We were only a few weeks into a coronavirus stay-at-home order when the letter from the parole board arrived. The return address got my attention.
I opened the letter and saw at the top the boldfaced name of the man who had raped me 37 years ago, a name I doubt I could ever forget. The letter requested my input with regard to the prisoner’s discretionary parole. The last time I had looked him up on the Department of Justice offender locator, his earliest projected release date was 2026. I thought I had several more years until I needed to think about him being released. No mention was made of whether COVID-19 had influenced the parole board to consider his early release.
It was an odd coincidence, but both my rape and prisoners had been on my mind far more than usual. Only a few days before the letter arrived, an essay I’d written about the rape was published in a women’s journal. I had written the piece primarily for myself, an effort to control the indelible memories from that night.
After the piece was accepted for publication, the editor asked me to write a note about the experience of having written the piece. “Writing about it,” I said, “seemed an important part of reclaiming myself. It was a way to create a vessel to contain the experience and make the memories of it more manageable.”
The images etched in my memory around that event were not all unpleasant ― the first visit to my new home by my brother, sister-in-law and their infant son the evening before, the afternoon light on the newly refinished heart pine floor, the feeling of satisfaction as I made curtains for the guest room before I went to bed. And there were the other images — the terror of waking up with the feeling of a knife in my side and the muttered “Don’t make a sound, or I’ll kill you,” the nauseating smell of stale sweat, the chill of the emergency room in the middle of the night as I waited for the rape kit to be done.
I did not hesitate to call the police and to cooperate with the legal process. I considered it my responsibility. It took weeks for him to be arrested. He confessed but the court proceedings still went on for months. For me, there was no other path than to see the process through all the way to sentencing. Even then I was aware that I was far more fortunate than many rape survivors. He was convicted and received a long sentence.
In the early days of the pandemic, I was also distressed by reports of how quickly COVID-19 could spread in a crowded prison, where social distancing was almost impossible. Under such conditions, all prisoners, it seemed, had possible death sentences.
I was haunted by images of inmates crowded together. Something had to be done. I considered writing a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. When I thought about the issue, I admit I was thinking of prisoners in general ― certainly not the prisoner whose name appeared on the letter from the parole board, a prisoner whose voice and smell and words I could recall so many years later.
From the start, the pandemic presented me with a frustrating dilemma. I wanted to help; merely staying home did not feel like enough. I wanted to do more, but playing a role in freeing the man who raped me was not the opportunity I wanted. It was not him I was thinking of when I considered prisoners living in dangerous conditions. His release was not what I was imagining when I said prison populations should be reduced.
Surely I owed him no favors after what he had done. In addition to the rape, he broke into my house the night after, stole jewelry and food, and ransacked clothing drawers. What had he intended to do if I had been there? How did he know I wasn’t? My car was still parked outside. Afterward, he bragged to his friend about raping me. What kind of person would do that?
In such a short time, his actions took me from a strong and independent woman to one so fearful that I scarcely recognized the person looking back at me in the mirror. With support from family, friends, therapy ... and time, I worked my way back, more careful than before, sometimes less trusting, but finally reclaiming the person I once was.
It’s not that I thought he should stay in prison and run the risk of infection from the virus, but how could I know he had changed? When I called the parole office for details on what treatment he’d had while in prison and what his plans were for release, the woman I spoke with quoted him as saying he was a “new man.” Any prisoner knows to say that. Did I want to be the one to put other women at risk of being victimized by his dangerous behavior? Didn’t I have some responsibility? Had 37 years in prison made him less dangerous or more?
I sat with the dilemma for a few days and sleepless nights. It had been a long time since that kind of fear had kept me awake. How could I play a part in freeing him? How could I not? Recommending that he stay in prison would feel like revenge. Was that who I was?
He’d had opportunity to apologize. He could have done it at his trial, and I’m sure his treatment group would have given him the chance to write a letter to ask for forgiveness. Those gestures never came.
In my mind, I built the cases for recommending that he stay behind bars and that he be released, imagining how each option would feel to me. I shared my quandary with loved ones, who acknowledged my concerns but had no answers.
On the day I’d opened the letter, however, I’d had a gut impulse to support his early release. With all the considerations, it was still the only course of action I could live with. He may not have done anything to deserve my compassion, but he was a human being. He had gone to prison a young man and was now 60 years old. A lifetime had passed.
As the deadline approached, I finally wrote my letter. I said I would make no recommendation that would interfere with his discretionary parole. “I hope he has made good use of the treatment and services offered to him during his incarceration,” I wrote, “and that he will use the resources to make a successful transition to freedom. Although his freedom could certainly cause me some anxiety, I cannot in good conscience recommend further incarceration, especially not during this time when COVID-19 makes prison populations especially vulnerable.”
Writing the letter felt risky, but that risk seemed inconsequential compared to the risks that thousands of others were taking every day with their acts of compassion during this extraordinary time. My own gesture felt like such a small step.
The letter continued, “I wish him well and extend him my forgiveness.”
Maybe this effort, writing a letter in support of his parole, would give positive closure to my experience, the final piece of the vessel to contain the memories. Or it might break the vessel wide open. I decided to take a chance on the first outcome. It would not make the awful incident positive, but maybe, after all, something good could come of it.
Of course it was a risk, but I did what I could. And I extended forgiveness, not because he asked for it, but because it was something I chose to do. The realization dawned on me gradually: This time I had the control.
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