I asked for complete honesty — however painful he thought it might be for me.
BY TOM HUDGENS, episode 4 (of 5) — Not that long ago, I would never have believed that I would be here: Sitting face to face with John Black, the man who raped and killed my sister in 1978, chatting with him about his life.*
I thanked John Black for reading his letter to me, for agreeing to meet, and asked him to be totally honest, even if he thought the truth might be painful or offensive.
I told him that I was speaking on no one’s behalf but my own, and that I was not trying to see if “justice had been served.” Rather, I wanted to have open communication, compassion and understanding.
“Praise God,” John Black said simply and sincerely.
I then told him a story about the day I returned to my 3rd grade class after my sister’s funeral. All my classmates were told what happened, but no one said anything to me, except a boy named Bobby who was deemed “slower” than the rest of us; he had an especially sensitive and empathetic heart.
Bobby and I were talking on the playground. He was curious about the man who killed my sister.
“What color hair did he have?” he asked.
Other, “normal” children would have “known enough” not to ask such a direct question. Not Bobby. I went home after school and asked my mother, and the next day I found Bobby. “His hair is brown,” I told him.
Almost thirty years later, as the intention to forgive John Black arose, that story surfaced in my mind with new significance. The little-kid wisdom is this: We want to see the person who has done this. We want to bring him before us, to look at him.
John Black and I talked for two and a half hours, seated at our folding table, monitored by prison officials. I asked him about his early life. He described his family — his distant, truck-driving father, his brothers and his one sister. He ran track in high school. He didn’t have stories of abuse or violence, yet he spoke of his deep insecurities.
In his letter to me, Black wrote: “I don’t think it is possible in a letter or even in a meeting of several hours to recount all the things that defined who I was back in 1978, but I was definitely a lost soul, mentally sick and spiritually dead.”
There wasn’t, however, any particular incident or experience that illuminated the “why” of the crime. It was to remain inexplicable.
John Black joined the military service at age 18, and wanted to be a policeman. He was married, unhappily, to a woman he had met in the military.
We delved into the night of February 27, 1978, went through the events of the day, all the way through the crime and his arrest the following day. Neither of us flinched over the specifics.
I pressed him: “What was going on in your mind at that point? What do you remember thinking?”
He tried to answer, but had explanation, saying, “That’s just it — I wasn’t thinking.”
Learning to live with mystery is, to me, an important aspect of any spiritual path. How John Black, coming from a relatively stable home, with no prior criminal record nor any hard drug habit, with above-average intelligence, a wife and a job, could have done such a thing, will forever remain a troubling mystery.
John Black said he was grateful to have been arrested once he realized what he had done. His said his own actions were so incomprehensible that he wondered if he would have killed again had he not been caught.
I had been told that John Black often quotes Bible verses, but he didn’t do it much during our meeting. Nor did he smile a great deal, as I had been warned he would. In fact, there was a warmth about him, an intelligence, a spirit of inquiry in his eyes.
We took a short break, and when we resumed I told him about his victim, my spirited and beautiful sister.
*Some names have been changed to protect family members
Tom Hudgens lives and works in Marin County, CA, and attends retreats at Spirit Rock. This series was adapted from an article Hudgens wrote for Spirit Rock’s newsletter.
NEXT: The moment of truth
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