This was a hard week. Threatened with a 60 year prison sentence for firing a warning shot in the presence of her chronically abusive husband, Marissa Alexander agreed to a plea “bargain.” She’ll spend another 65 days in jail, on top of the 1,030 days she’s already been locked up.
Two days earlier, my friend Elizabeth was murdered by a man against whom she had taken out a restraining order. Francesca, a mutual friend, commented when she heard about Elizabeth: “The courts don’t realize that a piece of paper doesn’t save you. It’s exactly what it is — a piece of paper.”
Elizabeth (a pseudonym) was one a group of women I first met more than six years ago as part of a long-term project aimed at understanding the daily lives of Boston-area women who have been criminalized, marginalized and abused. Not always easy to be around, Elizabeth frequently wept from the pain in her life – the death of her sister and of her boyfriend, ten years of homelessness, numerous assaults, rape, struggles with alcohol and depression, a broken collarbone and shoulder that had not healed properly. But at unexpected moments she’d look up from her wad of tissues and, cracking a grin, poke fun at her own propensity to break into tears not only when sad but also when someone did something nice for her. Like buying her a cup of coffee. Or saying “Happy Birthday.” Or remembering that she once won a beauty contest. Or praising her generosity in sharing a cigarette or a dollar with someone who had even less than she had. Or giving her the mass transit pass to which she was entitled for participating in the project. “You are so nice to me and I don’t deserve it. I’m a whack job,” Elizabeth would tell me on a regular basis.
The last time we got together I gave her a copy of the book I wrote based on our project. She immediately identified herself in the pseudonymous “Elizabeth” and was absolutely thrilled that her story was being told. That day we talked at length about how happy she felt at having finally secured an apartment. She rarely went out, she told me, preferring to stay home and enjoy the quiet, privacy and safety that she had not known for ten years of staying in homeless shelters. And she most definitely wanted to stay away from “the only kind of men who would want to be involved with a woman like me;” that is, a woman with her history of mental health problems, homelessness and jail. She also was not interested in getting involved with her neighbors. “I’d rather stay to myself in my apartment. I am so grateful to God for my apartment.” Some weekdays she would go to lunch at a women’s soup kitchen and stay for arts and crafts or other activities. On Saturdays she would go to church and on Sunday she would watch church services on television. She had started seeing a therapist and they were working together on Elizabeth’s “coping skills” and on her “self-esteem issues”. I had to bite my tongue to refrain from telling her that I thought her coping skills were fabulous – I couldn’t have survived a decade on the streets, and that her “issues” struck me as more a matter of the low esteem in which others hold poor and homeless women than as a matter of her own self-esteem.
Elizabeth fully believed that “God gives you your own will to choose your own way.” She told me on more than one occasion that, “I don’t want to let Him down. I want to go to Heaven.”
And even as I am determined to give her in death the respect she rarely received in life, I struggle with letting her have the last word. The sociologist in me does not believe that Elizabeth was able to choose her own way. She certainly did not choose to be beaten to death on her own living room couch in the apartment she got to relish for so short a short time after a decade of homelessness. The feminist in me feels exasperation that a woman who has suffered rape, abuse and incarceration would continue to have such faith in Him. But as her friend, I have to believe that she has found her way to Heaven.
Elizabeth, may you rest in peace and may your memory be a blessing for us all.