Presumed innocent

I've been writing to a prisoner I thought was innocent, but I found out he confessed to the crime. Should I stop writing?

Published December 17, 2003 8:07PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am a woman of advanced years who has been writing to a man who is an inmate in a prison. He was convicted of child molestation. His sister-in-law insisted that he could never have done this act. He led me to believe he was the victim of a vindictive ex-wife and betrayed by his lawyer. I have recently found out that he has admitted that he did do the crime he was sent to prison for.

I have been writing to him for several years thinking that an unfairly accused man needed some moral support. I am now torn about whether to continue to write to him, especially because I was a victim of father/daughter molestation when I was a child.

I don't know what to do. Please help me decide what is best to do. Should I continue to write but refuse to meet him after his release? Should I just excuse myself from further correspondence? Live and let live?

Torn by Indecision

Dear Torn,

Some people say everything happens for a reason, some say God will sort it all out, and some say there's no meaning at all and we just make up stories to comfort ourselves.

I think sometimes it's all those things at once: Things happen for reasons but the reasons are perverse and obscure; God sorts it out but not exactly the way you expect or want, and even in this exquisitely ordered world we're on our own in the bathtub, capable of drowning alone if we bump our head or drink too much gin. Order, chaos, madness, evil, redemption, all of it.

Fate and story, like minerals, tend toward the crystalline. And why not? Fate and story are part of nature if not as tangible as rocks. Why shouldn't our lives after time take on the appearance of gnarled trees or ancient crystals, formed over the years by a steady molecular magnetism or chlorophyll minding the course of the sun? Why not, if what we're made of is the world? So these "twists of fate" are not unexpected: the angles on the crystal, the nodal points, the places of historic conjoinment where evil and its twin are bound with knotted cartilage and bone.

Being molested by your father is like being punished for a crime you didn't commit. So it is not surprising that you would have a special empathy for a prisoner wrongly accused. You can imagine how he feels. You know what it's like to be an innocent victim. Incestuous abuse carries a special burden: The child cannot condemn the perpetrator; in the child's mind, the perpetrator must also remain innocent. If your father abused you and you could not condemn him, you might instead fantasize that you could rescue him from the full and brutal implications of his own dreadful deed, because the alternative -- to reject the father -- represents a tearing of the silken shroud that binds you to your maker and to all fathered humanity. So the abused child is imprisoned in paradox, wishing for her abuser to be innocent of his crimes against her. It makes the kind of sense that can drive you crazy. It's an intolerable contradiction to the child's soul, an impossible dilemma that some never solve, some solve with repetition, some solve with addiction and unconsciousness, some solve with suicide or madness.

So corresponding with a molester in prison might be the perfect solution to the mind's torment: He is behind bars and cannot harm you. He will allow you to love him. And he might even be innocent.

But that illusion is now shattered. The child molester in prison is guilty.

Who to correspond with now? You cannot keep corresponding with this man. You have to turn your compassion to the truly innocent. If you wish to send him one more letter, make it brief. Just tell him that for reasons of your own you won't be corresponding with him anymore.

Eventually, I hope that you can find a way to correspond with others like yourself, to give your support to all the other innocents with a blast furnace of memory roaring in their ears, all those who've been entered without permission, who've been tinkered with too much and don't work right anymore, all those who try the cures but the cures don't take because some part has been messed with way down in the machine code.

But first, I suggest that you begin a correspondence with your own imprisoned self, the self that got put away years ago for reasons so obscure we can hardly remember anymore, the self that's been half-starving all these years, giving her rations to the other inmates to maintain their allegiance and their loyalty, as protection against their anger. I suggest that you begin writing to her something like this, and insist that she write back soon:

Dear Prisoner,

I am writing to you to offer you support in your incarceration, because I know you are innocent of the crimes committed against you. I know that you cannot name your perpetrator, and I will not ask you to do that. I will only ask you to give your full attention to the healing of your wounds, and I offer in the meantime to fill in as your father, to do the things a father would do for a young, imprisoned girl. I will offer to protect you from the others who are also imprisoned, from everyone who wants things from you that you cannot give them.

I will send you a little money each month so you can buy chocolate or candy. I will send you flowers. And when you get out on parole, I will take you fishing with me high up on the mountain where the water is so incredibly cold when you splash it on your face.

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