Recently I was invited to speak at a Womens Prison for International Womens Day, here is what unfolded.
In late February, I was approached by a representative of the prison and asked if I could speak about my experience as a family member of a murder victim and the impact it has had on my life. They were interested in what I have learnt, how I have been able to forgive and the importance of self love and responsibility.
Quite a big brief.
It was a brief I wasn’t sure I would be able to fully deliver. I have presented thousands of talks in my career as a professional speaker. This was, undoubtedly, the one that I feared the most. My mind was flooded with thoughts about what happened to my father and the anger, frustration and sadness I felt during that time. All the self doubt we feel as humans crept in that day and I actually felt nauseous approaching the prison.
At the same time, I felt overwhelmingly compelled that this was something I had to do. It was something of which my dad would be proud. And if at least one person was to be positively affected by what was to occur then my father’s death would have some purpose.
I was welcomed inside the prison entrance by five inmates who thanked me for taking the time to visit their International Women’s Day event. So far so good. Smiling faces helped take the edge off nausea and nerves. Unfortunately not enough to remove the questions at the back of my mind. Were they convicted murderers? Did they think I was a naive ‘do gooder’ who knew nothing about them? Would they be receptive to my messages? Could I accept that they were women, like me, but who had made poor decisions without the benefit of mentors and support?
I was in. No time for head questions now.
The event began with an acknowledgement of the traditional land owners, a welcome to International Women’s Day and an introduction to the guest speakers, the prison chaplain and me.
The chaplain kicked off the event with an inspiring story about the theme of International Women’s Day 2015, Make it Happen. To my delight, she relayed a story about Mariah Carey’s song “Make it Happen.” It was relevant, moving and you could see the prisoners relating to the story.
Great. Now, I had a hard act to follow. Who the hell did I think I was? These weren’t really my usual people.
I had my six pages of carefully crafted notes. So at least I felt somewhat prepared if a little unsure. Incidentally, I’ve never used notes before in my presentations.
As I was introduced, I began to think about the importance to me and my father that our story be told, in the small hope it could make a difference somewhere. At that point the talk stopped being about me. It was about the women in front of me. It was the moment for them to see they are worthy for someone to take the time to help them.
I WAS UP
I started with the first sentence in my notes then I looked up. I saw interest and real people, real women not prisoners. I saw women that had made life changing mistakes. I saw women with bitterness in their faces. I saw hurt in their features. I saw myself.
I went through a very angry time during the murder trial. There were times when I wanted to lash out. I wanted to punish the people involved. I wanted to them to feel the hurt they inflicted on me. I made a conscious choice not to act. I made the choice to move towards forgiveness not anger. These women hadn’t. But who was I to judge? I had also felt the anger.
I put my notes down and stepped away the lectern. I was not the guest speaker. I was a woman sharing her story, in conversation with other women about the challenges of life.
I spoke about my feelings when my father was assaulted, when I saw him on life support in hospital and when I came face to face with one of the accused in the court foyer. I saw tears well up in some eyes and I could feel my own coming to the surface.
I talked about problems that resulted from being unable to work because I was too distraught. And how I nearly lost my house because I couldn’t pay bills. I resented the accused for getting free legal advice, three meals a day and a roof over his head, albeit confined, while all that was in jeopardy for me.
I finally spoke about the day I decided to be grateful for what I have. I have a network of family and friends that love me unconditionally. We live in a beautiful country with an abundance of good food and fresh water. This is all true and we know it. Yet some days, stress made gratitude a struggle.
I shared how the journey of forgiving myself led to forgiving others and I started to forgive the circumstance of what happened.
With a captive audience, the nerves flew away and I was comfortable with the conversation. I was no longer Sue Henry, the speaker, doing a job. I was now Susan Henry, the daughter who loves her dad and misses him more than she likes to admit. I was a woman sharing her feelings with a group of other women that wanted to know.
After our conversation, I was treated to a range of home made cakes, a cup of tea and some very humbling stories.
Two stories resonated. One was the young mum who still has 15 months to serve. She showed us her room and pictures of her husband and kids. She had made a very poor decision and was paying a big price for it. Her favourite way to relax is cooking, also one of my preferred pastimes.
The other was a young woman who hugged me and whispered in my ear, “I reckon this forgifness stuffs a bit of all right and I’ll do what ya said and give it a go. I’m sorry you had to tell us that story and lose your dad. But I loved it when you said you forgave us and people care.”
I discovered that 80% of the women there were victims themselves of either sexual abuse or domestic violence. This is very telling and sad.
I learnt that the majority were in prison for drug related crimes, white collar crime and fraud.
The experience has allowed me greater appreciation for my wonderful extended family and the values, beliefs and support we were brought up with. I’m grateful for the amazing supportive friends I have and the good decisions we all make, most of the time.
That was the one big thing that was reinforced for me. Our destiny is defined by the choice we make in the moment.
I think I might have forgiven myself a little bit more.