By: Judith Toy
Everything is Burning. ~Shakyamuni Buddha
Death days are difficult. In the midst of the color of each beautiful autumn after the murders, a part of me always reached out but could not touch Connie, Bobby and Allen. It was five years after the murders, five years of daily meditation and mindfulness practice. I had learned the trick of using language to go beneath language.
This autumn morning my heart was heavy. I picked up a pencil. Turning in the Bible to Isaiah, I found the imagery I was looking for to write my way out of suffering, to express how I saw homicide as an obscene ritual:
Make the minds of these people dull/their ears deaf and their eyes blind so that they cannot see or hear or understand. If they did, they might turn to me and be healed. –The Lord, in a vision of Isaiah’s 6:10
A mother and her two sons are dying:/there is blood on the walls/but they do not yet see the Lord/on a high throne, exalted/his beard and robe filling temple suburbia/that awful, lawn-dark night./They see only stabs of light/as they are raped, hammered, slashed/by the hysterical boy, three flaming/six-winged creatures standing by./The killer sees no creatures, huge/by the beds, covering the face of the mother with their wings/covering the body of the bludgeoned son with their wings/now flying up, cradling the younger brother’s body/with their fifth and sixth wings, chanting “Holy, O holy, holy,”/their voices deep and terrible, enough/to warn the boy, stabbing with his hands/stabbing with his legs, stabbing with his penis/enough to squelch his screaming for a second/as he stops, sniffs the gruesome air, and goes on.”
To my absolute shock and surprise, as I wrote the poem, I began to identify with the rage of the 19-year-old boy who was committing the murders, stabbing and bludgeoning, raping. Suddenly in the act of writing of the poem I seemed to inhabit Charles’ body. I felt blind, out of control, out of my own body and mind. I went numb. Rage was paramount; there was nothing but hatred and stabbing, my beating heart. I had entered a physical affinity with the enemy. And he was no longer the enemy.
As I finished the last line, I was convinced that Charles had been completely out of his body and mind when he killed my family. That was the very day I stopped casting him as a beast and realized he was a boy in whom something had gone terribly wrong. The pain of my resentment vanished on the spot. Despite daily mindfulness practice, for years I had been trapped in fear and blame. Suddenly I understood that he was not a monster, but a good boy who had–for reasons I will never know for sure–become a beast that night. This was not a dark revelation; it was suffused with light, a kind of awakened moment.
I developed an urge to see Charles. Alarmed, a spiritual advisor said, “Wait. Begin with a letter.” So I began the practice of mentally putting myself in Charles’ prison cell and holding him tenderly in my arms. I stopped wishing that Charles be punished. Embraced by silence and spurred on through language, I was now able to feel compassion for him. It was like a dam had broken, and forgiveness began to flow in my belly, a river of understanding that would serve to heal my sorrow, grief and rage.
Although at the time I did not know this, Charles was refusing to see or talk to his parents, who had essentially become social pariahs, cast out by all of their family and friends for raising “a monster.” Then on January 10, 1998, a Saturday morning, the prison guards failed to make their normal rounds. By the time they found Charles’ body, he had been hanging by his neck from a twisted laundry bag for two hours. When they called his mother, Barbara Grand said, “You get him up! I know he’s not dead!” It took a while for prison officials to convince her that he had turned blue by the time he was found.
When I learned about Charles suicide, I not only mourned his death. His death became a trigger that brought back the horror full blast.
When I decided to write a book about this, I did what I could to find out what might have triggered Charles. I talked to the DA at length, who told me about the speculation that there was trouble between the boy and his father. Charles’ public defender was bound by law not to talk with me. With my heart beating fast, I carefully read the court records. I read books about lost boys. I interviewed my first husband Mark, who had known Charles. He told me that Charles must have “fallen through the cracks” at his high school. Not long before the murders Connie had worried over the boy’s condition, after he had dropped out of school and was refusing to shave or cut his hair. She sensed he was looking for trouble. Little did she know how he would find it.
Years later, I decided to telephone Charles’ mother, Trina. Again, my heart pounded as I picked up the phone. Her hello on the other end was sweet, clear, feminine. I told her who I was, that I had found a spiritual path and that through daily work on the path I had finally been able to pardon her son in my heart. With a lump in my throat I admitted to her that before I had summoned the courage to write a letter to Charles expressing my forgiveness, two years had swiftly passed. Then it was too late.
She began to talk and talked nonstop for about 20 minutes without interruption. The first thing she said gave me a chill, “There was someone else in that house. I’m looking across the street at the house right now. I’m at my window watering the plants.
“Charles said there was someone else in there that night, and the Lord told me he was right. If you had called me three months from now, you would not have found me. We just put the house on the market, we’re moving away and we’re going to become anonymous. Charles wrote about it. It always made him feel better when he was writing. I think it helped him.”
“Writing always makes me feel better, too,” I said, finally locating common ground.
In fragmented, emotional bits and pieces, Trina talked and cried and told her side of the story. None of the people who had been in the Grands’ lives prior to the murders remained in their lives. “In 12 years, yours is the first call. No one has called. No one!
“I only got to visit Charles once,” she went on. “He was behind a glass wall. Then he wouldn’t see us anymore, or even speak to us. He refused to shave or cut his hair.”
“His father and I both found the Lord” she said, “but Stan still hasn’t forgiven his son. He wants to know if there was someone else in the house, why did Charles plead guilty? He can’t deal with it and doesn’t want to talk about it.”
She did not mention the DNA evidence at the scene.
“His dreams had been bothering him, and he was deeply depressed,” she said. “At least he wrote us to say goodbye. He wrote, ‘Just let me go.’”
“I wanted to go to Connie, Allen and Bobby’s graves,” she said in her stream-of-consciousness speech, “But then I thought to myself they aren’t really there…” She began to cry, and over the phone I felt the depth of her loneliness and grief.
I did not hear from her again. What stays with me from that day is that Trina and I cried together. Without any feelings of blame or retribution or revenge, we were just two women united by the common bond of one horrible night in 1990 that permanently changed both of our lives—two women who were able to share sorrow as our common ground: two women’s tears, born of murder and grief, now called to love.
Judith Toy is author of Murder as a Call to Love, A True Story of Transformation and Forgiveness, available at www.murderasacalltolove.com. Ordained by renowned Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, she is a mindfulness teacher who lives in Black Mountain. She and her husband run a small publishing company and lead mindfulness practice at Cloud Cottage Community of Mindful Living and at retreats in the US and abroad.