Of Witches, and Witch Burnings

Note: this piece is adapted from a forthcoming article in the Southwestern Law Review

Several years ago, a debate raged in my local paper’s opinion section. Should sex offenders be allowed in church?, or something of the like. I wasn’t a churchgoer, but I had a spiritual experience that I didn’t know what to do with. I asked one of my friends in law school who I knew was religious, and who knew my story, if she would take me to hers. She took me.

I went to a service with her, and afterwards, I asked the priest to lunch, so that I could tell him my whole story. So that I could ask if I could attend.  

Over burgers and fries at one of those restaurants that doesn’t stay the same thing for more than a year or two, I told him about my conviction, and my spiritual experience, and how I’d like to start attending church. I expected that I was going to leave disappointed.

He looked at me with a “so what?” kind of expression on his face. He seemed annoyed. He kept chewing. 

Well, I’m just wondering if you’ll allow me to attend

Why wouldn’t I?  

Because, I’m a sex offender.

Without missing a beat, you’re no different than anyone else. He then let roar this belly laugh where, improbably, despite the fact that you could hear it from rooms away, he laughed mostly with his eyes. He put me at ease.

And so, I went. I wasn’t treated any differently from anyone else. I didn’t have a chaperone. I wasn’t given any special set of rules. If anyone was assigned to surveil me, I couldn’t tell. I worshipped. I prayed. I volunteered. I struggled with faith and doubt. I still do, and probably always will. I became friends with people. I found community.

I didn’t share my background with anyone else. I was scared. I didn’t know what others would think. I tried to leave the past in the past. While my employers and family and close friends knew, I wasn’t public. If they knew, they would surely reject me.

My ill-fated Kentucky bar exam application became national news on a week in 2014. Most mornings I would stop and get coffee before going into the office. This morning, my own face stared back at me from the front page of the the newsstand. I was trending on Fox News. My phone kept ringing. I was terrified.

My priest called me a few days after the story broke. He said he wanted to give me a heads up: he’d overheard people talking about my story, that what I’d shared with him over lunch was now common knowledge. People left to come to their own conclusions. Sunday was a few days away.

Nothing is more dehumanizing than the absence of human companionship. Nelson Mandela wrote that about his time in solitary confinement, and while I have never been in solitary confinement, when I read it, it struck a chord deep within me.

In our hyper-connected age, we don't need solitary to cut people off from human companionship.  Being labeled a sex offender, you carry your solitary with you, in your heart, and in your mind. When you put on your shoes to go mail letters or buy milk from the store, when you go out on a date, or try to find something to watch on Netflix, you may as well be on Mars. The indelible electronic mark you carry threatens to turn your own thoughts against you, unless and until you can find a way outside of the prison your own mind begins to construct for you. Until then, you die slowly, suffocating in shame.

To the extent that people believe about themselves that they are bad, or immutable, or beyond redemption, or beyond human companionship, it is a torturous condition in which to reside. More than that, if you tell someone that the only thing that they can ever be is a criminal, the last thing you would want for them to do is to believe you. Why should anyone want that?

Indeed, there is something uniquely cruel about a justice system that wants you to reintegrate, but then actively opposes and undermines that same reintegration. Once you believe that you are a creature called a sex offender, you inflict your punishment on yourself. You become your own jailer.

You put on armor in the morning, not unlike putting on clothes. You get ready for it. Sideways glances from neighbors and death threats and everything in between. You’re ready for the hate, and the judgment. You expect it. You can take it. You have no choice. 

I walked through the doors of the church that Sunday, despite everything in me pulling me in the other direction, to stay home. To hide. Opening the door, I avoided eye contact, staring at the floor, and made a beeline for my seat. I felt hot. I closed my eyes, and gave thanks, even if it was going to be for the last time.      

I tried to steady my breathing. Tried not to cry for the death blow I knew was coming. It wasn’t long before I felt two people sit next to me – one on either side of me. I normally sat alone. People here, I figured, here to throw me into the street. 

We got your back. 

I recognized her voice, even at a whisper. It was one of the two blue-haired matrons of the church. I opened my eyes, and the other one was sitting on the other side of me. Flanked by grandmothers, or angels in the architecture.

During the peace, people kept coming up to me. I’d extend my hand, and get a hug instead. People said I was in the right place. People told me that they loved me. That they cared about me. I broke down and sobbed, surrounded by a community I showed up for, and in turn, they showed up for me.

I put on armor expecting to be cast out of that community, to try to guard against how cold that night was going to be. Instead of hate and judgment, I encountered love that cut right through me. I had no defense for that. You put on all that armor because you think it’s going to keep you safe, but really it just keeps you trapped. It keeps you alone. I broke down and sobbed.

In showing up for me, they gave me a chance: to become more than the worst thing I’d ever done. A chance to build the foundation of the work that I do now. I’d been living a torturous existence for years, my own solitary confinement. 

They set me free.