Giving Eddie a Break - Implementing Restorative Justice through Compassionate Listening
by Virginia Pickles Jones
“I never get a break,” Eddie said as he recounted the story of his driver’s license being taken away for ten years and his car being impounded when he was homeless.
People traumatized by an abusive society or an abusive person, the way Eddie was abused by our legal system, often tell their stories over and over and over. They exhaust the people around them, who want them to heal and move on. When no one listens to their stories, wounded people feel alone and uncared for. Like Eddie, they feel no one ever gives them a break. But we listened to Eddie, we the members of Compassionate Gathering, a group dedicated to listening to the stories of people wounded by abuse and trauma.
Eddie Belmontez grew up in the Central Valley of California. His parents, Eduardo Sr. and Maria Belmontez picked tomatoes 12 hours a day, seven days a week during harvest season. His older sister, Iris, clerked in an office during the day, ushered in the local theater during the evening, and picked tomatoes alongside their parents on weekends. They taught Eddie the value of hard work. Sr. Carmel, the headmistress of St. Clare Catholic School, sat with Eddie after school every day, listening to him read, and patiently helping him sound out words. She taught Eddie the value of education. Eddie always thought that if you went to school, got a job and worked hard at both, you would succeed.
Eddie moved to East LA to attend community college at age 18. His parents were poor so he repaired cars at cut-rate prices. One day a customer brought in a used car he purchased for a few hundred dollars. The alternator was shot. Eddie wrote out a contract for a low price barely more than the cost of parts. But the distributor was shot too, so Eddie bought a new one and added the cost to the bill. When presented with the bill, the customer refused to pay the full amount, citing their informal contract.
Eddie wrote the customer a letter requesting full payment for the car repair. The customer did not respond, so he wrote another letter. Once again the customer failed to respond. Eddie wrote a third letter with the same result, so he went to small claims court. He had all his documentation together, and the judge believed him. The customer argued he had no money to pay, so the judge awarded Eddie a lien against the car.
Weeks passed. The customer failed to comply with the judge’s order. Once again Eddie wrote a letter to the customer and then a second letter and a third letter—all with no response.
Eddie decided to take action. He took the license plates off his car and went to the customer’s house. He placed his own plates on the customer’s car and drove it home, but the car’s turn signal wasn’t working. Along the way a cop pulled him over. The cop noticed that Eddie’s documentation did not match the car and gave him two citations. Eddie felt if he just explained to a judge, his situation might be understood. After all, he had the lien on his former customer’s car.
But Eddie was a college student; final exams coincided with his court date. Buried in his studies, the court date slipped his mind. The judge suspended his driver’s license for ten years. Work and college became much harder after that. Eddie lost hope and began to numb himself with drugs and alcohol.
Eddie eventually regained his driver’s license, but by then he was homeless, jobless and battling drug addiction. He slept in his car. One day he came back to the car to find the wheels gone. Because he was unable to move his car, it was towed and impounded. He didn’t have the forty dollars needed to pay the impoundment fee, and he lost that car too.
Retributive Justice seeks the perpetrator of a crime and punishes them. Our legal system, based on Retributive Justice, never gave Eddie a break.
There is another form of justice called Restorative Justice used in the past in some Native American societies such as the Navajo. Restorative Justice recognizes that the whole community is hurt by crime and that the whole community needs to be involved with healing. The goal is to restore the lost sense of peace and well-being in the community. The focus is on helping victims heal, but perpetrators are also supported as they try to change their lives and right their wrongs. Restorative Justice can be implemented by having everyone in the community sit down together in a “Talking Circle.” Everyone is listened to respectfully as they tell their story of how they were affected by a crime.
I co-founded a Talking Circle with Elizabeth Goeke, who is a therapist and a survivor of an attempted rape. We call our Talking Circles “Compassionate Gatherings”. We use the spiritual discipline of Compassionate Listening to listen supportively to stories told by wounded people. We started listening to clergy abuse survivors and discovered that others were attracted to our message of compassion. We knew we wanted to be open to anyone who needed to feel heard.
Listening to stories that challenge our experiences and belief systems can be very difficult. The human response is to get angry and lecture the person telling the story. Such defensive reactions further wound them and drive them away.
To listen compassionately is an artform, and a practice. To do it effectively, we suspend our own judgments in order to be entirely present with the person in pain. The most basic element of Compassionate Listening involves listening to someone share their story and reflecting back to them the values they express. For example, when Eddie told his story it became obvious that he believed you got ahead in life by working hard and getting a good education. He thought you should be honest and forthright. He felt deeply wounded because he tried to play by these rules, but he was treated harshly by our criminal justice system anyway. His heart opened up to us when we recognized this.
After hearing me speak on the radio, Eddie wanted to be a part of my work implementing Restorative Justice in the community through Compassionate Listening. I invited him to attend our Compassionate Gatherings. Sensing that Eddie carried deep wounds, I invited him to speak at the first Gathering he attended on November 10, 2007. A few months passed before he came to another Gathering. He sent me e-mails begging me not to give up on him because he wasn’t coming. Then, on March 8, 2008, he walked into a Gathering a couple hours late.
He came up to me and asked, “Virginia, can I speak?”
A mother whose daughters were abused by her husband was telling her story. I waited for the appropriate moment and invited Eddie to speak. He pulled out a handwritten paper, put his glasses on and rose to his feet. Tears streaked his cheeks as he read from the paper. He had argued with his boss and had been fired from his job. Another tough break. Everyone listened. After Eddie finished, the mother walked over to Eddie and embraced him. Another mother with a similar story followed her. Other people did not hug Eddie, but they offered words of compassion. I looked at Eddie’s face; his tears vanished. The creases in his dark skin relaxed into a smile.
At the next Gathering another family whose daughter was abused told their story of betrayal, loss and alienation. They talked for two hours and still needed to talk more. The father apologized for taking so much of our time.
“That’s all right,” Eddie said, “That’s what we’re here for.”
When we give a wounded person a break, when we listen as long as he needs to talk, when we listen over and over and over again, when we validate him, healing begins. The wounded person opens up and starts moving from victim to survivor. In time, the survivor is able to reach out and support others on the journey to healing.
*Note: I learned the spiritual discipline of Compassionate Listening from The Compassionate Listening Project and have adapted it to my work and to interpersonal relationships. To attend a Compassionate Gathering or to take a basic class on how to listen compassionately, see our website at www.compassionategathering.org. For more advanced Compassionate Listening training see The Compassionate Listening Project web site at www.compassionatelistening.org.
*Note: Eddie is a real person but his name and identifying details have been changed to protect his privacy.
Virginia Pickles Jones, co-founded Compassionate Gathering, an organization that advocates for survivors of abuse lives and emotional trauma. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Getting to Restorative Justice - Virginia’s Story
I began by bucking the system in the Catholic Church when an abusive priest was removed from my church in 2002. Church personnel quickly shut down talk about the abuse and left many parishioners wounded and alone in their pain. I started researching the abuse scandal on the Internet and discovered that the leadership of Church had known about this priest’s abuse for a long time and covered it up. I met the survivor who came forward and found him deeply wounded. I connected the wounds of parishioners to the wounds of the survivor. I felt we all needed to be a part of the healing process.
Later I learned the name for community focused healing of the wounds caused by crime—Restorative Justice. In the meantime I instigated forums on clergy abuse in my church, but church personnel conducted these forums. They allowed parishioners to interrupt, criticize and deny people expressing contrary views, wounding them deeply.
Shortly after one forum I saw a reference to The Compassionate Listening Project (TCLP) on the Internet. Instinctively I knew that the discipline of Compassionate Listening was needed to implement Restorative Justice. I studied Compassionate Listening with TCLP for a year and a half and eventually set up my own Compassionate Gathering “talking circles”—this time without church personnel—to heal the wounds of clergy abuse.
Dave Mazza of KBOO radio in Portland was a brave soul who was willing to give me a chance as I was just beginning my work. He interviewed me live on the radio for an hour and a half in September 2007.
The man I called Eddie in the story was listening to KBOO that day. He was drawn to my words about Compassionate Listening and Restorative Justice and called me after the radio show. I knew that I could not exclude anyone so I invited Eddie to come to our Gatherings. He gave us a new direction—working with anyone emotionally abused or traumatized, not just clergy abuse survivors.
I want to see our society use Restorative Justice, through Compassionate Listening. Unfortunately, these concepts are frightening for people conditioned to thinking of punishment as the way to control problems.
I think it is up to individuals to create the change in themselves, and then to reach out to other interested people to nurture that change in society. We can’t wait for political and religious leaders to get it. We have to just do it without them and demonstrate that it works.