Letters from Purgatory is based on the true life experiences of California death row inmate Maureen “Miki” McDermott, a series of fantastical letters that are written to her while on death row, and Casey Cohen, the private investigator who believes in her innocence and tries to save her life.
In 1995, I founded InsideOUT Writers, a creative writing program for incarcerated youth. It was while teaching teenage girls facing life sentences for serious crimes that I met Casey. He was one of the foremost authorities on the death penalty phase. Over the course of the three years that I knew him, he became my dearest friend.
Shortly before his death in 2000, Casey sent me the letters and asked me to solve the mystery of who wrote them and why. His assessment of Miki’s conviction was that it had been a miscarriage of justice. By the time he became involved in her case, during the habeas appeal, it was too late to save her but he could not escape a haunting feeling that he had somehow failed. Perhaps he thought that by showing another side, the side of the letters, the story might come to a better conclusion. I can only guess at his motive, for he never explained it to me.
Casey’s real name was Kaddish, meaning “a prayer for the dying.” He considered his name to be a curse put on him by his father. Listening to the prayers of those facing the Death Penalty became the obsession that drove Casey. He was a master at discovering who a person really was beneath the horror of the crime for which they stood accused.
It took me ten years to finally fulfill my promise to Casey. By asking me to solve the mystery of the letters, he continued to live beyond the grave, forever entangled in my story and Miki’s. Watching over my shoulder, he sent me on a remarkable journey that lead from Death Row into the heart of a Turkish village, where hope and love overcame emptiness and despair. Along this path, I came to understand the truth of Miki’s, Casey’s and my own life, how the facts aren’t always what they seem to be, and how we are all connected through the stories that we tell ourselves in order to bring meaning and comfort to our lives.
I am forever grateful to Casey for giving me the gift of the letters and this story to tell. For it is in our stories that we have the greatest power to create our destinies. As the letters say,
This is not a book about the crime, however horrific that crime was and is and will always be. It is about the other side of the story—faith, hope and love. These three are stronger than all the hatred and despair that hell can throw our way. But we must believe. That is the mystery of life—that we must create it or it does not exist. That is what the letters taught me.
An Excerpt from Letters from Purgatory
I will walk a thousand leagues in falsehood, that one step of the journey may be true. ~Junyad
Do you know that purgatory exists? I can tell you that it does. Do you understand that you will die? Do you really believe it? Do you? Do you comprehend that billions have died before you and just as many will die after and you are one more nobody in the middle of that mass of dead bodies?
Do you get it?
No, you don’t.
I could scream and scream and still you wouldn’t get it. But I do. I know and understand because I live in that in-between place where all is empty and waiting. There is an entrance door on one side and an exit door on the other and in between, I wait. All is clear and well-defined. I came in as the living dead and I will leave in a body bag. Here in purgatory, the physical is stripped away. My flesh has grown pale and soft from lack of light and exercise. My eyes have lost their inner fire so that now I only see shades of gray. Gray walls and floor, ceiling. Gray clothes. Gray faces of the trapped souls to the left and right of me. In the beginning it was only me but there are now eighteen of the living dead. We are in limbo, caught between heaven and hell but surely destined for hell.
The other day, I and two of the women were out for our exercise in the yard. It’s a small space with high walls so that we see nothing of the outside world, just a cut-out square of sky straight above. We walk around and around, first one way and then the other, for an hour each time. Always, it is the same, except for this day. A baby bird fell from that square of sky, banged into the window and crashed to the ground in front of us. For a moment, none of us moved, too stunned—almost frightened at the sight of a living creature appearing before us. I reacted first and picked up the frail, trembling form and held it in my hands gently and carefully. In wonder, I stroked its soft feathers and the other women did the same. They murmured and cooed and worried and prayed that it would survive. These women with their sweet prayers had murdered their own children. Can you imagine a worse crime than that? But they are my friends. We have no choice but to find each other’s humanity. Those who exist on the outside will never understand me when I say that the goodness is there. Like me. I have goodness. After twenty-five years of never having touched the softness of another living being, one fell from the sky and into my hands and the goodness came out of us all, set free.
And there we were, the condemned, praying for the baby bird’s life.
After a few moments our prayers seemed to be answered and a beady eye registered on me sharply, wings flapping in an attempt to get away. I held on for a moment longer, wanting to absorb at least a little bit of that miraculous energy, knowing that it would probably never come again. And then, I raised my arms and let go. We watched in suspense, as if each of us were making that journey up and over the wall. And sure enough, the bird flew strong and true out of that block of stone, back into the square of blue and disappeared beyond. We clapped and cheered from below. Twenty-five years. I have learned to be thankful for the smallest things. But they aren’t small at all. To touch a bird in that universe of death, to feel its little heart beating so furiously in its chest, its warmth and tenderness, its beauty and perfection, well, that was more momentous and immediate than anything that had ever happened in my previous life.
My previous life. If I begin to doubt that it existed, I am reminded of the newspaper articles, except that I hate those memories. For a minute, I was famous, just as I’d been so long ago in the other world of the letters. The media devoured me—as if there was anything left to eat. After my sentencing, there was even a hint of sympathy, not really for me but for my circumstances. Society must act humane towards those they are executing. I still have one of the LA Times articles from 1991, folded and faded, why, I don’t know—perhaps because it, at least, said something nice about me.
Reading the article for the first time, I almost choked myself. And to this day, it still makes me laugh, secret and silent. I am such a good person. I saved the life of someone choking on an apple—oops, too late! I’ve always had bad timing. Nobody was going to make me into a hero after that.
I’ve decided to think of my current existence in the same way I used to hear a guru instruct his followers after he’d taken their money: I am letting go of the physical. I am becoming infinite space. My body is confined, yet I float free of all constraints. I do not feel the weight of my limbs.
It doesn’t matter that the guru took their money. The words he spoke are true for me now. My only attachment to my actual self is the letters. They arrive through the window in the door to the universe. I receive warning of their arrival when the guard barks at me:
“Dermott, you got another one!”
I see his eyes scrutinizing me with interest, his voice curious and incredulous. “Come on, Dermott. Did that really happen?”
I smile like the Mona Lisa. I’ll never give the satisfaction of an answer. He snorts frustration while I wait by my bed for his eyes to move away and for the letter to suddenly appear, floating downwards out of the gray. Instinctively, I reach out to catch it but my physical body is sluggish and the letter falls.
What do I remember of my distant past? Paris. Always remember Paris. A cliché to others but not to me. That one phrase means everything.
So I pick up the envelope off the cold, hard ground or perhaps the ground is really a cloud so thick that I can walk on it, sometimes I think like that. I turn and retrace the two paces from the door to the narrow bed stretching like a coffin with the lid off. When I lie on the bed that is how I feel, as if I am a dead body already, exposed for viewing in my coffin.
At the little window in purgatory, at the edge of the universe, I know that eyes are watching me. Even when I cannot see them, they are viewing me from the outside looking in. Or perhaps they are inside of me. The eyes of the Devil are watching or maybe God or maybe both. Maybe theirs are the disembodied voices that I hear, discussing, joking, rolling the dice and making bets about whether or not I will give in to curses, just like they wondered about Job.
Turn the screw, and then a little more. Make her do it, make her curse God and lose her soul.
Now with the letter, I pointedly turn my back on the omnipotent ones. I don’t have to tear the seal as it has already been done by the guard. I open the flap and take out the pages. So white the pages. So black the words. So immediate and true that the moment I begin to read I am transported to that other place where I can taste and smell the richness all around me.
I have a secret. Even in purgatory there are hidden doors, ways to get out and move between worlds. They exist only if you know how to see them.
The house, now DiLuca’s restaurant. The spot in the window where I put my wine glass.
Ms. Pedantic. A perfect name for that lying bitch, although I never wanted to face it. She trapped us with her giddy entertainment. Truth and fiction all mashed together until it was impossible to separate them.
Taking Lisa to Denny’s. God, how I would love to have seen that.
The unopened letter. I always wondered about that. Well, it will probably stay that way, unopened and lost in the end. Maybe thrown in the trash. So much the better. The contents don’t matter anymore. The accusations, the hidden affairs, the sneaking about in the dark. All the lies.
Yes, that’s what it had been. Theater. But what theater!
Tears that no longer fall. All the tears in the world could never make up for what has been lost. For what never was nor can ever be again.
My fall from grace. And then how they hounded me. The press, so vile. Those journalists. I shudder still at the thought.
Do not give up hope. That is what the letters tell me. Remember that the future will one day be again like the past. Which past? How far in the past?
Far, far away from that night.
What is true—the letters or that night?
And now, because of that night, I am a Monster. The Prosecutor Madder turned me into one and said that I was not fit to live. That I was less than human. And because Madder said it and the jury believed her, does that make it so? It must. I live like one, am treated like one.
All those travels and adventures, the lost love that the letters speak of, only to end up in that little house in Van Nuys, thinking I would live out the rest of my days in boring obscurity. No more theater. I had craved peace and quiet. It should have been just another night in what had become my quiet existence.
Just another bloody night in LA.
And then the scene is there before me and I cannot stop its progression….I was supposed to go to Palm Springs but I decided to delay my departure. I heard ominous noises; an evil presence moving through the house, bringing with it the end of everything. One of them came at me, wearing a mask, gloves. A struggle, the slash of a knife and a hard push. When I regained consciousness, I was lying on the floor and bound with chords.
I didn’t know that it was Jimmy, the orderly who had recently been fired from the hospital where I worked. How could I have known? I had been too terrified to notice anything. An ambulance came and took me to the hospital in a state of shock. When the police invaded my room, they didn’t allow me to put on clothes but brought me to the station in my hospital gown. I was a nurse, for God’s sake, always caring for people in hospital gowns, always bending over them, ministering to their needs. And now, here I was in a hospital gown myself, taken from the place where I was supposed to be, taken from where other nurses were caring for me; taken to a small bare room to be interrogated. I would come to know many small bare rooms. They would grow into my universe.
The police decided from the beginning that I was guilty. But I didn’t want to see it. The thought that they suspected me was too incredible. For what reason? I had never hurt anyone, always helped. How could they possibly think that I would orchestrate such evil?
As I sit on my bed reflecting on this madness, I feel no emotions and I know that no expression of pain, anger or bitterness crosses my face. Such facial expressions ended long ago when I endured the trial. Once the verdict was read, that was it. Everything ended and nothing more happened. Peace at last. No more theater. No more reason for my face to have expressions. No more going to the In Touch Bar and gossiping with my friends, no more anger at Stephen for yelling at my dogs, no more sitting at the kitchen table worrying over unpaid bills, no more decisions to be made, everything taken care of by the State. In fact, for years now my face has worn the same, constant expression of vague surprise, as if it was frozen in the moment of my conviction, the moment when I heard those words guilty and death. I am old now, in my sixties. I’ve been in this waiting place forever.
And there, I must stop my thoughts. I must not continue along that torturous trail of time which leads only to madness.
Jimmy was delusional, needy—now there was a liar. He even had alternate personalities. He had one called Rita. He was so good with Rita’s voice on the phone that it was impossible to tell it was him. It was creepy, like he was possessed. Should I hate him? I should hate myself for always having wanted to help the helpless. So stupid! What good has helping others ever done for me? Why did I feel such an obligation to please?
Jimmy is dead. He died of AIDS in prison. Casey is dead. He died of cancer. Long and agonizing deaths for both of them. What kind of justice is that? What kind of a sick sense of humor does God have that he’d make them suffer equally, when one was good and one was evil? I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter anymore. They have joined all the billions of bodies, bones picked clean or turned to ash, while I am still suspended here.
And anyway, there isn’t a God up there. He’s outside my door, along with the Devil. And they’re both laughing.
Always remember Paris.
I take the most recent letter and carefully refold it and replace it in the envelope, adding it to the rest neatly piled in my cubby. I remind myself that they are forever, not this place. With those fragile pages I am building a tower of salvation. They are the proof of who I am. I am not the Monster created by the court.
Writing from a parking lot on the edge of San Francisco Bay. No time to write later. But I wanted you to have this before I took off.
This morning in Mill Valley, I remembered the summer of ’68 when you worked in the coffee shop next to the movie theatre and I used to visit on weekends. God, we didn’t know what was going to happen during the ensuing years and all the travelling we would do. It was so long ago.
Guess what? The house is still there. Only now it is DiLuca’s Restaurant. It was closed when I approached the door but I climbed the stairs and peeked in from the driveway side and the bay window is still there, the same place, where you used to put your wine glass and candle, while tie-dyed clothes and Che Guevara posters hung on the walls.
The last time I saw that house was after midnight on the weekend of the People’s Park Demonstration in Berkley. Remember how the whole neighborhood drove over in the morning and by the end of the day we had been chased, clubbed, tear-gassed and shot at. It all came back to me. Drugged out, bare-foot kids with dirt on their feet up to their ankles, girls who didn’t shave their legs, never cut or combed their hair, runaways.
What is really amazing is how that same neighborhood is now full of cute little shops selling house wares and nick-nacks. And it is weird how much anger there seems to be in the air. It is even worse than our time. In the bookstore, I noticed that the largest section was “psychology and gender,” and the second largest was on the occult.
Although I can’t hang around much longer I am going to get back to DiLuca’s someday and eat the best dinner they have. I want to sit in the section near “our” window. Do you remember that midnight I walked out?
M, I saw someone whose name I won’t mention. I’ll just call her Ms. Pedantic. I was sick to death of her endless lecturing to us and you thought she was brilliant. To me, in all honesty, she was sarcastic, pontifical, a spewer of stupid words and she had a voice that dripped with anger and resentment. Her lies were fantastic. Such negation of reality. She lied to herself. She lied to me. She lied to you. It isn’t even mere untruth anymore. When I saw her outside the coffee shop I could see a distinct escalation. Now she has gone all the way to Negation of reality in its entirety. I know she is having an affair that her husband doesn’t know about. Or maybe he does and doesn’t care. Probably he is having his own affair and is happy about hers.
Okay, I spent a long time talking to her. I began to enjoy her lies. I couldn’t separate truth from fiction so I just let it roll over me like a great story. Who cares anymore? She told me she was in love with her Russian poet-hairdresser. Then she told me that he named his children after French wines. He has a daughter, Anjou. He has a son, Vouvray. And they have a child named Chinon.
That brings me to Lisa Decour, who happened to be in town recently. As a practical joke I took her to Dennys for dinner. Remember how much she liked to dine on sautéed salmon with vegetable puree, dishes with names like “escalope d’artichaut” et “Saint-Jacque au xeres.” I thought it would be a change for her to sample a good hamburger with French fries, cole slaw on the side, not to mention a coke. Her favorite waitress in Paris was Suzanne de Rougemont.
M, something very interesting happened recently. I discovered an unopened letter you sent me from Barcelona years ago. I was angry at you for dumping me in Madrid that year so I never opened it. Then I forgot about it. And now it sits here, unopened, tempting me. I resist the temptation. Rumors about your affairs in Barcelona broke my heart at the time and I am afraid of what details the letter might contain. Is it even worth bringing these old matters to light now? It is a bulky envelope so I know it is a long letter. If it is about your affair with Berthe…I forgot her last name. You know who I mean, the one I called Rin Tin Tin.
Your life was such theatre. I have never met anyone who came close to you for filling their life with drama, romance, travel, famous people, good food, grand hotels, shipboard acquaintances. I remember when you would spend an entire month’s income to throw one elegant dinner party. To you boredom was the enemy. And every month more and more people wanted to attend your parties or dinners. You could have sold tickets. Even the wealthiest of the aristocracy were at your feet. Your social contacts were the most powerful people. I remember a gossip column in Le Figaro that mentioned your dining room as the place to be seen. It noted, oh so correctly, that you had grace and charm, but it also brilliantly saw a detail others might have missed. It said you did your best to please, that you were attentive, obliging, doing everything in your power to entertain and provide an experience for others. But no one (perhaps I am the only one) knows at what cost to yourself. And when you fell from grace, how vicious they were to turn on you, the campaign of rumors and innuendos. I never saw anyone whose character was so wrongly attacked. Rumors, rumors, rumors. It is sickening.
But there was one little known journalist named Timothee Trimm (I don’t think it was his real name) who never abandoned you. He once told me he would write a play about you, that only drama and fiction could portray your story.
I hate to close on a note of negativity but I have to be leaving soon and I had to mention Viscount Ottmar Banks. He was the worst of them. And although he never made sense, many listened to him. Do you remember those things he said about you in his published journal? I still don’t know what he means.
He said your wine cellar was cheap and cynical. He said your coffee was indecisive. He said one of your dresses was non compos mentis. When you said you were getting married he called it propaganda. Even your guest list he maligned when he called it jury selection. In his opinion you slept diligently. You chose shoes that were fraudulent. I can go on and on.
I must run. Gaston sends regards. Alain looks forward to another chance with you. Lucie d’Vilar sends her love. She never forgot your nobleness, your generosity, nor the inexcusable way those others turned on you. Gustav says to write him at the coffee bar. He doesn’t know where he’ll be from day to day but they will save his mail. A guy we called “The Worm,” I can’t remember his real name, dropped by to ask for your address. Liz Herbart, the girl who edited “Le Force,” can’t stop talking about your last dinner at Chez Lilac. Always remember Paris, M.