In 2021, B’s youngest brother was sentenced to 25 years in prison for murder and two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. B wrote this short letter to the victim’s family in the hopes of articulating her desire for reconciliation, while also acknowledging and supporting the family’s pursuit for accountability. Additionally, B aims to encourage her readers to think outside of the “good versus evil” dichotomy by alluding to the ways in which generational trauma, and the systems of oppression that underpin and uphold this trauma, harm us all.
It’s Easter today—and I am wondering what your family is doing to celebrate. What does it look like for you all to push forward with the void of James’ presence?
In the days that followed my knowledge of what my brother had done, I looked for you all. I wanted to punish myself for what my brother did. I wanted to feel a fraction of your pain. I felt like I deserved it for being related to what you called “a monster.” I never blamed you for calling him that, even if it crushed me to read it. I wanted to jump through the computer screen, to kneel down at your feet, to profusely apologize for the immense grief you were feeling and would feel for the years to come. I also desperately wanted to humanize my brother.
I wanted to tell you about the neglect and abuse he faced as a child.
I wanted to tell you about his addiction.
I wanted to tell you about the violence my brother experienced at the hands of the prison system.
I wanted you to know that I understood your quest for justice in spite of the fact that, to me, incarceration is not an effective means of approaching crime.
I wanted you to know that I was on your side—even though, in different ways, we were both part of the losing team.
I wanted you to know that if tears could save a person, I would have cried enough to make James a saint.
But I watched the news clip of you all wrapping your arms around one another after you found out that James had been killed. And I knew that these words would fall flat, despite the truth behind them. No words could truly explain how we all ended up here.
I have this vision in my head of us conversing around a table of food. I wonder if there is any world where we can know each other outside of this tragedy. I can feel my body tense up as you lovingly describe James as a child. Maybe he’s running at full speed as he hunts for neon yellow plastic eggs. I try to find balance between the “good” and “evil” of my brother’s upbringing. I remember that my mother used to place money in our Easter eggs as children. However, these memories are bittersweet; they are permeated by the drugs and alcohol that poisoned our parents.
I know that the timing is not right and may never be right, but if it ever is, you will always be welcome at our table. I will try to hold space for us. Perhaps our little ones can open their Easter baskets together one year.
I know that this scenario is swathed in what seems like the fantasy of reconciliation, but if I do not occasionally go to this dreamlike state in my head, I could never deal with the fact that my flesh and blood killed yours.
If I could resurrect James, I would.
But I am no God; just a really devastated sister.
B. Arneson is the Founder of Paperbacks for Perpetrators, a community-based project dedicated to providing books to incarcerated individuals in the Southern United States. Over one thousand books have been donated and distributed to date.