After my grandfather died unexpectedly--my vital, wise, accomplished, adored grandfather--my anger veered toward an old couple of his acquaintance, as sour, fault-finding and dismal a pair as even Dickens could dredge up. That they were still alive, breathing air and taking up space, when my splendid grandfather was in his grave, was a howling monstrosity of injustice. For months, when they walked into a room, I couldn't leave it fast enough.
Years later, I would make the acquaintance of Joy Turner, whose elder son was shot and murdered in 1989 . . . Joy Turner, who volunteers, three or four times a month, for four or five years now, to look into the faces of boys her son's age, boys who may even have killed her son or who know who killed her son or who killed someone else's son. Yet here they are--behind bars, sure, but eating and laughing and smoking, and smirking, some of them, at this woman who inhabits her pain as if it were another skin.
My grandfather was 77 years old, and still I smolder. Her son was 19. How can she bear it?
Sometimes, as she drives to the California Youth Authority facility in Whittier, where they keep the baddest of the bad boys, she makes a little pact. Lord, she proposes, don't let the traffic be heavy, or I'll get off at the next ramp and go home. But the Lord lets the traffic flow and, she says, hey, this isn't too bad and, before she knows it, she is pulling into the parking lot once more.
I first saw her briefly on a KCET program about violent teenagers. Standing before long rows of already accomplished felons in a "getting awareness" class, she was winning the eye-contact war that such boys have been known to kill over. She was already tough; a perinatal nurse in a drug rehab program is not a pushover. And now her son had died. Her son's funeral was broken up by gang gunfire. Her son's murder is still officially unsolved because her son's murderers beat up the witness and threatened worse.
On a bad day, she may blow them off: "I say, 'Why don't we make laws: You took my son's life; why don't I get to pick the best one in your family and kill that one?' They don't like that." With them stripped of their guns and their homies, she is the intimidating one, the one in their faces.
Sometimes, when they grow sullen or hostile, she taunts them. " 'What are you gonna do, kick my butt? I get to leave. You have to stay. I'm a taxpayer. If you're the one that murdered my son, I don't want your ass out on the street.' Then they're worried. 'Yeah, I'm a taxpayer. I'm gonna call Pete Wilson right now.' Now they're scared."
On a good day, she may play a sister, a mother.
At first, she would challenge them when they said they love their mothers, but something else worked better: She told them they disrespected their mothers. "That's a big word with them, disrespect. 'Every time you went out the door running with your homies, you disrespected her. Who cooks for you, takes care of you? Who sends you your care package? Who comes to visit you? The same person that, if you die, is gonna bury you.' "
She has taken to slapping down a blank insurance form in front of them. " 'You want to gangbang, go ahead, but be a man. Take out a life insurance policy so she doesn't have to worry about how she'll bury you. How humiliating--your mom has to have a carwash to bury you. F - - - you, you bury yourself.' "
If it shocks them, well, she too was shocked, once, on the first day she came here and walked in with her son's death in her heart, expecting demons with faces to match their crimes and seeing teens in blue shirts sitting at long tables like schoolboys. "And I thought, 'Those are kids, too,' and that's the saddest part about it."
From the hospital where her son died, she carried home the bundle of clothes he had worn. The white tennis shoes, especially, obsessed her. That's my son's blood, she kept saying, that's my blood, and then fell to scrubbing, scrubbing at them, a grieving Lady Macbeth, until at last her husband took them gently away.
Crips and Bloods. Even outside the fences of the CYA, she says the words as if she can't expel them from her mouth fast enough. How perfect, she tells the homeboys acidly. That's what you do to everyone around you. You cripple them and you bleed them.
In all that lavish spare time from her family and her work and those CYA boys, Turner may sometimes be found at UCLA, volunteering again, training teachers in the curriculum of crime. Last month, she framed a photo of her son and broke the glass with a hammer. Shattered Lives, she wrote across it. Who Can Fix This? But as she began taping the broken glass into place, the shards kept slipping out. The more she taped, the more broke away. And she felt that this, now, was her life, and the lives of everyone whom the hammer-blows of murder radiated out to reach, like cracks in glass. And it didn't matter how much tape she put over it; nothing she could do could ever again put it back together.