Lessons From My Pen Pal On Death Row

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.

I’ve saved over 200 hand-written pages from Matt.

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.)

Matt kept me updated on the lives of his loved ones, and sometimes sent photos of his family, their homes, and their dogs.

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.

Sometimes he’d send me articles that might be helpful to me, or that referred to a topic we had previously discussed.

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??”

He sent me hand-drawn greeting cards (traced and colored with crayons and pen) for my birthday and various holidays.

The End

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.

Courage

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?

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32 Responses to Lessons From My Pen Pal On Death Row

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  8. Dee says:

    I grew up in a time when gangs,drugs and violence took a bite out of my peer group early on (late 80′s all of the 90′s) I thought I was a good Mother until two if my four boys were sent to Prison for violent crimes.All my life my childhood friends were living the life and along the way go to prison here or there for this or that,I never really stood in opposition to their choices on a Human/Member of this Society level. Until I got the phone that one of my own was not the offender, this time my baby sister was brutally murdered and It shattered my entire perspective about the Monsters I’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with my entire life- The Monsters’ I feel responsible for creating. Recently the Man that shot my Sister was in Court being sentenced and all of the things that ran through my mind while I looked at his family applied to me as well, meaning- I looked at them and thought what kind of people make someone like this (same question could be asked of me with my boys) I don’t understand how he had support from anyone after what he did and why, (same could be said of me) I realize the chickens came home to roost but as for me all the cliche’s in the world are failing to alleviate my guilt and pain and anger. I am heart broken that she was killed and its not getting better. I hate that person so much and no matter what I do she is still gone and he will be receiving mail and support from friends and loved ones that don’t see the Monster only the isolated act, they no doubt justify just like I’ve done and you as well, He is a Monster for taking a life that was never his -excuse me two lives because she was pregnant. So after thirty years and god knows how many visits with his kids and family he may be released to live again out here amongst the world. And Its killing me because how in the world can that ever be ok?

    • Kimberly Eclipse says:

      Hi, Dee. First, I am so sorry and horrified to hear about the murder of your sister. I have 3 siblings whom I love and are very close to, and I cannot imagine losing any one of them in the tragic way that you lost your sister. The pain, anger, and guilt you are feeling sounds unbearable, and although I don’t know you personally, after hearing your story I hold you and your family in my heart.

      Losing your sister and her baby to a Monster who is still receiving support from his loved ones (and who may even be released one day), is just not fair in the least bit. I acknowledge this, and the sharing of your story has certainly confirmed it. The Monster in “Matt” is still there — right along side the human part of him. And although I was able to connect with the piece of him that is “good”, I would never deny the dark side nor justify the sick act that he committed. Is it wrong for me to reach out to his “good” side? I suppose it depends on who you ask. All I know is that my compassion for victims and their families is in no way diminished by my compassion for Matt, just as the weight and horror of Matt’s crime is in no way diminished by any friendly words he ever shared with me.

      I was hoping that this post did not leave the impression that I care more for death row inmates than I do for innocent victims and their suffering families. This is far from true. It’s a complex issue, one that fills me with conflicting thoughts that I could never adequately squeeze into a single blog post. So I thank you for sharing your comment as it expresses the other half of what I’m feeling…except in a more powerful, heartfelt, and helpful way than I could ever write it.

      Please let me know if there is anything I can do to support you at this time.

  9. Luann says:

    Hi Kim,
    I finally sat down and read this which sparked my interest from the moment you posted it. This piece was absolutely fabulous and made me think if I would ever be brave enough to do the same even though I would like to think I would.
    My favorite part was the ” Courage” passage, every word was so completely accurate ( in my option on at least).
    I have a few questions if you can or are willing to answer;
    1). How did you initially begin writing to Matt and how did you find him?
    2). If he contacted you today, would you continue your relationship with him even though you know first hand of his “possessive” ways?
    3). Lastly, did you ever meet Matt?

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I look forward to reading a lot more from you! :)

    • Kimberly Eclipse says:

      Luann! Thanks so much for checking out ABL. We’ve come a long way since homemade Ouija boards and NKOTB. (Okay, not really. Lol.)

      As for your questions:
      1.) I think I googled “pen pals on death row” and found a website called PrisonAngels.com (which is now a website for really shady online dating, lol).
      2.) Yes. But only if he could accept that I would only be writing occasionally, as time permits. And really, that’s an understanding that ALL friends have, inside or outside of prison.
      3.) No, we never met, but we’ve spoken on the phone few times.

  10. Dear Daughter-in-Law,

    I commend you on your extreme desire to converse with persons of divergent opinions while offering the fullest measure of respect to everyone. And you probably do that better than anyone I can conjure up in my memory bank. And you offer more than mere respect…you challenge yourself to learn from those who disagree with you. That is a rare and admirable quality. Your writing and your counsel is also transparent and marked by an integrity of thought and moral/ethical centering that I believe is rooted in love for your fellow human beings. That is why you will become so very good at what you have been training yourself to do. As for the charge that you might be becoming “preachy,” it is judgmental in that it presumes “preaching” to be a negative aspect of communication. But preaching is an art form whose product is shaped by honesty, extensive study, introspection, integrity and love just to name a few of the basics. So…keep counseling, preaching, loving, and bringing your message of peace and well-being to this hurting world. I’m with you all the way.

    DIL

  11. Steph says:

    I have several disjointed thoughts regarding this post that I wanted to share:
    1) I am so touched both by your compassion and the circumstances that inspired you to contact “Matt.” I was also in lower Manhattan and in school on 9/11 (it was my 3rd full week living in NYC and I lived 4 blocks from St. Vincents hospital. I will NEVER forget the sounds of the abulances rushing back and forth up 7th ave..) In the 10 years since I’ve heard many stories of how those of us in that “middle ground” – who thankfully didn’t lose a loved one directly, but were closer to the madness of that day than your average American because we lived there – did something different as a result of that tragedy, but your specific idea struck me as just very beautiful and not something I would have thought of or could have done at that time.
    2) I found your experience interesting to read about, and again am impressed by your compassion. I would have a hard time getting past this person’s crime to get to know the rest of who he is. And I do still feel that there are certain acts a person can commit that by committing them they forfeit their right to life. I believe the death penalty is appropriate in certain circumstances. I’m curious if/how your feelings about the death penalty changed or stayed the same as a result in knowing Matt. Also you reference several times that you were still like a child at the time you first reached out to Matt. Do you think you would not have reached out to him if you had been older at the time of 9/11? (just curious)
    3) I loved your final thoughts in the piece. It did make me think about those I ma
    have wronged in some way, and that in a way it is perfectly fair for those people to be so upset by my actions that they have no interest in learning anything more about me. It’s sad but it’s also fair, as I have done the same as others I felt had wronged me

    • Kimberly Eclipse says:

      Thank you for sharing all of this, Steph! Great questions, too. (Which…duh…is because you’re smart and fabulous…and I’m not just saying that because our husbands are practically married, making us in-laws, maybe?)

      As for your first question, no, my overall opinion about the death penalty hasn’t changed, although I would say it has become more layered and complex. This post, for me, is more of a testament of our unifying humanity than a political statement about the death penalty. So please forgive me for not going into much detail about my stance on this issue here on ABL. (Although we can certainly talk in more detail about it at another time…like when I become your next door neighbor. Wink-wink.)

      As for your other question, I don’t think age played a role in my decision to write to Matt. However, it did play a role in how I interacted with him. I felt SO guilty and terrible for having less time for him, when instead I should have been more firm in addressing his unreasonable expectations. That’s what a good (and brave) friend would have done. Sigh!

  12. Adriane says:

    I am so angry with “Matt” for “rejecting” you when he realized you didn’t have as much time as you once did. You reached out to him when others would have spit on him, and that’s your thank you? A manipulative, superficial “I wish you luck, but I think it’s time we say good bye”? This apparently hit a nerve with me… Looks like I’ll be processing this some more b/c this isn’t even half of how I feel!! :)

    • Kimberly Eclipse says:

      Oh, I actually was really mad at first! And later I felt foolish because I realized that I had been kind of manipulated into feeling so guilty (see my comment to Steph above). But now? Now I’ve come to terms with it; I did all I could do with who I was and what I knew about life at the time.

      And yes, I see that this post really has struck a nerve with you! See, now you’ve got me all curious and nosy. ;)

  13. Sheryl says:

    I feel wildly conflicted about this post.

    I have had my own experiences with a “monster” and while I would never allow that person back in my own life, I do genuinely hope that he has a fulfilling life, and finds people who can look past his mistakes and be his friend flaws and all.

    It makes me very sad, though, that at the end of your friendship he seemed to be displaying behaviours that … It makes me sad to see how his actions backslid????
    I’m not sure entirely how to say what I have in the back of my head right now.

    But thank you.

    • Kimberly Eclipse says:

      Hi Sheryl! The attitude you have toward your “monster”…I’ve heard similar sentiments from other victims. Not all, but some. Which gives me great faith and hope in people – in their resilience, compassion, and integrity. Rock on, lady.

      I think I understand what you mean about the backsliding. His possessiveness, jealousy, and anger are part of who he is, and I think that those traits will forever be his greatest obstacles in life. Like for me, I struggle a lot with anxiety and fear. They never completely go away because that’s who I am, and it’s the temperament I was born with. But over time I’ve developed some good coping skills. I don’t know that Matt developed better coping skills for his anger, but in prison he did seem to mellow out with age. And also, I think he does well in prison life. It actually suits him to have that structure — he’s one of their “best” inmates, if that makes sense; a star pupil who follows rules and gets rewarded for it. (He “earns” an extra shower in the summer because of good behavior, for example).

      And no, thank YOU for your thoughtful comments.

  14. Dear Daughter-in Law,

    I fully expect myself to be objective here (or at least honest). I disagree completely with Cindy. To date, I don’t experience any of your writing as “preachy.” What I experience is page after page of insight on the struggle to live and love bravely and generously in spite of one’s fears and insecurities. To say the least, this piece is amazing for the courage and humanity that form its genesis. And if there is anything preachy yet to come – well…it comes with the territory. Every life and every discipline is formed in part by some “Gospel,” some field of beliefs that become the clay of our world – view. Religion has its Gospels. Psychology has its Gospels etc.. Stay in touch.

    Love,
    Dad-n-Law

    • Shannon says:

      I don’t know you at all, so I have no bias… but I agree, I don’t find you preachy at all! You’re just describing your experiences and thoughts on things. Part of bravery is dealing with those who don’t agree with what you’re saying though… it’s the risk we all take when we speak our minds.

    • Kimberly Eclipse says:

      To my esteemed father-in-law…

      Yeah, I see what you mean about “preachiness” (or perceived preachiness) coming with the territory, to some extent. And by territory I mean that of writing an opinion piece dealing with delicate and complex issues, which may be read by people whose moral code is different from my own.

      Having said that, I would certainly be open to suggestions (specifically from those with dissenting opinions) about how I could express passionate opinions in a better way. If they seemed reasonable, I’d take the advice, I think. I hope. Well, I better!

  15. Cindy says:

    I saw your article on the bride site and thought I would check out your blog. I am kind of disappointed that your blogs have taken that of a preachy tone and seem to be one sided thinking. Sigh if only therapists would not do that. I don’t know but it’s just my opinion and I was brave enough to leave it here which is the point right?

    • Brian says:

      Just curious. Why do you feel this post is one sided? I suppose it really is due to the fact that it’s about only what was learned by Kimberly and not from her pen pal.

      What else were you looking for? No malice here. Like I stated above. Curious about your opinion.

    • Kimberly Eclipse says:

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Cindy. I certainly welcome opinions that differ from my own.

      If you could share which specific statements in my article came off as offensive, I would gladly take a closer look at them. Also, I welcome any specific tips or suggestions you may have for me in terms of making my tone less preachy. Lastly, as for this piece being one-sided, I would like to know what “other side of the story” you would’ve wished to read more about. Perhaps I – or another commenter – could write more on that perspective?

      Thanks.

  16. Shannon says:

    Kim, this is seriously brave and important stuff you’re writing about here! Your friendship with this man on death row was a really really courageous thing to do, and I TOTALLY GET what you’re saying about seeing people for everything they are, not just defining them by the one horrible (or maybe not so horrible as the case may be) thing they are “known” for. This is the sort of stuff I think and talk about all the time, and it can be hard to find people who “get it.” The people we hate usually represent the things we hate in ourselves, even if those parts of ourselves are pretty small. Compassion and empathy is the only way forward to a place of understanding ourselves and others. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and thoughts about this man. I’m sharing it on my facebook page, because I think that everyone should hear this story and take a good look at the dark (and light) parts of their own humanity.

    • Kimberly Eclipse says:

      Shannon! Thank you so much for this eloquent comment.

      This: “The people we hate usually represent the things we hate in ourselves, even if those parts of ourselves are pretty small.” Very true. And I have a psychology textbook and accompanying lecture notes to prove it!

      Also. You shared this on your Facebook page and have thus officially rocked my world. Yay Canada! ;)

      • Anonymous says:

        Yay! I sort of have aspirations of being a counsellor one day… I’ve taken a few psychology courses, but I noticed a long time ago that the things I hate in the world are the things I don’t want to be, and am fighting against/pushing down in myself. I try not to say “never,” because those “never” things are inevitably the things I end up doing or being… Oh, life is so strange and interesting, and I’m so into your blog!!

        • Kimberly Eclipse says:

          Awesome – the world needs more counselors! So if there is anything I can do to support you if you end up pursuing this career, let me know.

          Also, what you are experiencing is VERY common. (Umm…I mean, the whole “hating the things in the world that you don’t to want to be” thing. Not the “I’m so into your blog!” thing. Lol.) Life is strange and interesting, indeed!

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