Tuesday, June 08, 2010

California: End the sentence of shame for family of executed

Janis Gay, whose grandfather was executed at Folsom Prison.


We are beginning here a series on California and the Death Penalty

Death Penalty : It is time to end the sentence of shame for family ...It is time to end the sentence of shame for family ... our grandfather's death ... the Death Penalty, a coalition project with MVFR, Death Penalty Focus and the ACLU Northern California.

It is time to end the sentence of shame for family members of the executed

By Janis Gay, whose grandfather was executed at Folsom Prison.

Imagine you are ten. Imagine your father. A black hood covers his head. A rope around his neck. His arms, tied behind his back. The floor opens. The rope snaps. He's dead. Period.

But not the end of the sentence.

It was just the beginning of the sentence for my mother. She was that ten year old. She never actually saw her father's execution in Folsom Prison, in 1924, but she never stopped seeing it. The vision grew larger and larger until it blotted out the obvious-her art, her family, her life.

My beautiful mother was so intelligent and had such an imagination--she was capable of writing a best selling novel. But she only published two books. Her implosion began when I was 10, the same age that she was when her father was executed.

The rope snapped, the sentence continued.

When I was an adolescent, I would often find my mother, after my brother and father went to bed, in her rocking chair in the darkened living room, drinking Ancient Age, smoking Merits. The red coals swung in the dark.

It was my 21st summer, 1968, before my senior year at Berkeley, when my mother told me about my grandfather's execution. My older brother was told when he was 18. The story of our grandfather's death sentence was our rite of passage into adulthood.

Strangely, two of my acquaintances at school were related to characters in my grandfather's story---the judge's granddaughter and the district attorney's grandson. I came close to sharing my family's secret with the judge's granddaughter, but held back. I felt apart and fearful, yet I told myself that my grandfather's murder and execution had nothing to do with me.

I had my first bout with depression during the middle of my senior year -- just months after my mother had confided in me. The sentence continued.

My mother and I spoke of my grandfather less than a dozen times before her death in 1997. Most of the conversations were bleak and conspiratorial. Stay away from finding out about him, from assuming the shame, she warned.

It was obvious from my mother's warnings that she still carried the burden of shame and had not reached reconciliation with her father's deed or death. After her death, I spoke with several of her closest friends about my grandfather, but no one knew what had happened to him.

I was 40 when I began therapy. With my therapist's support I began the exhausting process of learning about my grandfather. The crime had created a media frenzy, so there were plenty of old newspaper accounts of what had happened.

As I delved deeper into my grandfather's story I kept picturing my 10 year old mother in the middle of the storm; sitting in Governor Richardson's office as my grandmother begged for clemency. I imagined the teasing and taunting that she must have endured. (I taught middle school for 29 years, so I know how innocently cruel children can be to each other at that age.) Knowing my mother's imagination, I am sure she struggled to block out the image of her beloved father hanging at the end of the rope.

Until my research, I had always felt uncomfortable being against the death penalty. Our government said we needed executions to be safe. Murders would increase if we did not kill the killers. We shouldn't waste our money keeping them alive. It's justice.

When I read the petitions and letters to Governor Richardson asking for clemency on behalf of my grandfather, I began to wonder about executions as a punishment. Reading the creepy letters requesting to witness the execution, and the doctor's report of my grandfather's expiration in the gallows pushed me to explore the issue further.

In November 2000, I attended Committing to Conscious, a conference in San Francisco sponsored by Death Penalty Focus. It was a national gathering of anti-death penalty groups.

It was there that I became a member of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (MVFR).

MVFR is an organization made of people whose family members have been murdered or executed and who oppose the death penalty in all cases. MVFR advocates for programs and policies that promote crime prevention, alternatives to violence and addresses the needs of victims, helping them to rebuild their lives.

I also discovered that family members of the executed share many characteristics: drug abuse (my brother died of alcoholism), family disintegration (my grandfather had 7 brothers and sisters-I know no one from that family), depression, violence, shame and silence.

Through MVFR I have gained support and recognition-and most importantly, I have learned that my grandfather's execution, his sentence, does not have to end my story.

MVFR gave me a community and recognized my legitimacy. They introduced me to others who opposed the death penalty. Most importantly, they made me realize that I did not have to deny my family's past. My grandfather murdered another human being, but he is still my grandfather. His heinous act and the government's mutual participation in the cycle of killing sent my mother into an emotional exile.

But now I know I do not have to follow in her footsteps. With the support of organizations like DPF and MVFR, I have become empowered to speak out against the death penalty and the cycle of violence it perpetuates.
END article

(Find this article at Death Penalty Focus, MVFR and other sites)

Janis Gay, a third generation Northern Californian, taught middle school in St. Helena for 29 years and is now the receptionist for a Napa Valley accounting firm. She serves on the Board of Directors for Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. Janis is the MVFR liaison for California Crime Victims for an Alternative to the Death Penalty, a coalition project with MVFR, Death Penalty Focus and the ACLU Northern California.

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