As a teenager and young adult, Jaimee Karroll sang. She played guitar and sang mostly dark folk songs until she realized that she used her voice to disassociate from herself, a coping technique she says she learned in the wake of a childhood kidnap and rape.
Karroll, now 53, quit singing more than 20 years ago. She put away her guitar and never picked it up again until last week, when she changed the strings and tuned it up to sing to a group of San Quentin State Prison convicts.
In her deep, melodic voice, Karroll explains that she had to quit singing to begin healing. “Why would I stop singing?” she asks, sitting on a floral futon next to her Labrador retriever and her cat in her El Cerrito home overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. “In order to use my voice, I would lose awareness of myself. I fled myself in order to not be conscious of what happened. I wanted to become whole.”
So, after a psychiatric hospitalization, she stopped singing completely. Not even in the shower. In the meantime, she underwent intensive psychotherapy and sought to regain and process repressed memories of the 1963 day when she was abducted and assaulted. She joined Bay Area Women Against Rape, counseling other victims, and a few years ago began working inside San Quentin with men serving time for crimes like the one she says silenced her. Inside the prison overlooking San Francisco Bay in Marin County, Karroll began to forgive the three men she says abducted and assaulted her when she was 9 years old.
This weekend, the Marin-based Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance will give Karroll a Hero of Forgiveness award.
“Forgiveness was not achieved in a single moment but has unfolded over two decades,” she says. First Karroll had to remember a crime she had long tried to forget. Though some have questioned the claims of people with repressed memories of crimes, Karroll’s story has been heartfelt enough to earn not only the forgiveness award but the trust of her colleagues working in the prison and the prisoners themselves.
At a recent dinner party with the leaders of the Insight Prison Project, a nonprofit program through which Karroll trained to run a weekly prison group, Rochelle Edwards invited Karroll to sing to her 11-year-old daughter. She sang “My Songbird,” a 1977 ballad that Jesse Winchester wrote and Emmylou Harris made famous.
When he heard Karroll sing, Jacques Verduin, Insight Prison Project’s executive director and founder, asked her to sing for his prison group. Karroll hesitated. But another event nudged Karroll to more openly confront her past and to overcome her hesitation. About a year ago, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
To prepare for her first performance in two decades, Karroll reunited with her old voice teacher and tuned up her long-silenced instrument.
Last week, dressed completely in black with tights and a turtleneck beneath a long skirt and a jacket despite the summer heat, she sat in a circle with 12 inmates, many of them serving life sentences for murder, in a San Quentin prison classroom. The only window looks out on a hallway.
The men, wearing denim and sneakers, all intently concentrate on Karroll, giving her the sort of attention commonly reserved for religious leaders and rock stars.
Karroll crosses and re-crosses her legs as she addresses her rapt audience. She lost her long, brown hair to chemotherapy. Short, gray, curly hair frames her face.
The day after Thanksgiving, when she was 9 years old, she was walking about a block from her house. “I heard brakes screech and felt two hands grab me,” she says. “I was immediately bound and attacked for approximately 10 hours.”
Her assailants raped her repeatedly with the handle of a knife, she says. “If you can imagine being 9 and having the knife inside of you. It was terrifying.
“It was a day of complete violation. In that day, I totally lost myself. I broke in so many ways.
“Prison has helped me grasp
the depths of humanity and
the possibility of transformation”
“I just couldn’t tell my parents anything about what happened. Basically, I came home and went to war with my family.”
The prisoners stare contemplatively and empathetically.
Karroll says that she married, became a singer and tried to bury her pain by drinking. “When I was a performer,” she says, “I still didn’t have a voice. In order to have a full experience of myself, I had to let go of that.
“Violence renders people silent.”
She tells the men that they understand her in a deep way. “You really know what happened to me,” she says. “I can’t think of a better way to interrupt the cycle of violence than to be right here in this prison. This work in the prison has helped me grasp the depths of humanity and the possibility of transformation.”
Phillip Seiler, a well-groomed 47-year-old prisoner serving time for murder, thanks Karroll for telling her story. “What a brave little girl,” he says.
Performing terrifies Karroll. But she feels compelled to share her story and her song with the criminals.
“It feels really profound to do it with you,” she says, “to do it with men who’ve committed acts of violence and are committed to transcending that. It just feels important to tell you how I lost my voice as a result of that crime and to share it with you.”
For more than five minutes, the men focus on Karroll while she tunes her guitar.
“All right,” she says finally, beginning to strum, “don’t expect much.”
“It sounds good already,” Seiler says, smiling tenderly.
Swaying back and forth, her legs still crossed, Karroll’s harmonious voice fills the room as she sings “My Songbird.”
Songbird in a golden cage
She’d prefer the blue
How I crave the liquor of her song
Poor bird who has done no harm
What harm could she do
She shall be my prisoner her life long
My songbird wants her freedom
Now don’t you think I know
But I can’t find it in myself
To let my songbird go
I just can’t let her go
When she finishes, Robert Frye, 38, who has spent 20 years incarcerated, asks, “How did that feel?”
“I was a little bit nervous,” Karroll responds. “I could hear it in my voice.”
“Why did you like that song?” Seiler asks.
“I was drawn to that song because I was in a cage,” Karroll says. “But how does it feel to you guys to be in a cage?”
“It’s different for you,” says an inmate who requests anonymity. “You’re innocent. How long were you in a cage?”
“A lifetime,” Karroll says.
“Jaimee,” says Pat Mims, 46, who has spent 20 years in prison for second-degree murder, “I’ve known you for about one-and-a-half years now, and I’ve never known your story. I live a life of restitution. I never know if my restitution is being paid out to Kevin’s family. When you come in and share your story and play your music, it makes everything I’m doing worth it. It’s beautiful. Thank you.”
The prisoner who requested anonymity holds the microphone for Karroll while she plays a Leonard Cohen song.
When she finishes, Manuel Nieto, 47, who has being behind bars for 24 years for a drunken-driving homicide, says, “I’m very touched by your story. Do you have any nightmares?”
The two talk about their nightmares.
“I think lives are turned in the midst of these acts,” Karroll says. “My life was turned in one direction, and the men who hurt me, their lives were turned in another direction.”
“What happened to those people who were so awful to you?” the inmate who held the microphone asks.
“I don’t know,” Karroll answers.
“You never went to [the] police? So you let them have a free slate?”
Karroll fires back, “It’s not free.”
For more information on the Insight Prison Project, call 415/459-9800 or go to www.insightprisonproject.org . Contact Ronnie Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org. To forgive and never to forget San Quentin group leader Jaimee Karroll is one of four women who will receive awards Sunday at the International Forgiveness Day ceremony in San Rafael. The ceremony also honors Eva Kor and Nadia Bishop. Kor has forgiven the Nazis for the crimes they committed against her and her twin sister while they were prisoners and human guinea pigs at Auschwitz concentration camp. Bishop has forgiven the men who killed her father, the prime minister of Grenada, in a coup. Mill Valley attorney Robert Plath created International Forgiveness Day in 1996. Plath dreams that the day, the first Sunday in August, will become the first internationally sanctioned holiday. Last year, forgiveness celebrations were held in Southern California, New York, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, Canada, Nigeria and Ghana. This year, the ceremony moves to England as well. Plath serves as executive director of the Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance. Its mission is to promote awareness of the healing power of forgiveness. “Forgiveness is really nothing more than an act of self-healing and self-empowerment,” says Holocaust survivor Kor. “I call it a miracle medicine. It is free. It works and has no side effects.” This year’s forgiveness heroes will offer a Masters of Forgiveness Workshop from 1pm until 5pm Saturday at the Mt. Tamalpais United Methodist Church in Mill Valley. The awards ceremony begins at 7pm Sunday in the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael. For more information, call 415/381-3372 or go to www.forgivenessday.org .—RC