Posted in freedom, God, hope, love, murder, prison, taboo

A Letter from Prison and a Journey to Freedom

“Inner slavery is even worse than outward slavery.  Inner freedom is even better than outward freedom.”  (Kathryn Lindskoog)

By the amount of sheer clicks and views on my post about my friend Kim who killed her husband, I know many of you read her story a few weeks ago.  (If you didn’t, check it out here first before going ahead, but don’t forget to come back.)  I was thrilled that I received views, but somewhere inside me I knew that it was partly because of the mind-boggling nature of the post.  I would have clicked as well just out of curiosity.  Today, however, I hope that even if you did come again to quench the thirst of an inquisitive mind, you will find a greater satisfaction for your spirit.

My friend Kim and I have become pen pals.  Snail mail is a slow process, especially with prisoners, because all mail is opened and read before reaching the other person.  It can take about two weeks from penning the letter to the opening and reading of it on the other end.  In a world where immediate communication is just a text, email or phone call away, this has been an exercise for me in carefully thought-out words on paper and eager anticipation of a reply as I wait patiently for up to a month to hear back.

My second letter came about two weeks ago.  It was the first since visiting her in prison.  I had written her a long letter and sent her a copy of the blog post I had written about her.  She was responding.  As I read the letter, I began to weep with joy over the words that came flowing off the paper.  It was as if I was perusing something straight out of the best book I had ever read, where wrong is made right and goodness wins over evil, something my soul longs for at the very core of it.

Two girls in a dorm room, sharing secrets and dreams late at night while the campus goes to sleep.  Two massively different external stories.  One girl goes on to raise a “normal” family and live a typical American life.  The other kills her husband and heads to prison for 20+ years.  What could we possibly have in common 30+ years later?

Kim writes…  (Get a cup of coffee.  Sit back.  Don’t skim.  Go slowly.  Breathe her deep wisdom into your soul.)

“Your blog entry was poignant.  Wow.  I never thought of my story as inspirational.  I’m not talking about the salacious, media version of my crime.  I mean my story, the one that had yet to be told.  I believe that those truths needed to be told so that my victims would no longer have questions.  I owed truth to them, to my family, to my friends and to the larger community.  I believe that keeping the truth inside of me all that time was in essence a kind of theft.  The truth is all I have to give and I needed to give it.

Telling the truth is hard.  Especially to someone who is out of practice like me.  I kept many secrets for many years and it made me hollow and dead on my inside.  I lived like that while looking perfectly normal on my outside.  Telling those truths was beyond scary to me.  I thought I would lose every single person that loved me, family included.  But God moved in my life and opened doors for me, giving me a safe place and way to finally speak.  Yes, there was real risk of rejection, but I knew it was the right thing to do.  It was the only thing to do.

In prison, there aren’t many safe places to tell the truth.  Information that can be used to hurt someone is power.  So we hold our power inside as a kind of protection.  Sometimes, we don’t even admit the truth to ourselves because we can’t bear to look directly at what we’ve done.  That was definitely true for me.  I wanted to speak, but how?  To whom?  Where should I start?

My objective was to find a way to reach out to my husband’s family.  I was not seeking forgiveness.  I would not dare to ask that.  I have no right to it.  Forgiveness is a gift that heals and releases the giver.  The decision to forgive (or not) is sacred.  I wanted to give them the opportunity to hear truth and to respond however they want.  My hope was that my acceptance of responsibility might help them heal.  I knew I had to try.

My father died and I inherited money.  I hired an attorney.  He found something called DIVO (Defense Initiated Victim Outreach).  It is part of the restorative justice movement.  We hired a psychological expert to create an “in-depth profile of me.”  The woman we hired was patient and smart and kind.  She helped me speak out loud not only what I did the night of my crime, but how I got to the point where I believed that killing my husband was the only answer.  She helped me understand what I could not understand on my own.  She peeled off the layers of self-hate to uncover the complicated mess underneath.  It was painful and horrible and a blessing.

In 2010, I took a class called VOICE (Victim Offender Impact Class Education).  In that class, we heard many stories of victims and how the crimes impacted their lives.  At the end, we were encouraged to write a letter to our own victims.  These letters are kept in a file that victims can access.  They told us that a letter would be sent to our victims telling them the letter was on file.  So I wrote.  I do not know if the letter ever reached Steve’s family.

There was still a pull in my heart to do something, anything to express my remorse, to tell my ugly truth to the the people I had harmed.  I joined a group called “Building Bridges.”  The work we do is transformational.  We speak openly to each other about our crimes and our lives that lead up to them.  It was rough, hideous and shocking to say those things and hear them from others.  We then meet with outside guests to tell them those same truths and allow them to ask questions.  The questions are hard to answer, but I do.  I know that doing the uncomfortable thing is good, that God wants to bless the truth.  And He does.

I have alienated people with my truth.  Especially when the truth exposes something awful that was done to me.  One of those secrets I mentioned.  In the end, I have been loved unconditionally, maybe for the first time in my life.  I am lucky in a way that the only kind of love I can get is unconditional.  Only unconditional love can penetrate barbed wire.

Telling the truth has healed me.  I was without the burden of a thousand lies on my back.  I can accept my incarceration with grace and the acknowledgement that I do belong in prison.  I do not believe I will be here for life and God is working.  He has put blessings and opportunities in my path that could have only come from Him.  That is how I know I am on the right path because He is restoring me.  He promises to give back what the moths and locusts have eaten.

Your visit was part of that restoration.  He gave you back to me.  Your friendship is both a blessing and confirmation.  I love you for it and I give all my thanks to God.  He has loved me even when I was unable to love myself.  He never gave up, even when I did.  It is people like you and Rachelle who exemplify Christ when you love someone who is less than perfect, someone who has destroyed her own life, someone who is lonely and in prison.  Someone just like me.”

What do we have in common?  Nothing on the outside, but everything on the inside.

When I first found out about Kim in January, I believed that God had brought her into my life to restore her.  I would be the one ministering to her, loving her.  God is an upside-down God sometimes.  He’s the God of surprises.  He’s the God whose “thoughts and ways are much higher than ours.”  He’s proving it once again.  Kim’s story is redeeming me.  Her wisdom is freeing me.  She believes that God is restoring her through my love.  And she is probably right.  But I can’t help but come to the conclusion that this God of redemption and mercy and unconditional love is bringing further hope and healing to both of us at the same time.  (And now, hopefully to you as well.)

The story of Kim’s crime is interesting and may satisfy your curiosity, but the story of her heart is redemptive and may just satiate a much deeper, needy place in your soul, one that longs for truth and freedom on the inside.  It has mine.

Two girls and two paths that from the outside, look utterly different.  One God.  Two girls and two paths that are wonderfully similar on the inside.  From lying to truth.  From hiding to freedom.  Her story is all of our stories.   The stories of redemption.   May the stories continue.

 

Posted in freedom, God, murder, prison, sacred

Kim (A Prisoner on the Outside, but not on the Inside)

“If the Son sets you free, you are truly free.”  (Jesus)

My college roommate and best friend at the time murdered her husband on Valentine’s Day, 1998.  Even though it was a famous and well-publicized murder, I never knew until recently that she was serving a life sentence in a Maryland correctional facility.  We had spoken just a couple of years prior to the murder, but we lost touch, mostly because we had both moved and it was before social media (snail mail just didn’t cut it in those days).

Fast-forward to this past January when I spoke at a women’s group telling the story of my  continuing redemption and restoration.  I hadn’t thought of this friend for several years, but some things that we shared (not such good things) were a huge part of my redemption story and I shared them with this group.  Just FIVE days later,  I commented on a friend’s Facebook post and received a quick response, “Are you the Esther Maret that roomed with Kim Aungst in college?”  I recognized her as Kim’s high school friend, Rachelle.  Quickly, I private messaged her and said yes.  I couldn’t believe Kim’s name was coming up again.  I asked if she was still in touch and how I could reach her.

Her next message: “As for Kim, we are still friends but it is a long, sad, crazy story. She was convicted in 1999 of killing her husband. If you Google Kimberly Hricko, you can see part of the story. (I know some of you are clicking… don’t forget that you are reading what the media wants you to know and don’t forget to come back!!!) At first I wasn’t sure if she did it but she has since admitted she did. I am pretty much the only friend from that period of her life that stood by her. I just felt that regardless of what she did, she needed someone. She has since turned herself to Jesus and is helping others in prison. She has a daughter who I kept in touch with. She was like a niece to me. She is married and has a daughter.”

A few more messages were exchanged.  My body started to tingle all over.  I was overwhelmed at the heart of Rachelle who had unconditionally loved Kim, but my mind went to how this could have happened.  Two young girls sharing a dorm room at a Christian college.  Best friends.  The transfer after freshman year to separate schools.  One goes on to marry, raise a family and do normal things (that would be me).  The other kills her husband and is in jail for life.  I spent the better part of a week sorting through my feelings and decided to write her a letter, convinced that God had brought her back into my life.  Would she respond?

Mustering the courage to tell Kim that my heart was broken for her and that I wanted to see her, I penned a short letter, enclosing a picture of our family, telling her bits about myself, promising not to judge her, explaining that I just wanted to be hear her story and be her friend again.

It took weeks to get a reply (snail mail in jail is extremely snailish).  She wanted to see me.  Relief washed over me.  I met with Rachelle for breakfast and spent the better half of the morning getting reaquainted, sharing the stories of our lives and making a plan to go see Kim together.

That happened this past Thursday.  A four-hour trip to Jessup, Maryland (Rachelle almost not getting in because of  bra hooks that set off the metal detector), a one-hour visit with smiles, stories, and quick hugs, and a four-hour trip home.

Early Thursday morning, I  prayed that I would bring healing and restoration to Kim and that I would (wait for it…okay, it’s hard for me) listen, listen, listen.  But, of course, God had something else up his sleeve.

The moment I saw her sitting in the visiting room at the sterile table, my heart leapt for joy.  As we spoke, she was the same Kim, kind, funny, smart, interesting and my friend.  The three of us spoke for the hour, reminiscing, sharing stories of ourselves, our thoughts, our families, and she shared about life in prison.  It was fascinating, to say the least.   Here are little glimpses of her life:

  • She works and makes $3.45 a day as a layout engineer using CAD software.  She designs office space for municipalities and has even done some dorm layouts for the University of Maryland.
  • She has to buy all her own toiletries.  Tide Pods are $6.99 for a small box.
  • She lives in the most privileged section of the prison because of good behavior.  She has a TV (with an old antenna) and a DVD player.  She has seen reruns of the TV shows where she is featured countless times.
  • She has a pet cat named Lynn.  The local shelter has partnered with the prison to allow inmates to care for a dog or a cat which goes with them to freedom if and when they get out.  (litter box right in the cell)
  • She started a book club (that has now spread to three or four other prisons) where college professors come and teach.  Her favorite book is Life of Pi.
  • She speaks to victims’ families and allows them to ask her any question.  This is designed to bring understanding and the potential for forgiveness and healing.

The story of her heart was even more fascinating.  She has come to the place where she has taken ownership, admitted guilt, and sought ways to contact her husband’s family to ask for forgiveness.  She has hope that (and it would truly be a miracle) one day there might be some kind of healing between them.

I was confused and amazed as to how she had gotten to this place.  How had she worked through all the shame and guilt.  I mean this is big stuff.  Like huge stuff.  Way out of my league stuff.  Why is she okay?  And not just okay.  She actually used the word “blessed.”  I received a little peak at part of the answer.

We spoke about how God’s heart is NOT for retribution, but for restoration.  His desire is not to punish her, but to redeem her (or any of us for that matter).  She knows this life-changing truth at the core of her soul.  He loves her no matter what she has done.  He is restoring her.  Not to freedom on the outside (both literally and figuratively), but to freedom on the inside (both literally and figuratively).  WOW!  Just WOW!

It all hit me like a tons of bricks:  this is why Jesus came.  Freedom for the prisoners (Luke 4:18).  Not the outside kind, but the inside kind.  And no circumstance or failure (even premeditated murder) or brokenness is too much for Him.  He doesn’t discard anyone.  He never sees anyone as beyond hope.  He can free anyone, even normal me.  This is His main business.

I prayed very differently on Thursday night.  This time it was not that I would bring healing to Kim, but thanksgiving that she had brought a little more healing, freedom and restoration that day to little old me!  Surprise!

(By the way, I received her permission to share all of this.)