When journalists who care about religion news make a case for improved coverage on this beat, we usually talk about the ways in which religious faith — in almost all cultures — helps shape the pivotal events in the lives of the overwhelming majority of people in this world. A wise, highly secular editor once told me that he recognized that, for most readers, it’s hard to talk about Life’s defining moments (births, baptisms, marriages, tragedies, illnesses, deaths, funerals) without talking about religion.
That’s true, but that doesn’t make those events any easier to write about in the context of news. It’s hard to pin down the precise impact of faith, unless people talk openly about the subject. It’s hard to write about the faith that’s in between the lines.
It’s even harder, I would argue, to write about those same life-and-death topics in a way that expresses a loss of faith or the way that people face these issues without faith.
How do you write about the emotions, doubts, pains and experiences of people who are facing ultimate issues without faith? Their stories deserve coverage too, right? That’s a kind of faith story, too, even if the “faith” element is woven deeply into a person’s lose of faith or denial of faith. As a recent Pew Forum study (.pdf) noted, atheists pray, too.
This brings us to a gripping pair of stories (Part I here and Part II is here) in the Washington Post Style section about the murder of 9-year-old Erika Georgette Smith in 2002 and her mother Carol’s long search for justice and some form of peace and even joy in the aftermath of this ultimate loss.
I sought out these stories after watching a woman on my commuter train read the first installment, while fighting back tears. I asked her if there was a faith element in the story and she said, yes, there was. It was about a mother’s grief and the loss of faith. After reading both stories, I will say that the loss of faith is certainly implied, but is not spelled out in detail.
Nevertheless, these stories are stunning on multiple levels. Print them out, sit down and prepare for a painful journey.
Reporter Neely Tucker is more than the author — he is an active, first-person participant. After covering events in the aftermath of the murder, he became close friends with the grieving single mother and her family and they eventually married. He knows her grief from the inside out.
How can a parent go on? What happens to the bonds between mother and daughter? The following account of Carol Smith’s life after Erika’s death covers more than seven years. It involves crushing despair, a tortuous odyssey through the criminal justice system, being cross-examined in court by the man who killed her child, and, through sheer will, surviving to build a new life.
As it happens, I have had an unusual, front-row seat to this arc of grief. I wrote for the front page of this newspaper a lengthy investigation of how the suspect had tricked prison and parole officials into releasing him a few months before the killings. After the story was published, I developed a friendship with Carol Smith. Four years later, we were married.
The goal, simply stated, is to tell a human story, a story about loss.
That is all. Tucker writes, in utter candor:
… I wish to make clear that I do not think that there are lessons to be taken away from the murder of a child. I do not think all things work together in a mystical plan for good. Some things in life are brutal, ugly and will never make sense.
But Aeschylus, the ancient Greek playwright, held that there was suffering so great that, even in our sleep, it dripped upon the heart until “in our own despair, against our will,” comes a terrible wisdom. That wisdom is perhaps the stubbornness of hope, the human resilience that lies beyond our understanding, that we commonly call love.
Some details jump out at you. A key piece of evidence is the Bible that the killer stole from the apartment of Erika’s father, after he killed both of them. Why steal a Bible?
There is this fond memory: Erika use to sit in the lap of Carol’s mother, learning to recite Bible verses by memory. Ultimately, the little girl is buried in her red-velvet Christmas dress. Weeks after the murder, a page in Carol’s journal is covered with one word — “pain” — written over and over and over.
For years, it seemed that the accused gunman would be declared incompetent to stand trial. Life seemed to stop for the grieving mother, in part for psychological and physical reasons that Tucker clearly describes. And finally, there is this totally understandable passage:
She felt herself in free fall, where every waking moment was physically painful. Depression set in like an arthritis of the mind. There was no Erika. There was no homework, no swimming lessons, no girl-chat. Imagined scenes of the shooting played in her mind in an endless loop. Weeks passed, then months.
She moved into a heavily secured apartment building. She was prone to rages and a forgetfulness that bordered on amnesia. She stopped attending family dinners and holiday celebrations. Her faith disintegrated. If God wasn’t going to answer prayers to keep your children safe, what other prayer would be answered?
I found myself asking: Where was this woman’s church in all this?
If her faith disintegrated, was this in part because of a failure by her chosen faith community? Or was this a case of a woman who had a private faith, but no faith with, as the saying goes, some human flesh on it to embrace her and help her?
The story does move past the pain, to a time for butterfly gardens, gatherings to share girlie stories, days when Tucker can visit the cemetery and sit, leaning back against the girl’s tombstone, while telling Erika — Out loud? In silent prayers? — how her mother is doing. Ultimately, there is this:
“I can feel myself going on,” she said one evening, when we were sitting in the kitchen. “And it’s okay. I don’t feel like I’m leaving Erika.” She woke up one morning, beaming: “I dreamed I was in Erika’s school. She came to door of her classroom and hugged me. I got a hug!”
I had rarely seen her so happy.
A month or so later, through the mysteries of surrogacy, we were pregnant. We are expecting twins this month, a girl and a boy.
“I still believe,” she said the other day, “that miracles are possible for me.”
Read both stories, please.