April 27, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
For survivors of childhood trauma, SCOTUS affirmed what they believe secretly but must fight every day
Brett Kavanaugh's message? You're right to despair.
Take a walk with me inside the mind of Brett Jones. He was the plaintiff in Jones v. Mississippi, the United State Supreme Court case I told you about Monday. In a 6-3 opinion, written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the court rolled back two previous rulings regarding lifetime imprisonment without parole for minors. The previous rulings, called Miller and Montgomery, held that lifetime imprisonment for juvenile offenders was justified only in the worse of the worse cases—when a convict is “permanently incorrigible.” In Jones, Kavanaugh said nah. Life in prison’s fine even if corrigible.
I want you to take this walk with me to understand more fully the complex layers of cruelty in Kavanaugh’s opinion. By understanding that his point is not punishment in the service of democracy and justice but instead punishment in the service of impunity and power, I hope you will understand the need for calling this barbarism instead of what we usually call it. Conservatism seems like something debatable. Barbarism isn’t.
Juvenile lifetime without parole is barbarous, but one variety of barbarism. In saying it’s OK to jail kids forever, no matter how much they try to redeem themselves, the court said for some people, there’s no such thing as a second chance.
I am able to take you for this walk, though I do not know Brett Jones or his family, because there’s not that much distance between me and him. To be sure, the details differ. The degree and magnitude of suffering differ. But survivors of childhood trauma, the kind that stamps you forever, recognize each other, and I recognize in Brett Jones, who murdered his grandfather 23 days after turning 15, a familiarity. I recognize that if my brain had functioned a bit differently, I might be where he is.
When children are assaulted, abused and neglected, as Brett Jones and I were, their brains adapt to survive. Most people dissociate. Their minds split in two or more pieces. That way, the suffering does not trigger psychic death. Part of you understands the suffering is wrong. Part of you insists the wrong is right. Why? Because, as a child, you love the person inflicting the pain and, importantly, you cannot stop loving that person. The person you cannot stop loving must be right, and so the suffering you are experiencing must be right, too. This is the source of the perversion of morality.
As I said, most people dissociate, opening a window to a galaxy of psycho-social problems later in adulthood. Some people don’t, though. They’re not so lucky. They’re not born with brains capable of benevolent deception. While a dissociated child deludes himself into believing his mom punishes him because she loves him, someone like Brett Jones doesn’t. He has eyes that see. He sees his dad beating his mom. He sees his stepdad beating him. He sees his grandfather deepening the violence. He understands the truth but cannot accept it. For children like Brett Jones, there are more or less three options. Go insane. Kill yourself. Kill the unyielding source of your pain.1
The latter is what Brett Jones did. In 2004, as his grandfather was making a move to strike him again, Brett Jones stabbed him to death. That he did this soon after turning 15 should not be surprising. Though he could not dissociate, he could not do anything about the assaults against him. He was a kid. At 15, though, he was strong enough to defend himself. I never murdered anyone. I was one of the lucky dissociaters. But 15 was about the age when what had been a lifetime of felonies came to an end. If my brain chemicals had been just slightly different, I might be among the many people sentenced right now to juvenile lifetime without parole who have no shot at freedom thanks to six “conservative” justices sitting on the United States Supreme Court.
Juvenile lifetime without parole is barbarous, but only one variety of barbarism. In saying it’s OK to jail young people forever, no matter how much they try to redeem themselves, the court said that, for some people, there are no second chances. For them, merit is meaningless. Their fate is determined by their birth. The court said the values these people hold dear are benevolent deceptions, tricks of the mind invented to endure pitiful lives that are nasty, brutish and short. And indeed, it’s hard to avoid thinking the court chose Brett Jones’ case in order to send a cold-blooded message.
Despite everything breaking against him in childhood, Brett Jones did the right thing by confessing to the crime of murdering his grandfather. He became, by all accounts, a model inmate. He earned a GED. He kept a prison job. He studied the Bible. His grandmother, the widow of the victim, asked repeatedly for release. He did everything he was supposed to do, in the hope that redemption was possible, but in the end, the court, led by Brett Kavanaugh, said no. Not only does he deserve life without parole. The court seems to have picked his case to ensure no one defies its authority by trying.
In this, the Supreme Court affirmed what every single survivor of childhood trauma secretly believes but fights every single day: the idea that the weak in this world are the playthings of the strong, and that democracy, equality, freedom, morality and all the rest have nothing to do with it. In deciding Jones, the court, led by Kavanaugh, said yeah, you’re right. What matters began long before you came into being, so that Boy Kavanaugh can commit crimes2 with impunity while rising to the pinnacle of judicial power to sit in judgment of Boy Jones who can now only curse the day he was born.
To be clear, the pain here isn’t just physical. If it were, it wouldn’t as painful. The pain I’m talking about emotional but especially spiritual. It is bone-deep and no, it never goes away.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.