Sunday, July 3, 2016

Can ghosts cast shadows?

by Laura Tillman
This was the June/July read for The Social Justice Book Club founded by 
and Shaina of Shaina Reads. 
Here is Kerry's review and here is the interview Kerry completed with the author.
This book counts toward the following events/challenges: Social Justice Book Club
20 Books of Summer, Nonfiction, and the 2016 Southern Literature Reading Challenge.
Additional quote and comments on my Others' Words of Wisdom page. the aftermath of having read this, I am left with 
many reactions, though I am very curious as to others' reactions 
who have had much less contact and direct interactions 
with some of the "Johns" and "Angelas" of the U.S. society. 
Having worked in the mental health field as a 
home-based case manager, this book returned so many memories, and especially frustrations, to my conscious mind. 
I realize that much as Bryan Stevenson has developed personal relationships with death-row inmates,   
(Please read Just Mercy, if you have not yet done so!) 
I have developed relationships with those trapped in bodies, 
minds, and lives mirroring John and Angela's existence.  
Interestingly, until I started composing this review, I had never thought in terms of "trapped," yet that is exactly what happens to so many people, in my opinion. It is w-a-a-a-y-y-y-y too easy to totally dismiss anyone who could, would, or did commit such a heinous crime as a nonhuman entity, but the truth is, they are exactly that--human. Their bodies exhibit the same physiological characteristics as mine, yours, any other human's. It is the mental/emotional characteristics that differ so greatly. This is reflected in the one 'takeaway' Tillman wishes for all readers of this book:
Crimes derive from and happen to all of us.  

What, exactly, is meant by this statement? As with any set of words, it can be interpreted in many different ways from many different perspectives. For me, personally, it is very meaningful simply due to my relationships with people particularly susceptible to hallucinations, skewed perceptions of reality, and paranoia. One thing I have learned throughout this lifetime is that what is "real" to one person may not be "real" to another, and our individual interpretations of "reality" ALWAYS vary based upon our own life experiences, biases, etc. (Research keeps reinforcing this fact.) This is exactly what Tillman depicts in this book--how differently this one crime is interpreted among the rest of us.

The scene of this crime was Brownsville, Texas. A town on the border of the U.S. and Mexico, and often in the news. 
Yet, even amid the quotidian dramas of the border, the deaths of Julissa, John Stephan, 
and Mary Jane were not merely reported--they were communally grieved. (1)
Briefly, this crime involved the deaths of John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho's three young children (named above)--by their parents' own hands--literally. How can this possibly happen? Tillman painstakingly researches all aspects of this crime, communicating directly with John, interviewing residents of the neighboring community(ies), inspecting the scene of the crime, particularly the building and its immediate surroundings, and as she states, becoming "a member of the community rather than simply an observer." In my opinion, it is this last aspect that makes her reflection so authentic and "real"! I believe her training as a journalist to retain as much objectivity as possible in her writing (We know it is impossible to remove all subjectivity.) helped make this book so powerful. As she states:
I continued sifting through the landscape, excavating bits of the architecture left behind, 
like an archaeologist at some not-so-ancient dig site. I pushed the pieces I found into 
the sunlight, holding them against everything else, allowing them to exist as part of a 
single picture. Then I tried to dismantle the frame of that picture, 
so that the story stopped being an account, a report, a myth, 
and started to mingle with the texture of reality. (10)
She is careful not to judge or evaluate, simply reflect the facts as she discovers them. I personally believe she accurately represented this situation, particularly the seeming inability to prevent it. What makes me qualified to make this statement? Experience. 

My maternal aunt suffered form paranoid schizophrenia and I was with her and my uncle (her husband) when she experienced her first mental/emotional 'breakdown.' We were traveling. I was 8 years old. I remember she had locked herself in the bathroom of the hotel room and was literally hysterical; there were sounds coming from that small room I had never heard before. My uncle asked me to pack up everything, that we needed to leave as soon as I could complete that task. I will never ever forget the image of him kneeling in front of me as I sat on the bed, asking me to do that. (Throughout his lifetime, he bragged about my maturity in that chaos, and my skill in doing what needed to be done.) And, yes, I am tearing up as I write this. I miss him...and my aunt. Let's just say that throughout the remainder of my aunt's life she was heavily medicated and would, every 3-5 years, experience an emotional/mental 'breakdown' that would necessitate institutionalization to strip down the 'pharmaceutical soup' and reformulate it to enable her to 'successfully' live in society once again. Until lithium was developed--that seemed to prevent these intermittent institutional stays. Though to others, it was rather obvious that she was 'different' even with the meds. These treatment periods could last anywhere from 3-9 months and were, of course, devastating to my family. But there! Right there! That was the difference for my aunt: she not only had a stable family, but that family (mainly her mother) also had the financial resources to pay for her treatment(s). My uncle had health insurance through his employer, but especially back then, there was little to no coverage for mental/emotional health. I have spent my life in gratitude that she had these advantages, because without them...she could have easily become a 'John' or 'Angela.' Honestly. I could write a book about the ways in which her mind, as she would relate to us in her more lucid/"sane" times, would literally "play tricks on her." She would shake her head and say "It's so scary to think my mind can do that to me. But why? Why can't I control it?" To her credit, she was one of the few such people in my experience, who consistently took her medications and faithfully attended her doctor/therapy appointments throughout the years. I am in awe of her ability to do so and always will be, it was such a gift, and so unusual. Her greatest disappointment was her inability to work. Though, again, to her credit, she kept trying until it was obvious she just couldn't handle it. And again, this was the difference. She had financial resources provided by her family (husband, mother, sister) to enable her to live comfortably without the need for wages or 'public assistance.' 

I spent so much time detailing my aunt's situation to contrast with the situation of many, I believe the definite majority, of people who are similarly afflicted in our society. What happens to those with NO social support network? NONE. No family, or...only family similarly dysfunctional, which is so very common, and...perhaps most damning of all...NO FINANCIAL RESOURCES. I am always appalled at the people who "joke" about just going on "disability" or "welfare" and chucking all the stress of working full-time (or more than full-time) and 'taking it easy.' If you think that is true, you know nothing about it. Trust me. Nothing. And without advocates to educate and aid them in applying for and hopefully obtaining public assistance, so many people suffering from disabling afflictions are left...alone...helpless...and eventually...hopeless. Fortunately, Angela and John did have access to food sources, so they and their children weren't 'starving,' though it isn't as if they had a refrigerator full of food, either. They were going to lose their apartment due to inability to pay rent. I don't believe it is ever revealed whether there was any public assistance funding available for housing, or if they had ever applied, but if they had, they evidently did not "qualify." And that brings us to one of John's main disabling characteristics as an adult...addiction/drug use.

I will try to not get on my soapbox about public assistance for addicts, but I definitely have one and can get on it at any time, if you're interested! ;) What is most important about the addiction is to understand what lead to it and to realize so many people do not have the capability to change their behaviors without intense and consistent intervention, and even at that, the majority are unable to shake the addictive behaviors permanently. It just is not possible for them to make the mental/emotional adjustments necessary to "quit." (Please reread that sentence. It is true!) And until you get to know them personally, are around them on an almost daily basis, you cannot truly realize their mindset. And it is the mind and/or mental health that makes the difference. To say this is a complex and complicated construct is such an understatement. I had a client admit to me that she preferred illicit/illegal drugs to the 'socially acceptable drugs'/pharmaceuticals. I knew her well enough by then to understand--the other drugs simply made her "feel good," and the pharmaceuticals did not. I could not fault her for that honest analysis. Though she did eventually realize "the drugs" made her totally dysfunctional and she really wanted to care for her children in a functional manner. At least she was trying. I am now crying as I write this. She died about two years later. But...she had tried. Kudos to her for doing that and I hope her children have a realization of her extensive efforts on their behalf, even if she was ultimately unsuccessful. All any one of us can do is try. 

Beyond addiction, which develops for a myriad of reasons, differently for each individual, there are so many other factors to consider with regard to John and Angela: learning disabilities, cognitive impairment, and 'possession' by evil spirits. John had struggled through school,
He wanted to join the army after graduation, but couldn't pass the exam.
Instead he was cast out into the unpredictable world of adulthood 
in a poor neighborhood in the poorest area of the country. (7)
You might ask, what exactly does that look like? 

This is exactly how home looked for John and Angela just a few years following John's graduation from high school. Appealing? Homey? Not exactly...I personally cannot even begin to imagine just how depressing it would be to live in a building this dilapidated, in such disrepair. And it's not as if this is what you're coming home to each day after work. There is no work for you. This is it. You are here, and only here, 24/7. And you share your apartment with your common-law spouse and three young children! Which in and of itself can be very stressful! :)

John's family life as a child went way beyond 'dysfunctional.' His father beat upon his mother constantly. He also beat John. They never had money and were always moving to find cheaper (and thereby smaller) places to rent/live. His mother, Hilda, finally became a crack cocaine addict, and though she had testified in the first trial that she had used crack cocaine while pregnant with John, she denied it at the second trial, though 
[s]he did admit to drinking a six-pack of beer a day all nine months, 
despite having been told that she shouldn't drink while pregnant. 
Her brother Juan testified that he saw Hilda huff paint during the pregnancy. (39)
Who can say what type of brain/neurological damage was perpetrated on John in utero? He was definitely a victim of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders at the least, and if she ingested other drugs, that would also affect the fetus's development. A six-pack each and every day. I literally shook my head when I read that. So sad. Very sad. John received only one brand-new gift ever throughout his lifetime, a new bike from his father. John wanted to bring it inside, but his grandmother, with whom he was living at the time, forbade it, insisting it be left outside. Next morning it was gone--stolen. As John knew it would be. According to John,
"Never did get anything new again nor ever saw that bike again." (9)
Never. No gifts. Nothing new. Nada. Zilch. No new birthday presents. No new Christmas presents. Nothing. As the one psychologist who testified at John's second trial concluded:
...John likely had a thought disorder as early as preschool, and his ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy was impaired. [He] found John's parents to have had a "toxic" influence, "whose negativity and their behavior and their dysfunction in their daily lives hampered John Rubio's ability to be a normal healthy individual." (40)
In my opinion, that is a drastic understatement. This child had no chance in hell of any outcome even vaguely resembling "normal," in my opinion. :( 

Ms. Tillman could understand John's siblings' refusal to speak with her:
They'd endured cameras, the rejection of their community, in addition to living through 
the death of their nieces and nephews. I knew I would never understand what they'd endured. 
The sadness here was suffocating, a tidal wave that threatened to crush all in its path, 
then pull the wreckage out to sea. (56)
Her writing is so expressive! She can depict intensity so well! 

John's reason for killing these three children? According to him, 
...they were possessed by demons. In his narrative, he's the good guy thrust into a world 
where evil can inhabit any form, even children. 
While his actions seem sinister to us, he knew that he had no choice. (7)
Tillman describes some of the supernatural beliefs prevalent among many in this geographic region. There was evidence that John and Angela held at least some of these beliefs, but combined with their other characteristics, this proved to be deadly for the children. Though John had long felt himself to be 
"exceptional, chosen by God for some purpose," and had dreams where he battled demons...John said he believed at the time that [the message to kill his children] was divinely sent. (66-67)
Tillman compares this to the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, noting that 
If any of us today were to kill his or her own child and attribute the imperative to do so to God, 
we would be labeled monsters of the most repulsive nature. The excuse of being commanded 
by God rings hollow, deceptive, or insane in a modern context. (67)
Who can know what thoughts reside in another's mind? As Felix, a neighbor who had lived on this Brownsville street his entire life, stated his belief:
I asked him why desperation would lead people to kill, rather than to look for help.
"They looked, but they didn't give it to them." 
"I think there are always other options."
"I know there are!" Felix said. "But when a difficult time comes and nobody helps you, 
no one listens to you, they leave you alone...I don't know how to explain it...
You're frustrated and you have hungry children. And you kill them. That's how people think."
You cannot know the power of desperation, Felix was saying, until you experience it 
in its raw form. Desperation can fuel acts that would otherwise be incomprehensible. 
And if you've never been filled with that kind of quaking, hysterical desperation, 
you simply cannot fathom the way it can make you behave. (94-95)
Until you're don't know what you might do. Some believe such actions (really, all our actions) are preordained, others believe there are always some "bad eggs" who will commit such heinous crimes and there is no purpose to trying to explain such actions, they should just be punished with no empathy. Then there are those who believe evil spirits reside in the building itself, and for that reason, it should be razed. Brownsville residents in the immediate area of the building at 805 East Tyler are quite divided regarding the future of this concrete structure. Some have started a neighborhood revitalization organization which is planting raised beds of flowers and vegetables. They want the building to remain.   

What of Angela? She is serving three simultaneous life sentences and will be parole-eligible in 2045. Angela's IQ tested at only 62 as a 14-year-old. (Of course, we are aware the IQ exam is definitely culturally-biased, but...that is quite low.) Ironically, one of my case-management clients' IQ scores was the same. She was mother to four children, all of whom were disabled to varying degrees. Although it amazed me what she was able to accomplish, given her lower-than-normal cognitive abilities, she was in some ways erratic in her behaviors and the items she would seem to 'forget' were big ones. For example, you live in subsidized housing and so are not allowed to have anyone else living with you, other than your nuclear family members, unless you have permission, else you will lose your right to obtain financial aid with your rental costs. I might just mention it required 4-5 years of intense intervention by various social service agencies to get her to realize she could not go drinking in the bars at night, and to train her in childcare, etc. She would tell me periodically, "I just didn't know, Lynn. I didn't know I couldn't do that. But I'm so glad I do now." I am still in contact with her and visit with her and the children periodically, although it has been 6 years since I worked as her case manager. One observation I can make is that she tends to be a follower; whatever someone says who is around, she tends to believe. She tells me she will still use me as an "excuse" to say "No" to someone; she used to say that she couldn't do such-and-such "because her case manager would get mad at her." Now she says "My good friend, Lynn, will get mad at me. She used to be my case manager." :) One reason I stay in touch is the fact that with cuts to Medicaid and mental health services, her family no longer qualifies for case management services. Which is so very wrong, in my opinion. So I can see Angela being very easily led to do whomever, but especially John who had not been abusive to her as those in her past had been.

Of Brownsville, Tillman writes:
Sitting beside a resaca in the warm evening, the city's beauty becomes undeniable, 
even in the roughness of its poverty, all its edges frayed. (16)
Though the resacas are sometimes called lakes, they are actually "bands of the Rio Grande that have since disconnected from their mother river." A unique geographic/topological characteristic of the area. Natural beauty can exist beside the worst scenario humanity has to offer. At the end of his first letter to Tillman, John states,
...I don't see myself at family pic-nics with most of the guys I have met on this journey, 
it left me with a feeling that all will be all right in due time--
like the image of new grass after a raging forest fire. (155) 
It is human nature to always be able to have some hope. 

In John's case, an amalgamation of religious references, drugs, and mental illness conspire to make it nearly impossible to definitively answer which of the following four scenarios is correct:
John was lying about his belief that the children were possessed; the possession was real; 
John's use of spray caused him to have symptoms similar to schizophrenia; 
or finally, John's mental illness caused him to believe the children were possessed. 
Perhaps there are more scenarios than even these four. (185)
I would say definitely more possibilities, though these are basic. The main question is: Does John deserve to die for his crimes? 
That is, the two Johns--the one who committed this act, and his present self, 
the one who would lie on the gurney, containing the other within. 
I started to feel that this decision, of whether he deserved death as punishment, 
was one I had to make, even if it would have no influence on the outcome. 
I didn't sit on the jury that sentenced John to death, but he is not going to be killed by 
a juror or a judge. He is going to be killed by a representational democracy, 
the citizens of which support the state's ability to decide who shall live and who shall die.
I, and you reading this, we are compelled to decide if we want to kill John.
I need to look him in the face. (193)
Tillman traveled to the prison and held a four-hour visit with John. In those hours he came across as "childlike, charismatic, and friendly, with a desire to convey his story," matching the persona from his letters.
The visit had achieved its purpose: he was no longer a collection of words on a page, 
he was a three-dimensional, talking, thinking, feeling person, and meeting him 
made something click. To see another human being and hear his life told to you in his words, 
with a desire to be known and understood, is to acknowledge that life, and so, too, 
the weight of his death. Personally sending John to that death became inconceivable. (202)
Dr. Sarat, a professor of political science at Amherst College, author of Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty, states
Since 1973, one person has been exonerated 
for every nine executed. (205)
...don't I and every other American have a personal stake in every execution that occurs?
How can any of us discover our position on such a law without comprehending its full weight, 
as we might if we saw it enacted? (208)
I believe it is only by NOT having witnessed an execution that any of us can support such sentences. And to think of killing innocent people!
To kill a person exists on another plane from the act of dismantling bricks and wood beams....
You can see them both reduced to absence. Then, we are left with nonexistence, a blank space.
A piece of earth can host another structure, and though it will be different from what came before,
it can serve a new purpose. But when a life is gone, it is not replaced. (211)

However, the building still stands and the local community is becoming proactive.
Tragedy is one more element, along with happiness, victory, grief, goodness, and on and on, in this pulsing, changing, densely connected human network that harmonizes and contradicts, all at once.
Only then, when these events are not set aside on the shelf of the worst moments of the human race, and they become what they are--another element that is intricately bound--can we change.
We can stop these crimes from happening, using the concrete tools and the subtler actions that often elude us...Already this is happening in the little corner of Brownsville near East Tyler Street.
There is a shift. You can feel it...It gives me hope that maybe this wasn't, as some people said, 
a sad story of evil, monstrous people. A story with no meaning. 
That's not the legacy of Julissa, Mary Jane, and John Stephan. 
Their long shadows make it possible to see the world more clearly, 
as neither pure light nor pure darkness, 
but a landscape where crest and valley are cast in shades of gray. (229)

No matter what your beliefs regarding the death penalty, you should read this book.
It is both heartrending and is life.

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