All of us want to feel as though we are good people. We help others or support causes. Some of these efforts involve little moral ambiguity (i.e., helping an old lady cross the road) while others involve complex issues, where "right" and "wrong" are knotted up into an intertwined ball of suffering and culpability.
In those instances, it can be hard to untangle whether you’re doing the right thing -- whether you’re a good person, or just misguided.
I am going to be as blunt as possible, to get the worst over and done with, to tear the Band-Aid off quickly, and then I will try to explain myself. So, here it is:
I feel sorry for murderers. And I write letters to them telling them as much.
This statement should come with a disclaimer: I don’t begrudge anyone their anger. I would never tell the victim of an assault that they need to forgive, or the family of a murder victim to show compassion.
We are all unique little bundles of good and bad traits. For whatever reason, I was made with almost limitless reserves of sympathy, empathy and compassion. Even for those that do awful things.
Psychopaths to one side for the moment, I believe in the intrinsic goodness of humanity. I also believe that good people can do bad things, and that desperate people can do horrific things. I believe that we are all greater than the sum of our worst acts. Even those too dangerous to ever be released can have the capacity to shed a little ray of light from behind the bars of their prisons. Even the worst of us have some good to be nurtured.
I am probably a conservative’s nightmare when it comes to issues of personal responsibility. I have cried to tutors to get out of deadlines, I have told girlfriends that they have been driven to cheat by inadequate boyfriends. When I histrionically refuse to leave the house because I feel too ugly, it is society’s fault.
I subscribe to the notion of collective responsibility never more than when it comes to people who have been raised in extreme deprivation and have gone on to do bad things. And I don’t just mean economic deprivation. I mean deprivation of expectations, deprivation of security, deprivation of love.
I was raised with all of these in excess, and yet I have often found life a struggle. No, I have never been violent. But equally, I never witnessed violence growing up. I am not so nearsighted as to claim with any certainty that, had I been raised around guns, drugs, crime and violence, I would not be someone who fell to those things too.
But to really understand what first compelled me to write to murderers, I need to let you in to a darker side of my personality: I am fascinated by murder. Only in a detached I-like-to-read-about-it sense. Actual violence terrifies and repulses me. To explain why I first decided to write to a murderer, I need to completely open the door and welcome you all into my weird side.
It was a lazy Sunday afternoon many years ago, and, after draining Wikipedia of all its easily accessible entries on murder, I followed a link to Texas Death Row (yeah, I blame the Internet for leading me there). Under the flimsy guise of doing research for something or another, I started looking through the inmates’ profiles, particularly those close to me in age. I suppose it fascinated me that people’s lives could have fallen so low, while mine felt like it had barely begun.
My eye was caught by a good-looking man. Yes, to me, this death row inmate was handsome. No, murderers don’t turn me on; no, I didn’t write him an underwear-stuffed fan letter. This man just caught my eye and stuck in my mind. He had, like most on death row, committed a despicable crime. Along with his friend, he shot three people, killing one. I read the details and then tried to push them out of my head and get on with stuff (stuff being reading about more murders on the Internet).
After Troy Davis was executed, I wanted to find out more about other people on death row. The visibility of this one case highlighted the anonymity of most. I pulled up a list of men due to be executed in 2012. One name stood out. It wasn’t the eye-catching man, but the man that was convicted alongside him. He was my age. I’m not sure if I felt a connection to him merely because I recognized his name, or because he was my age, or just because I did. But I did.
I wrote him a letter telling him that he was in my thoughts and that I hoped he wasn’t suffering too much in these final days. Nothing more, just that.
I sent the letter just days before he was due to die. I don’t know if he read it; I never heard back. He was executed on schedule, so I suppose it now doesn’t matter either way.
After this, I started writing to other death row inmates. I tried to avoid psychopaths, remorseless people who killed only for the thrill of human suffering. Not necessarily because they are beyond the realms of my compassion -- I just doubt that they would benefit from it.
Although murder is murder, inexcusable in almost (I’m thinking particularly of abused women with this "almost") every situation, the people who undertake this monstrous act do so in wildly different contexts, with different motivations, and levels of intent. I’m not saying that pulling the trigger in the panicked height of a botched robbery is morally defensible, but that it is morally distinguishable from repeatedly brutalizing and murdering other humans with premeditation and for personal gratification.
One man I planned to write to had raped and murdered five women, discarding their bodies along roadsides and in dumpsters. I couldn’t find one sentence that I was willing to write with that horror in my head. So I suppose my sympathy does have boundaries. But if someone else can find it within them to have compassion for such a festering psychopath, then good for them. And I mean that genuinely.
That said, I have written kind words to men who have done awful things: a drug-addicted man who stabbed an elderly couple to death when caught committing a burglary, a man who shot his girlfriend in the face, a man who shot a friend during an argument over a woman.
The only thing striking about the letters is their banality. It is not a Mailer/Abbott type situation. We don’t discuss morality or philosophy or politics. The two inmates that I regularly correspond with like talking about God, which is fine with me, though I have little to offer other than, "It must be nice to believe that." They discuss daily life in prison. One simply talks about how he likes having me as a friend. The recognition of our friendship constitutes the entirety of it.
Sometimes I feel conflicted about the direction of my sympathy. I recently watched a documentary in which the mother of a murder victim wept; the man who killed her daughter was about to be executed and was receiving support from anti-death penalty activists. With tears running down her face, this woman asked why he deserved sympathy, while she spent her days alone with her pain.
That got to me. I don’t write to murderers rather than victims because they are more deserving of sympathy –- of course they are not -– but because I can find sympathy for them, when most people can’t. I suppose a clumsy analogy would be going to adopt a dog; if you are able to take on the disturbed, incontinent, violent dog, you probably should, because there are plenty willing to take the harmless puppy. But in hindsight, this assumption –- that others are taking care of victims –- may have been incorrect. This aside, I doubt that a rushed letter from a complete stranger would have the same impact on a grieving mother as it would to someone on death row (perhaps I am wrong?).
I have no illusions that I am some kind of saint. But I have been born with compassion, enough to stretch to those wretched people that most consider subhuman. Since these letters hurt nobody, and bring a small amount of pleasure to somebody, I see no problem with them.
And yet, I feel scared of discussing them -- scared that my sympathy is wrong and offensive, scared that I will one day be ashamed of myself.
But, until that day comes, I can only do what we all aim to do: follow our moral compasses and hope that, in whatever small way, we benefit the lives of others.