Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A question of forgiveness


     American are a punitive bunch. We love to punish people. Nearly 3 percent of American adults are in prison, jail, probation or parole, a figure far beyond any other industrialized nation.
     But that's only the beginning. We entertain ourselves with elaborate revenge fantasies on TV and in the movies, and of course arm ourselves in order to deliver swift justice to anybody who might cross us, changing the laws to better encourage each other to stand our ground.
     While vengeance feasts, forgiveness starves, which is part of what drew my interest to a thin new book—155 pages—by Jeanne Bishop titled Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and

Making Peace with My Sister's Killer (Westminster John Knox Press: $16).
      Chicagoans of a certain vintage will remember Bishop as the public defender whose sister and brother-in-law were murdered in their Winnetka townhome in 1990. For a while the FBI painted the crime as being involved with Bishop's work in Northern Ireland, until it was resolved that a disturbed 17-year-old whose parents knew Bishop's had committed the crime, basically, because he was a sociopath.
     It's the sort of book I might normally never touch—God-directed goodness gives me the fantods—but I had met Bishop. She was the public defender randomly assigned to me when I had my own legal troubles nearly 10 years ago, and I created something of a professional nightmare for her, aided by some sloppy reporting by the Tribune, after I implored her to continue as my counsel. Everyone had a good laugh at our expense, and the prudent thing for me to do would be to toss the book onto the slush pile and not bring any of this up. But that smelled like cowardice to me, and I figured, at least read the first line and then abandon the book with a clean conscience. It begins: "Gravel crunched under the tires of my car as I drove into the visitors lot at Pontiac Correctional Center on a cold Sunday morning."
      Not quite, "Reader, I married him," but enough to keep me going. She's at Pontiac visiting David Biro, the man who murdered her kin. Bishop pauses when filling out a form, wondering what to write for "Visitor's Relationship to Offender."
     "What was my relationship to the man whose name stung my lips?" she puzzles. "Until that moment I would have written this: Him, murderer. Me, murder victims' family member. That was where the relationship ended. But now I would have a different one, one in which we were not categories, but human beings. I would meet him face to face."
      In a world where you can find endless slo-mo payback, the idea of seeking out the man who wronged you to—do what exactly? -- propels the reader forward through this crisp, challenging book.
     The killer is convicted by page 40. What we get then is Bishop's gradual progress from standard, let-him-rot victimhood to recalibrating her Christian faith to draw the killer toward her, and reassess her view of the death penalty.
 
Jeanne Bishop
   Biro remains a shadowy figure, while Bishop moves from good ("I don't want to hate anyone" she announces to a room of no-doubt startled cops when the arrives at the Winnetka police station the day of the murders) to really good, making speeches, writing op-eds, appearing before panels, once testifying on the opposite side of her own mother .
     She's rescued from unbearable goody-goodyism when she tells the FBI to pound salt after it comes around, eager to use the murders as leverage to get her to squeal on her Irish contacts.
     And one moment made me think of A Clockwork Orange. Bishop starts visiting the killer and begins coaching Biro to grasp the enormity of what he's done, going so far as to give him Little Women to read, so he can understand the kind of sisterly affection he destroyed. An unforgiving sadist who set out to awaken Biro's comatose conscience and rub its face in his evil deeds and Bishop's God-sent-me mission of forgiveness might find themselves doing exactly the same thing.
     Some parts of the book made me squirm. As a public defender, she is relieved when she gets an innocent defendant freed, "other times, though, a guilty client goes free when the state drops the charges, or a judge grants my motion to quash arrest and suppress evidence, or a jury votes to acquit. What happens then feels less like justice and more like mercy."
     To her maybe. Maybe not so much to the terrified victims, but by this point they've been backseated to the felons, who in my mind were grinning broadly and high-fiving each other, welcoming Bishop over to their side of the moral fence.
     If that seems harsh, then Bishop lost me toward the end, when she contemplated the release of Biro, and people like him, and coldly speculated why some timid folk oppose sprinkling God's grace on felons and turning them loose.
     "We set up David Biro and then others as objects of fear. Let them out, we say, and they may come after us. Our lives will be in danger. I wonder now, though, whether what we are truly afraid of is not that they will never get better, but that they might."
     No, the David Biros of the world set themselves up as objects of fear by doing horrible things. We let them out, and sometimes they really do come after us, or somebody like us. Yes, we are too harsh, and make the road to redemption too narrow. People can change, and do. But by the end of Bishop's book, I was wondering whether the victims deserved a bit more of the compassion she lavishes over the perpetrators.

21 comments:

  1. So what should we do with criminals who harm others? Like those who quote so many of certain groups are in jail? Are they really in there because they were angels?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She's not realistic.

      Delete
  2. she's a sap who will be taken advantage of, all those holier than thou types are

    but I am anti NRA

    ReplyDelete
  3. I see the paper has been redesigned, starting today. Why does Mark Brown get a color pic and you get a black and white one?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Because the paper's research shows Brown, with his virile good looks, is popular among young women, hence the color to catch their eye, while I trend more toward older readers, hence the black and white, for the nostalgia factor.

      Kidding. Because Brown is on a color page and I'm on a black and white page. I'm sure he looked at today's paper and asked, "How come Steinberg's on page 7 and I'm on page 21?"

      Delete
  4. Redesign is welcome, especially the added USA Today content. The Sun-Times was getting embarassingly thin. Hope it helps boost readership.

    It's illogical to say Americans are a punitive bunch because 3% of Americans are in prison/jail/parole. It'd be just as accurate to say America is a violent nation with a lot of rapists, armed robbers, murderers, etc. and we're NOT a punitive bunch given what little time we make criminals spend in jail (take a look at how much time a convicted murderer or rapist spends in prison): http://nccdglobal.org/sites/default/files/publication_pdf/time-prisoners-do.pdf


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We're certainly an armed bunch. But most crimes aren't murders or rapes, they're robberies and drug sales. So it would not be "just as accurate," though I imagine that's the more comforting fantasy and you'll stick with it.

      Delete
    2. The cite I provided says the same thing about robberies and drug sale. Do other Western nations not convict robbers? Do they do a lot less real time than those? I'd argue the criminal justice system of a lot of western nations (e.g., Japan) is a lot more punitive than we are. And don't even mention how lightly we treat drunk drivers. Your column is a good illustration of this - would the victim of a burglery (more common according to the statistics than robbery) think spending 1.5 years in jail is all that vindictive? Or 1 year for drug *trafficking* (more common than possession)? That said, I think the way we handle drug crimes is vindictive because of the disproportionality of enforcement.

      Delete
  5. You don't quite address this, but I wonder what effect her goodwill had on Biro. Did he ever truly repent, or even admit what he did?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's why I mentioned he's kind of shadowy. You don't get a good sense of how it affects him.

      Delete
  6. @Bitter Scribe, if he is truly a sociopath, he doesn't care. Except that he's locked up. Forgiveness does much for the victim. Bitterness soils a life. I haven't figured out what it does for an unpenatent criminal

    ReplyDelete
  7. and I suppose that lady who just chopped the kids neck with a saw , should be forgiven too or perhaps not given much punishment

    ReplyDelete
  8. I remember when the Sun-Times used to be called the Bright one.

    No, I'm not that old, born in 1959. And recall the Daily News too. Tribune we never got into,we were a union factory laborers Democrat offspring.

    ReplyDelete
  9. If I wanted the USA today paper, I'd have bought it

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's a bonus. You don't have to read that part. The rest of the paper is still the way it was before.

      Delete
  10. Annoying and off-topic, Neil, but what am I gonna do? I've been catching up on several back posts, seeing today's top photo each time I click on the next one, wondering what it is and assuming that when I got to today's column, I'd find out. But I didn't! Alas. Could you tell us what it is and what it has to do with the subject of the column? (Apologies if it is supposed to be obvious and I just haven't gotten it...)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not annoying at all. While usually there is some link to the column's subject, today, with Bishop's book, I just didn't have anything. I have some good pictures I took a few years back at a prison downstate and kept hoping I'd find them but they've vanished. It's the view off the Polk el stop, on the Near West Side, where I've been going to the craniofacial center at UIC for a long term story I'm doing on the disfigured. I thought, "Well, this will do" and am sorry that, in your case, it didn't.

      Delete
  11. Will look forward to that column. Medical info is always helpful and interesting.

    ReplyDelete
  12. It sounds like a longer piece to me than a mere column. It ought to be. And guessing it has as much to do with the (very often disgusting) way average folks view the disfigured as it does to providing medical info. That is really what we should be discussing, right?

    ReplyDelete
  13. who are you? the thought police?

    ReplyDelete