by Rene Denfeld
As you know, I work with men and women who are facing execution. I have sat with those who have done unspeakable harm. I carry their pain—and yes they have pain. I know their remorse—and yes they have remorse. If the guilty could be here right now they would tell you one thing: stop me. Stop me from hurting anyone. Stop me before I carry this unbearable sadness. Stop me.
There’s a saying in death penalty work: if you can’t be good at being good, you will be good at being bad. Countries, like people, can decide to be bad. It might feel like a catharsis, like a purging. But there is no catharsis when it comes to hate. Hate, like love, multiples. The more you do it the bigger it gets. And if hate is what you multiply, in the end you will end up behind bars of one kind or another, collapsed in your own bitterness and defensiveness, the road behind you littered with the souls you harmed, wishing someone would have stopped you.
The same client who sits in front of me, caged in bars, was a tender young boy, full of joy at the sacrament of life. Every single case I have had was preventable. The same is true of our country, and the mistakes we have made, and the ones we can stop. Lives have been saved by one vote, by one action, by one person.
What we do matters. We all have strengths to bring to the table. For some it might be art, for others protest, some of us go micro and others go big. There is no hierarchy when it comes to activism.
But critical to all change is knowledge, and the best way to learn is to listen. This is especially true about listening to those who have been marginalized, dispossessed, and unheard. We cannot change what we do not understand.
I’m going to tell you a quick story. I adopted my kids from foster care. My oldest son came to me with a lot of problems. He was considered a troubled kid, the kind people expect to end up in prison—just like my clients. He was afraid, and fear makes animals out of all of us. I stuck with him, month after month, year after year. I would hold him in my arms, and tell him, “I will not let you be bad.” I wasn’t just trying to save his soul. I was trying to save my own, because we are all connected. Today that once troubled boy is a wonderful young man, kind and considerate and loving.
That is our country in a nutshell. Are we going to hold it in our arms? Are we going to refuse to let it be bad? Are we going to take every step in our power, month after month, year after year, to make sure it grows up healthy and good? Are we going to walk out of here tonight knowing what we do matters, one vote, one action, one person at a time?
Stop me, says the secret heart of those who do harm. I will stop you, say the brave. Lets be brave.
Rene Denfeld read "Letter to America" as part of Portland's Writers Resist, hosted by Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond, recorded for Dear Sugar Radio.
Rene Denfeld is the bestselling author of the award-winning novel The Enchanted (Harper) and forthcoming novel The Child Finder (Harper October 2017). By day Rene works with men and women facing execution, as a licensed death penalty investigator. She is a social justice advocate on mass incarceration, prison reform, and justice, as well as foster-adoptive parent. Rene speaks regularly on hope, resiliency, courage and change. Her website is www.renedenfeld.com, and she can be found on facebook and twitter.