This has been a difficult week. It is hard to sit and listen to so much raw pain. My pain. My family’s pain. The Tsang’s pain. The pain of everyone touched by this tragedy. It is a terrible thing to witness, one person after another tearing open their hearts and trying to give voice to the scope of emotion that it is so hard to even find words for in human language. It was primal. It was agonizing for all – those speaking as well as those watching.
I understand the Tsang family’s quest to save their daughter’s life. I would give anything to have the opportunity to save my son. That’s hard. In the end, when everything is finished, Neal, Devon and Ian are still gone. We can fight to show that they were wonderful people and that their loss is a devastation that diminished the light of the world. We can exchange angry words with trolls who say unkind and unthinking things on the internet. In the last few days I’ve hit back at at least a dozen, ranging from “Me stab you long time,” and “That’s what happens when white guys import their brides,” to long rants about how Neal “Must” have been abusive because that’s what makes sense (usually prefaced with the opening I hate the most: “With all due respect.”). It doesn’t make sense to anyone who knew him. Neal wasn’t that kind of person. It will never make sense. It’s all incomprehensible. And many of these comments are insulting in the extreme to both families and mocks our pain. But, even when I swoop in and score a big point in defense of all my chicks, in the end, the nest I am defending is still empty. It will always be empty and we will have to live with that loss forever.
I have never ever lost sight of the pain of the Tsang family. Of course they are devastated by loss as much as I am. Of course they loved the little boys and saw how special they were. We cling to each other sometimes in the corridor and weep a pain that cannot be understood by anyone else. I have written this many times. So, it has been very difficult sometimes to hear the defense attorneys try to minimize my pain in order to make the other family’s pain impact the jury more forcefully. Every single person who exposed his or her broken heart and psychological anguish to a full courtroom of strangers was doing an extremely difficult thing. It doesn’t matter the culture. This tragedy is an attack that goes to the very depth of the soul and the primal nature of the pain would be understood instantly by families in any land and in any era who have experienced a similar agony – even back to our most primitive ancestors. This is not a contest pitting my pain against Alice’s or Mala’s pain against Shunling’s. Ask any one of us.
In their desperation to save their child, the Tsangs have allowed themselves to be turned into the villains of the piece. Every argument they have had, every mistake in parenting, every misunderstanding – all are aired before the world and blamed for the actions of their daughter. I know why they allow it to happen, and I ache for them. But it was a terrible thing to watch. If they didn’t love their daughter, they wouldn’t try so desperately to save her from a death sentence. All parents make mistakes, and all parents have regrets. I do myself. But they are not responsible for the actions of their daughter. She was an adult. She had any number of people who would have rushed to help her if she had asked – even in the middle of the night. She could even have turned to God. She didn’t. She chose to do what she did. We will never understand it. We will never get over the results of her decision. But it was her decision.
At the end of his testimony, Manling’s father stood and suddenly bowed low. He apologized profusely to us, saying he owed it to us. He said that everything that happened was his fault, that he “did bad” and that the blame was his. I understand the extra pressure that is put on Asian families to be responsible for every deed of every member. This was one of my areas of study. It was a terrible thing to watch and I admire his courage and dignity. But Kai is not to blame. Alice is not to blame. They did the best they could because they loved their children and wanted them to have a happy successful life. Manling rejected that culture. She wanted the freedoms that her friends had, and grabbed for the parts of the American culture that she wanted. But only the parts she wanted.
Manling threw away a culture of shame without embracing the culture of guilt. Certainly the American culture focuses on the individual instead of the family. That doesn’t mean the individual is free to do whatever he or she wants without facing the consequences. You take your lumps. Your family is there to support you and pick you up when you fall, but you are expected to get up again and try. You play hard, but you also work hard. You ask for help and expect to get it, but you also give help when you are asked. And even though you may fight with them in private, you defend those who belong to you like a tiger. Does it always work? Of course not. Don’t be silly! There are good and bad members of every society, from hunter/gatherer up to complex industrial societies like ours. The more croweded our planet becomes, the scarcer the resources, the more visible the aberrations and failures will be.
Manling is both an aberration and a failure. She chose the freedom of the American culture without feeling any of the responsibility. That is a dangerous combination. But the operating word is “chose”. This was not her family’s fault. Manling chose. She chose Neal. She chose to have children. Then when things got hard, she chose to throw them away like garbage. She threw away the jewels she was holding so that she could pick up a shinier pebble. As the choice was hers, the guilt is hers also, and only hers.
I’m not a big fan of the death penalty. It only puts the families through endless anguish and it doesn’t do anything to deter crime. I don’t think that murderers think about the death penalty, because I don’t believe they think for a moment that they will be caught. Whether Manling is given death or life without parole is not something that I have a strong feeling about, personally. My purpose in this phase of the trial, was that I be given a chance to represent my boys. I wanted to show their humanity, and let others see how special they were. But, since it is so important to Manling’s family, if I had to choose myself it would be life without the possibility of parole. There has been pain enough.