Crash Course in Empathy

Thursday, November 1st, 2007

“They will be longed for always,” the Web site said, and I believe it, imagining the hole in the lives of those who loved the three men Jeanette Sliwinski killed. I also hear the unbearable sorrow in these words from a newspaper account: “From her jail hospital bed, Sliwinski has begged for forgiveness.”

Between these two rending cries stand all the rest of us, whether we want to or not. When we pretend we’re not involved, that we have no stake in the matter, the level of public stress builds and things just get worse.

What I detest — and I didn’t quite realize how much I detested it until the other day, when, over breakfast, I began reading coverage of Sliwinski’s trial — is the way criminal justice has become just one more spectator sport, with the stakes seemingly reduced to the size of the competing legal egos: Someone wins, someone loses. Next case!

Two years ago, Sliwinski, a former model and stripper, a desperately troubled young woman, had an argument with her mother. Compulsively suicidal, she hopped into her Mustang and gunned it down Dempster Street, a main thoroughfare in Skokie, Ill., vaguely intending either to see her therapist or kill herself. This was around noon. It was a Thursday.

As she approached a red light, she apparently thought she saw an opportunity for the latter, and stepped on the gas. She was traveling almost 90 mph when she rear-ended a Honda Civic with three occupants. The three — Michael Dahlquist, John Glick and Douglas Meis — were friends, fellow musicians and co-workers at a local business. They were on their way to lunch. They died instantly.

Sliwinski’s car flipped over in the crash but she suffered nothing more serious than a broken ankle. As rescue workers pulled her from the car, she screamed, according to reports, “It didn’t work. I want to die. You don’t understand. I want to die. Let me die.”

Rather than oblivion, she wound up, you might say, with a crash course in empathy. Lesson one: There are other people, as opposed to mere humanoid life forms, in the world. My guess is that lots of folks don’t know this, or don’t quite believe it. Many of them have driver’s licenses; some have guns.

The point is that this tragedy did not occur in isolation. This is where the rest of us come in. We have a life-and-death stake in the sensitized awareness of our fellow humans, and huge, ghastly tears in the fabric of the community require more than just a patch job, which is what we usually get from the legal system: the sound of the gavel, the click of the lock. We establish guilt, exact punishment and move on.

While this is a notch up from vigilante justice, it doesn’t give us what we need, which is a self-correcting society that grows from its tragedies — grows, that is, ever more self-cognizant, compassionate and aware of its interconnectedness.

Sliwinski had been charged with three counts of first-degree murder. I began reading about the trial at the point where prosecution and defense were sparring over whether the young woman was psychotic. Yeah, she’d said the CIA was after her, which makes her delusional — but you’ll notice, the expert witness for the prosecution pointed out, she prefaced her comment with the words, “You won’t believe this,” which means she really knows what’s going on. She’s not psychotic; she’s faking it. Etc.

And this is where I lost my patience, indeed, felt an inner trembling of rage, that such minutiae should preoccupy the law, and the media, seemingly to the exclusion of all else. Does our definition of justice really contain no possibility of what all parties in this tragedy desperately require, which is healing?

To answer this question, we must step out of the tight little world of law, which speaks so often not in human language but the exclusionary tongue of legalese, and open ourselves to the dawning concept of restorative — as opposed to retributive — justice, which is premised on the possibility of healing and isn’t tied to a court’s timetable.

A national conversation about this larger idea of justice is just beginning. My own conversation about it began with Ron Claassen, director of the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies at Fresno Pacific University, under the auspices of which the Restorative Justice Project works with and gives guidance to the Fresno legal system.

Claassen described the case of a drunk-driving homicide he’s been involved in that occurred 15 years ago. “At year 13, the brother of the girl who was killed called and said he wanted to meet the offender,” Claassen said. This man had stayed sober and, as part of his lifelong redemption, spoke regularly at DUI classes in Fresno. He met with the victim’s family and was given her picture, which he now holds up when he speaks to other DUIs: “This is the girl I killed.” Of the 1,600 people this man has addressed, there have been only five repeat offenders, Claassen said.

Every case is unique, he stressed, and restorative justice must find its own course every time. I don’t know how it might play out in Jeanette Sliwinski’s crime — she was found guilty but mentally ill — but I know that we can never make her “pay” for what she did until we find a way to forgive her.