Americans are a punitive bunch. We love to punish people. Nearly 3 percent of American adults are in prison, jail, or on probation or parole, a figure far beyond any other industrialized nation.
But that’s only the beginning. We entertain ourselves with elaborate revenge fantasies on TV and in the movies, and of course arm ourselves in order to deliver swift justice to anybody who might cross us, changing the laws to better encourage each other to stand our ground.
While vengeance feasts, forgiveness starves, which is part of what drew my interest to a thin new book — 155 pages — by Jeanne Bishop titled “Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer” (Westminster John Knox Press: $16).
Chicagoans of a certain vintage will remember Bishop as the public defender whose sister and brother-in-law were murdered in their Winnetka townhome in 1990. For a while the FBI painted the crime as being involved with Bishop’s advocacy work in Northern Ireland, until it was resolved that a disturbed 17-year-old whose parents knew Bishop’s parents had committed the crime, basically, because he was a sociopath.
It’s the sort of book I might normally never touch — God-directed goodness gives me the fantods — but I had met Bishop. She was the public defender randomly assigned to me when I had legal troubles nearly 10 years ago, and I created something of a professional nightmare for her, aided by some sloppy reporting in the press, after I implored her to continue as my counsel. Everyone had a good laugh at our expense, and the prudent thing for me to do would be to toss the book onto the slush pile and not bring any of this up. But that smelled like cowardice to me and, I figured, at least read the first line and then abandon the book with a clean conscience. It begins: “Gravel crunched under the tires of my car as I drove into the visitors lot at Pontiac Correctional Center on a cold Sunday morning.”
Not quite, “Reader, I married him,” but enough to keep me going. She’s at Pontiac visiting David Biro, the man who murdered her kin. Bishop pauses when filling out a form, wondering what to write for “Visitor’s Relationship to Offender.”
“What was my relationship to the man whose name stung my lips?” she puzzles. “Until that moment I would have written this: Him, murderer. Me, murder victims’ family member. That was where the relationship ended. But now I would have a different one, one in which we were not categories, but human beings. I would meet him face to face.”
In a world where you can find endless slo-mo payback, the process of seeking out the man who wronged you to forgive him face-to-face and apologize for not doing so sooner propels the reader forward through this crisp, challenging book.
The killer is convicted by page 40. What we get then is Bishop’s gradual progress from standard, let-him-rot victimhood to recalibrating her Christian faith to draw the killer toward her, and reassess her view of the death penalty.
Biro remains a shadowy figure, while Bishop moves from good (“I don’t want to hate anyone” she announces to a room of no-doubt startled cops when she arrives at the Winnetka police station the day of the murders) to really good, making speeches, writing op-eds, appearing before panels, once testifying on the opposite side of her own mother.
She’s rescued from unbearable goody-goodyism when she tells the FBI to pound salt after it comes around, eager to use the murders as leverage to get her to squeal on her Irish contacts.
And one moment made me think of “A Clockwork Orange.” Bishop starts visiting the killer and begins coaching Biro to grasp the enormity of what he’s done, going so far as to give him “Little Women” to read, so he can understand the kind of sisterly affection he destroyed. An unforgiving sadist who set out to awaken Biro’s comatose conscience and rub its face in his evil deeds and Bishop’s God-sent-me mission of forgiveness might find themselves doing exactly the same thing.
Some parts of the book made me squirm. As a public defender, she is relieved when she gets an innocent defendant freed, “other times, though, a guilty client goes free when the state drops the charges, or a judge grants my motion to quash arrest and suppress evidence, or a jury votes to acquit. What happens then feels less like justice and more like mercy.”
To her maybe. Maybe not so much to the terrified victims, but by this point they’ve been backseated to the felons, who in my mind were grinning broadly and high-fiving each other, welcoming Bishop onto their side of the moral fence.
If that seems harsh, then Bishop lost me toward the end, when she contemplated the release of Biro, and people like him, and coldly speculated why some timid folk oppose sprinkling God’s grace on felons and turning them loose.
“We set up David Biro and then others as objects of fear. Let them out, we say, and they may come after us. Our lives will be in danger. I wonder now, though, whether what we are truly afraid of is not that they will never get better, but that they might.”
No, the David Biros of the world set themselves up as objects of fear by doing horrible things. We let them out, and sometimes they really do come after us, or somebody like us. Yes, we are too harsh, and make the road to redemption too narrow. People can change, and do. But by the end of Bishop’s book, I was wondering whether the victims deserved a bit more of the compassion she lavishes over the perpetrators.