Saturday, September 10, 2016

Reach out to those who struggle with emotional pain, and let them know it's okay to talk.

(Revision of my article "Remembering Paula Cooper" published June 26, 2015 in Splice Today.)

Many years ago, I watched an A&E documentary about a young woman named Paula Cooper, who, at the age of 15 in 1986, stabbed 78-year-old Ruth Pelke thirty-three times during the course of a botched robbery. Paula was sentenced to death at age 16, making her the youngest person ever sentenced to death in the U.S. At the time, Indiana law allowed children as young as 10 to be tried as adults. In 1989, her death sentence was commuted to 60 years in prison. 

As the story unfolded and I listened to Paula talk about what happened, I sensed her remorse and regret. When I learned of the physical, sexual and emotional abuse she suffered growing up, I was horrified. We were the same age, raised in the same generation, but that’s where any similarities ended. Our lives had taken very different paths. After learning her story, I felt Paula was a victim too and something compelled me to reach out to her. After obtaining her information from the Indiana Department of Corrections, I mailed a letter and waited, wondering if she’d respond or if she would even receive it at all.  A few weeks later, I received Paula's response and was apprehensive and excited. I had no idea what to expect or what I was getting myself into but I knew that reaching out was the right thing to do. Once I began reading her letter, I breathed a sigh of relief. She appreciated the letter and was excited to talk and perhaps make a new friend, but only on the condition that it all be completely honest. Letters were very personal to her (as they were me) and she didn’t want to be interviewed, she just wanted to talk and get to know one another and that’s exactly what we did. We talked about whatever came to mind. We talked about life. 

And that’s how it began.

Paula was proud of her education. At the time I’d gotten to know her, she’d been pursuing a BS in Psychology and was close to earning her degree. Paula didn’t take the experience lightly; she cherished every class, discussion, and exam. She didn’t want to stop at a Bachelor’s degree either. She wanted to use her life experiences as well as education to help young people avoid making the same mistakes she’d made. She desperately wanted to help children who’d come from abusive backgrounds make good choices to avoid prison. 

Paula was determined to overcome the horrible abuse she’d suffered in her childhood and in prison so that she could eventually transition to a normal life on the outside. She knew it would happen, she just wasn’t sure when. She often expressed her desire for a good job, a good man, and a child. She also wanted to be a part of her own family again, and had a desire to travel and see the world.

Paula tried to maintain a positive attitude. It wasn’t easy because of the conditions in which she lived and sometimes the depression got the best of her, but more often than not, her letters were full of hope. She often set aside her woes and reminded me of the blessings of life and freedom. She encouraged me to live my dreams. I think it was good for her to focus her energies in that way: it seemed to help her forget her own situation for a time. Paula was insightful and smart and she attributed that to all the time she spent doing two things she enjoyed very much—reflection and writing. She said it kept her sane in an insane world.

An insane world is exactly what Paula lived in. She didn’t want to cause trouble during her incarceration, she just wanted to do her time and get out. Though she didn’t seek out trouble, she refused to sit still and take the abuse heaped upon her—and others. In her letters to me, she was very candid about how inmates were abused, tortured and treated like animals. She especially wanted children to know the brutal truth about prison so they might avoid it. Paula cited the abuse as one reason so many inmates were unable to be rehabilitated and why there was so much recidivism upon release. The psychological scars were permanent.

Paula's desire to stand up for herself and other inmates eventually cost her dearly. She went into lockdown for defending herself against a guard who slapped her. She hit back and was banished to solitary. Days turned into months and with nothing else to do, she took advantage of the quiet, doing puzzles, writing letters and thinking, but eventually the isolation, poor lighting and lack of movement took a terrible psychological, emotional and physical toll on her. She was nervous and depressed and had lost weight. She was desperate to get out of lock down and return to general population so she could see people again and resume her classes. Reading her letters, I could feel the desperation in her words. All I could do was tell her to hang on, to keep the faith. Thankfully, she did, but it took every ounce of strength she had.

As Paula and I continued to exchange letters, touching on different things, discussing whatever was on our mind at the time, we’d become friends and the words flowed easily between us. It was as if we’d known each other our whole lives. The letters were something we both looked forward to.

I don’t recall exactly when it happened, but eventually life got in the way and my letters became less frequent. It was an unintended consequence of working full time and going to school.  I had so many obligations that I was away from home from long before sunrise to long after sunset. I was exhausted in the evenings and just didn’t feel like writing, rather I told myself I'd do it when I had time. Years passed and by the time I realized how long it had been since my last letter, I worried that resuming after all that time would upset her. I wanted to explain my absence but I didn’t know how,. We’d built a trust and I wondered if she’d even want to begin again. I never forgot her, nor did I want to. Not writing to her again turned out to be one of my biggest regrets.

On May 26, 2015, two years after being released early from prison for good behavior, Paula committed suicide. It was all over the world news and that night I watched story after story and kept thinking, “This was my friend, she’d never kill herself.” I was in shock for some time and after the reality set in, so did the guilt. I didn’t blame myself for her suicide, but I felt guilty for not being there for her. Sixteen years had passed between our last letter and her release from prison. Sixteen years. So many things happened to her during that time and I was not there to help her through it. She’d shared things with me, trusted me, counted on me and I felt I had let her down. My friend Dawn said, “You can’t take on that burden” and I knew she was right but it still hurt. Paula had many friends and people in her corner who cared about her and had helped her throughout as she tried to build a new life. But in the end, all that they had done hadn't been enough either and it wasn't their fault. There are some things we just can't do.

Prison sucks the life out of inmates. It degrades them and erodes all self-respect and humanity. Inmates lose control over their own lives for so long that it’s nearly impossible to regain it, especially for those who endure longer incarcerations. Once on the outside, they find themselves in a very different world, one they’re completely unprepared for. They try to assimilate back into a society and culture they don’t recognize and one that doesn’t easily forgive. This is what happened to Paula. No matter how much courage and hope she had for a new beginning and a better life, prison destroyed her, leaving her completely unable to cope.

Paula was also consumed by guilt. Though she had long-ago accepted responsibility for her crime, she never forgave herself or felt worthy of the forgiveness she received from others. Though she paid her debt to society and worked hard to give back by helping others, in the end, nothing she could do was enough. She suffered wounds so deep they would not heal and so she ended her life to be free from the pain.
Paula often told me how thankful she was to know me and be my friend. I felt the same about her. She taught me lessons about humanity and changed me in ways I didn’t even realize until years later. I am a better person for having known Paula and am proud to have been able to call her my friend. 


Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, an annual awareness event when the world comes together to work toward a common goal of preventing suicide. As stated by Samaritans, "people who are feeling low or suicidal often feel worthless and think that no-one cares. Small things like hearing from friends or family, feeling listened to or just being told that 'it's ok to talk' can make a huge difference."

Please, take the time, not just today, but every day, to talk to someone who is struggling. Let that person know it's okay to talk. Assure them that going through tough times, enduring emotional stress is nothing to be ashamed of. There is help. There is hope.

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