Not much happens in my life “against my will.” The death of my son, Christopher, certainly was. And as a result of his Christopher’s death, I found myself in a “relationship” with his murderer. I didn’t choose it; didn’t want it and yet he, Mark James Taylor, became a part of my life because he took something so very precious from our family.
On March 21, 1996 one of my first thoughts after hearing about the murder was Mark’s mother. How was she feeling? As we were reeling with the traumatic news, I thought it had to be traumatic for her and her family also. As time has gone by, it has been revealed that she was not thinking of my pain – only hers.
I can’t help thinking about the person who violated us to the very core. On Christopher’s birthday, death day and many, many other days of the year, I think about Mark James Taylor and his gun. In the early days, I fought against thinking about him. It was like poison seeping into my mind. As time went by, I wanted to find a comfortable place for this relationship to sit in my soul–because I was stuck with it. I was not happy about being stuck; however, I wanted to be happy.
Christopher had chosen to go to a trade school to study heating and air condition. He wanted “people to be comfortable in their homes.” He was going to be placed in school housing with other students. The first apartment I looked at Christopher would have shared with three other boys studying auto mechanics. They had been doing their greasy homework on the living room carpet and I knew Christopher would be uncomfortable; he liked things clean (not neat but clean!). The second apartment was larger and had only one other student – Mark James Taylor. I did not know Mark had a gun in the apartment. It was against school rules. (I found out many years later Mark had purchased the gun because he had been robed and bullied by a group of young men).
I met Mark as we were all moving Christopher in. I assured Mark that if they needed anything for the apartment, we would happy to help get it. That was the only time I met him–once for about five minutes before–I saw him in a courtroom accused of murdering my child.
People ask me frequently, “How did I deal with the anger?”
The answer is simple: I don’t do anger. I very rarely get mad. At first, when I didn’t feel anger toward Mark Taylor, I thought perhaps it was because I was in denial. But I was not in denial: I knew beyond a reasonable doubt that my son was dead because Mark James Taylor murdered him. There was too much evidence. Within seconds, Mark went from being my sons’ apartment mate to his murderer. It was a dramatic relationship change for all of us
Somewhere around six months after Christopher was murdered; Mark James Taylor was released on $75,000 bail. He did not have a record and that made a difference with the judge who granted bail. His family had also hired a private attorney to defend him.
We were all devastated. Now I felt like the murder had happened again. I know bail is an American right, but Mark had killed Christopher! I did not have a specific plan for finding comfort; I only knew it was a goal for me. Mark James Taylor took so much from me, from us; that I didn’t want him to take anything more.
At a holiday party given by dear friends, I met Jacques Verduin, a Hollander who ran a program called the Insight Prison Project (www.insightprisonproject.org). My husband, Gary, spoke with him at length and suggested to Jacques that he speak with me, saying, “I think it would be good for my wife.”
Jacques called and asked if I would be willing to work with him. He wanted to understand the effects of murder on people and their families. He felt it was a missing part of his education in working with prisoners. Jacques wanted me to tell my story to him and then again to the prisoners with whom he works. I felt compelled and agreed.
Jacques and I spent ten hours together in five visits. Sometimes we sat at my house in the living room where we looked at pictures of Christopher growing up. Talking about memories from the birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, vacations, homework, and love notes to me.
We also read the criminal file, discussed how one deals with ashes of a loved one, trial transcripts, jury’s and lawyers, judges, memorials, our collective grief and how much Christopher’s sister, girlfriend, friends and I missed him.
On other visits, Jacques and I walked on the beach and ate picnic lunches. As we sat on a log or a rock, we went over every tiny detail about Christopher’s death, from the moment the sheriff arrived at my door to the present. We discussed Chris’s young life and the challenges he faced in adulthood. Talking at such length with Jacques was an emotionally calming experience. I had not touched many of these memories for years and it felt good to share them so freely.
After my sessions with Jacques, I was ready to go to San Quentin to share my story with prisoners in a group called Katargeo, a Greek word meaning “freedom from that which binds you,” I Corinthians 13.
Getting into a prison is intimidating. Accompanied by my prison escort, I went to the first gate, presented my ID to a guard who carried a gun. I signed in, was approved and went to the next gate to meet another armed guard and pass through a metal detector. After that gate, I went to another entrance with a guard and gun, signed in, was checked in and approved by the computer, was scanned with a hand-held metal detector, and stamped under the left wrist with the daily stamp. Then I went into a Sally port ‑ a large cell – where a huge door slams shut with a resounding “clank.” I was held there until the opposite door opened with another loud “clank,” and I entered another Sally port, which then unlocked and allowed me access into a large open quad.
The meeting room was a dilapidated cement tomb, with barely enough room for all of the prisoners (17) to sit with Jacques, my friend and spiritual advisor, Bill Glenn, and I. The prisoners, dressed in dark blue jeans and light blue denim shirts, started to fill the room. As they came in, I introduced myself to each one, looked him in the eye, and shook his hand. I was surprised to find they all had kind faces. I told the men that I was surprised by how they looked. “I have to admit, I had an innate prejudice that murderers look mean and ugly. But I would ask any of you on the street for help with a flat tire and directions. I want you to know that.”
I slowly told my story of Christopher, including photos and personal tales, over the course of an hour. As I spoke, I looked at each person’s face around the circle.
I ended with this poem written by Christopher’s girlfriend, Dawn. I have never made it through this poem with out crying.
I wanted to love you forever
But forever came and went
Cause you were taken by an angel
That God had sent
I’ll never forget your smile
Or the way your green eyes would shine
Whenever you told me you loved me
I wish you wouldn’t have left me behind
Your love was so special
Like nothing I ever knew
I miss hearing your voice
Saying I love you
You filled my life with joy
hope and dreams
But I never dreamed I would lose you
I guess nothing’s ever quite as it seems
I only knew you fro a short while
Yet it seems I knew you my whole life
I loved you with all my heart
And I hoped someday I could be your wife
But now that dream is gone
And so are you
I feel like part of me is missing
And I don’t know what to do
You’ll be in my heart forever
There’s nothing anyone can say or do
To make me forget my memories
My memories of me and you
“It is better to have loved and lost
than never to have loved at all”
I know this phase is true
And I thank God everyday
That I was loved by you
When I finished, I was in a roomful of men who were not just crying but openly sobbing. I was moved by their reactions; in fact, I was overwhelmed.
My story is very tough and it hurts. The men saw the pain I live with every day without my son, Christopher and realized they had created this type of pain for a family, and everyone connected to that family, and everyone connected to everyone connected to that family. It is the “pebble in the pond” effect and the ripple is far-reaching. All of them live every day with the knowledge and pain of having taken a person’s life.
To be blunt and brutally honest with people who had something to learn was a healing experience. I wanted the men in that room to know how all our lives changed the day Christopher was murdered. How my son would never call again to remind me to make his favorite orange Jell-o dish for Thanksgiving. How I would never experience the joy of watching him get married and have children. How I would never feel his hugs or hear him tell me he loved me.
On one of my visits to Katargeo, I brought Christopher’s quilt into the prison. I told the story of the quilt and how it came to be. I let each man hold it and feel it as it was passed around the circle. The men told me they looked at Mt. Tamalpais every day, and now when they looked up at the mountain, they would think of Christopher and me.
The Katargeo group invited me for their five-year celebration of working together, a meal to be shared right after Thanksgiving. It was a miracle that the warden approved the meal. I volunteered to make the Thanksgiving dinner, along with a few other Insight Prison Project volunteers. There were many rules: no bones, no knives, and no glass. Bread had to be pre-sliced and pre-buttered. I was so worried that the food would be cold; it could be delayed at any gate by security. I put the gravy in a large thermos, determined that if the food was not hot the gravy would be.
The day came. The room we were assigned to use for our meal was a dank tomb, since condemned, and we had to pass urinals in the hallway to enter. The walls were chipped and cracked, paint peeled from the ceiling and water leaked from the roof.
We pushed tables together, set them with paper tablecloths and plates, plastic forks, spoons, and glasses. Then 30 (this included San Quentin staff, Insight Prison Project staff, volunteers and the inmates)of us sat down together for our meal. We said grace, and what followed was a cook’s dream. Men piling their plates with home-cooked food after years of eating prison food. It had been 33 years since some of the men had a home-cooked meal. I had baked bread, and the men were astounded that I did that for them. One man had never seen sparkling water and refused to try it. Another said he had not had fresh meat in 25 years. We went around the room and listed the things for which we were thankful.
I had to remind myself to breathe.
One man said, “All my family outside have died and this is my family now. I cannot find the right words to express how much this means to me to sit around a table like a family.” He was sobbing.
Another said, “This is my idea of what heaven is like when you get there: Everyone is sitting around a table getting along.”
The 10th anniversary of Christopher’s death was approaching. I felt that such a significant anniversary needed to be marked in some way. I created a memorial card and sent it to 300 people who had weaved through our family’s life. My immediate family and some close friends came to be with me on the day. We had breakfast at home, blintzes, one of Christopher’s favorites, and then took the journey to his spot on Mt. Tamalpais, where we scattered rose petals and laughed and cried as we told stories about him.
The next week, I went to see the men of Katargeo. We sat in a circle in the art room, adorned with artwork done by inmates. The art made the drab concrete walls more appealing. Wanting to acknowledge the 10th anniversary of Christopher’s death, the men went around the room and told me how significant it had been to work with me over the past three years. One man said, “You taught me that you shouldn’t get upset about the small stuff. I killed my friend because he owed me money. That should have never bothered me like it did.”
I cried softly and asked myself, “Me? I taught him that?”
Another man said “I only have one word for you….Grace.” I was in tears and I was humbled. We don’t often get the opportunity to see how the steps we take in life reverberate through others’ lives, and here were 17 men telling me I made a difference in theirs.
Then one of the prisoners said, “We have a gift for you.” Already taken aback by their generosity, I was surprised. Somebody placed a white garbage bag gently on my lap and as I opened it, a quilt revealed itself! Two men held the quilt so I could read each square. There were 18 quilt pieces mounted on a large piece of black felt. All the materials came from somewhere in the prison, fabric from a mattress, a handkerchief, a section of a shirt, even leather from the hobby shop. I wept, emotionally overwhelmed and grateful for this poignant sharing.
The visit was finished off by an inmate playing “Amazing Grace” on his handmade flute.
I enrolled in a three-day training course, called the Victim Offender Education Group, offered by the Insight Prison Project. I had attended many of these groups as part of the victim/survivor panel and felt it was brutal beautiful truth at its best for the healing process. I felt I have a very unique prospective about the grieving process and wanted to possibly do victim/offender dialogues as a facilitator sometime in the future. Rochelle Edwards, the creator and facilitator of this innovative restorative justice program called the Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG), uses the principles of Restorative Justice, to facilitate intensive 22 week training for inmates who wish to understand themselves better, how their life experiences and decisions led them to prison and how their crimes have impacted their victim(s), their families and their community.
On the third day of training, we went to San Quentin to meet with inmates (all men) who had been through the course so they could share their learning experiences along with some of their exercises/home work. One such exercise is called a “letter of permission” (which is not sent because perpetrators can not contact their victim/s). The perpetrator writes a letter asking for permission to meet with his victim/survivors for a dialogue, explicitly admitting guilt, and expressing feelings of shame and remorse. When an inmate named Richard read his letter to his victim’s family, I started to cry uncontrollably. I felt he was addressing me, and when he finished reading the letter I was compelled to go hug him. It was a totally instinctive act, and it impacted both of us.
At that very moment, I realized, for the first time, that I needed to know that Mark Taylor could also express his remorse and accountability. I wanted to know if he could also feel the pain that he caused for our family. I needed to know if he was human enough to feel it also. That day I started on the path to have a one-on-one victim/offender dialogue with Mark James Taylor, which Rochelle Edwards agreed to facilitate.
Richards’s letter follows with the victim/survivor names omitted (with his permission).
To All the Members and Relatives of the _________ Family,
I am writing this letter of permission to you, with prayers, hoping you can consider meeting with me.
I know that due to my actions, I created an immense amount of pain, despair, and disharmony for the entire family as well as many others. I am writing you in hopes of obtaining your permission to meet with you. When we meet, I would be willing to agree to provide any and all answers to any questions you need to have answered. I pray that you give me the opportunity to speak directly to you so I can properly apologize and express how sorry I am for all the damage I have inflicted. I am truly remorseful for violating the peace of your family and loved ones.
I pray that this letter does not, in any way, offend you or cause anyone any concern, pain, anguish, or disharmony. I do not want to add to what I caused. To the contrary, my intention is to express how ashamed I am for the role I took in this horrendous incident. What I did was completely wrong and I had no right to harm Mr. ________., a loved and respected family man, or anyone else for that matter.
I prostrate myself before you and God and ask for His mercy and for your permission to meet so I can say how deeply sorry I am for hurting the family. It would be a privilege and the greatest honor for me to be able to respond and answer any and all questions that you or anyone in the family might have. Again, I want to reiterate, it is totally in your hands whether or not to participate in this meeting.
I apologize if I have disrupted your life or caused anyone any discomfort; this is not my intention. I just believe you should have the chance to vent your feelings and to have the opportunity to say anything you want to me. God knows, I have already caused enough harm, and I sure don’t want to ever cause anyone any harm.
Sincerely, Richard _______________
A few months later Richard said, “Radha, when I read my letter of permission and afterwards you hugged me, it was the first time I truly felt human in over twenty six years”.