Monday, March 16, 2015

On Mercy Considered As One of the Fine Arts: Part the Second

Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins won't remember the time I met her.  I'll never forget it.

It was 2003.  She was coming to Cleveland to speak at at the ACLU about the death penalty.  I was to give some general comments and then introduce Jennifer.

She was, at that time, chair of Murder Victim's Families for Reconciliation.  Her pregnant sister Nancy, and Nancy's husband had been murdered, shot to death in a Chicago suburb.  She opposed the death penalty and had, as I understood it, forgiven the killer.  I didn't know much more than that. I was eager to hear her speak.

I gave my comments, introduced Jennifer, and was quickly reduced to tears.

I write a lot about forgiveness and mercy and grace in these posts.  They are, I say, about those who give, not those who receive.  They define those who bestow them ("bestow" for they are gifts) as surely as the bitterness of hatred and vengeance define those who cannot get past them.  They aren't things that can be earned, they're not about what's deserved.  If they were, they'd be about the recipients rather than the donors.

I'd understood that in a generic way before that night in April.  I understood it in a visceral way after hearing Jennifer speak.  Stories will do that.

So, when I learned that Nancy's other sister, Jeanne Bishop, had written a book about her journey to forgiveness and reconciliation, I just naturally asked the publishers to send me a copy.  Which they kindly did.

The book is Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister's Killer.  I finished it Sunday morning, right before reading Antjie Krog's op-ed in the Times on the parole of Eugene ("Prime Evil") de Kock in South Africa.  The coincidence of mercy and mercy - and the question of whether anyone is irredeemable - are what turned what was going to be a book review into this two parter.

The crime was brutal and callous.  It was the night before Palm Sunday, 1990.  Nancy and Richard had just returned home from a family dinner.  They walked in the house and there was this kid, David Biro.  16 years old.  Sitting in a chair in the darkened house.  With a gun.  He forced them into the basement.  Shot Richard in the back of the head.  Shot Nancy twice, in the side and abdomen as she "huddled in a corner, protecting her head with her arms."  Biro fled.  Nancy lived another 15 minutes or so.  
Nancy dragged herself by her elbows again, to where her husband lay dead.  Next to his body she wrote a message of love in her own blood: the shape of a heart and the letter u.
Love you.It was the way she had signed letters to Richard over the years.  She died there next to him.
As I said, brutal and callous.  

Jeanne was, of course, horrified when she learned.  The heartsick family gathered at the police station.  They tried, Jeanne tried, to understand what could make someone kill like that.
As I did, I spoke for the first time since arriving at the station.  It wasn't a thought I had formulated; it just emerged.  I heard myself saying these words to the assembled group: "I don't want to hate anyone."
Not hating was a start.  it wasn't a finish.  

They caught David Biro, of course.  Put him on trial.  He tried to blame a friend.  The jury didn't buy it.  LWOP.  

And though Jeanne came to forgive Biro, her number one goal was to never have to hear of him.  In fact, she didn't speak his name.  For years.

But, and here's where this gets tricky.  That has to change.  She can't run from the fact of him.  For her to heal, she has to reconcile herself to him.  That means coming to speak his name.  And then, praying for him.    

I need to pause here, for a moment and consider, as she does, David Biro.  "Who was" he, she wonders when she starts praying for him.  She reports.

  • One of his high school counselors:  "Biro wasn't the worst kid I had.  But he was the scariest."  When other kids did something wrong, they'd feel bad about it.  "He didn't even understand why he should feel bad."
  • A psychiatric social worker "described him as charming, manipulative, and utterly without empathy."
  • A cell mate:  "wrote from prison to tell me that David had casually discussed the murders with him, expressing no remorse.  When another high-profile, multiple murder occurred while they were in custody together -- the shooting deaths of women shoppers at a local Lane Bryant store -- one of the victims happened to have the same name as my older sister.  The cell mate said David had hoped that it was she who had been killed."

Jeanne turns to Biblical parables to understand possibility.  Jesus, she concludes, can heal.  And apparently he does.

Praying for him isn't enough.  She has to meet him, to apologize to him for not forgiving him more openly and fulsomely sooner.  This person who has never even hinted at accepting responsibility, let alone feeling remorse for what he did.

And so, to the prison, where it seems he's no monster.  He's thoughtful.  He feels badly for what he did.  They discuss.  They see each other every couple of months.  And she sees that he's been heeled from his budding sociopathy.

Or, of course, although she never mentions this as a possibility and appears not to see it, he's canny enough to understand how to make her support him, how to manipulate her with lies and false professions.

I am, perhaps, being too cynical.  I believe in redemption.  But it's mostly not that neat.  And prison isn't a place where those with serious psychological problems tend to get better.  

If I'm too cynical, Jeanne seems insufficiently so.  Biro expresses remorse.  Hence, he's remorseful. He didn't plan to kill anyone, he says, so clearly that's the case.  She attributes all to God.  (It's no accident that Change of Heart  is published by Westminster John Knox Press, a religious publisher.)  She's deeply religious.  She turns repeatedly to the Bible and to priests and Biblical scholars and lawyers.   Folks like Mark Osler, a law professor, former prosecutor, devout Christian, anti-death penalty activist, who himself wrote a curious book, Jesus on Death Row: The Trial of Jesus and American Capital Punishment, arguing that the prosecution, trial, and execution of Jesus follow a process very like that the capitally charged and ultimately executed in this country experience.  Somehow we're to find in that parallel an understanding of why killing people here is like killing the factually innocent Jesus and is, therefore, wrong.*

There were times I wanted to toss Change of Heart across the room.  Enough with the Christian sermons.  Enough with what God can do and Jesus does and how the Bible's lessons . . . .

But you know, the book is, ultimately, deeply moving.  Jeanne Bishop's story - and this is very much her story - is remarkable.  She became a criminal defense lawyer, a public defender, because her sister was murdered.  She ultimately became an activist in the movement to abolish LWOP sentences for juveniles.  She became, if not a friend, exactly, a force for the man who coldly murdered her loved ones.  Not because she loved them insufficiently, but because love is transcendent.

And because, finally, redemption for Biro is about redemption for her.

She went to speak to 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at a Catholic school.  Her topic: forgiveness and reconciliation.  She went to mass with them.  Then gathered with them and spoke.
I told of Nancy and Richard, who had lived in an apartment only a block away from the church as a happy young couple, of the murders, the arrest, the sentence, the change in me, my visits with David.  The student's faces changed; you could see them pondering. The room was quiet as I finished; you could hear the slightest rustle of the wind on the snow outside.
The principal of the school, a lively, white-haired nun, came forward at the end to than me.  She turned to address the children: "Let's dismiss Ms. Bishop with a blessing."
A blessing? For me? I had never been given such a treasure before, especially not by angels in plaid skirts and khakis.
It's a lovely moment.  But what matters is what follows.
This is what led me to that moment: the story I had lived and told.  The tears.  The cost.  Like every blessing, every grace, it was unearned.  I had as much to atone for as anyone, and many of my scars were self-inflicted.  Much of my life I have been a striver, the girl who wanted (and got) the best grades and the best job, who cringed when she failed.  Part of that, perhaps, was the idea that I had to earn the blessing and affirmation of others and of God.  In that moment, surrounded by children, I saw the deeper truth: grace is given, not earned, a function of being loved rather than of worldly accomplishment.
So let me come back where I began, in Part the First.

The essence of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was that knowing the truth, hearing it from those who inflicted pain, brings peace.  You can't force remorse.  It's there or it's not.  But speaking truth has healing power to those who hear.  And, ultimately, to those who speak.

And they gave amnesty not because it was deserved but because it served two goods:  it led to the speaking of truth.  And it put to an end having to deal with the bad guys.  They could be, as the word suggests, forgotten - even as their evil could be remembered.

And de Kock's parole - he did good, regardless of motive.  And while he could never do enough good to make up for the evil, releasing him was, at some level, enough.  

Jeanne Bishop's take is broader still.  David Biro tells what happened, expresses remorse (real or feigned) after he's forgiven.  The reconciliation may help him, but ultimately it helps her.  She grasps from the beginning the lesson others never do.
From the moment the police told me that Nancy and Richard had been murdered, I sensed in my deepest core that hating the person who did it would affect him not a bit, but it would destroy me.  I'd heard this saying: Hating someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.  I refused to give him that power over me.
And there it is again.  It's about us, not them.

Change of Heart is not without flaws.  But insofar as it teaches that lesson, it's a winner.

*I'm not being quite fair to Osler, but I thought he stretched his analogies further than they wanted to go, and his repeated claims that Jesus was innocent strike me as flawed.  He was, certainly, if you believe him to be the Jesus of Christian faith, the son of God who killed and thereby (and by choice) took upon himself all human sin, innocent in the sense of pure.  But if the reference is to legal guilt . . . .  He was charged with blasphemy for holding himself out to be the son of God.  He did that.   Caveat:  I'm a lawyer and an atheist.  I was not raised Christian.  I've read the New Testament, studied it as a work of literature.  But I'm no Biblical scholar.  Take my readings with a large dollop of salt.


  1. "The quality of mercy is not [constrained],
    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
    upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
    it blesseth him that gives and him that takes"

    1. There's a reason I named my dog Portia.