How should men who have committed heinous acts be memorialized in death?
I was asked that after a video I posted about a friend’s murder, and I’d like to answer it with a different personal story. Years ago, one of my closest childhood friends was accused and convicted of one of the worst crimes we have in our society.
I hadn’t seen him in many years but it’s hard to learn something like that about someone you once knew so well. I thought a lot about his victims, people I never knew and how they’d have his scar for the rest of their lives. I looked back for signs, I considered what it said about me to have once been so close to someone who did a thing like that.
And then I thought a lot about him. How he too would for the rest of his life have his own self inflicted scars. And I thought about what he might be feeling then; I thought about what would happen many years later when he died — what his obituary might say, what his funeral might look like. Would there be a funeral?
I was spiraling, as I often do, so I stopped, and I wrote him a letter.
I started by saying I hadn’t seen him in almost 20 years — it occurred to me that a letter like this could end up in a court record somewhere. I didn’t endorse him or condone anything; I had very little context. Instead, I reminded him of everything that was true about us — that we spent hundreds of hours together playing wiffle ball and making up silly pranks. That his parents were so kind to me and how funny and independent I remember him being. How at sleepovers when you’re a kid it feels like you can tell your best friend anything and that that gets harder and harder to do as we get older.
I didn’t hear back from him for almost a year. Then an email to an address I didn’t know he had. He was going away — prison or a treatment facility, the terms commingled. He hoped it wasn’t goodbye forever.
Brutality and violence don’t only come from men but most of it does. Great men are rarely good — and the good ones aren’t even always good in the end.
So what do we do when someone who has done good to us or by us or for a community we are a part of turns out to have also committed unspeakable cruelty?
We have had a healthy societal correction in which those who are victimized are rightly prioritized. Forget the monsters. The victims are where our minds should go first; full stop. Men who have committed heinous acts forfeit the right to public memorialization. I agree.
But that’s not the end; it’s too easy to call it the end. Because I don’t think justice is a finite resource. I believe in redemption.
I’m a journalist; obituaries for public figures must take an honest accounting of a life. The question of who is a public figure is murky though. If someone who was part of your life did many great kindnesses to you — and horrific acts elsewhere, I don’t believe you have to suppress what you know, because those kindnesses will always be a part of you.
In a quiet place, we can still mourn when we lose an especially complicated someone. Accepting the worst of them — which means putting Victims first — doesn’t mean pretending like the rest of that person never existed.