Friday, October 2, 2009

Dostoyevsky unraveled

I have been thinking about that Dostoyevsky novel, Crime and Punishment. I read it first in high school and then again in college. Most people don’t seem to like it, but for some reason it was one of my favorite books. It must be my Russian blood. It is the story of Raskolnikov, who commits a murder just because he thinks he can get away with it. The book takes you inside his mind; it is a psychological exploration into the mind of a criminal and the internal consequences of crime.

I have been confronted with several times with the human side of crime and punishment. I have seen glimpses of what makes a criminal that has fundamentally changed how I think of “justice.”

I am a senior in high school and I am at a new school in a new state. It is a small town that I grow to hate in the year I am there. I have few friends. I am shy. I hate that we are poor and my clothes are old and ugly. I take the bus to school and spend my mornings and lunches reading in the library. I meet Max. He is a sophomore and knows my brother. He rides our bus too. He wears over-sized glasses. He has greasy hair. He is poor. He starts hanging out with me in the library. He confides in me more than I’d like. He has been abused all of his life, sexually, emotionally, physically. He is like a little boy. He is absolutely stunted in many ways and it is gut-wrenching. He wants to hang out with my little brother. My mom says a forceful, unmistakable NO! She knew. We all knew what was in the making. We had long been aware of cycles of abuse. His cards had been long dealt.

Fast-forward years. I have gone to college and graduated. I have gone to Chile and come home for a brief visit before zooming off again to Europe and back to Chile. At home, my mom tells me that Max was arrested for sexually assaulting a young boy.

It is nauseating. Of course he has to stand accountable for what he has done. Justice must be served, right? If I were the mother of that boy that was assaulted I would want to hurt him myself; I would want the maximum penalty. And yet, there is something so terrible about how he has been treated all of his life, how no one protected him, how there was no justice for all that he suffered, how he will be treated in jail, what he will do when he gets out, how there is really no hope for him and how he is a victim too. He has to answer for what he has done, but there is something unsettling about it.


This week, one morning I see a news story. A young woman tries to rob a bank. She hands a note to the teller asking for $300. She hints that she has a gun in her pocket and threatens to use it. There is something both comedic and pathetic about the story and the way it is recounted in the news. The silent alarm is set off. The police show up. The would-be-robber has something in her mouth. Police suspect it is a meth-rock. She is arrested for robbery 2 and drug possession. She will go to prison.

I think about the teller and how frightening that must be, even if the robber is child-size and it turns out there is no weapon. I think about the would-be-robber and her obvious desperation. What is it like to feel that desperate, that hopeless? I think about her state of mind, strung out on meth, to think that she can just walk into a bank, pretend to have a gun, and walk away with a few bucks. I think about how pathetic it is to demand $300 and think that that sum, even if you got away with it, is going to solve your problems. I wonder if she really gets what she has done… and how she will feel when she comes out of this drug haze. It is a punch in the stomach that takes my breath away because the “would-be-robber” is my sister (and not even the same sister I bailed out of jail a few weeks ago).

How do I say that out loud? My sister tried to rob a bank. I can’t say it out loud. It is hard to say; it is even harder to fathom. It sounds like fiction.

I don’t want to say it, to tell anyone. It is not that I am embarrassed. I know it is not a reflection of me. I want to protect her; I want to take her mug shot off of the news. Don’t laugh; don’t judge so harshly. I don’t want anyone thinking of her that way. Don’t tell me that there are others who have suffered and don’t turn into criminals. I am not making excuses for her. She will pay for the choices she has made. But there are so many people who have hurt her, that will never pay. That is justice

I hate when people ask me about my family. “They’re fine.” There is no way to talk about it. How can I explain why they are stuck where they are stuck? How can I describe the horror of a childhood, the abuse, abandonment, betrayal, conflict, more abuse, more abandonment, drugs, alcohol, drop-outs, depression, eating disorders, low self-esteem, sexual violence, domestic violence… it is endless… it never stops. It is exhausting to feel this much pain over people you love.

So my week has pretty much sucked.