more on this – an extraordinary documentary

Many people can connect with a restorative approach when the hurt or harm involved is quite minor. In the context of really horrific events, most of us will shut down instantly to even the possibility of this. That’s why the documentary mentioned in the previous post is so powerful. Who could even imagine the scene near the end of the film, in which the mother and daughter of a woman raped and murdered at the age of 26 hug Gary Brown, one of the two men responsible? Who could believe the picture below even possible?

It sounds simply crazy, doesn’t it? Why would Ami White, who was five years old when she lost her mother, Cathy, want to ever lay eyes on either of the men responsible for her death? Why would Linda White, Cathy’s mother? The story is told here, and some testimony Linda gave to the House Judiciary Committee in 2009 is here [currently unavailable, it seems]. The documentary, again, is here, in four parts (about 45 minutes).

For many in a similar position, of course, there is no desire to have any connection at all. But for some there are lingering questions, and for some a connection to the perpetrators of the violence is felt to be a necessary part of healing. They feel a need to communicate to the other person something of the quality and depth of their grief, and to feel that they have truly been heard. They may also have a curiosity about the perpetrator: What drove them to do what they did? Where did it come from? They hope that some kind of more human understanding may help the process of living with almost unbearable loss.

The preparation for this kind of meeting takes a long time, needless to say. This particular meeting took place 15 years after the murder and involved over a year of work I think to bring about – many meetings on each side with the really wonderful facilitator, Ellen Halbert, who is the one in the picture below. The first stage of contact was an exchange of letters, and only some time after this was an actual meeting arranged. The courage of Ami and Linda White that comes out of this film, and also the compassion, is just extraordinary. (Interestingly, Ellen Halbert also came to this kind of work in part out of a violent experience in her own life: she had been raped, stabbed four times, and left for dead in her own home by an intruder.)

Another day later and I’m still demolished by this film, finding it hard to focus on much else. One of the things the Whites discovered when they began to participate in the program was the nature of Gary Brown’s life. His childhood was extremely abusive and he was taking all kinds of substances, including heroin and cocaine, by the age of eight, the year, also, of his first (of ten) suicide attempts… As the prison warden says at one point in the film, looking through Gary’s records: this kid never had a chance. And one of the most beautiful moments in the documentary is hearing Ami in voiceover sympathize with his life over the past 15 years, in prison, as we watch scenes of that life.

Obviously this kind of process is not going to work all the time. But if this could be achieved even in such a horrific set of circumstances, imagine how much more we could do across the board if we wanted to.