"I Forgave My Sister's Killer"
I couldn't begin to heal until I let go of my hatredby Elizabeth S. Menkin, M.D., with Lori K. Baker
(Ladies' Home Journal, December 1995)
Early on the morning of April 28, 1993, 1 was exhausted after having been up almost all night at the San Jose hospital where I work as an internist and geriatrician. As I was eating breakfast, Barbara, one of my three older sisters, called me; I could hear her fighting to control her tears as she said, "I have some bad news." Our sister Elaine, forty-seven, had been heading home just hours earlier from a night class in payroll accounting. On the dark two-lane highway, a minivan going in the opposite direction had crossed into her lane and had hit her car head-on. "'The police think she was killed instantly," Barbara said quietly.
I've never cried so long or so hard as I did that morning. Elaine was a wonderful, compassionate woman who was just about to celebrate her twenty-seventh anniversary with her husband, David Myers. During Elaine's last visit, I had told her how much I loved her, not knowing it would be the last time.
I paced in circles, sobbing, before caIling my employer to ask for leave. Then I drove to the elementary school where my husband, Bill, teaches first grade, and he put his arms around me as I wept on his shoulder. Next, we faced the terrible task of telling our daughters: Nora, then thirteen, Aileen, nine and Josie, five. Aileen was especially devastated; she and Elaine had always been close.
Elaine's funeral was held in the community hall of her small town. Barbara and our other sister, Beverly, sat together, a symbolic empty chair separated them from me, draped with one of the sweater vests Elaine had knitted. People from three counties overflowed the aisles.
Shortly thereafter, our family's pain was compounded by utter fury when we learned that driver who had hit Elaine, a young woman named Patty (not her real name), had a blood alcohol level of .20-twice the legal limit in Washington State. Patty also had one prior conviction for drunk driving.
Patty was a single mother and had never finished high school. On the night of the crash, she had been drinking peppermint schnapps at the home of friends. Two miles before the crash site, Patty had stopped at a tavern to use the bathroom. She tried to get a ride home, but failed. Soon after, her minivan had hit my sister's car.
Mingled with my grief was a vengeful rage against the woman who had killed my sister. When I heard hat Patty had nearly died in the crash herself, I wanted her to live just so she could suffer horribly. When she pulled through, I wanted someone to gouge out her eyes so she'd never drive again. I was that full of pain.
My family was overcome with grief. Josie cried at might, and Aileen's school grades dropped. My father became withdrawn and depressed. My mother angrily referred to Patty as, "the human weed that ought to be pulled up."
I attended meetings of a local chapter Of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), hoping to find some relief. But hearing stories of other victims killed or maimed by drivers with a string of drunk-driving convictions only fueled my anger. Even if Patty get the maximum jail sentence, what was there to stop her from driving drunk once she served her time?
In June, my father called me to say that he'd heard about a program in Oregon that might help all of us: the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP), one of two hundred such services nationwide. In these programs-which are voluntary-criminals and their victims are united and a mediator encourages them to share their feelings. In most cases, the crimes are minor (petty theft, vandalism), but a small percentage do involve more serious offenses like rape and murder.
The aim of the program is to help offenders come away with an understanding of the suffering they caused and a willingness to right the wrong. In turn, they agree to make restitution to the victim, beyond their court sentence.
Although my father was still distraught, he thought mediation could do more to turn Patty's life around than jail would. In the process, he hoped to find peace and closure for himself. But I wasn't interested in participating. Why would I want to meet the woman who had taken away someone I loved?
My father contacted Marty Price, founder of the Oregon Victim-Offender Reconciliation program, about conducting a mediation. In November 1993, Patty pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide, sparing us the agony of a trial. After that, Marty and his fellow mediator, Brenda Inglis, met with Patty and her lawyer. Seeing that she was repentant and willing to admit her guilt to my family, they agreed to proceed with the program.
We were invited to submit statements to the judge giving our opinions on an appropriate punishment before the sentencing. As I wrote mine, my thoughts kept turning to the Jewish High Holy Days, which we had celebrated just a few months earlier. Rosh Hashanah, the new year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are a time to reflect on the past, seek forgiveness for our sins and start the year with a clean slate. I had felt alienated from the services because I couldn't reconcile my feelings about Patty. Now I used the teachings of Yom Kippur-recognition, remorse, repentance, restitution and reform-as a means to finding forgiveness.
I wanted Patty to admit her guilt and feel truly awful about it. But she'd have to do more than apologize; she'd have to earn my forgiveness by giving up drinking and doing what she could to stop others from driving drunk. Realizing that I might see this woman's remorse and ask her to commit to reparations led me to decide to participate in the mediation after all.
One by one, other family members joined in our decision-even Elaine's husband, David. Barbara's husband, Dave, came to support his wife, but he could also empathize with Patty: Several years ago, through no fault of his own, Dave had been in a car wreck in which the other driver had been killed. Aileen also asked to come; though children don't usually go to mediations, I let her. Beverly couldn't attend, but we kept in touch and updated her along the way.
Last January 17, 1994, we sat nervously in a small hotel conference room in Oregon, not knowing what to expect. Patty, accompanied by her lawyer and a close friend, entered the room cautiously, as though she expected to be attacked. Tiny and gaunt, she walked with a limp; the strain and fatigue on her face made her look much older than twenty-five.
Patty was asked to speak first, but she broke into uncontrollable sobs before she could say a word. When she pulled herself together, she announced, "I want to tell you I'm sorry. I know that's not good enough, though," I thought: You're right-that's not good enough! But her apology was heartfelt, and she didn't try to make excuses.
The rest of the five-hour meeting was emotional for us, but there was no name-calling or yelling. My mother said the tragedy had changed my father so much that she felt she'd lost her husband, too. David talked about his loving marriage and tearfully added, "In the end, my world will never again be right, and I will always have to live knowing the horror of Elaine's death." Patty brushed tears from her cheeks as his words sank in.
Patty's injuries had wiped out the memory of the night of the crash, but since that time, she had been deeply depressed and had lost weight. She recently had been evaluated and was surprised to learn she showed signs of alcoholism. "I thought it was normal to go out with my girlfriends to drink every weekend and some weeknights," she told us. "Now I know it's not." Now she was aware of the dangers of driving drunk. Looking at her tear-swollen eyes and shaking hands, I thought: maybe I don't have to hate her.
Once we were satisfied that Patty was ready to atone for what she had done, we discussed the terms of the restitution "contract." We wanted Patty to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly; work to get other drunk drivers off the road; study for her high-school equivalency degree; contribute 10 percent of her earnings to charity; attend church; build her parenting skills; write letters weekly to her children while serving her sentence; and write a quarterly progress report to my father. She agreed to all of our requests, and we submitted the contract to the court for consideration before the sentencing.
The day after the mediation, I felt a great sense of relief. All the tension that had been weighing on me for months had vanished. I had let go of my vengeance and despair and was ready to find enjoyment in life again. The rest of my family seemed to be feeling the same way; David wrote in his journal the next day that he felt like a renewed man.
One week after the mediation, a judge sentenced Patty to thirty-four months in prison. She served nineteen months at a correctional center before being moved to a prison work-release program.
Patty often writes to us about her progress. In one letter, she announced that she had completed her high-school equivalency degree with an A average. Now she's even working with MADD. She seems sincerely willing to stay sober, but the test will come next month, when she'll be eligible for parole.
Nearly three years after the tragic accident, the pain of Elaine's death isn't a raw wound anymore, but there are still hard times for all of us. When we celebrated my mother's eightieth birthday and Aileen's bat mitzvah, I felt my sister's absence deeply. One thing that helps me cope is the work I do to stop drunk driving. I'm still associated with MADD, and I've spoken publicly about my mediation experience.
When people tell me, "It's remarkable that your family met with that drunk driver," I say that Patty's courage in facing us and willingness to take responsibility for her actions is even more remarkable. Elaine would have been proud of the way we are helping a young mother and learning how to forgive the unforgivable.
Elizabeth S. Menkin is an internist and geriatrician, and Hospice Medical Director for the Kaiser Santa Teresa Medical Center.
The Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) Information and Resource Center, in Asheville, North Carolina, provides information, training, public education, technical assistance, consulting and victim-offender mediation and reconciliation services. We serve non-profit organizations, governmental agencies and individuals. The Center specializes in juvenile justice and the mediation of drunk driving fatality cases and other crimes of severe violence.
Our mission is to bring restorative justice reform to our criminal justice system, to empower victims, offenders and communities to heal the effects of crime, to curb recidivism, and to offer our society a more effective and humanistic alternative to the growing outcry for more prisons and more punishment.
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