Atwood and a Woman on Death Row


Once again the country is paying attention to a prisoner on death row, this time to Kelly Gissender, whose execution in George has just been postponed because of problems with the drug. It apparently takes a woman prisoner or a botched drug for most of us to pay attention anymore to executions. In this case, Christian groups are advocating for a commutation of the death penalty on the grounds that Gissender has turned her life around.

I’m all for commutation but that’s because I’m against the death penalty. What worries me is that inmates who look one way are more likely to have defenders than those who look another. It’s why a disproportionate number of people on death row are Black men.

It so happens that Margaret Atwood shares my concern about appearance, as evidenced by her smart 1996 novel Alias Grace. Based on a famous 19th century Toronto murder, the novel recounts how Grace Marks and a fellow servant kill an employer and his housekeeper/mistress. Atwood never confirms for us whether Grace is an innocent girl caught up in the machinations of her fellow servant or the orchestrator of the murder. Her co-conspirator insists to the end that Grace was the instigator and finds it deeply unjust that she herself isn’t hanged with him because of her show of penitence.

As occurs so often in her novels, Atwood plays against stereotypes of women. With only a couple of exceptions, most of the characters buy Grace’s sweet exterior. Atwood, on the other hand, is not so sure. Grace may just be skilled in performing a role, a performance that involves hiding a deep anger at those who have abused both her and her best friend Mary Whitney. Whitney dies after a back alley abortion, and Grace may have channeled Whitney’s anger while perpetrating the murders. Seeing her as an angel who went wrong, Atwood suggests, is society’s way of downplaying the depth of her anger.

In the end, Grace is rewarded for conforming to the penitent girl stereotype. After many petitions, she is set free and her old lover marries her. Indeed, her angelic exterior combined with her criminal past makes her irresistible to men, who prefer her to repressed “nice” girls. For that matter, these girls themselves are drawn to her because she symbolizes an anger they are not allowed to express. In our response to crimes and criminals we reveal ourselves.

The Gissender case is related but has a different ending. Gissender persuaded her boyfriend to kill her husband and he did so. Because he turned state’s evidence, however, he received a life sentence with the possibility of parole while Gissender received the death penalty. Gissender’s defense attorney, anticipating a sexist Georgia jury, figured that they wouldn’t vote to have a woman executed, but they proved him wrong. I suppose this can be seen as a blow for women’s equality.

We’re now back on the stereotype track, however, with publications like Christianity Today telling conversion stories of “Mama Kelly” and advocating for commutation to life imprisonment. In Gissender’s defense, they point to statements such as this:

I have learned first-hand that no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy. I have learned to place my hope in the God I now know, the God whose plans and promises are made known to me in the whole story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

And to behavior like this:

There are many stories of “Mama Kelly” talking women out of suicide, warning guards about potential problems in the block, learning theology classes through the prison’s theological certificate program, and generally making a positive difference at Arrendale State Prison.

The evidence is clear: Kelly has turned her life around. There is testimony after testimony of not only a changed life but also positive changes in the lives of others because of her ministry in prison. 

I should be clear that I’m willing to believe that Gissender has genuinely reformed, despite Atwood’s cautions about playacting women. I only request that this option be open not only to Christian women but to all prisoners, even those that don’t fit the stereotype. Our social goal should be to rehabilitate every prisoner who is capable of rehabilitation.

Sadly, at this late date even conforming to a stereotype may not be enough to save Kelly Gissender. Continued problems with the lethal injection drugs may be her last hope.

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