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Narratives of Closure

It has been suggested that a recent addition to the cultural production of meanings about punishment is a narrative of ‘closure’ (Lynch 2002). From a cultural life perspective, Lynch suggests there is no definition of what closure is, how it is achieved, or even any certainty that it actually exists. Interestingly, the seventh definition of ‘closure’ in the Merriam- Webster online dictionary now reads:

closure: an often comforting or satisfying sense of finality closure>; also-, something (as a satisfying ending) that provides such a sense.

This definition was introduced only in 2006, before which closure was exclusively defined with reference to the act of closing something such as a window, a factory or a department store. Moreover, of the five examples of closure now offered beneath the definitions, four relate to closure as a psychoanalytical concept—for instance ‘a need to get or achieve or feel closure’—with only one relating to the act of closing something. Further still, of the five examples, two specifically reference crime victims, or the families of a victim needing to gain closure from an arrest and/or the punishment of a perpetrator. While this does little to expand our understanding of what closure really is, what it might feel like when achieved, or how such a desire might express itself, it does suggest that closure as a psychoanalytical concept is a fairly recent introduction to the ways in which we speak about a sense of resolution. However, this definitional ambiguity has not stopped a narrative of closure from being associated with victims of crime, and with the punishment of offenders.

Closure is thus best understood as a victim-oriented narrative in which the process of punishment is closely tied to feelings of resolution and/ or satisfaction (Mowen and Schroeder 2011; Rosenfeld 2011). The idea that not every victim or survivor will find closure in punishment introduces unwelcome layers of complexity to the punishment stories (Ho et al. 2002). Instead, stories which employ narratives of closure prefer to portray the criminal as pure evil, with anything less than execution or life without parole depicted as an insult to the memory of the victim. To speak about a victim’s right to closure is thus best understood as a kind of sub-discourse to vengeance. Telling stories in which punishment is vindicated by the closure it (supposedly) brings is one way of encouraging an audience to support punishment based on personal, subjective and emotional accounts of victimhood—accounts which might understandably be somewhat disproportionate or indeed irrational (Bandes 2002, 2008). That is, to speak about the victim’s desire for closure as if it were an appropriate sentencing rationale is always an expression of personalised vengeance (as opposed to rationalised retribution) but narratives of vengeance need not be characterised by a demand for closure.

For example, Lynch (2002) found that internet sites dedicated to a particular victim used narratives of both vengeance and closure. Images of the victim tended to be juxtaposed with an often graphic description of their death at the hands of their killer; an attempt to align the audience of the site with the family of the victim. Victimhood is expanded to include the family of the deceased as well as the viewer of the site who is encouraged to share in the family’s pain, sorrow and continued inability to find closure (Peelo 2006). The angry sentiments expressed by family members (who desire the most severe punishment available to them) are entwined with emotive descriptions of their loss and their loved one, all of which is underpinned by the belief that punishment can begin the healing process. It is this coupling which makes the narrative both emotional and personal and thus also—to use Nozick’s (1981) distinction—a demand for vengeance rather than retribution.

Similarly, it has been suggested that the use of victim impact statements during the sentencing phase of a capital trial encourages the jury to affiliate themselves with the victim (Sarat 1999a). Anything other than a death sentence or life without parole becomes symbolically understood as a commentary on the victim’s worth, or lack thereof. Future dangerousness is of no concern and even if the offender is unlikely to reoffend the harshest sentence available is still the most appropriate. A similar argument is applicable to the websites that Lynch (2002) describes. The narrative these sites adhere to is one in which to be in opposition of the death penalty/life without parole is to deny the victim’s worth and to deny the family their right to closure. Punishment becomes a symbolic battleground in which the rights of the offenders are pitted against the rights not of the victim, but of the victim’s family.

Controversy over whether a victim’s family has a ‘right’ to closure was also a feature of the news reporting associated with Benetton’s advertising campaign, ‘We, on Death Row’, which—as Kraidy and Goeddertz (2003) suggest—can in itself be understood as a cultural product. In January 2000, clothing retailer Benetton introduced an advertising campaign in which the faces of death row inmates stared back at the American public. On billboards, in magazines and on television screens, those that both supported and opposed the death penalty came face-to-face with men and women who had been sentenced to die. The tone of the campaign in its entirety was abolitionist, as was an earlier 1992 Benetton campaign entitled ‘The Omega Suite’, in which the company used an image of the electric chair (Girling 2004, p. 278). Yet while ‘The Omega Suite’ did not stimulate public outrage, ‘We, on Death Row’ did nothing but, even though both attacked capital punishment and both singled out the American death penalty in particular for criticism.

Girling (2004, 2005) suggests the reception of these two campaigns differed so significantly because the 2000 promotion showing images of those on death row employed overtly humanising politics. The audience of this second series of advertisements were compelled to engage with the condemned through the act of witnessing; obliged to see and in turn be seen. Yet in an attempt to humanise death row inmates, Benetton actually encouraged the reverse; a pro-death penalty counter-attack lead by victims’ rights activists. The reaction to the campaign was so pronounced that Sears, one of the largest department store retailers in the US, terminated its contract with Benetton amid widespread protest and boycott. Victims’ rights groups remained most vocal in the debate, suggesting that Benetton, and by association Sears, were ‘sympathising with murders’ (New York Times 2000, cited in Kraidy and Goeddertz 2003).

The reaction to the campaign was widely reported by the US news media, whose focus unsurprisingly turned to the family members of victims being forced to remember the faces of those who had murdered their loved ones. Moreover, while Benetton used only a limited number of inmates within their advertisements, and thus the families that were directly affected were few, the media placed any family of a homicide victim centre stage irrespective of their proximity to the inmates pictured in the campaign. As might be expected, news reports featured long quotations made by family members, often describing the killings in graphic detail followed by a statement about the grief they were still experiencing. These highly emotional scripts introduced a narrative of vengeance both to the cultural stories being told in the media, and to the advertising campaign itself (Girling 2004).

Moreover, much was said in the press and on victims’ rights blogs and websites about the partiality of the image; the bloodied corpse of the victim was nowhere to be seen:

Look at this picture: This is Jeremy Sheets. Young isn’t he? Cute isn’t he? Innocent, doesn’t he look? What this picture doesn’t tell you is how this man raped, beat and slashed the throat of a black young woman named Kenyatta Bush. (quotation from victims’ rights website, cited in Girling 2004)

More often than not, family members of the victims expressed anger and upset at having to relive the crime, as if the image of the condemned had reopened a wound that was once closed (Kraidy and Goeddertz 2003). In this example then, the narratives of closure were not deployed within the cultural production of meaning at and around an execution. The inmates that took part in the Benetton campaign had not been executed, they were instead incarcerated. Yet the family still felt that seeing an image of the condemned was enough to halt the process of healing and reopen something that the sentence of death had closed. Death row becomes a no-man’s land in which those predestined to die are disembodied. No longer present, but not yet expired, the victim’s family can find closure in the sentence of death, but only if they are not reminded of the condemned body which awaits it.

Further, Berns (2011) examined cultural products associated both with death penalty support and death penalty opposition, such as newspaper articles, books, websites, films and campaign literature, and found that narratives of closure can be identified in both types of cultural stories. Within pro-death penalty stories, the execution of an offender is regularly depicted as providing the victim’s family with closure. Within these cultural products the family is understood to have an entitlement to demand closure, at times locating the argument away from discourses of vengeance and toward the (arguably) more rational discourse of victims’ rights (Rapping 1999). Moreover, staunchly pro-death penalty cultural products tended to suggest that when family members did not feel they received closure, it was because the execution was too serene, too medicalised, too genteel (Sarat 1999a). This well-rehearsed argument effectively relocates the debate back into the realms of vengeance and vindictiveness discussing the brutal nature of the crimes alongside the restrained violence of an execution (Bandes 1996, 2008).

Alternatively though, within anti-death penalty cultural products Berns (2011) suggests that closure is depicted as vague, elusive and unlikely; within the stories many people do not find closure in the death of another and to assume they will is depicted as counterproductive, at times even destructive. Moreover, due to extensive due process procedures a family can wait up to thirty years for an execution or—if the offender dies of natural causes whilst incarcerated—never get the chance to witness one at all. For those who tell abolitionist stories about capital punishment a narrative of closure is instead employed in such a way to suggest that a sentence of life without parole might actually bring more closure than an execution (Kanwar 2001).

In short, closure is a complex cultural narrative used both to advocate the death penalty and oppose it. Kanwar (2001) provides a more detailed analysis of how closure has come to be associated with life imprisonment (and is inextricably linked to narratives of vengeance) through his analysis of the cultural (re)presentations of a single case: the homophobic killing of Matthew Shepard. This case is interesting for three reasons; first, the level of attention it received and the variety of cultural performances it prompted; second, the degree to which the family members, particularly the victim’s father, were permitted to engage with the sentencing process; and third, the way the victim became symbolic of tolerance within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community (LGBT) and beyond.

The cultural products Kanwar (2001) analysed included media reports in which family statements were quoted at length, an ‘off-Broadway play’ of the crime and trial (The Laramie Project, 2000) and a film of the play (also entitled The Laramie Project, 2002). Throughout each of the stories told within all of these products, the family expressed feelings of vengeance toward the criminal; in particular Matthew’s father reported that he would receive pleasure and enjoyment from witnessing an execution. However, Mr Shepard believed his son (the victim) would have not wanted his killers executed and overcoming his own feelings of anger and desire for revenge, he recommended that the defendants be sentenced to life without parole. In addition, the victim’s family asked for a gagging order, prohibiting the defendants and their lawyers from ever speaking to the press.

The victim’s father equated the silencing of the offenders’ voices to a kind of closure that an execution could never bring. If his son’s killers were to die at the hands of the state then the story would be continually re-told (primarily at the time of their execution) and they would have the potential to become symbols in their own right. Abolitionist factions might portray the offenders as undeserving of execution, something the victim’s father wanted to avoid. Thus—in this case—discourses of closure were used neither in support nor opposition of the death penalty, but instead as leverage to obtain the gagging order that would stop his son’s killers from speaking to the press forever, and consequently foreclosing the possibility that their punishment (had it been execution) would come to acquire meanings that the family could not control (Kanwar 2001).

The ambivalence expressed in Mr Shepard’s statements with regard to the ‘closure’ that execution provides was also apparent in the reporting that followed the sentencing and execution of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma Bomber. On 10 August 1995 McVeigh was indicted on 11 federal counts, including use of a weapon of mass destruction and eight counts of first-degree murder (Altheide 2003). The Federal Court could not bring charges for the remaining 160 deaths that resulted from the bombing as they fell under the jurisdiction of the state of Oklahoma. Because McVeigh had already received eight death sentences (for the federal offences) Oklahoma did not file any other murder charges (Sarat 2002). The day after the jury had made their decision CNN (2001) ran a collection of quotes from survivors and the family members of those that had been killed in the bombing. However, the survivors were far from unanimous on the issue of closure. For example, while Debbie Miller (whose son was killed in the blast) was quoted as saying, ‘It’s like a burden has been lifted’, Darlene Welch (whose four-year-old niece was killed) commented that ‘There is no such thing as closure ... The only closure is when they close the lid on my casket.’

Moreover, in the same way that vengeance has seeped into the trial process via the victim impact statement (Sarat 1999a) a narrative of closure can manifest in bureaucratic decision-making about who should be permitted to watch an execution. Timothy McVeigh was executed by lethal injection on 11 June 2001 at 7.14 a.m. His death was watched on a live televised broadcast by 325 survivors and victim family members (Lokaneeta 2004) . Attorney General Ashforth, when interviewed by CNN (2001) , said that the televised link would help those survivors and family members to ‘close the loop’ on what happened (cited in Wallace 2001). The McVeigh case, and the reporting that followed, thus employed a constellation of narratives to speak about the execution, with closure finding its way into bureaucratic stories told by criminal justice personnel about McVeigh’s punishment.

It is also worthy of note that, according to this literature, the medium by which the story is told can have an effect upon the types of narratives the story will adopt. In relative terms, internet stories develop organically, with few restrictions as to what can be said (Lynch 2002). Newspaper reports are more censored and will tend to adhere to public consensus (Kudlac 2007) . Hollywood films have to entertain, creating suspense and intrigue (O’Sullivan 2003) and television news reporting tends to be simple, dramatic messages that resonate with what we think we already know (Jewkes 2015). Using heroes, villains and other familiar stock figures, television news in particular usually makes ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ easily identifiable, depicting complex problems as having simple solutions.

Rather than a ‘window on the world’ or a ‘mirror held up to real life’, TV news reporting, documentaries and ‘reality TV’ might be better understood as a type of prism, ‘subtly bending and distorting our picture of reality’ (Jewkes 2015, p. 45). For these reasons, questions raised by more severe punishment such as life without parole or the death penalty (that is questions about efficacy, appropriateness, implementation and indeed morality or justice) are seldom addressed in the cultural stories we tell about crime and punishment (Bandes 2003). Instead, stories tend to focus on individual (often atypical) cases that are rarely connected—at least in terms of narrative—to the institutional structures which function, or indeed malfunction, when such criminal justice decisions are made (Sarat 2002).

Smith (2008, Chap. 6) has also contributed to the debate about the meaning that punishments—specifically the death penalty—carry through their cultural performances, suggesting it is both the method of execution and the type of story that is important. For example, he argues that electrocution shares a symbolic relationship with the mysterious and the supernatural. The cultural products used to illustrate his argument include media reports of the body ‘twitching’ and ‘jumping’ as if alive after supposedly being killed by electrocution; Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (and its numerous thematic reincarnations) in which electricity can create life as opposed to eliminate it; and the unknowable nature of electricity, always present in the execution by electrocution but only by its effects. In contrast, Smith (2008) understands lethal injection as the ‘purification’ of an indecent deed; medicalised, sterilised and cosmetically clean, the symbolism associated with the lethal injection is far less potent than the symbolism which has come to surround electrocution.

However, Smith (2008, p. 167) in his ‘Brief Postscript’, enters only tentatively into this debate about the storied construction of meanings which surround death by lethal injection. Whilst he makes little in the way of an argument, he does assert that lethal injection represented a new era in the meaning of execution. Similarly Radelet (2001) suggests that lethal injection—medicalised, sterilised, sanitised—expresses an uncomfortable symbolic association between the maintenance of life and the technologies of death.

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