Healing From and Unlearning Violence

“I just want to know,” Mack paused and took a moment to ask what was in his heart, “how do I live with the stigma of being a murderer?” Mack was on the brink of tears. His face was red with vulnerability. Serving twenty-five to life, this man in his mid thirties was participating in a dialogue between victims and offenders at San Quentin State Prison in California. He had just finished revealing the details of his crime thirteen years earlier and was left with more truthful questions about the meaning of his life.

Pencil drawing of a man tending a small tree

Perpetuation by Darius White. Prisma Pencil. Credit: Prison Creative Arts Project

On the surface, Mack had just “taken accountability” for the violence he had committed. But in the deeper poetry of accountability, Mack held the pieces of his life in his hands, felt each for texture, and placed them on the table. Then, in the nakedness of truth, he began the painful journey of fitting them together until the real picture of his life unfolded in a circle of ten incarcerated men, three facilitators, and three victims of violent crimes in the room.

In this exercise, offenders meet with “surrogate” victims—real victims, but of harm caused by other offenders. I was one of three victims serving a surrogate role. Before Mack spoke, I had just finished explaining how childhood sexual abuse had stunted my emotional development. I talked about the years I had spent unlearning patterns I had adopted at age six for survival, and the grueling process of learning new patterns in my twenties and thirties. I told the group I still have trouble trusting men; that I still shove my feelings inside and, like an untended pressure cooker, I explode periodically onto the closest bystander, an emotional event that has cost me many meaningful relationships.

Offenders and Victims Talk Face-to-Face

For many, the moment when a victim and an offender come together is a peak moment of a restorative process. This is the moment when the victims express how they were harmed and what they need today and the offenders take accountability for their crimes. But what is all of the “invisible” work that comes before this moment? For me it’s a commitment to confronting negative behaviors and stunted emotional growth that originated in my childhood. And for the “offenders”— what does it take for them to truly articulate their crime and its impact? What does it mean to make accountability not a buzzword but a solid foundation for a life path? Can one engage in processes of accountability without healing, and shouldn’t they be connected? ...

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Sonya Shah is an assistant professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies, a volunteer facilitator in the Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG) at San Quentin, an activist, and a writer.

Source Citation

Shah, Sonya. 2012. Healing From and Unlearning Violence. Tikkun 27(1): 35.

tags: Health, Justice & Prisons, Spiritual Politics   
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