Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAR 2, 2011
Should I approach his victims’ families? Can I help in any way?
My brother brutally murdered two people and now faces the death penalty.
There are many issues I am dealing with so this really jumps around a lot but it is the best I can do right now.
I have generally been in favor of the death penalty as punishment for the crime of murder. Now the killer is one of my siblings and my perspective has changed. I know that if he was someone who killed my partner or best friend or someone in my family or anyone else I would probably not be forgiving and would want him to suffer and pay.
But he is my brother. The same brother who told jokes and liked to have fun. The same brother with two children who are now devastated by what he has done. The same brother who killed his fiancée and another man he found her with.
I wonder about how much he is suffering right now. I know that he is not a sociopathic monster. It is almost certain that he was on drugs when he committed the murders.
The homicide detective wants to fly across the country to interview me, because I had spoken with my brother a few hours after the murders. My brother did not confess to the killing.
I feel really bad for my mother and what she is going through, and for myself and the rest of my family. But I have reminded everyone that we will not suffer even close to what the families of the murder victims are enduring. They are living in hell and it very likely will destroy at least a few of them.
I was going to specialize in forensic nursing at one point with an emphasis on effects and treatment of homicide bereavement. I have volunteered for a national organization of survivors of homicide victims. One of the issues I helped co-victims of homicide address is whether the victims suffered, how they died and if it would have been possible to save them for those who made it to the hospital. I helped them process the fact that the murderer usually was the last person who got to be with them and that it is unrealistic to believe that they should have been there to protect the victim. I helped them process the horrible emotion of feeling like they want to kill another human being (the killer).
Even with a perspective of homicide and its aftermath not shared by most people, I do not want to be used by the prosecution to help make a case for first-degree murder against my brother. The crime scene was very bloody. The DNA evidence was all over the place. The prosecution wants to try to get me to prove that the murder was premeditated and coldblooded. I cannot offer what I do not know. I do not want to look at my brother in the courtroom and testify against him. I believe the prosecution does not need me to prove its case.
As horrible as this crime is, I still care about my brother and I want to let him know that I am there for him in any way that I can be. I will not be there to help him get away with the crime — as if that would even be possible. He made a horrible mistake and I believe he would take it all back if possible.
I have already replayed the scenarios of visiting my brother one last time before he goes to the execution chamber. Things I would tell him:
That organized religion and concepts of hell and all of that other garbage is a bunch of shit.
That I have been with many people at the time of their death from traumatic injuries and natural causes and that I have an inner knowing that we all go to the same place/transition regardless of how we lived on this planet.
That one victim of a brutal attempted murder left her body briefly before she was resuscitated and stated that she felt bad for the man who had just strangled and stabbed her and left her for dead as she looked down on her body. She said that she felt bad that he had gotten to a point in his life that he could do that to another human being.
I saw an online memorial for one of the victims. There were family pictures of him from birth to just before his death. His family looked like our family. A lot of people really loved him. The victims were also on drugs but they were not to blame for this and they did not deserve it. Their families did not deserve this. My family did not deserve this.
Something else that troubles me is that I cannot find anything online to offer support to families of the killer. I never really thought much about it until now but we have our own issues, too. This has really generated an incredible amount of emotional pain for my family as well.
One last really shitty thing that I need to mention. I was notified of this while I was at work around 3 a.m. I told a few co-workers about it while I was in shock. I was fired the next day for bullshit reasons. It was a temp job so it was easier than usual to fire me.
Thank you for any guidance you can offer.
Am I wrong for not wanting to speak to the homicide detective? Am I wrong for wanting to support my brother through his own personal hell and the aftermath of making one of the worst mistakes a human could make? Am I wrong for even asking you for advice on how to help myself and my family through what we are going through when the pain of the other families is much worse?
Would it be inappropriate for me to contact family members of the victims to offer any support or answer any questions that might help them process their grief?
Brother of the Murderer
Dear Brother of the Murderer,
You have many profound and searing questions. But let me focus on just one: whether you should approach the victims’ families.
But before I do, let me just say this: No, you are not wrong. You are not wrong for any of this. You are innocent. You are the brother. You feel what you feel. You are not wrong for feeling any of this. The task before you is one of action: figuring out the right course of action.
Let me also, in advance, offer you this suggestion about support for the families of perpetrators. You might try the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, and look at their Directory of Programs Serving Children & Families of the Incarcerated
As to reaching out to the families of your brother’s victims, if you feel called to do so, I think it can be appropriate and healing. But only after careful thought and preparation.
The questions you must answer for yourself are, Who and what do you represent? What are you offering? And what do you want from them?
As far as what you have to offer, I would not suggest trying to help them process their grief. That is not your role. Their grief is their concern. If they want help, they can seek it from others.
You are an emissary from a party that has taken something from them. You are therefore on a delicate mission. So I would suggest approaching them in a spirit of recompense, of returning, of giving something back. What you give back will of course in no way compensate. It will not be proportionate. Yet it still may be correct emotionally and spiritually. And it may also be practical.
Victims’ families often suffer tangibly as well as emotionally.
“Homicide survivors may lose much more than their loved one following the murder,” says the National Center for Victims of Crimes. “There may be a significant loss of income in the family, especially if the victim was the primary ‘breadwinner.’ Other family members may find they are unable to go to work because they cannot concentrate or because they need to be present at court hearings and may subsequently lose their jobs. There may be loss of the family home if mortgage payments cannot be made. Plans for school may have to be postponed because of financial difficulties or because survivors cannot concentrate on work or studies. If the victim survived briefly before dying, extraordinary medical bills may have been incurred for which the family may not have had sufficient insurance coverage.”
So I suggest you learn as much as you can about their situation so you can think through what you might offer them. Talk it over with people who know them, or with people whose sense of how to approach such things is well developed. Perhaps if they are suffering financially, a fund of some sort can be created, or if it already has been created, then you could contribute to it, or solicit funds for it. Or your gift might be something more concrete and personal, such as food, or toys.
Think carefully about where. Rather than approaching them at their house, you might attend a church service they attend, if they attend church services. A gift and a brief word of condolence, in such a setting, might have a greater chance of being received.
In spite of how well you prepare, you never know how people will feel or what they will think. No matter what you do, it won’t be easy. But you are motivated by compassion and conscience.
Your impulse is to reach out and console, to share, to be another witness to the awful. It’s a righteous impulse. But your motives are not pure, nor could they be. You want something, too. If you bring to them your own guilt and your own need for forgiveness, they may be offended; this they cannot offer you and it is inappropriate for you to ask them to. In doing so, even inadvertently, you would subtly place your own claims to loss against theirs and be found monstrously wanting. You don’t want to do anything to make it appear that you equate your suffering with theirs. Your sufferings are of a different kind.
In fact, you don’t want to be asking anything of them. You just want to give, simply and clearly. I suggest that you focus only on what you might offer them, and make it tangible and simple.
For instance, if your brother kept anything that belonged to his fiancée that has not been recovered as evidence, you might give that to the family of the fiancée. Or if there was anything of his that you know she wanted. It might be a small act of justice to say that after all he has taken from you, here is one thing returned, one tiny thing, but still, something is returned, something is restored.
In particular, if he or you had any photographs of her, you might return those to the family. Likewise, if he had any letters from her, and so forth.
What are the risks of approaching the victims’ families? Well, murder stirs our savage nature. We react with primitive, raw emotion. We may seek vengeance on the kin of the perpetrator. We may see the brother of the murderer as a stand-in for him, and want to vent all our rage on him. So be prepared for such a thing.
Imagine the victims’ families. In each of their hearts a battle rages. Each heart contains conflicting forces, or actors. Which actor takes center stage? Will it be the thoughtful and moral actor, who counsels forgiveness? Or will it be the warrior? The warrior says to the moral actor, Your high-minded morals are fine for times of peace, but this is war; one of ours has been slain; in war, we burn the village and slay the family!
Each of us has a warrior in us. His savage energy carries us through many a battle. We do not want to stifle that warrior. So be prepared to meet the families’ warrior spirits, if you venture onto their porch or into their church.
You, too, have a warrior spirit, and it may talk to you. This warrior spirit is wise not only about victory but about surrender. It is wise about defeat. It knows defeat and can walk many miles barefoot in the rain after its village is burned. This may be the spirit that you go to the family with: The spirit of a warrior in defeat. Go to them knowing that your own kin has done wrong and now is the time to surrender. Surrender is appropriate. For though you too are a warrior you do not want war. You want peace. They also want peace. They want peace but they also want justice.
If you can give them both, you will have done an honorable thing.
So you think well about what you offer them. You choose your gifts wisely. You take your shoes off before entering, if that is the custom. And you do not stay too long. If they offer you tea or coffee, you accept. But you ask for nothing. You only give. And you do not stay too long.