Jessica Lunsford and Angela Bryant, Jessica’s mother.
I haven’t been able to get Jessica Lunsford and her mom and her aunt, her mom’s sister, out of my mind.
I’ve been reading about it because the man who abducted, raped and murdered Jessica, has been tried and found guilty this week, and it’s been in the news. He was a neighbor. He entered Jessica’s home through an unlocked door at 3 a.m. and told her to come with him and not to yell. He took her to his room in a house he shared with other people and he raped her there; police found her blood on the mattress. He forced her to stay in his bed that night, then raped her again in the morning. He imprisoned her in a closet while he went to work. He was 48 and had a long criminal history which included sex offenses against children. He had sexually assaulted his nieces, the young daughters of his former wife, and who knows who else, and had been fired from a job for writing inappropriate letters to a teenage girl who was an employee. He hadn’t told authorities, as he was supposed to, that he wasn’t living where he had reported he was living.
News that Jessica had gone missing was in the headlines once she’d been abducted and so her rapist had a problem which he decided to solve by killing her. He tied her hands together, put her into two black trash bags, tied them securely, then buried her alive. The coronor determined she’d suffocated to death. She had managed to poke two of her fingers through the trash bags which became her tomb. When her body was unearthed, she was clutching a purple dolphin her father had won for her at the state fair.
In reading about Jessica, I learned that following her murder, her father had spearheaded a campaign in Florida which resulted in “Jessica’s Law”, the Jessica Lunsford Act passed in Florida in 2005, which provides for a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years in prison and lifetime electronic monitoring of adults convicted of sexual offenses against a child under 12. Since the passage of the act, 42 of the 50 states have introduced similar legislation. So a lot of the news reports make her father out to be a hero.
I’m not sure I can agree.
Jessica’s mom and dad split when Jessica was just a baby. Her dad sought, and received, custody. Most of the news stories about the case report that Jessica’s mom was “estranged” from Jessica, and that she hadn’t had contact with her for four years such that police couldn’t find her at first to let her know Jessica had gone missing. She learned her daughter was missing like everybody else in the country did, by hearing it on the news.
It took me a while to find information about Jessica’s mom. There is precious little which can be found, but there is some. I noticed that photos taken just after she learned Jessica was missing show her holding a large, framed compilation of photographs of herself and her daughter. She was reported to have said repeatedly that she believed Jessica would be found alive. When Jessica’s murderer was arrested, she said she didn’t believe he had anything to do with it. This tells me that this is a mother who loved and missed her daughter and couldn’t allow herself, mentally or emotionally, to believe her daughter might have been murdered, to conceive of the possibility that she would never see her again, never know her.
There is other information which I think is important to know about Jessica and her mom which you also have to look hard to find, like that Jessica’s dad had been arrested on charges of assault in November 1999 and May 2000 involving a woman he was involved with not long after he and Jessica’s mom had split. The journalist who wrote the article reporting these arrests says Jessica’s dad said of the assault charges, “If you made me mad, I’m liable to hit you.” According to other reports I found, Jessica’s mom wanted to see her daughter, but Jessica’s dad wouldn’t allow her to, and ultimately, she did not know where he and/or Jessica were even living. Jessica’s grandfather, with whom Jessica and her dad were living at the time of the murder, had been charged with kidnapping, assault and battery, and rape, all in the 1950s. The kidnapping charge was for the grandfather having kidnapped his infant son, Jessica’s dad’s brother, when he was supposed to be having visitation. He blows off the rape and assault charges, although affidavits were sworn against him both by the victim and another person. Ultimately, the victim did not appear in court to testify against him so nothing came of the charges.
After Jessica’s mom, Angela Bryant, learned Jessica was missing, she and her husband, Lonnie Bryant, flew to Florida to help look for Jessica. A neighbor bought them airline tickets and gave them enough money to stay for a week. They don’t seem to have much money. Angela is a nurse’s aid who works in a nursing home, and she is a mother to a five-year-old and stepmother to her husband’s sons. When Angela and her husband returned, Angela reported she wasn’t able to see or speak with her ex or his parents much at all during her stay. “They shoved me to the side,” she said. “They didn’t want me there. My heart is broken and tore out. I just want her home.”
The Bryants are conservative Christians. In the newspaper articles I read, it is usually Angela’s husband, Lonnie, who speaks for her, as is common with conservative Christian families. Their church, Living Waters, near Lebanon Ohio, held a memorial service for Jessica after her body was found, and 300 people attended in a show of support, which tells me the Bryants were loved and respected as members of their faith community. “To see all of you people here puts a little bit in my heart — and my heart is so empty,” Angela is reported to have said. And that’s all she is reported to have said. Virtually all of the photos of Jessica’s mom depict anguish, grief, pain, fear– and silence. She doesn’t speak. It is said that she tried to talk to reporters at the memorial service, but broke down and rushed from the building.
Jessica’s dad, who is a trucker, a biker, a Harley-looking guy with long hair, an earring, and a noose on his lapel, symbolizing what he believes to be the proper end of rapists and sexual predators, seems to have no problem talking with reporters and never has, that I can see. He has created the Jessica Marie Lunsford Foundation, intended to raise awareness around issues of sexual offenders/sexual predators. He’s become quite the celebrity, speaking in various venues and on television. He seems to makes a good impression on most people, who seem oh-so-intrigued by the bad-boy biker dad with the tattoo of his daughter, the size of a dinner plate, on his chest, where he can feel it every day, because, after all, as he says, “she came from this flesh.” It doesn’t seem to bother many people that in fact, he wasn’t the person who really raised his daughter. His mother raised her.
As for me, I don’t think much of a man who batters women and blows it off by saying if they make him mad, he’s going to hit them. I don’t think much of a man who is a known batterer and who won’t let his daughter see her mom. I don’t think much of a man who palms his daughter of on the women in his life, as reports say he did, relying on his sister and his aging mother and father to care for Jessica. According to reports, he didn’t actually move to his parents house to live until 2004, a year before Jessica died. Until then, mostly, his parents raised Jessica. Reports suggest that he didn’t spend many nights in the house he is said to have shared with his parents and Jessica once he moved in, either; he spent most nights with girlfriends. In particular, I don’t think much of a man who ignores his daughter’s mom when she comes to town because her daughter has gone missing. I don’t think much of a man who creates a “Jessica Lunsford Foundation” website which doesn’t so much as mention, even once, Jessica’s mother’s name.
Jessica was being raised to be a traditional girl and lady, as American society counts such things. Her picture-perfect bedroom was filled with dolls, stuffed animals, and feminine artifacts. She is said to have loved Bratz dolls, the color purple, and the Disney movie, “The Princess Diaries,” and there were already love notes to boys in her room. She’d started wearing makeup. She is said to have dearly loved her dad, and I’m sure she did, in the way little girls being raised as she was raised generally do love the remote, mysterious macho men who are their fathers. She was sent to “Faith Baptist Church” regularly, and had been to church, in fact, the night before, memorizing the verse that says, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” Girls learn these verses, believe in them. I wonder whether she was reciting that verse to herself as she was being raped. I wonder if she was reciting that verse in her mind while she was imprisoned in the closet of her rapist. I wonder if that was the verse on her mind as she was suffocating, buried alive, dying.
Especially, I wonder what her life might have been, how it might have been different, had she known her mom, visited her mom, had access to her mom and aunt, lived with her mom. As it was, she grew up in the household of a grandfather once charged with kidnapping, assault and rape, and of a father once charged with beating a woman. Some reports wonder why there were no signs of struggle in her bedroom; of course there were none. She grew up in the company of violent, sexist men, with all of the lessons girls learn in that environment. She was told to stay in a closet by the man who raped and murdered her while he went to work, and she dutifully stayed there, even though had she had the courage a girl can develop in the care of strong women, had she not learned obedience to, and fear of, male authority quite so well, had she not been so schooled in traditional femininity, she might have realized she could walk out the door, break a window, climb out of it, scream, and run to safety. She might have made a break for it. She might have fought her rapist, and even if he’d killed her then, she might have preferred that to being buried alive.
I also cannot summon much enthusiasm for the foundation created in her name. On the website under “News,” there is a link to a February 25 St. Petersburg Times article about a rally recently held by the biker group Jessica’s dad created, “Jessie’s Riders.” It begins as follows:
On the two-year anniversary of Jessica Lunsford’s disappearance, thousands of bikers called for retribution.
Let John Couey dodge the electric chair, they said. Let him get off on a technicality. We’ll be waiting.
“Pedophiles need to watch their backs,” said Sarah Davidson, one of the estimated 5,000 bikers who turned out for the third annual Jessie’s Memorial Ride on Saturday. “It’s an eye for an eye in this population.”
While bikers gathered to pay tribute to a slain girl, many couldn’t help but fantasize about punishment for the man accused of killing her, who is awaiting his trial in Miami.
“I don’t want him to die; that would be too easy,” said Davidson of Largo, who has five kids. “I want them to turn him loose in the general population and let them bury him alive.”
…Mark Lunsford’s speech behind the Crystal River Harley Davidson turned into an impromptu antipedophile rally. While the activist chose his words diplomatically, others weren’t so careful.
“He’s not retarded; he’s a damn criminal,” said emcee Randy Akers, with Born to Ride TV and magazine.
Other speakers urged the crowd to remain vigilant and angry.
The audience roared in response, shouting, “Lock him away!” and “Let him hang!” along with, “We love you, Mark!”
Through all this, Mark Lunsford stayed calm.
But as he read a poem to the crowd, “Predators Forewarned,” his quavering voice couldn’t hide his emotion.
“Your time is short, your shelters few,” he warned sex offenders. “Jessie’s Riders are coming for you.”
“Jessie’s Riders” might well come for the man who raped and murdered her. I doubt he will last long in prison, and he may be executed, the sentence has not yet been set. And yes, that will ensure that the killer, John Couey, never rapes or kills again. But the world is full of John Coueys, who are the way they are, also because of the men in their lives. Couey’s mom left his violently abusive dad when he was a baby, and moved from relationship to relationship. One of Couey’s stepdads was a violent abuser who once slammed Couey’s head between a door and the wall for punishment. Another man once nearly drowned Couey to “teach him a lesson.” His face is scarred from abuse. He was a small kid, did poorly in school, possibly because of all of the moves, and was relentlessly bullied. Indications are that his stepdad also sexually assaulted girls and that he learned sexual assault from his stepdad. Men like this — and there are many of them — make victims through sexual assault, rape and battery, or by raising girls who fear and obey — and later may find themselves strangely drawn to — men like them, or by raising boys who fear, obey, and later imitate them.
“Jessie’s Riders” will not solve this problem. Executing John Couey won’t solve the problem, nor will stiffer sentences for pedophiles, or better tracking for pedophiles, solve the problem. Nothing will bring Jessica Lunsford back. There will never be justice now for Jessica, her mother, or her womenfolk. So long as the general public is impressed with guys like Jessica’s dad and his buddies, in fact, there will be no real justice for women, either. For this, we need a new order, in which girls and women are not the property of men and their justification for what amounts to gang warfare. Whether or not it is sanctioned by the state, gang warfare it still is, men warring with men over the bodies of girls and women. We need a new order in which male violence and male “bad boys” are not admired, in which girls are not raised to be “feminine” and obedient and to worship at the feet of bad-boy daddies or bad-boy men in general, but are raised to be strong and free and critical of men and of male power, and in which the answer to the problems of male violence and predation are not more and more and more male violence, whether by individual males, by gangs of males, or by the state. We need a new order in which women reject violent men as partners, and in which violent men are not allowed near children nor given custody of children, just because they seek it.
In the meantime, I’m standing, from afar, in my heart and in my spirit, with Angela Bryant, mother of Jessica Lunsford, with Beulah Lee, Angela’s sister and Jessica’s aunt, and with all of Jessica’s womenfolk. Had Jessica known these women, been part of their lives, she might be alive today.