The problems created by crime are so vast, and crimes are so numerous, and the arena of agencies created to address them are so dysfunctional and interwoven, that it is maddening to look at the police chiefs and the courts and the lawyers and the mayors and the prisons and the prisoners and the legislators and not just throw up your hands and say: “There’s nothing I can do.”
This type of despair is what drives us to crumple on the couch and switch on the Nancy Grace and pretend that what we are doing is watching somebody doing something real about “the problem of crime.”
No matter what people like Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag might say, we don’t do this because we are primitive and bloodthirsty: we do this because we are civilized and victimized.
Ever since I became the victim of a fairly horrifying crime, way back in 1986, I have been trying to “do something” about crime, not because of the few hours I spent at the mercy of a criminal, but because of everything I learned about him and the justice system afterwards.
Becoming a victim does strange, alienating things to people. In his 1996 memoir, My Dark Places, the crime writer James Ellroy more or less explains what made him turn out so odd by telling the story of the unsolved murder of his own mother in 1958, when he was ten. He’d nurtured that experience into an obsession with the murder of a young woman named Elizabeth Short – re-named The Black Dahlia to sell papers – and then his obsession with The Black Dahlia eventually led him back to try solving his own mother’s murder. This led to a disjointed trail of old clues and possible suspects – and then to limbo.
In 1977, a young woman named Terri Jentz was nearly murdered by an axe-wielding man who attacked her and her companion as they biked across Oregon. Jentz briefly became a minor celebrity. She spent the next several years fleeing from and re-approaching the crime, until she decided, like James Ellroy, to try to solve it. What she found when she entered the world of victims agitating for justice was quite the opposite of the”closure” she appeared to be seeking. She found broken people trying desperately to patch together clues about their loved ones’ deaths, confronting system after system where they were sometimes treated with more contempt than the killers and rapists they were trying to put away.
She also found her killer – “alleged killer” – quite easily. Everybody knew who he was. Her efforts to find him and put him away, documented in her extraordinary book, Strange Piece of Paradise, led to a brief sentence for the man on an unrelated crime, but it also led her back to the limbo of her own attack, and experience she she thought she was trying to escape.
After I joined the vast ranks of victims whose predator got away with the crime, my personal obsession manifested in keeping files on men (and, rarely, women) who got away with multiple rapes or rape-murders. I started with my own assailant and moved on to others. I kept tabs on my rapist as he strolled in and out of prison, raping elderly women in the same little area of Florida for a dozen more years before he finally received a life sentence for one of his crimes.
I expanded my files to state laws and statistics and DNA research and the predominance of pro-criminal sentiment in academia and the media. Most of what I found was utterly demoralizing. But I have to keep reminding myself that my rapist was finally put away on a life sentence (later overturned, but he’s still in prison) because a few haunted victims of other crimes had managed to beat their way to the state capitol in Tallahassee and force changes to the very laws that allowed my rapist to walk away from his first rape charge with nothing more than probation – in 1982.
Haunted victims forced changes to the sentencing codes. They implemented three-strikes rules. They insisted on funding for DNA databases. They stopped judges from letting rapists plead down to non-sex crimes, or just send them for treatment, or just let them go.
When I started this blog, I imagined my focus would be national and issue-based (and I still intend it to be so). But I immediately found myself back in my old neighborhood in Atlanta, watching with no small amount of amazement as thousands of activists there spontaneously came together to take on the whole ball of wax on crime – recidivism, sentencing, the courts — a fight I’d often felt I was fighting alone, in an increasingly claustrophobic room stuffed with unwieldy files.
Some of these Atlanta activists started meetings with a judge in Atlanta this week. I’ll let them speak for themselves about how it went. But I already know one thing: I think I speak with some authority when I say that the era of haunted crime victims wandering the landscape of the justice system, looking for justice alone, is over.
I feel less weird already. Thanks for that.