An experience, when destruction brings redemption to what is left of a family.
"It started when I read that 2,450 volts of electricity would be passed through my brother’s body and energy began to mean something different to me."
The Ninth Step
A prayer, when a life is lost and a family is destroyed.
"Can you explain to her that as soon as I felt the impact, the world broke open and hell closed in around me?"
To Mother's Farm
A conversation, when destruction is the family business.
"And they might wonder why he’s missing all his teeth. And his tongue. And his fingers. And his left eyeball. And where those electrical burns came from."
And in the end, it all came back to energy. Kilojoules, calories, newtons, lumens, decibels, volts...mostly volts. I started to see units of measurement everywhere, numbers to define how something could be experienced, seen, heard, felt, pressed, fuelled, burned, used, destroyed. It started when I read that 2,450 volts of electricity would be passed through my brother’s body and energy began to mean something different to me.
These 2,450 volts would bring intense heat, muscle spasms and death. They would burn and cook his brain and his skin, make his eyes bulge and melt, and his bowels release. They would cause him to jolt so violently against the leather straps that his bones would break. They would stop his heart. They would comfort the families of his victims, watching from behind glass in a room that was at once too close and too far away. They might bring nightmares fuelled by cognitive dissonance to the men who unlocked the door, led him down the corridor, tightened the straps, pulled the lever. I had no idea what they would do to me.
I left a long time ago and I never expected to be back. There was nothing here for me and in just a few hours there will be nothing here for me again. I only returned because he asked me to. He wanted someone there who had no connection to the boys he had kidnapped, tortured and killed, the four carefully chosen, helpless, innocent reasons for his arrest, sentencing, imprisonment and execution. Any real connection I had to him was severed long ago when I bought a one-way ticket and never looked back, but he had no-one else. I wanted to say no. I wanted to carry on with my life as though my brother hadn’t killed children in a country I no longer resided. I wanted to maintain my distance with my new name from a brief marriage and oceans between us. But for some reason, I said yes and I went.
We communicated by letter at first. He told me he had come to understand it was unfortunate that he had caused suffering but that he couldn’t help it. He knew each of the boys he had killed was someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s friend, someone, but his need to do what he did outweighed all that. He said he had always felt the need, that it started when he was younger than the boys whose lives he had ended, and he always knew it was only a matter of time before he progressed from doing what he did to animals to doing what he did to people.
He asked if I had been scared of him when we were children, if I had seen it coming, if I had known what he was. It took me a week to reply to that letter because I didn’t know what to say other than yes. The truth is, I had always known and when I heard he had been arrested I spent a year in therapy I couldn’t afford telling a well-meaning stranger that I should have said something, should have done something, to stop this. The other truth is, I know that there is nothing I could have done. I couldn’t have changed something so entrenched in the core of his being. I couldn’t have turned him into someone else.
Where we lived, hunting and butchering animals was perfectly acceptable, often admired. It was a running joke that he was a terrible shot, but he wasn’t that terrible. He never missed entirely. He only missed enough that it was always necessary to finish the job with a knife. The loudest alarm bell was not rung by the killing of the animals he hunted to eat but by the killing of the animals he hunted simply because he could. Sometimes he started to cut them up before they were dead, although I think I was the only one who knew that. I found him elbow-deep in the still-twitching body of a stray dog in the back field one day after school and all he said was, “Don’t tell anyone.” So I didn’t. And a year later, I left.
I had seen pictures of him on television and in newspapers, but during my first visit to the prison I was surprised that he was no longer the fifteen year old boy he had been when I last saw him in person. His eyes were the same though—dark, cold, empty apart from the occasional flare of something like anchorless resentment—and I felt a stab of ice in my heart when he looked at me. He said he didn’t think I would come but he was glad I did, that he understood why I hadn’t stayed before, why I hadn’t come home when both our parents were killed in the house fire that he had escaped from unscathed at the age of eighteen. Of course there had been no definite proof of arson but I knew and he knew that I knew.
When the day came, he was given the opportunity to speak his final words before they brought down the hood to cover his face. He said only, “I want to thank my sister for being here today and for leaving before. Her presence was the only thing that held me back and when she left I was finally free to do what I needed to do.” Then he smiled with a gentle, honest acceptance.
The thundering beat of my heart as I walked towards my rental car. The slam of the door shutting. The spark of the ignition as I turned the key. The roar of the engine as I drove away. The falsely warm glow from the streetlights overhead. The gathering speed as I headed towards the airport. The heat of the tears streaming down my cheeks. And in the end, it all came back to energy.
The Ninth Step
I feel bad asking you to do this when you’ve already done so much but I really need you to give her a message for me. The thing is, I have no other way to get in touch with her. I can’t speak to her parents and even if I could, even if they would listen, they have no way of reaching her now either.
You see, I’ve been working my way through all the steps since I’ve been in here. It was tough at the beginning, the first time I stood up in front of the others and said it out loud. They were all really supportive though. I mean, some of them are in here for the same reason I am so they understand and I know they aren’t judging me but God, it was so difficult, so very difficult to actually force those words out. It was worse than the mornings on the bathroom floor, throwing up blood and bile and crying because I hated myself so much. I still cried and I still hated myself but those words tasted worse than anything that ever came out of my body or anything I ever put into it.
“…and I’m an alcoholic.”
After I said it, telling them the rest was easier. It all came out in a rush like the truth couldn’t wait to escape, couldn’t wait to get away from me. It’s not like I hadn’t already faced up to the reality of what happened but it was the first time I’d done it on my own terms and I wasn’t even worried about the consequences because at that point I had nothing left to lose. It felt like an exorcism but I guess you know all about those.
Step one was easy. It was the obvious conclusion and ending up in here made it impossible to avoid any longer. I was powerless. My life was unmanageable. Step two and step three were a massive relief. I’d almost stopped believing that my sanity could be restored and I know there have been days when I doubted you could help but I knew it was time I turned my mess of a life over to you.
Step four was tough but I’ve had plenty of opportunity to think since I arrived here—there aren’t exactly a lot of other things taking up my time—and even though my heart broke a thousand times a day, I made my searching and fearless moral inventory. Admitting it to you felt like a weight being lifted but the second part of step five was harder. I still did it though, in my avalanche of truth at the meeting. I didn’t just admit it to another human being. I admitted it to a whole room. And I didn’t just admit the part that landed me in here, but all the rest of it too, everything. I was worried that I was taking up too much time but no-one hurried me, no-one told me to stop talking. They just listened and when I broke down they held me and let me cry. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had held me while I cried.
That brought me to step six and God, I was so ready, so ready to ask you to remove all the defects of character that had led me to this place. Step seven, actually asking, was harder. Not because I thought you would abandon me—I knew by then that you wouldn’t—but because I wasn’t sure that I deserved your forgiveness. The truth is, sometimes I thought it would be easier not to be forgiven because if you could forgive me, then maybe I’d have to forgive myself too and I didn’t know how to do that.
Step eight was a long list because I’ve harmed a lot of people. I was more than willing to make amends to them and I started writing letters to the ones who could be contacted that way. I even wrote one to her parents, although I wouldn’t blame them if they didn’t read it. But her...I can’t send her a letter and that’s why I need your help with the ninth step.
Can you tell her I have no excuses and I take full responsibility for everything? Can you let her know that I will carry this with me for the rest of my life but it’s nothing compared to what her parents will carry with them? Can you tell her I didn’t see her, that I saw the dog and swerved to avoid it but I didn’t know she was there until it was too late? Can you explain to her that as soon as I felt the impact, the world broke open and hell closed in around me? Can you let her know that I’m sorry my face was the last thing she saw, that she was already gone by the time her parents ran out of the garden to where she was lying on the road? Can you tell her that while her mother held her body and the dog barked and ran in circles and her father screamed like his soul was splitting in two, that I called the police and told them I was drunk and I had killed her?
God, it’s twelve steps and eight years later. I still go to meetings but I now unlock my own doors any time I want. Sometimes I sit in the park across the road from her house. I look different enough now that her parents wouldn’t recognise me but I keep my distance, just to be sure. For a while I saw them walking the dog but now it’s just the two of them so I guess the dog is with you, and with her. Can you tell her that her face is still the last thing I see before I fall asleep at night?