When a Child Offends

Cover of Spring, 2020 issue of Witness Magazine, where this essay first appeared

“How can you defend someone you know is guilty?” That question was leveled at me too many times when I was a public defender. My answer was usually that I was helping to even up the odds, since all the criminal justice system’s machinery was arrayed against defendants. But sometimes I countered the question with one of my own: What do you mean by “defend”? What do you mean by “guilty”? What do you mean by “someone”?

Rayanne was someone, the eldest child of four, a good girl who liked helping at home. She wore her hair in tight braids when I first met her, but by the time she killed her seven-year-old neighbor, she was thirteen and had gone over to a medium-length Afro. Her mother, Donut, was my friend. A white woman of size, Donut moved as if weighed down by more than her girth. What she lost in physical speed, though, was more than made up for by the swiftness of her thought and speech. She could use language like a flower or a flamethrower to keep her children and her husband Everett in line, to navigate labyrinths of medical services, to get her car fixed almost for free.

Donut drove a 1970 Buick sedan, a metal beast big enough for her and Everett and the four kids. Something was always wrong with it. The day she showed up at my shotgun apartment with the four kids in tow, the muffler was dragging on the ground, setting off sparks. She and Everett had argued, and she was looking for a place to crash with the kids until he came to his senses. I had room for them.

The kids were all little then; Rayanne couldn’t have been more than ten, her hair still braided tightly. I fixed them all peanut butter sandwiches and sent them out into the living room at the front of the apartment while Donut and I sat at my Formica kitchen table, drinking burnt coffee and smoking Marlboros. We talked about how men sucked for a while, and then about her future.

It was the early 1980’s, and I was a childless woman in law school. Donut never tired of asking me what law school was like. We both knew she had an analytical mind that was made for legal reasoning. Education was much cheaper than now, but in her late twenties, with four kids and no college degree, law school seemed out of reach for her. Maybe when the kids were grown, we said, and fell silent.

When I picked up the phone to call my upstairs neighbor to borrow some pillows and blankets, I heard a commotion in the living room. Everett had knocked on my door, Rayanne had let him in, and the children were swarming him.

He walked through to the kitchen, a handsome black man wearing worn jeans and a light gray t-shirt that pulled tight across his chest, making him look strong and reliable. Donut twisted around to look at him and flipped her long, honey-colored hair over one shoulder. She pushed up out of her chair and he was beside her in an instant, lifting and wrapping his arms around her. The kids stood in the doorway and when she lay her head on his chest and hugged him back, they all cuddled around their parents. I was glad, for them and for me. I’d not looked forward to waking up to four kids.

The city we lived in curled around a harbor that stank at low tide. A has-been place, leftover from the Industrial Revolution, it was stocked with empty brick factory buildings and enough poverty and drugs to keep most everyone subdued most of the time. Once I graduated and passed the bar, I started taking public defender assignments in our city’s District Court.

I sometimes saw Donut in court when she was helping friends who were either mystified by the court’s legalese or intimidated by its Brutalist architecture. Soon, she started volunteering for a nonprofit mental health organization that would later hire her as a program director. Meanwhile, I was building a reputation for myself as what one judge called “a fierce little lawyer.”

When Donut called me the day Rayanne killed the neighbor boy, she was sobbing but still coherent. She and Everett had been out, and Rayanne had taken Donut’s keys to the Buick, gone outside to where the car was parked at the curb, started it up, and put it in gear. She was thirteen years old. She didn’t know how to drive, and the car had bucked, jumped the curb, caught the bike-riding seven-year-old neighbor boy under its wheels, and crushed him to death. Rayanne hadn’t got more than forty feet from her front door before killing him.

The next day, Rayanne appeared in court with her parents, charged with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and manslaughter. I got the clerk to appoint me to her case. Rayanne cried during the entire ten-minute arraignment hearing, whispering “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry” like a mantra. What everyone wanted to know was why she’d tried to drive the car. She said she wanted to move it to a spot directly in front of her house, which sat on street of small, older homes wedged closely together without driveways. Arguments erupted in the neighborhood over parking spot territories. Her story didn’t make sense to me, but it was true that Rayanne was a girl who liked to smooth conflicts.

The boy’s parents were not present at the arraignment. The prosecutor wanted Rayanne held on bail; I countered that throwing Rayanne in a holding pen wouldn’t cure this tragic accident. She had no criminal record and neither did her parents. She posed no threat to anyone and should be allowed to go home pending resolution of the case. It didn’t hurt that the judge liked me and that I was able to vouch for Rayanne’s character personally. I’d known her and her family since she was in first grade. Rayanne was released to her parents. Donut had already set her daughter up with a counselor and would home-school her for the time being.

There was no point in arguing the facts of the case. Donut and I agreed that scheduling a plea hearing as soon as possible was best. Once the court case was over, Rayanne’s focus could shift to working through the trauma of having killed a little boy. But, because she’d killed a little boy, the prosecutor wanted her imprisoned. I wanted her put on probation.

Before our next court date arrived, I gossiped about the case with the clerks and court officers, playing up the doubly cruel nature of the tragedy, how the boy’s young, innocent life had been snuffed out, and how Rayanne’s young, innocent life had been forever changed. “The poor girl is inconsolable,” I’d say. “She’ll have to live with the weight of her guilt for the rest of her life.” It was true.

By the time Rayanne appeared in court again, a protective community of sympathy surrounded her. The court personnel – bailiffs, clerks, probation officers – all treated her and her family with respect. The clerk sent the case to the judge of my choosing first thing that morning, a judge who understood moral ambiguity and complexity. Though nothing was certain, I felt confident in arguing for probation while acknowledging Rayanne’s guilt. A seven-year-old boy had died, and the city mourned him. There would be no question about that.

My brief statement to the judge went like this: Rayanne was a good girl who helped out at home and did well in school. She’d made a terrible, irrevocable mistake in trying to move her parents’ car. She was already being punished by the guilt and remorse she felt, and she’d carry those feelings with her for the rest of her life. She came from a solid family that was supporting her through this nightmare. She was seeing a psychologist who’d prepared a report for the court, and I passed the report up to the judge. She was not a risk for future delinquency. Probation with significant community service hours, I said, was the most appropriate sentence for Rayanne given all the circumstances of this horrific accident. We couldn’t bring the seven-year-old child back, but we could give Rayanne, another child, a second chance. The judge nodded at the end of every sentence I uttered. If asked to predict the outcome, I would have said we’d prevail.

What I couldn’t have predicted though, was the testimony of the dead boy’s mother. The prosecutor put her on the stand, asked her to speak about her son’s death, and then stepped back, giving her a free rein. He must have expected her to be a sympathetic witness.

The boy’s mother was short and slight, with feathered-back blond hair. She wore snug jeans and a fitted vest over a button-down shirt. “My son is gone forever. That girl should be locked up for the rest of her life,” she said, pointing at Rayanne. Then she gripped the railing of the witness box with reddened knuckles, looking as if she was holding back tears, and turned on Donut and Everett.

“Just look at them,” she said. “You can see what kind of people they are by just looking at them. They’re not a good family at all.” I wondered if she was race-baiting, trying to attack them for being a biracial family. She took a deep breath.

“And they’re slobs. Car parts all over their back yard, trash cans overflowing every week.” She took a deep breath. “Just look at her!” she said, raising her voice and pointing at Donut. “She goes out of the house in her nightgown.”

Was this a jab at Donut’s fatness? I knew Donut usually wore big, blowsy muumuu dresses that straddled the line between nightclothes and daywear. Finding clothes that fit was next to impossible for her, and she’d done her best that day to tame her flesh in stretch pants and a stretched-out cardigan.

“And their dog,” the woman went on, “barking from morning ‘til night. All the neighbors complain, but they don’t lift a goddamned finger to keep that dog in line.”

I glanced back at Donut and Everett, who sat behind me in the first row of the courtroom with their heads bowed as if in prayer or in deep shame. Rayanne, sitting beside me at the defense table, also had her head bowed. The woman’s voice continued to rise. The prosecutor shifted in his seat as if about to stand up, but he slumped back. He must have figured the woman couldn’t be stopped at that point.

The judge kept a slight, sympathetic smile plastered to his face, even as the woman’s rage continued to stab at Donut and Everett, but I could see his gaze hardening, and then glassing over. I was torn between the glee I usually felt when an opponent’s witness went out of control, and the urgency of wanting the bereaved mother to stop shaming herself with all that hate. When she finally ran out of vitriol, the judge told her he understood her sorrow and her anger. Then he sentenced Rayanne to probation until her seventeenth birthday.

Rayanne could go home. It was a victory, but there was no celebration. How could there be, when another child had died?

I’d never asked Rayanne how she thought she should be punished for killing the little boy. Our first conversation centered on why she’d started the car in the first place. She’d always been a quiet kid, but the shock of killing the little boy rendered her nearly silent. I couldn’t get her to talk to me, so whenever we met, I’d outline the process of pleading guilty and give her my assurances that I’d do everything in my power to keep her out of the juvenile detention system, without bothering to tell her why.

Horror stories about those places were common. Guards abused the kids, and the kids abused each other. Juvenile convictions were supposed to be sealed, as if they could be forgotten by everyone, but any kid who did time was stamped with that experience and stigmatized.

Donut and I knew that staying out of the juvenile lockups, staying with her family, and staying on track with school would give Rayanne a chance to grow into a woman who could pay the debt she owed her community. Neither of us asked for Rayanne’s thoughts on that strategy. We were convinced we knew what was best.

But as Rayanne stumbled through her teenage years, her life took a turn no one had foreseen, although it came to make perfect sense to me. She’d not been punished for the little boy’s death, and so she punished herself through the self-destruction of bad men and alcohol and drugs. I second-guessed my belief then that kids, no matter what they’d done, shouldn’t be incarcerated. Maybe if Rayanne had been punished, I thought, she’d not feel compelled to punish herself.

Ten years after Rayanne’s case, I quit practicing law, turned to the happier work of teaching, and moved away. Donut and I lost touch, but every so often I wondered if we should have asked Rayanne how she thought she should be punished, instead of relying on our own instincts to do whatever it took to keep her from being locked up. She was, after all, guilty. Like all of us.

It’s been a hard lesson, but the children in my own family taught me Donut and I were right. I’ve never been a mother, and my nieces and nephews are a generation older than Rayanne. They became teenagers and young adults at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when mass incarceration and the war on drugs gave law enforcement unspeakable power over people, mostly people of color, but also poor whites.

Even before that, though, addiction had spread through our family like knotweed, rising up generation after generation, fed by alcohol, crack cocaine, meth, and opioids. Two of my nephews are in state prison now; both were first locked up as teenagers in 2009, when the U.S. prison population hit its historic high. Neither of them re-integrated into society when they were last released.

Not long ago, I looked Rayanne up online. The first thing I found was Donut’s obituary page, where Rayanne had written a tribute to her mother’s care and concern for her. From there, I found Rayanne’s professional profile. She’d earned an associate degree at a community college, and she’d gone on from that to a decent job. Because she had a decent job, she could afford to earn a bachelor’s degree, and then a master’s degree. Because of those college degrees, she got a very good job. She had kids of her own, maybe because she had a mother who’d loved her and defended her.

What does it mean to defend someone who is guilty? Nearly thirty years have passed since I tried a case, but my old answer to that question still rings true for me. It means trying to even up the odds. I try to do that in my work and in my family life. I usually fail, and that’s my guilty not-so-secret. In spite of my experience as a public defender, I’ve never been able to keep my family members free, or even out of court.

I write to my nephews in prison. I send them books when they ask for them. They write back, sometimes daring to hope. “My lifestyle isn’t an avenue to virtue, but my mentality isn’t a fortress of pessimism either,” one says. He hangs on to his delight in making words sing with each other. Soon, he’ll be released, but what will he do? His face and neck swarm with prison tattoos. He doesn’t want to work or go to school or get into a program. Locked up almost continuously from fourteen to twenty-four, most of what he knows is prison life. His sisters fear he is institutionalized. They pray for him. When despair smothers me, I push it away by writing and volunteering.

In 2018, I spent an afternoon defending the guilty by knocking on doors for Second Chances Florida, which ran a successful campaign to restore voting rights to most Florida citizens convicted of felonies. Some of those doors were opened by people who thought anyone with a criminal record didn’t deserve to vote. After decades in the happy profession of teaching, I was surprised at how vehement they were, how much they favored harsh and permanent punishment, and how much they sounded like the angry mother of that seven-year-old boy Rayanne killed. Their voices came from a hollow place echoing with lies about how heaping blame on others makes one more worthy. They sounded like children picking a fight.

Perhaps the impulse to punish is a childish one. Perhaps our legislative, justice, and law enforcement systems are made up of a mob of flailing toddlers, enraged at their impotence and ashamed of their own guilty secrets. Often, those systems seem irrational, doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. Too often, those systems make cataclysmic mistakes. Too often, they lash out and scar a whole life.

I also have a niece who served time in prison. As a child, she was nothing like Rayanne, who was easy to defend. No one ever described my niece as a good girl who helped at home and did well in school; her trouble began in kindergarten, when she became someone who was permanently banned from the school bus for being out of control. Then she became someone on school-ordered medication, in psychiatric hospitals, in foster care, in juvenile prisons, then someone in state prison. Now she’s thirty years old, and she’s been out of prison and unmedicated – by doctors or herself — for six years. She’s someone working as a mentor for troubled kids.

What does it mean to defend someone who’s guilty? My niece is not a different person now. She’s the same soul she was as a kid. Like Rayanne, like anyone, she’s always been someone worthy of defending. My love and my letters might have soothed her pain at times, but they didn’t save her. She found some faith in herself, and she found a community, a whole group of people who defended her, even though she was guilty. Like Rayanne, someone gave her another chance.


Writing About Our Dead

Fireplace-hand with shell fragments
An open palm holding tiny shells and shards

It’s an honor to hold the ashes of our dead.

Some of my brother James’ ashes are in a box on the top of a bookcase in my house. The ashes of a full-grown human being are heavy, enough to fill a half-gallon jug.

His daughters and I released some of his ashes on the beach at Tybee Island two months after his death, on a cold day when the wind was sweeping up sand. His ashes mingled with the sand and the salt wind.

We have vague plans for the ashes in the box, maybe to take them to the mountains he loved and scatter some there. I’ve already scattered some in my garden. James, like me, had an affinity for the plant world.

This poem was originally published in Atticus Review , along with the image above.

Atticus Review

Bananas love ashes in summer.
Time to spread some in the yard.
The fireplace grate is empty.                                                                                          

It’s easy to put things off. Even fire.
No one was diligent like my brother,
who sifted broken shells for hours

looking for shark’s teeth. Once, he held
his hand out with a shattered sand dollar
to show me little bones inside.

His other hand flew up and fluttered—
he said the bones were white doves, the peace
that passes understanding. He believed

in omens and Jesus and that one thing
could also be another. Time to feed
plants? At the first thunderclap.

The grate is empty, the urn is full.
His ashes scatter under the banana trees.
Rain dissolves fine particles, but not
the shards that passed on through.

Writing Memoir: Letters from Loved Ones

Last summer, I spent a few hours transcribing letters from my niece Christina, who died in 2013 at the age of 27. It’s been my habit to save the letters from anyone I cared about, and I’m grateful for that habit. The letters from family members who’ve passed away are especially precious.

Christina’s letters range from when she was quite young, 7 or 8, until she was 18. At that time, I moved back to the Southeast and we were able to see each other in person enough so that letters were less necessary. She became a mother then, too, so she was busy with her little girl.

My grief over losing her has made it harder for me to write about Christina than it has been to write about my other nieces, although I have many happy memories of her as both a child and as an adult.

Transcribing these old letters directly into my memoir manuscript can give me an “out” if I put them in a separate chapter or integrate them into other chapters. It would be a way to make her story part of my memoir-in-progress without the pain of crafting my memories of her into my own words. I’m not sure that’s the best decision from an artistic standpoint, but it was the best emotional decision to make last summer.

A helpful article, written by Amber Lea Starfire, answers some common questions about using letters in memoir, like whether to edit for spelling and punctuation, and whether it’s okay to use excerpts. She discusses making use of letters, whether you summarize from them or quote from them.

If you’re lucky enough to have source materials, such as journals and letters — either your own or belonging to key characters in your memoir — you possess treasure. Yet having these materials can also cause confusion. For example, should you include excerpts of these materials in your memoir or just to use them to verify details and solidify your recollections? And then, if you do decide to include excerpts, which ones do you choose?

I’m lucky to have many letters from Christina and from other family members. Sometimes, they’ve served a fact-checking purpose. In one case, I replaced my own faulty memory of why another niece, Brandi, was kicked out of a group home with part of a letter she wrote to me about the incident. I felt that using her words showed important parts of her personality, including how articulate she was, and how she’d planned her rebellion.

Amber Lea Starfire also has some good advice about deciding whether or not to include an excerpt from a letter or write a scene in your own words: experiment and get feedback.

If you’re questioning whether to use an excerpt or not, try writing your passage both ways. In the first, include the excerpt. In the second, include a scene that portrays the same message or event. Which one is stronger and works better for your purpose? Not sure? Get some feedback from your critique group or a friend who can be trusted to tell you the unvarnished truth.

I so glad I encouraged my nieces and nephews to write letters when they were kids, but today we communicate mainly through text and Facebook messages when we aren’t together. Still, the tradition of letter writing survives in my family, and families like mine, with loved ones in prison. Postage is still cheap. Cell phones are still forbidden in prisons and phone calls at many institutions are routed through expensive third-party carriers.

Letters can be touched and held on to. For all families whose loved ones are far away, having a physical artifact is comforting. For memoir writers, incorporating letters into our stories can establish our reliability as narrators, and it can also give voice to our characters. I’m looking forward to seeing what my critique group thinks about my choices.

Meanwhile, I’ll be thinking of Christina.

“Maternity Cave” for #NAAM2018

November is National Adoption Awareness Month, which began in 1976 in Massachusetts to promote awareness of the need for adoptive families for children in foster care. While the “celebration” has continued to promote adoption from foster care, it’s also been co-opted by the for-profit adoption industry.

Every adoption begins with the breakdown of a family, and for this reason, a national celebration of adoption can bring up feelings of loss and alienation for adoptees and first parents. Adoption is complicated, and its effects are lifelong for everyone involved.

In my family, there’s a rich history of mothers giving up their children — most often to other family members, though. “Maternity Cave” is a story about how that history, and the tragedy of family breakdown, has played out for me and for one of my nieces.

Click on the image to read the full story.

Maternity Cave

Writing Memoir: The Arc of Grief

“A little figure toy sitting in front of a window on a rainy day in Indonesia” by Rhendi Rukmana on Unsplash
In fresh grief, writing can bring a sense of calm, and order, and even, for a time, a sense of closure. It can help us navigate different stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

In the midst of fresh grief, or in the memory of grief, writing can be a way to move inward, and it can also be a way to come up for air.

Grief informs many memoirs, whether the writer is grieving the loss of a loved one, or the loss of health, or a lost innocence or a lost opportunity. In my current memoir project, the central grief is the loss of my mother, or, more accurately, the loss of the opportunity to meet my mother. We were separated by adoption when I was an infant, and she passed away just a year before I was able to find my family.

This past spring, the goal I set for myself was to finish a first-but-coherent draft of my memoir of reuniting with my birth family. It took an extra month for me to finish that draft, and the rest of the summer to revise it. It’s a bit over 80,000 words, most of which has been published as stand-alone essays.

My biggest challenge in combining these essays has been to locate the narrative arcs between the conflicts and the resolutions. Today, while working on revisions, I began to see the arc of my grief for my mother, which first cut into me when I learned I was adopted, and has never really ended.

Grief has an arc, but like most complex emotions, it often has more than one arc, and sometimes, one arc repeats in a story, over and over again. In writing about my family and how I fit with them, I learned that as each of my five brothers passed away, I relived all the regrets I had about not searching for my mother before she died. Those regrets, which began with my inaction or procrastination, sometimes resolved when I took a positive action. Sometimes they resolved in acceptance. And sometimes, a regret stuck, and didn’t resolve. These are all possible arcs.

But the main arc of my grief is my search for a ghost-woman who held me as a secret and who died young. I’ve found bits of her in the gestures and expressions I share with my siblings, in my own laughter, which they say mirrors hers, in the physical characteristics I see repeated in her grandchildren, and in our family’s legacy of addiction.

Will I ever find enough pieces of her to feel my search is complete? Probably not. I think this searching arc will keep repeating. Whenever I feel that I’ve found her, she slips away. Whenever I accept that we’ll never meet, I find myself denying that I ever missed her.

Maybe grief is an emotion that resists a narrative arc with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I’m interested in your thoughts.

Poetry on Adolescence

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

Many people begin writing poetry during adolescence, a turbulent time of life when we’re wrestling with identity, independence, and desire. That’s a full plate for sure, and no wonder so many young people turn to poetry to try to sort out their feelings and make sense of their place in the world.

As an aside, if you are a young poet (either in age or in your writing career), I have a piece of adviceKeep everything you write. Don’t delete or discard anything. Some of it will probably embarrass you if you look back on it from a more mature perspective, but everything you write is potentially valuable. And, your prior work is also a potential goldmine for later writing projects.

Like many angsty teens, when I started writing, it was to understand my mixed-up thoughts about identity, independence, and desire. What’s interesting to me now, though, as an older person, is the different ways we look back at adolescence.

Some poets, like Claude McKay, have looked back on adolescence as a time of innocence. For Rita Dove, in “Adolescence II,” it seems like a time of magical but frightening transformation. For Adrienne Su, adolescence takes on a broader meaning.

For the following poem on adolescence, originally published in my collection Back East, I considered a memory of one pure afternoon.


That volcanic August, the asphalt steamed
behind their older cousin’s El Camino,
a car so hot no one questioned why
it sported a pick-up bed, or why it took
them to skinny-dip at the long- abandoned quarry.

On the path through the woods, they foraged for sex without
knowing it, plucking shapely fungi
and curling moss.
 They came to the water before
it was too late. Years before one lost
an arm to the road and another lost his life
to it, the boys jumped feet first from the cliff,
cupping hands in prayer around their genitalia. 
The flower-power girls dove in before
rapes, abortions, cancers, free-fall naked
without a single consequence, their hands
the points of spades cleaving the mirror.

Treading water, they traded stories of boys
who’d broken their necks and girls who’d disappeared.
The well of rainfall, fluent in the tongue
of silk, praised their barest skin and cooled them.

Poetry for Grief

Poetry for Grief

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

One form for expressing grief in poetry is the elegy. It started in the Classical period of Western history as a form using a metrical pattern called elegiac couplets: the first of two lines in dactylic hexameter and the second line in dactylic pentameter. The subject, originally, was not necessarily grief. To see an example, check out elegiac couplets in English by  John Donne .

Today, poets write poems they call elegies that do not follow any formal pattern. Formalists, of course, might say those poems are not elegies at all.

In deep grief, the arc of writing or reading a poem can be a way to come up for air. That is what I was looking for in this poem, originally published in Eclectica magazine.

Elegy for Christina

When you were seven, I took you out too far
into Ogeechee’s deep, seducing current
and swimming back, your bird-claw fingers choked
my neck. I stooped to prayer: 
please, God, no stupid
accident. We reached the riverbank. I laughed

as if there’d been no danger, so you could
keep on swimming. For years, you kept to the shoreline,
and grew to be the girl we thought would make
it, the one whose gentleness
we praised, the one whose un-

polluted urine her sisters brought
to their probation officers, the one
we thought immune from stupid accidents.
Some days, grief keeps me looking inward,
even when I hear the cranes’ migration,

and I dive back twenty years to swim the river
and hold you in the current, to stop
your transformation into a woman
overdosing, choking on her vomit.
It’s only now I can admit

we reached the riverbank so many years ago
as easily as windblown chaff
because we were the chaff.

The husk you left behind has burned and sent its smoke
into the atmosphere. Trumpets call me to look up.
I don’t expect the angels. Sandhill cranes
arrow over pine barrens toward the open prairie, lifted
on prevailing winds, following the one way clear to them.