling, in her wide, huge-pupiled eyes, I saw past her fury and her venom. I saw that, for the very first time, she was afraid. Of me.
I could not believe it.
I had been living in fear of my mother – terrorized by her moods, her abuse and violence, the serrated edges of her withholding, her without-warning shifts from light to dark in the flash of an instant – for as long as I could remember. She had tried to kill me, outright, more than once. And yet here she was, on this day and in this moment, terrified of me. She looked like a young child, a tiny girl, feral and petrified.
My heart broke for her right then and there, because I loved my mother. What most people don’t realize about my kind of dysfunctional family, is that the love you have for your abuser is enormous, it is ferocious. You keep loving your abuser more and more as the years go by, looking for new and better ways to show that love. Because you have this idea that if you can just love your abuser enough, love her in the “right” way, she will one day have no choice but to finally see it.
You think it is your job to save her. You think your love will cure her, and then your whole family, you, will be healed.
You believe that if (when) she finally recognizes how much you love her, she will stop hurting you. And you “know” that day will arrive. It has to. There’s no other choice. You have to believe that day will come because that dream is what keeps you going. It gives you the strength and courage to survive all of the abuse; it gives you a reason to keep on living in spite of the abuse. This is the very epitome of false hope, of course. But it’s the only kind you have. And you hold onto it, because it gets you through.
My mother came toward me with her knife held out between us like a sword, but she was weakened by then – like a toddler done in by her own tantrum, a forest fire that burns so hot it destroys itself – and I was able to push her arm down and away. She slumped to the floor, still holding onto the knife. I put down mine and waited until she gave in to the warm glow and golden haze of the whiskey, letting it take her like a cradling, ferrying tide – away from her insanity – rocking and lulling her to something close to human again, something close to peace. And then I washed her face, helped her brush her teeth and put her to bed.
She could’ve killed me. Or I could’ve killed her. My father could’ve walked into the fray and been killed accidentally by that silver bird with its one, sharp, unforgiving wing.
I spent the next hours packing my most precious belongings into black plastic garbage bags and hiding them, one by one, in the attic. I was going to graduate high-school in three days, and then I would leave. Without a place to go to, without any plan other than getting out. Getting away before our sick family finally broke something (or someone) that could not be unbroken.
Thank you, David R. Dow, for what you do. Thank you for reminding me how much I have to be grateful for. I help kids find and raise their voices through poetry. I teach them to explore and share their stories. I know that in order to be your own best advocate, and to effectively champion others, you must stand up and speak out, you must own your truth. At TEDxAustin, a week ago today, I revisited an old part of my story – some early chapters that I’d prefer to forget. But it’s important, isn’t it, to remember. It’s crucial to stay connected to each and every single chapter, to our entire story, to our whole self, including all of our past selves. Because that connection is what opens our minds and hearts to others. Those connections make a difference. Those connections can and do change lives. Some people, like David R. Dow, are making connections, making a vital difference, and changing our world.
For those of you new to this blog or my klepto-collaborative poetry, you should know that all the words, word pairings and phrases are taken directly from the speaker (or speakers, in other cases). These words are not my own, I just take them and puzzle them around, as if they were fridge magnets, and create a new thing – a poem – that hopefully conveys the spirit and intent of the original speaker, while presenting the words and ideas in a fresh way.
Here’s my klepto-collaborative poem from David R. Dow’s TED Talk. You know, the one I first thought had nothing at all to do with me.
Will, brother of my heart, this one’s for you.
This story never knew his father
The first sentence is a single mom
Their lives a mix and match dissolution
Tragic without parole conversation
On the thunderstruck cusp of
A butcher knife
The thrust created a consequence
This boy named Will
Left drifted dipped below
The lines of logistically dysfunctional
He invented a new family
A bad result a gang
With an affinity for more or less
A roomful of lawyers and judges
Cuff ‘em slice
Points of punishment
Into a curriculum of without parole
A strict system of step by step
Chased down the hallway erosion
A citizens agree two people a month
Through the heart execution
Kids like Will
Are falling through the cracks
Created by a big gnarly rocket
Of failed legal systems
Compassionate modes of intervention?
We’ve got to chase down reinvent
The best possible vein
Of moral imperative
Let’s intervene early
Followed by a trial of
Enormous social resources
We can make the picture bigger
Care for kids like Will
The way we’ve never done before
Lock yourself to this idea
Of providing embracing
I’ve read the records I know the story
Professor, I don’t mean any disrespect
But this isn’t rocket science
We all agree on our homework
Nudge that person that Will
Like a parent should
Create a chamber of hope
Lock yourself to clemency
Help re write
With chapters of people in the room
Focused on making a difference
I’ll write the first saving sentence
From a habeas corpus
True mother father like
Invest in innocence
Equal rights handcuffed
To the very beginning
Guaranteeing a real childhood
A wide long safe life
Don’t forget Will
The photo above is by my husband, Gary Lanier. I love the way he sees the world.