Today I was reminded of a letter I wrote over 20 years ago that saved a woman’s life. I have not thought about that letter in quite some time. I have always loved and honored the power of words, mightier than the sword, transcending death. The story of that letter is a narrative unto itself that is worth the telling.
I have a friend I will call Kate (not her real name). Kate grew up in a dysfunctional family and she struggled with the psychological aftershocks of childhood trauma. She was prone to depression and when she sought professional help she was medicated. There is a bottomless and complex conversation that could take place around that scenario and the medical profession’s traditional approach to mental health. I am not going to have that conversation right now. Right now I am telling a story about one woman and a letter I wrote. So Kate was medicated, and even so she continued to struggle with depression. The medication distorted her thoughts and feelings; it distorted her judgement. Kate was also a single mom with a small child, who was the love of her life.
Let me say a little more about Kate here. She is a gentle, kind, generous, and humble person. She has been known to step far out of her comfort zone to help others in need, such as inviting homeless individuals to stay at her apartment and helping people who are at a low point in their lives to connect to needed assistance and resources. She delights in making the world a more beautiful place, using her creativity to elevate the everyday miracle to a higher level of notice. Considering what she suffered as a child, she is an astonishingly forgiving person; and a loving and creative force in the world. The next part of her story is, therefore, difficult to assimilate.
One night, Kate gave her beloved child some medicine so the child would sleep. She gave the child too much medicine. I believe Kate’s account of what happened that night because only Kate knows what she thought and what she did, and she is an honest person, and she loves her child, and it is not my place to speculate or judge. After she gave the child too much medicine, she took the child to the emergency room, where the doctors saved the child’s life. Kate was arrested for attempted murder. The child went to foster care. Kate did not lay eyes on that child again for more than ten years after this incident. Her pain and despair over her separation from the child during that time was horribly difficult for those who loved her to witness.
During Kate’s murder trial, her attorney contacted me. She explained to me that there was a strong possibility that Kate would be convicted, and a conviction would carry a sentence of 25-years-to-life. People convicted of crimes against children often do not fare well in prison. They tend to meet with an early demise. The attorney made it clear to me that she firmly believed, knowing all the facts in the case, that Kate had not attempted to murder her child. She was bound and determined to have Kate acquitted. She contacted me to ask me if I would write a character reference letter that she could present to the judge. She requested such letters from a number of Kate’s longtime friends. I don’t know how many of us wrote them, or who wrote them. I do know that I am the only trained, professional writer who wrote one. In my letter, addressed directly to the judge, I described the Kate I knew, in similar terms to those I have used above in trying to explain to you how loving she is, what a big heart she has, and how she travels through life as a creative spirit spreading positive energy to others. I wrote in my letter that I could not imagine her purposely intending to harm her child. She is simply not that person. I urged the judge to seek the truth in the situation and to question the validity of the perspectives of Kate’s family members since I knew a little about the family’s dysfunction and how much damage had already been done to Kate by it. I worried that it would be all too easy for Kate’s family to paint a picture of her that was false and that would damage her case. I labored over that letter, took my time writing it, revised and reworked. I knew that a woman’s life was hanging in the balance and I could not shake the hope that my letter could make a difference.
All of this happened a long time ago. I don’t have a copy of that letter. Kate doesn’t either, although she has tried to track it down in the court records of her case. The letter has evaporated in the mists of time. According to Kate’s attorney, my letter was the deciding factor that turned the judge to rule in Kate’s favor. Rather than sending her to prison, he sent her to a psychiatric facility to undergo treatment. From there, she would be released at the discretion of the psychiatrist overseeing her case when she was deemed to be stabilized. Kate spent many months at this facility. It was probably a good place for her to be at that time since she was so grief-stricken over the loss of her child. When she was released, she found a place to live, found work, and started her life over. If she had gone to prison, she would still be there, serving a minimum of 25 years, or else (more likely) she would be dead.
As it happened, after a long, forced-separation of mother and child by the child’s foster family for reasons too complicated and private to explain in this context, Kate’s child grew up and left the foster family to travel clear across the country to find Kate for a mother-and-child-reunion. They again became a part of one another’s lives. (They had brunch together on Mother’s Day last week.) Kate works as a medical translator, using her linguistic skills (she speaks four languages) to help people who don’t speak English communicate in hospital settings, often in the emergency room in crisis situations. She also continues to pursue her many creative projects, making beauty and facilitating connections between creative souls she meets in her life’s journey. It is impossible to sum up a person’s life in a few short paragraphs, and unfair to try to do so. Suffice it to say that Kate has lived and continues to live a productive life, contributing to the communities and lives of people around her in ways that would never have been possible if she had been locked away. She has, over time, taken control of her mental health, which she now maintains without medication or the interference of traditional medical professionals. It has been a long journey, but Kate has recovered from the trauma she suffered and she is doing well.
Today, as I recall that letter I wrote, I am awed by the awareness that my words saved a woman’s life. I am grateful for this gift I have received, this talent I cherish, this passion that possesses me. I am reminded of why I have dedicated my life to being a writer and I renew my faith in the ever-astonishing power of narrative.
This sculpture, made in Shona stone in Zimbabwe, is called Mother and Child Reunion.
I have not been able to ascertain the artist. Perhaps it is a standard motif done by many.