It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
I can assume that most of my readers are familiar with the opening to “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens. It has been used in many ways to depict the dichotomy in lives especially between prosperity and the despair of poverty. It was referred to most recently in Court Room #1 at the Northampton County Courthouse. I was there to bear witness for one of the participants in my Journey Home program in the local county jail. A young woman, teenager actually, who was being sentenced for her actions last summer when driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol, her vehicle collided with one driven by Audrey Rafferty resulting in Audrey’s death.
“Colliding with…” doesn’t really describe what happened. Mazell was traveling at 30 MPH above the legal speed limit leaving behind another accident in which she side swiped another vehicle. High on meth and alcohol, Mazell was engulfed in the thrill, if you will, and the high of a near death situation.
Two lives collided on that day. Two women who had lived very different lives. One of these women lost her life in this collision, the other lost her freedom. This brings us to the tale of two women. Like the tale of two cities, one was a life of prosperity and goodness the other poverty and despair.
The two lives collided again at the local county court house. On a warm early summer day, those interested in the case, the judge, attorneys, family and friends of both Audrey’s and Mazell entered under the large motto of the county court system established in 1752 with two words Mercy and Justice broadly displayed with the circle. Mercy seemed to take a higher priority as it was displayed on the top of the four foot engraved logo. This same motto is displayed in the lobby of the jail.
Mercy is defined as compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm. Justice perhaps the other side of the balance is the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.The words compassion and forgiveness would play out in this story but not in the sentencing or in connection with the court system which seemed to act only on justice.
Audrey’s son and daughter stood before the judge supporting each other as they read their statements of the impact of their mother’s death. They were also supported by almost fifty members of their mother’s community who stood up at the suggestion of the district attorney.
When I walked into the courtroom I only knew one of the tales, that of Mazell who was standing in a orange jumpsuit , shackles around her ankles, wrists and waist. In the seats in front of me were her mother, sister, and friend. I met her inside Northampton County jail last January (2018). She was very pregnant and seemed in good spirits. I was not aware of her charges and don’t usually check or ask until I get to know each woman better. This saves me from making prejudgements and accepting each woman for who she is not what she has done.
Mazell was a positive addition to the group. She would give advice to the other women which seemed out of line in some ways. I was curious about what was behind her attitude which seemed unusually positive. Then we started our life stories group. Seven Lafayette College students joined us each Tuesday night to write a life story based on a preassigned prompt. The first prompt was about a summer day which I had thought was positive and not too threatening. The process included giving the prompt in advance so that each participant would then have time to write a short story based on a summer day in their life. They would then bring the story to the group and we would go around the circle with each woman reading her story. All of the stories were positive in some way, going to the beach, playing in the park with children, etc. until we can to Mazell.
At first she didn’t want to read her story because it was negative. The women encouraged her to read it. It turned out to be about the night that the two women’s lives had collided. The event that formed a big black cloud that hovered over and in her heart and soul but of which she did not talk about or perhaps through dissociation didn’t even think about. Recent neuroscience research explains the impact trauma has on the workings of our brain. (For more information click here )
I begin to put together the pieces of this young woman’s life. I remember the photo in the local paper at the time of her arrest of a teenager with an attitude being arrested by the local authorities. This reminds me of a previous news article about the tragic accident in which Audrey’s life was taken. It was a difficult juxtaposition of images in my mind. One of a defiant teenager in a summer tank top and jeans being escorted by police to their vehicle. Her head held high in impudence. The other an image of a young pregnant teen in a jumpsuit mustering up the courage to read this short story of a summer’s day revealing to all who listened her responsibility of that tragic event. The first opening of a vulnerability she would explore in the months to come. A vulnerability that would reveal to me a young woman who had lived through many difficulties, turned to drugs to ease the pain, given birth while incarcerated, handed over new born child to the care of her mother, and had begun a deep journey to take responsibility of her life and heal the wounds of a lifetime of trauma. Now she stood before me in her jumpsuit and shackles unable to even dry her tears of remorse and fear.
I soon learned about the life of Audrey—a mother, grandmother, nurse and mentor. Her children bravely reading their words describing the impact this amazing woman had on their lives, the lives of the young nurses she mentored and her involvement in her local faith community. Words such as kindness, compassion, love, and support were spoken with voices holding back the weeping that embraced their hearts and souls. I learned about her grandchildren who couldn’t quite understand why their grandmother wasn’t coming over for a visit. I learned about the hundreds of young nurses who had learned to love and appreciate Audrey’s mentoring and support. I heard of a woman who at 61 years of age was going to divinity school to be a spiritual director for the young nurses she served. The words of her adult children of the overwhelming grief and loss they were experiencing reverberated deep in my soul.
It was her son who mentioned the “tale of two women.” He described one, his beloved mother with words such as goodness, compassion, and kindness. The other a poor teenager who had lived a life of poverty, despair, drugs, and crime and who therefore deserved the maximum sentence. One who was going “directly to heaven” and the other “going directly the other way.” One whose death created a deep whole in the life of her family, friends, and community. One whose removal from society would make us all feel safer and justified in our present culture of revenge and so called justice.
It was the judge who wondered out loud with the mention of Audrey’s life of compassion and kindness “What would your mother say if she was here?” It was a rhetorical question of course with no comments to follow but hinted of the word mercy. I wondered “Yes, indeed, what would she, Audrey, say to this young women standing in shackles, held in place by a corrections officer, head hung in shame, tears of guilt flowing down her face onto her hands that were shackled at her waist” What would she say? Would she see in Mazell’s eyes the love of a young women for her two little daughters that she was soon to lose? Would she see the remorse and shame? Would she, could she, imagine the life this young women could have had, and more importantly could have, with the right mentoring and chances?
I don’t condone the actions of Mazell which resulted in this terrible loss. I do not dismiss the magnitude of grief experienced by her children, grandchildren, friends and community. I did however experience a sense of sadness, grief and anger when the judge, the same one who asked what Audrey would say, condemned Mazell to the maximum sentencing and referred to her as a “criminal” with the same background as the many others locked up in the local jail. And the district attorney referred to her weeping as an act that was not remorse or shame. We expected that Mazell would go to a state facility where she could be enrolled in a young offenders program and start working on a better life for her and her children. She thought she would get 3-6 but instead the judge gave her 10-21. The discrepancy was whether the different charges would be served concurrently or consecutively.
As I sat in the courtroom observing the scene in front of the judge, the well-dressed young white adult children grieving for their mother. The young black women in a jumpsuit and shackles. I could not help but wonder if it would have a different outcome if Mazell was able to pay bail and walk in without shackles and dressed in street clothes? This tale of two women has to include the injustice of the bail system. (See: Innocent Until Proven Guilty ) So many of the women I work with sit behind bars before they have been found guilty of a crime. Some waiting for up to six months because they do not have the money or resources to pay bail. Many waiting, while their public defender, overworked and underpaid, fails to do the right paperwork or show up for appointments.
So this tale of two women is indeed the tale of two cities. Not that this crime could not happen to someone who was born in affluence and a more supportive environment. Nor that someone from a poor neighborhood does not have a supportive family. Rather it is one particular tale of how women from these different environments are treated in our criminal justice system when they make a mistake. I see too often how the women who live in poverty who do not have the resources for a private lawyer end up treated as if their life is a mistake not the actions that were undoubtedly a mistake with severe consequences.
Childhood trauma can freeze our inner selves to a life of fear and mistrust and many times leads to addictions to escape from the pain caused by that trauma and shame. Before Mazell was moved to a state facility, she received a letter from one of Audrey’s friends. A letter filled with compassion, kindness and mercy. Most of all it was a letter of forgiveness. Challenging Mazell to work towards healing and self-forgiveness. Mazell shared the letter with me and the group. We were all brought to tears as the words touched each of our hearts. I believe Mazell’s heart was broken open by that kindness. Broken open to let in the love and compassion expressed in the words from Audrey’s friend.
In the words of Eve Ensler “there is the mistake, then there is the woman.” In her PBS documentary she exposes the viewer to the complexity behind the mistakes of women in a maximum security facility. In her opening poem she states “we have frozen you in your mistake.” Perhaps we need more mercy to balance the scale of justice. In restorative practice the questions are about what harm is caused to all involved including the community and what needs to be done to heal the results of that harm. Our present criminal justice system is not about healing, it is not about mercy. It is only about justice in the most strict understanding of the word. It is about punishment, not healing, not mercy. And it results in the continuation of the tale of two cities, a tale of two women.
“When compassion is absent, all suffer, including those who withhold it.”
– Roshi Joan Halifax