“If you are not writing your stories, your stories are being written by others.” – Wajahat Ali
“The world is made up of stories, not atoms” – Muriel Rukheyser
We are winding down the spring semester Family Law class at CUNY Law School. Last week, in our class about domestic violence, I showed the students a documentary, Crime After Crime1. It’s about Debbie Peagler, who participated in the murder of her boyfriend after he brutally abused her all through her high school years. Because his abuse was not taken into account, Debbie faced the death penalty, and ended up pleading guilty to a charge that gave her 25 years to life. At the time she was sentenced, she was in her early twenties, with two very young daughters.
The film follows the work of two pro bono attorneys who meet her in jail and spend years working on her release. But Debbie is the real star of the film — she has a phenomenal spirit and an infectious joie de vivre despite her horrendous circumstances. Here was a young woman who was robbed of the chance to raise her daughters, to do meaningful work in the world, to marry and have her own home — in short, to do the simplest things that we take for granted. Yet she made the most out of every day and every opportunity she had in prison. She did not let her life be defined by the barbed wire that contained her. Her spirit rose above, and she focused on what she had, not what she missed. Her faith, and her tremendous love for her family and for the women around her, kept her going.
I thought about Debbie’s positivity as I watched the film. And it made me wonder how I could — how we each could — take a lesson from her. So here are my thoughts in terms of translating it to our day-to-day lives:
What will be the story of your life? You are writing it now. When you look back at this time of your life in five or ten years, what will you remember? How will you retell it? Will it be a story of victimization or liberation? A story of opportunity or crisis? A story of transformation? Of constriction? Of great good luck? Of sorrow and anguish?
We do not have control over all of our circumstances. We do not, for instance, have control over our birth families, our nationality, or most of the circumstances of our childhoods. We cannot control the actions of those around us. But we do have control over our own actions — and our own reactions to the circumstances we are in.
For instance, if we see a car crash occurring near us while we are walking, we may have several reactions: we might run away to get away from the harm; we might run toward the cars to see if anyone is hurt; we might yell at the driver we perceive to be to blame; we might immediately call 911 for help; we might take out our phones and videotape what happens. Each of these could be a very reasonable response, and each might bring a different outcome, not only for our own experience but for the people involved in the crash.
But what if we caused the crash? And what if it isn’t an actual car accident, but simply a more common accident — one that occurs all of the time — like when we say something stupid, or do something that hurts someone we love?
How do we respond when we inadvertently hurt someone we love? We might have several reactions: We might run away and deny that we hurt them so we don’t have to face ourselves; we might check in with them to see if they are hurt; we might yell at them for being in harm’s way and blame them for the occurrence; we might immediately try to make it up and cure the harm; we might get frozen and not do anything. Each of these, too, is a possible response, and will affect our relationship with that person going forward.
In other words, our lives are not just happening TO us, they are happening BECAUSE of us. Our attitude makes all the difference! What we say matters. What we do really matters. We have choices, moment to moment, day to day.
We are each improvising… we are writing our own stories as we go along. What’s your story?
Joy S. Rosenthal, Esq.
Rosenthal Law & Mediation
225 Broadway, Suite 2605
New York, New York 10007
1The film is available for free on YouTube – it is about 1 hour and 40 min long.
They also have a website at http://crimeaftercrime.com