When I was 12 years old I had a strange attraction to the misunderstood monster from a horror film called The People Under The Stairs. When I was 16 my favorite Disney character was a deformed hunchback living in isolation on top of a bell tower. And when I was 21, I began an 8-year friendship with a man on death row who was guilty of murdering two innocent people.
(Dear husband: You may be wondering what my odd choice in men says about you. Don’t worry. You are the exception.)
His name was not Matt, but that’s what I’ll call my imprisoned pen pal for the purposes of this article. I’m choosing to protect his identity. The sick and horrific crime he had committed two decades ago does not make him deserving of my protection, of course. But I’m doing it because he once was, in every sense of the word, my friend — my beloved, smart, funny, generous, infuriating, temperamental, unpredictable, and complex friend.
The Reason Why
When I first reached out to Matt in 2001, my intention was for my letters to keep him company as he waited to die. I was in my last year of college back then, and just three months earlier I had been terrified and traumatized by 9/11, having been asleep in my college dormitory just blocks away from the World Trade Center buildings when they collapsed. After I realized that our country and my city were under attack, I packed a bag full of supplies that I’d need in case things escalated. It contained a flashlight, blanket, bottles of water, and all of the cash in my savings account. The telephone lines were down, so I sent my family e-mails telling them that I loved them, just in case I never saw them again.
I was practically a kid back then, sorting through heavy stuff like my own mortality, global violence, hate, and the guilt and shame over having such debilitating fear and anxiety about it all. The only way I could restore order and balance in my life was to do something radically loving; something that would counteract the heinous things that were happening all around me:
I decided to care for the heart of a murderer.
I wondered what a monster could become if someone took the time to see him as more than just a monster. I wanted to help an unlovable person experience Love, not because his actions deserved it, but because he was a human being facing death and he needed it. (Later, when I worked in a hospice program as a counselor for patients dying of cancer, I became even more convinced that no one should die alone.)
A Surprising Friendship
So what could a young girl from New York City possibly talk about with a convicted murderer from the rural south? If you read the 200 or so hand-written pages that I’d saved throughout our correspondence, you’d find two people getting to know each other like any two strangers would. We talked smack about each other’s terrible taste in music and movies. We spoke honestly about politics and religion. He’d ask me questions about a world that had fascinating things like the Internet and cell phones, while I asked him questions about prison culture. He was inquisitive, hilarious, and interesting, and I tried to be as well. We were a good match.
The Tough Stuff
Once in a while we talked about Matt’s crime. I intentionally avoided asking him about it in my first letter because I didn’t want to define him solely for the worst mistake of his life. But surprisingly, he volunteered this information right away. He admitted his guilt. He told me why he did it and what his rationale was for killing two innocent people at the age of 19. He told me his regrets, what he’d learned, and how he’d grown since then. And he’d even enclosed a copy of the news article about his arrest and of the slayings.
One thing he didn’t talk about, however, was feelings of guilt and shame surrounding the double homicide. He regretted what he had done and felt that he made the worst possible choice while in a state of panic. But guilt and shame? No. After having been professionally trained to diagnose mental disorders, I do not believe that Matt is incapable of experiencing such emotions (which is the case for those with antisocial personality disorder, who are more commonly known as sociopaths). Rather, I believe that Matt simply would not allow himself to fully accept the gravity of what he had done. Or maybe, ten years after the murder, he simply did not want to re-open the door to those emotions.
Sometimes I’d cry at night. I thought about Matt dying. I thought about the innocent people he’d killed, and how frightened they must have been in the moments before their death. I thought about the many people in the world (whether victim or perpetrator, innocent or guilty), whose lives would be taken by the hands of evil, or by the law.
While I struggled, Matt had already spent a decade coming to terms with his impending execution. He was trying to keep a cool head. He wrote:
“My best case scenario on appeals would be life without parole. That would get me off death row, but I would still die in prison. I’ve debated in my head what I want to happen. Let’s say I have 6 years left to live. Sometimes I feel I want to enjoy those 6 years to the best of my ability, and then let them kill me. The other part wants to live for a few more years. Either way, it’s a tough shot. To be honest with you, most of the time I feel I want to live 5-10 more years and then pass on. Don’t get upset or feel sorry for me. I really don’t want to spend another 15, 20, 30 years in a cell. But whatever happens, you’ll be with me, right??”
The terrible truth is that despite my desire to be a friend to Matt until the day he died, it didn’t happen that way.
When I first started my pen pal relationship with Matt, I was practically a kid, and I had all the time in the world to devote to him. But as the years passed, I spent more time working on my career, expanding my social circle, volunteering my time to various causes, and falling in and out of love.
I was growing up.
It became increasingly clear to Matt that I could not give him the attention I once did. He was understandably hurt. But the worst part? He became possessive. Things were getting out of hand, and I caught a glimpse of who he is when he is angry. It made me wonder about what he is capable of doing upon reaching his “breaking point”. Two decades ago, he killed two people in response to his breaking point. Nowadays, after all that he’s been through and all that he’s learned, I don’t think he would go that far. But one can never know. (And no one does know what terrible things they are capable of doing in the name of love, fear, pride, or protection of their friends and family.)
In the end, Matt and I realized that we could no longer be what we once were. While I could accept this, he could not. Matt’s last letter to me said:
“I wish you a lot of luck in your studies, and I know you’ll be a beautiful bride next year at a beautiful wedding. I’ve known you for a long time, but I think it’s time we say goodbye. Good luck to you, Kim.”
It was dated on April of 2009. It is the last I’ve heard from him.
The scariest part about dealing with a monster is engaging with him or her long enough to realize that we are much more alike than we think we are. I shared Matt’s story because there is a little bit of him in all us. There is probably at least one person in the world whose assessment of your character is based solely on the cruelest act you’ve ever committed. It is all they know of you, and all they wish to know of you. There are also people who strongly dislike you and don’t believe you deserve the rights you enjoy today, solely because of your ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or status.
But you are more than all of these things combined. You are more precious than the sum of your parts. And so was Matt.
We must always be ready to look into the eyes of the people we hate. If we cannot engage patiently with the “monsters” in our society, how will we be brave enough to confront the darkest parts of ourselves – the parts of us that don’t deserve compassion or light, but need it?