Smart, sassy and in your face with hard-to-hear truths, Charity Lee will break your heart.
Her intent is to open it.
The keynote speaker Friday at a one-day statewide conference focusing on the unique needs of children of incarcerated parents, the 38-year-old San Antonio, TX, woman has lived that story in places most minds won’t go: As the daughter of a murdered father, the mother of a murderer and the mother of a murdered child.
Jolene Pfaff of West Des Moines knew she had to bring the tough-talking Southern woman with well-toned tattooed biceps and efficient, short-cropped hair – “Charity, intensity is thy name,” Pfaff said – to Iowa for the conference after hearing her speak earlier this year. The conference is aimed at crime victims from across the state.
Also speaking will be Joy DeSomber of West Des Moines, co-founder with Pfaff of . Together, they’ll talk about the and giving voice to children who are stigmatized or otherwise suffer as a result of their parents’ incarcerations.
A Life Shaped By Murder
When Lee was 6, her wealthy father, James Robert Bennett Jr., was shot in the back six times in what prosecutors called a murder-for-hire scheme during her Atlanta society mother’s first-degree murder trial. She was acquitted in a sensational jury trial, but lingering doubt and the taunts of classmates – “Your mother had your dad killed” and that sort of thing – helped her understand what kids whose parents are in prison go through.
But the killer, the heart-ripping part of her story, is this:
In February 2007, her 13-year-old son, Paris, sexually assaulted, beat, choked and fatally stabbed his 4-year-old sister, Ella. He pleaded guilty to the charges, the equivalent of capital murder, and was sentenced to 40 years in the Texas criminal justice system. He recently moved to the adult corrections system.
Imagine, unimaginable as it is, that you’re Charity Lee. What would you do?
Would you bear witness as your son was “drawn, quartered and hung,” as Lee says a Texas soccer mom suggested?
Or, finally realizing that you were poisoning yourself and your daughter’s memory, would you pull yourself from a depressed funk so severe that you raged at anything and everything, including yourself, then carve out a place where you could continue to love your son and fight for him and others among the 2.7 million Americans in prison today?
How Do You Stop Loving a Child?
Paris is not easy to love.
“The general consensus is that he has a rare narcissistic personality disorder, is a sociopath incapable of remorse and a sexually motivated psychopath,” his mother said. “He does not feel a bit bad about what he did to his sister and doesn’t understand why he should feel bad.”
Though it took time, she sees Paris as a victim – “of himself and his biology.”
"I'm not saying that he could not have made a different choice," Lee said. "I believe he is wired to enjoy inflicting pain. Hating him would be like hating a great white shark for biting me. Paris is doing what his biology tells him to do.
“For the first couple of years, I completely separated the two in my mind,” Lee said. “It was a weird psychological trick I’d use to get to a place I didn’t have a child who was murdered and another one in prison. Any time anger of wanting to get back at him would come to the surface, I would have to remind myself: 'This is your child, and at the end of the day, you have to act out of love.'
“When I gave birth to both of them, I told them that I would do the best job as I could as a mother and to love them no matter what,” she said. “I love my son very, very much. I don’t like him very much. But how can you stop loving a child?”
ELLA Foundation Honors One Child, Protects Another
What matters most now to Lee, whose entire life has been shaped by violence and murder, are promises she made to her daughter to make something beautiful out of the ugliness of her death and to love her son, no matter what.
Lee’s ELLA Foundation honors one child and aims to protect another and prisoners like him. She used letters of her daughters name to spell out the mission of the foundation – Empathy. Love. Lessons. Action.
Among its human rights advocacy work is the treatment of prisoners, sentencing reform and death-penalty. This fall, she will move temporarily to Mississippi to help families advocate for the incarcerated and against the death penalty – a sentence her son likely would have received had he been convicted of capital murder in adult court, and that could have been on the table if her mother had been convicted in her father’s murder.
It’s not a popular cause, but that’s nothing new to Lee.
“People need to see how these crimes are made worse by how we react,” she said. “I understand you want my child to pay. What is not understandable is someone – the soccer mom – telling me that my child should be tortured and I should be forced to watch.
“We need to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes so we can tone it down a notch,” she said. “There are no monsters, there are no us-against-them. There’s just people. We are capable of empathy. We start there, and build it into love and concern.”
That’s one of the messages Lee will give Friday.
“I hope that people at least walk away and pause for a moment and think: ‘What if this had happened to me? What would I do?’” she said. “They have the benefit of distance and objectivity I never had. I want people to understand you can have a lot of horrible things happen and make something good come out of it.”
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