For 22 years, a monster has lived in my head.
At 16 years old, the fear was so intense that I spent a year sleeping on the floor at the foot of my parents’ bed.
I suffered from debilitating nightmares from 1997 until 2014. No amount of medication, tests, or psychiatrist visits could combat them.
The monster in my head was the heightened image of a boy from my childhood; a boy who grew up to be the man who altered and shaped my life more than any man ever would.
He is the man who murdered my brother.
The back story is the one that became my story. It’s the story when someone asks me how many siblings I have. It’s the story when someone asks how I can be afraid of guns when I was raised within a family of ranchers and state troopers. It’s the story of why I feel as if I’m suffocating when I visit my hometown.
And it’s the story of why I volunteer inside prisons.
My volunteer work in prisons began by telling that story to inmates and has now evolved into a fiery passion for Restorative Justice that claws at my insides.
Restorative Justice, in part, includes facilitated victim/offender dialogues (VOD). It’s exactly like what it sounds: a victim and an offender sit down together and talk in a controlled setting with a mediator present.
When I first began volunteering inside, after hearing the story of my brother’s murder, an inmate asked me if I had ever considered having a VOD with the man who had killed him.
I never had. It hadn’t even entered my mind until that very moment. For me, he was still a scary monster that haunted my dreams and lurked in the corners of my mind each and every day of my life.
But working with inmates and delving deeper into the profound concept of Restorative Justice had begun to shift my perspective on every aspect of my life, including my perception of the offender in my life story.
For nearly three years, I silently incubated the idea.
I dug around in my brain first to find out if I could even contemplate such a fearful prospect. Society loudly tells us that we simply cannot fathom the idea of forgiving a crime such as murder.
Then I checked in with my heart and disregarded all of societies ‘should’ and ‘should nots’. I drew from my personal, first-hand experience working with inmates, a lot of whom fell for murder, and I listened to what I felt was right for me.
I discovered that a face-to-face dialogue was exactly what I wanted and needed to do. Initially, it was with the intent of seeing if this person really was the monster my mind told me he was.
And then it became about forgiveness.
I began meditating nearly a year ago, and after the initial frustration of “learning” how to meditate (that’s a story in itself…), I became flooded with a need to look into his eyes and say the words, “I forgive you”. Because I do forgive him. But it wasn’t just my need for peace that was driving me; it was also the need to offer him peace in return. I deeply desired to offer him the proverbial olive branch that would, hopefully, allow him the permission to forgive himself.
After working closely with Victim Services for more than three months in regard to having a VOD with him, I found myself walking through the metal detector at the prison in my home state and being handed a visitor badge, which I clipped to my jacket with trembling and sweaty hands.
I am now so accustomed to being inside prisons and sitting in small rooms with inmates that other than trembling hands, the magnitude of what I was about to do hadn’t fully sunk in.
And then I walked into smallest, most claustrophobic conference room I thought I had ever laid eyes upon (in hindsight, the room was actually quite large). He wasn’t in there yet, but the idea of being in that room with him with no guards and only the two women from Victim Services full on hit me in the face.
Somehow, I was instantly crying before I even realized what my body was doing and gasping for breath like I had just run a marathon in under 10 minutes. I think it’s the closest I’ve ever come to having a panic attack.
And then the craziest thought went through my head. I found myself being concerned for how he was feeling at that moment, sitting in a chair down the hall and around the corner, out of sight while I got checked in through security.
If I was this scared, how scared was he? He more than likely assumed I was there to scream at him for taking my brother away from me. But I wasn’t. Not at all. So, I sat down at the table (shaking so badly that my teeth were literally chattering) and waited while they went to get him.
That first moment of seeing him…it was so surreal. It’s something that I don’t fully remember yet will also never forget. I legally cannot tell you the details of our conversation, but I will tell you this – we laughed. A lot. My one condition for our conversation was that we didn’t talk about the crime. I know enough details about the day my brother’s life ended, and I had no desire to hear them again. My reasoning behind wanting to see him wasn’t to ask “why”, because the why of it no longer matters all these years later. Instead, we talked of our childhood. We reminisced about the good ole days when we swam in the creek in the summer and went sledding on trash can lids in the winter and spent spring breaks partying at a campground in the mountains with our entire high school.
We talked of the past so we could step forward to the future. Two lives were lost on that day back in 1997. My brothers can never be salvaged, but the other one can.
I didn’t tell many people that I was going to see him because I didn’t want to be influenced by anyone’s opinion of if it was right or wrong. I wasn’t doing this for anyone other than me and him. Of course, my hope is that the small community in which we were raised will benefit as well.
After my visit with him, I did tell a few people, and I’ve been surprised by the varying responses. Those I thought would be upset told me they were proud of me. Others told me they couldn’t understand it but supported me no matter what. And others still, were angry. The spectrum has been dizzying; everything from “you’re the bravest person I know” and “your brother would be proud” to “all inmates are terrible people whose life goal is to manipulate others” and the all-encompassing “you shouldn’t volunteer with those people”. I’ve heard it all since I began volunteering inside, and even more since the VOD with the man who killed my brother.
But here’s the most pertinent piece of this story: what matters most is that I did what I felt was right. Others can choose a path of complete understanding, or a path of supporting without understanding, or a path of utter disbelief that I offered another human being forgiveness. There is no handbook on how to deal with murder, but the two families affected most by my brother’s murder have chosen the path of forgiveness.
It’s wildly challenging to move on from things that hurt us so severely in the past, but it’s vital. It may take a while to reach a place of feeling ready, but I deeply believe that forgiveness is the roadmap to ultimate freedom.
By Liberty Miller
The BERN Project is something that happened by accident, or by fate, destiny, or divine providence. However you choose to look at it, it's something that just...happened. I wasn't expecting it. I wasn't looking for it. I didn't even know it was growing in my brain or in my heart.
I unexpectedly began working with inmates at Alaska's maximum security prison in the spring of 2018. Why? My brother, Bern, was murdered in 1997. Twenty years later, in 2017, I published an autobiography, The Heart of the Runaway (see homepage). The book isn't entirely about my brother's death; it also includes my solo world travels...and other things.
I was invited into the prison in Alaska to give a one-time talk to the inmates about how my brother's murder affected me when it happened, and how it continues to affect my life all these years later.
That one-time talk was so profoundly powerful for me. It changed every aspect of my life. After that, I became a regular volunteer at the prison. And two years later, that prison and those inmates are so intensely special to me that after 10 years of being a nomad, I stayed. I stayed, and put down roots and built a life in one little corner of the world that I had seen so much of. I felt like I was done with traveling anyway, and finally found a place I wanted to call home.
After years of running around the world seeking my place, I finally found where I belong. I finally found my purpose. It's still shocking to me that I found it inside the concrete walls of a prison.
A desire to do more for the inmates was sparked within me, and The BERN Project was born.
What does BERN mean? Bern was my brother's name, but The BERN Project is an acronym for Begin Ending Recidivism Now. The concept behind the project is to utilize the time someone spends incarcerated to better their life, better their circumstances when they're released, and better the people they are within themselves. It's about treating them like the human beings they are, not like monsters. They are people who have made mistakes. We all have made mistakes.
Locking them up and throwing away the key does nothing to rehabilitate a person. Creating angry, feral humans and then releasing them into society at the end of their sentence has been proven ineffective judging by the recidivism (reoffending) rate.
Utilizing the time spent incarcerated to build healthy foundations is vital, not only for the benefit of the inmate and their families, but also for the community.
The BERN Project focuses on guiding inmates on a journey of personal well-being via programs such as writing classes, yoga and meditation, community involvement, accountability and restorative justice.
It has been 22 years since my brother’s murder.
Back then, when I was a 16 year old girl in the thick of it – the trauma and the suffocating grief – I never imagined that one day I would be a 38 year old woman sitting at a table with face-tattooed inmates, eating carrot cake muffins and laughing until I cried as I attempted to explain Instagram to men who have been behind bars since before the internet was even a thing.
But that’s exactly where I was during the summer of 2017, and as is so common in my wild life, I couldn’t be at all surprised that I had found myself within the concrete walls of that maximum security prison in Alaska.
My prison experience began in a way that had nothing to do with my own legal troubles, of which there are none, and everything to do with my past. It was simply one more mind-boggling experience that had landed so unexpectedly into my lap.
I was working as a barista in the Alaskan town where the prison is located. A local pastor came into the café and as I made his coffee, he asked the meaning behind one of my tattoos, a hand reaching up from beneath the waves. I told him it represented a time when I was drowning in life yet was determined to survive. A friendship was sparked, and not quite one year later I told him the story of my brother’s death. He had connections at the prison, and one day an invitation to speak to the inmates about my brother’s murder was presented to me.
The thought filled me with terror, and made my stomach literally hurt at the prospect of parading myself through the confines of an all-male prison. Yet the invitation was delivered with a powerful message from my new friend: here’s your chance to prove beyond a doubt your ability to forgive.
And so, I went. With my heart in my throat and nearly shaking with fear, I walked into that prison and sat down in a plastic chair in a windowless room with some of Alaska’s most dangerous criminals. I drank coffee that was handed to me in a small Styrofoam cup. I shook hands. I listened to stories. I told my story; my brother’s story. And it changed my life.
It changed my life in so many profound ways that I don’t think I’m even aware of all of them. I had been a seasonal worker, a car-living nomad for more than ten years. I spent four months in a town, and then I left. So rarely did I ever return to the same town twice. But I was tired from running around the world searching for my place, my purpose. I wanted to settle somewhere, but didn’t know where, or even how.
My talk at the prison was meant to be a one off. I went in to speak to the Victim Impact group about how my brother’s murder affected my life when it happened, and how it continues to affect my life more than 20 years later. Never before had I sat at the head of a room in front of strangers and divulged the gory details of my brother’s death. To say it was personally challenging is an understatement. It brought up emotions and pain that I thought I had dealt with and moved on from.
Later, as I walked across the prison parking lot and glanced at the snow-capped peaks and hanging glaciers that are visible from its yard, I felt the tears start to claw their way out. The crisp Alaska air bit my cheeks while my throat constricted with emotion. Once I was in my car, I let go. I let go and cried for my brother, for myself, for how overwhelmed with gratitude I was for having just shared a powerful story with people who needed to hear it most. Because my brother’s story is powerful. It’s the story of drug addiction, violence, crime, death by murder, and so many facets of forgiveness.
That one time talk with inmates turned into two years of volunteering inside the prison. It became the reason I stayed; the reason I figured out how to stay somewhere. It was the catalyst for me to build stability in my own life.
Two years later it is now not about my brother, but about the relationship I have built with other human beings who are on the outskirts of society, because I have never felt like I’ve truly belonged wherever I am. I have always felt like I’m hiding something by not talking about my brother with friends. I’ve bonded with the inmates because it feels as if they are the only ones who truly understand what I’m feeling in regard to my brother’s murder. People on the outside can sympathize, but as with anything, until you’ve experienced it, you can never truly and fully understand.
The inmates understand.
They don’t shy away from me or my story, because they are living the same story, just from a very different perspective. Speaking with them and hearing their stories has made me reevaluate my own situation. I see now that the man who killed my brother is just that – a man who made a terribly tragic mistake. I’ve always been an advocate for forgiveness. Working with inmates has allowed me to witness the intense power that those simple words, “I forgive you”, can have on someone’s life.
And in return, saying those words changes your life as well.