Some of you may be aware of the fact that I mentor a writing program at the maximum security prison in Lancaster, California.
Just recently, I held a contest for the students in the class. They were to write a short story, with the top three selections earning a place on my website for one week.
Beauty and the Beast by Lester L. Polk, was the second runner up in the competition. It's an emotional fictionalized account based upon a real life experience. I ask you to read it with an open mind, and to enjoy yourself.
Christopher J. Lynch
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Lester L. Polk
The drab grey walls amplify the overwhelming sense of enclosure. As you sit in the foyer of the prison visiting room, you know that this day would be as far from “normal” as any other day you have ever experienced in your multiple decades in prison. This is the day you stopped being afraid; the day you stop running from your wretched past. With the mask of a tough guy, you always pride yourself of your fearlessness; afraid of nothing, except what awaits you on the other side of that visiting room door.
You see, you are a murderer, a man guilty of extinguishing human life, plagued with a life debt that you can’t pay, but thrust with an opportunity to finally see its effects.
“Hello,” whispers the mediator in a soft, raspy voice. Dressed in beige, knee-length conservative dress, the somewhat older woman, speaking with a slightly Mid-Western accent, shakes your hand and goes on to prepare you for what will transpire during this meeting. You listen carefully, until your thoughts are interrupted by a myriad of concerns: “Can you do this? Do you really have the strength? Can you actually go through with this?”
You wipe your sweaty palms across your “Prisoner” stenciled pants as the mediator continues to read, “…and you hereby release the Department of Corrections of any injury or liability arising from this meeting.” Your heart is racing. Your mind is racing.
“Man, they sure are covering themselves, aren’t they?” you utter.
“Well,” she continues, “this process is new; the concepts of forgiveness and understanding are foreign to the Correctional system.”
You watch as she loosens up. “It’s almost comedic when one considers their name, The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,” she says with a dry chuckle. Her soft, feminine voice calms your nerves, though a residual fear lingers on.
This “mediator” is the exact opposite of you. Ms. Davenport is a small, petite, demure Caucasian woman. You are a six-foot-one, two-hundred fifty pound black prisoner deeply ensnared in the clutches of the Criminal Justice System; perpetually stamped as violent and dangerous. Ms. Davenport sees through the veneer. She sees beyond the cold, written record of your past, and views the present softer, gentler one who is reaching out for help from the core. You relish in the fact that she sees you, racked by decades of guilt and shame for a horrific past, now aching to make amends.
From the very first meeting, Ms. Davenport presents herself as a kind, forgiving, trustworthy human being. You have numerous meetings with her, embraced by the empathetic energy that she so generously provides. From those meetings you learn of the deep damage you wrought in your victim’s family’s lives. You see no reason to distrust her. After all, she worked tirelessly to get through the governor-mental red tape in order to facilitate this meeting, providing you with an opportunity to experience a very rare restorative justice meeting, as opposed to the ever unforgiving model of vindictive retribution and endless punishment.
This restorative process is totally foreign to your way of thinking. On the streets, you were a beast—an unforgiving monster who never gave forgiveness, nor expected it. As a prisoner, you had been all but tucked away and forgotten. Your life has been relegated to four very close walls dotted with locks all about you, and not a light to be seen in the near future—if ever. You have come to like your life as you have formed it. You didn’t matter, nor did anything else, except for your God and the hereafter. You have your daily routine. You really have no need, or desire, for any reminders of your crime; the greatest shame of your life. But Ms. Davenport is persistent, even a bit pushy. So you agree, and begin to mentally prepare for the meeting. While you never expected such an opportunity, your many hours of group and individual therapy have made you ready.
After all of the legal preambles, Ms. Davenport takes your hand and says, “Okay, we’re going in there now. Remember to let me know if it becomes too intense for you.” You relish in the fact that she sees you, racked by decades of guilt and shame for a horrific past, now aching to make amends.
You’ve been to the visiting room many times before, but it had always been with someone you were friendly with. But this time you are walking straight towards the gripping fear you have been running from for the past twenty years.
As you move to sit down, you realize that your victim’s widow, Mrs. Henderson, is standing directly in front of you. While you sit there motionless, barraged by a torrent of emotions, the most unusual thing occurs. Mrs. Henderson holds out her hand to you, insisting that you shake it before the meeting begins. The impromptu gesture takes you by surprise. You consider the attitude that she so visibly (and understandably) displayed towards you during your trial. You oblige, hesitantly. Your troubled mind is eased by her gesture; a far cry from the first meeting.
You were full of ignorance and unresolved anger issues. You agreed to participate in a robbery that resulted in the premature death of Frank Henderson, Mrs. Henderson’s husband. That delinquent you, is a perversion to who you are today. Every time you think about who you should truly have been, the potential that you had and the reality of the act you committed, storm clouds of shame rain on your life.
There was a time in your life when you were considered one of the most promising, rising stars in your family. There were clear (and reasonable) expectations placed before you. You were expected to earn a college degree, a military commission and to boot, create and raise a family. Your fate had been written in the hearts and minds of your loving family, but the seduction of an outlaw lifestyle rang volumes louder than the faint cry of a family’s love. Your failure weighs on you like an anvil. This is why when Mrs. Henderson offered you her hand to shake, you feel so unworthy.
You both take your seats. Ms. Davenport reminds you, “The rules I explained to you are pretty simple. We will allow each other the opportunity to speak, before interjecting or commenting.” You each nod in agreement.
Mrs. Henderson initiates the meeting with a request, her face serious: and asks, “Tell me, in your own words, the events that led you to be in my bedroom that horrible evening?” Her brown eyes focus intently and expectantly into your eyes. You look down, noting her tone is not angry, but instead firm, yet affable. You feel at ease enough to respond—after a long pause.
You reluctantly begin to recount the deadly events that extinguished one life and marred so many others.
You tell her you were involved with a group of people, who were not really what you would call friends. You had heard that they were making a great deal of money from robberies. Thoughtless, you only saw the potential money; never did you imagine that things would go terribly wrong. When you met up with these guys, you told them you wanted in. You were an outsider, vaguely aware of their activities, but part of the same neighborhood.
Mrs. Henderson holds intense eye-to-eye contact, yet she’s clearly disconnected. She does not understand, to any degree, the subculture you describe to her. Determined, you continue to explain. Then you explain the randomness in which her house was chosen. She remains silent during the entire explanation. But the moment you’re finished she shows her astonishment and anger.
“Say that again!” she demands. “Do you mean to tell me that it was by sheer chance that my house was selected?”
Shamefully, with your head already lowered, you affirm that was indeed the case. “We figured there was at least a thousand dollars in the house somewhere,” you add, as if that might help. You explain to Mrs. Henderson how their avid denials of having a safe fell on deaf ears. And despite your failure to find a safe, the “rule” was to never leave a robbery empty-handed.
Mrs. Henderson sits stoically. These eerie few moments seemed like a lifetime. Her silence amplifies your terror and shame as they return to haunt you with a vengeance. You feel like a fly caught in a web, unable to extract yourself. You want to run and hide. But as you look to your right, Ms. Davenport offers a reassuring nod.
Following a long silence, you ask Mrs. Henderson, “Can I read a letter that I wrote to you as a part of my therapy? I call it ‘Victim’s Shoes.’ I wrote it as if you were writing it to me, about the trauma and devastation that my actions caused.” Mrs. Henderson agreed. You begin to read:
Dear Mr. Polk,
Allow me to introduce myself to you. My name is Ashley Henderson. I am the widow of Mr. Frank Henderson, husband and father to our two beautiful girls. He was a successful businessman, community leader and the love of my life. That was the man who disappeared from my life. Now, I know you did not “pull the trigger,” but I hold you to the same judicial standards as the killer of my love, because as they say, “in for a penny, in for a pound,” and you are culpable.
I want you to understand that I am not using this opportunity to place additional guilt in your life, but you need to realize that on June 14, 1991, you stole more than my husband, four thousand dollars and the innocence of my children. You stole my life. You stole my dreams; my peace of mind. You stole my quiet moments, family gatherings and the list goes on and on.
For weeks, months, and years, I had no time to grieve because I had to bury my husband, attend to my heartbroken children and deal with your trial. When I was finally able to grieve, I just wandered around the house like a ghost in a graveyard. I haunted Frank’s closet; I opened drawers and cabinets; I touched his shirts and jackets—burying my face in his clothes, trying to breathe in his scent. Sometimes I would shut myself in our room and hold the last pictures of us together, and weep.
The pain did not start or stop with just me. My daughters, Lisa and Deborah, lost their father simply because you killed him. Deborah had just given birth days after her father’s death, so Frank never got a chance to see his grandchild. The child grew up without having the wisdom of a loving grandfather.
Lisa, well, she got hammered with the worst of it all. As you already know, Frank died in her arms. The object of her love and safety bled out in front of her. Can you possibly imagine the horrible thoughts that ran through her mind, the utter feelings of hopelessness that stayed with her? So much so that she turned to drugs and troubles of all kinds trying to numb the pain.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking those forty-eight horrifying minutes are long gone. For Lisa, whenever she’d see a black man, the tragedy would trigger all over again. The anger, the hate in your voice stayed with her, as well as with me, and still does to this day.
I was a youth activist in juvenile hall before you and your gang violently entered my life. And even after you did, I found it to be my life’s calling. Especially after I found out that you all were teens.
I hear that you changed your life, and you now serve the Lord God. Well, I prayed for that to happen. I am glad that you received forgiveness for your soul. I, too, offer you my forgiveness, which means that I no longer hold you in the context of our tragic meeting. I truly believe you are sorry for what you did. You have my forgiveness, and simply put, I wrote this letter to let you know what you are forgiven for.
You use the letter as a shield, holding it close to your face as you read. You don’t feel worthy to look Mrs. Henderson in her eyes. However, as you lower your shield, to your surprise, her eyes are filled with tears!
She looks directly at you, tears streaming. As she wipes them away, her chest lifts, her head raises and she announces, “You actually get it! I just wanted to know if you understood. That means so much to me!” she exclaims.
Your mind seems dim, numb, but your mouth naturally mutters, “I’m so sorry. I can only express to you that since that horrifying night, I have spent my life trying to be the exact opposite of the boy who destroyed your life that shameful day.”
With a look of nurturing kindness on her face, Mrs. Henderson says, “We all need forgiveness. We are all sinners. If there was anything I could do to earn my righteousness, then I would not need Jesus. But we all need forgiveness and salvation. Besides that, I would like to offer you my friendship.”
At that, your eyes light up like lanterns. And she continues, “I would like for us to get to know one another. I think it would be a Jesus-like ending to this tragedy. Besides, we might as well be friends now, because we’ll be together in heaven for eternity. I truly believe that is what the Lord would want. In this life, misfortune happens to us, but what we do with them is the test.”
You listen with what must be a look of bewilderment on your tear-stained face, absorbing all that Mrs. Henderson is saying. Finally, you tell her that you would indeed be her friend and that you consider her friendship a gift from God.
As the meeting continues on, the heaviness you carried out there evaporates. The meeting turns into a visit as you and her chat and learn more about one another. It is a new chapter to a twenty-year-old encounter. You speak of breakthroughs in therapy, and she shared the triumphs of her children. You share the insanity of the prison system, and explain what a blessing it is to be able to change from beast to human again despite what the past would dictate.
You tell her how violent and crazy the last prison you were at had been. You describe the riots, the “jackings” for canteen, and how prevalent the same mindset that caused you to run in her house is in prison. Ms. Davenport seems to bask in the success of the meeting and remains a silent observer.
Mrs. Henderson shares stories of counter thinking as well. She tells you about family members who think meeting you is insane. She confides in you how an acquaintance who was accompanying her at Mass on a recent Sunday chided her for coming to meet you and even considering offering an olive branch.
You laugh inside at the irony. Perhaps the acquaintance didn’t hear Jesus’s message on forgiveness, you think to yourself.
Hours later the institution cut short all visits to conduct an emergency count. As you stand to leave, you offer to shake Mrs. Henderson’s hand but she abruptly shoves it to the side and opens her arms with a smile. She stands there, insisting, until you walk in and let her envelop you. She squeezes as if you were long-lost family.
As you line up for intake into the housing unit, your fellow prisoners comment on your obvious glow. It is evident that something special occurred because, according to your neighbor, you are “beaming.” So you share your wonderful experience in the briefest version possible. He is amazed, as are those in earshot.
The usual and collective experience with victims consists of sometimes hateful, always tear-filled and emotion-driven statements to the court. In contrast, your meeting was a unique, bright, warm light the likes of which are unheard of in the dark, negative world of prison. Yet, this is your story of how one remarkable woman charmed the beast.
Beauty and the Beast is a fictionalized version of a real life Turning Point in the author’s life. The names were improvised, but the cause, effect and setting are real.
In contrast to the normal “Lock the beast in a cage” mentality, it showcases a different ideal, a Victim/Offender dialogue; which in this case resulted in forgiveness and emotional freedom for both parties.
While not suitable for all cases, this process replaces the State as victim with the real wounded party and gives them the voice that so shamelessly has been denied them.
For the offender, truly understanding the total effects of their crime can often be a stepping stone to change. This is sorely needed considering that approximately two-thirds of offenders will return to society.
Lester L. Polk is an incarcerated author who spends his time as a peer-educator in Creative Writing, Conflict Resolution and Victim Sensitivity/ Awareness workshops.
In tribute to his friend, the real life Mrs. Henderson, he lives a life of forgiveness; making the world a better place one act of forgiveness at a time. Do you have a story of real life forgiveness? Share it with the author.
Lester L. Polk H-72800
C.S.P. Los Angeles County
P.O. Box 4430 [A3 / 117 Low]
Lancaster, CA 93539