Can there be justice without kindness? A victim’s perspective

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“Was he caught?” This is still the most common question I’m asked, even though it’s been eleven years since a stranger came up behind me, and, wordlessly, beat me with a hammer. My purse, with the bloody hammer resting on a bank envelope containing $400, in $20’s, was found on the ground two blocks from the site of the assault. These scraps of information remain the only details I know.

I am now retired, a newly published author and at age 73, named by the Independent Book Publishers Association as one of the best new voices in non-fiction for my book Headstrong: Surviving a traumatic brain injury. The dent on my forehead, in the shape of the hammer’s anvil, is still visible, but not a focal point for most people, and my once fractured hands, are functional. My body remembers the trauma of being the victim of a sudden, violent assault, one in which I thought I was going to die. My amygdala continues to be on alert, triggering a fear response to loud sounds, sudden moves or crowds. The traumatic brain injury I sustained changed my life, though the damage to my frontal lobe is unseen by the person who wonders if the assailant was caught.

To myself, I think: Whatifhe was caught? (I know the assailant was a man) Then what? What does that do for me? How does that help me wend my way through the rest of my life with permanent, albeit, invisible to most people, injuries? What relief am I expected to feel if he is arrested? In the first five or so years after the assault, I would try to engage the unfortunate questioner in ideas of justice and policing. I was typically irritated that the question was even posed. Now, I simply answer, “No.”

A common follow-up question: Was he Black?

Sometimes I would answer, yes, and sometimes I would say, no, adding that the attacker was a man. The always present, intractable racial divide and accompanying stereotypes, are readily available to explain so much of what would otherwise be a socio-political conundrum. My assailant’s blackness, then, would explain the violence, remove the specter of a random act, and give context and meaning to an otherwise inexplicable event, keeping the racial status quo firmly intact.

The final question: Don’t you won’t him brought to justice?

I had no answer and, though I thought it, I did not say in response, “Where is that? Where does someone go who is ‘brought to justice’? Is justice a conviction? Is it prison time? How will I know if justice has been served?

During my time in the hospital and in the first months being home recovering from the most acute injuries, I didn’t think about the police or the attacker. As I became more awake, the assault began to enter my consciousness. I wanted to know how the police were handling my case, what they were finding and how they were making sense of what had happened to me. I had the business card of the detective who had been assigned to my case. I called him.

He wasn’t at the station when I called, so I left my name and a request that he return my call.

He called back the next day. I asked if he remembered me and he answered immediately, “Of course.” He went through some of the details of what had happened. It didn’t occur to me, then, that he was reading from a case file. I thought he actually remembered me. He didn’t say much about his search for the perpetrator. He didn’t say much at all, except that I should call him anytime. A few years passed, and I tried to call him again about something that was very important to me. Again, he wasn’t available. This time, though, he never called back.

The only direct contact I’ve had with the police department was from a representative of the Office of Victims of Violent Crimes. When I saw her caller ID, I answered eagerly, anticipating some sort of offer of support. She only said that she wanted to use the crime scene pictures of me, my bludgeoned face and cracked skull, for training police recruits. I didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t want to know anything. “No.”

Catching someone wasn’t important to me, although I assumed it should be to the police. I didn’t think that someone would grab a hammer to walk outside, like he would a winter hat. I didn’t think I was the first person or the last person who he would attack. What was very important to me, then and now, was for the police to care about me. I wanted someone to reach out to me, not just on the day of the assault and the few days following. I wanted to hear about the investigation. I didn’t need results, I needed inclusion. I needed to know the process they were following and what information they were gathering. I wanted someone on the police force to know my name, not just the Mrs. Jones that was on the police report, but JoAnne. Maybe to say, “Do you mind if I call you JoAnne?”, as might happen if I mattered. I wanted someone on the police force to empathize with me and say, “I’m so sorry this happened to you. You must have been so frightened”; “This wasn’t your fault”; “You did everything you could and we are grateful that you are alive”; “We’ll do our best to find this person.” And, “We don’t want this person to injure others. We’d appreciate any help you can give.” I wanted to hear, “I’ll be in touch with you” and mean it.

That’s all I really wanted. Kindness. An expression of comfort. Authentic compassion. Not a paint-by-numbers scripted politeness. I needed to feel that my suffering was seen and understood, and that I was important.

Many people in my life, including medical professionals, treated me with great kindness. I came to recognize, though, that receiving empathetic understanding by those with the authority to take action, was of crucial importance. It would provide my traumatic experience and private suffering with public legitimacy and help quell the thoughts that I had made a mistake and was therefore assaulted; that I was over-reacting to my injuries, and that I had no protection from external dangers. While these worries have faded with time, my resentment toward a justice system that did not treat me with kindness, lingers.

Those feelings have been rekindled as our lives are engulfed by the Novel Corona Virus. They are not comparable situations, of course, one an act of violence and, as natural disasters are called, one an act of G-d. Life as we have known it has changed, and a cavernous, relentless, amorphous fear now resides in most people. Everyone is a target. Every doorknob, handrail, box in the grocery store, neighbor, is a potential danger. We know its costs, better than its origins. I feel a familiar gnawing of wanting the unremitting fear we face every day to be humanized by expressions of kindness from those who have the authority to lead us through this morass: sympathy offered to those who have lost loved ones; stories of stunning kindness made visible, and reassurances that the storm will abate and we will rebuild together. I want to know that there is a national consciousness of the heroism and price paid by health workers and consideration of how to help those on the front lines to deal with the lasting trauma of this pandemic. Even as losses of various kinds pile up, I want to know that the efforts being made to ameliorate the damage, flow from compassion.

American-Palestinian poet Naomi Shihab Nye, in her poem Kindness, tells us that before we can really know kindness, we must lose things that had been carefully protected; that we must know the desolation and deepness of sorrow and that we must understand that we, too, could have been the other, who attacked a stranger, who yelled angry words, or who lost a home or livelihood or life in a national tragedy. With these understandings, we then learn that kindness is the only thing “that makes sense anymore.”

I still can’t say where justice is, but I know that it resides with kindness.

Author of Headstrong: Surviving a traumatic brain injury, Professor Emeritus, Springfield College, Massachusetts, love family, friends, the ocean and my dog