Copyright © 1997 AFLM
July/August, 1997 Volume XII Number 7 - FEATURES
Anatomy of the exceptional mind of a criminal grandmother
by Graeme Hunter
Behind the bullet-proof glass at the Metro Toronto West Detention Center sits the criminal I came to see: a hardened . . . grandmother. She does not look much like a criminal. But then so much of crime is deception. I am allowed to speak to her only by phone through a thick protective window in this maximum-security prison for women.
She is permitted only two 20-minute visits per week. Mine is one of them. She doesn't know me but she agrees to meet. So I guess there are weeks when fewer than two people she knows make the trek to see her: It must be lonely.
It is a trek. Subway to the end of the line. Bus to the end of the line. Past the airport and you're there. Nowhere.
Maybe she is glad to see me. Why do I bother? I suppose the criminal mind interests me. This innocent-looking grandmother is a repeat offender - dangerous enough in the eyes of the state to be held in maximum security.
Her crime is always the same and her list of convictions is as long as your arm. Exactly the kind of criminal we're supposed to be cracking down on! In fact, every time she is discharged she goes back to the scene of her previous crime and does it again. It's obsessive; it's galling; it's criminal.
Yet she is just as advertised. A grandmother. Innocent looking . . . except that she admits guilt, offering no excuses and no apologies.
"Are you planning to commit the crime again upon release?" I ask her. "Of course," she replies. You don't have to agree with a person like that to find her interesting. There is something exceptional about her. More than meets the eye.
For example, she is exceptional in court. She goes without a lawyer. There is an old saying: To represent yourself in court is to have a fool for a client. My first thought is that by this standard she must be a fool. Far from it. She tells me that she doesn't represent herself either. No one represents her. She remains silent in court. She refuses to acknowledge the court proceedings, though she accepts the verdict without complaint. That much I can vouch for. She makes no complaint to me either about her treatment or about any aspect of life in prison.
But then she is also an exceptional prisoner. She is deeply religious and her religious convictions affect others. Her cellmates agree spontaneously that they will not swear when they are "at home" (in the cell). Somehow swearing doesn't seem quite fitting in the company of this prisoner. This is part of the mystique of criminal minds - their strange ability to dominate others.
Just prior to her last release from prison, in August this year, if you could have a glimpse behind that bullet-proof glass into the soul-destroying cage where these women are kept, you would have seen her at another improbable task. She was learning lines for her theatrical debut. She was going to star in a play called "Linda," which would be performed the day after her release.
She is Linda - Linda Gibbons. The play is about her. It had to be performed on just that day and once only: after that Linda intended to commit another crime and go back to jail.
In France there was a criminal called Jean Genest, who died in 1985. He was a thief, a male prostitute, an advocate of violence and revolution. He also loved religious language and used it to advocate these things. Genest became the darling of the French intelligentsia. The book that lionized him, Saint Genest, has been translated into many languages.
There is nothing like that here in Canada. Canadian intellectuals have not rushed to the defense of any criminal. I guess we're just not that kind of intellectual. And Linda is certainly not that kind of criminal. Genest tried to use religious language to glorify crime. That is good. Linda tries to use crime to glorify God. That is offensive. The idea of a Canadian Saint Linda is therefore ridiculous.
Linda's crime is that she protests outside abortion clinics. She is not physically violent, but she holds up a sign that certainly is psychologically violent. It tears out the hearts of women who are exercising their perfectly legal right to have abortions there. Beneath a picture of a healthy baby is written: "Why Mom, when I have so much love to give?"
It is obvious that protests of this kind must be stopped. That is why Marion Boyd, attorney general in the Bob Rae government, passed a law against them. That is why the current government, though it called the law "totalitarian" while in opposition, has upheld it since coming to power. Their sense of responsibility was late in coming, but it finally came. Law-abiding citizens have a right to know that when Linda threatens the legitimate business of abortion clinics, the police will be there to haul her away.
Then comes the strange, silent trial, the jail sentence and the dreary cycle goes on and on. There is, of course, no public outcry because she is no Genest. Just as a grandmother -- innocent looking, but criminal.
Such is the strange anatomy of the criminal mind. I met it at close range, conversed with it (glad of the protection of bullet-proof glass). I saw her determination, her faith and her joy at what she thinks of as -- I know it sounds crazy -- service. I must be crazy too, because I left our meeting elated.
Graeme Hunter is a professor of philosophy at the University of Ottawa