BY JONATHAN GIBBS
Looking at my five-year-old son’s fingers triggered a chain of thoughts about the Michael Woodmansee case in church this past Sunday. His are small fingers that have recently lost the dimple near the knuckle that seems to mark his passage out of toddlerhood into full-fledged boyhood. They were wrapped gently around the back of his mother’s neck; and those fingers – and that loving gesture – struck me as heartbreakingly innocent. Unfortunately, I saw them as not just the perfect hands of my beloved son but as vulnerable entities as well.
Thanks to the presence of evil in people like Michael Woodmansee, I have to live with the presence of my son’s vulnerability. I cannot imagine what it has to be like to be John Foreman and have to live with the knowledge another human being killed and cannibalized his son, Jason. Only others who have lost their children to monsters can only know that feeling in its awful entirety. It is a horrible club of haunted members, and just the fact that I qualify for its possible inclusion as a father of vulnerable children – and all children are vulnerable to the psychopathic and the fiendish – fills me with both rage and sadness.
Michael Woodmansee once had the fingers of a five-year-old, just like Jason Foreman. Did they look any different from other children’s fingers? Could they have had dimples? Could you look at those fingers and know they were capable of unspeakable acts? How do such fingers, innocent of wrongdoing at that age, morph from the fingers of a hand that tenderly strokes a puppy or plays with a toy to the fingers of a hand that takes another human being by savage force and holds him close while his other hand thrusts a knife into his heart? And, perhaps most importantly, can we recognize such a malevolent presence before its violence can be manifested?
Because of a state law that shortens the sentences of inmates with good behavior and prison jobs, Woodmansee, now 52, is due to be released this August after serving only 28 years for the crime of extinguishing the entire life of a five-year-old who never made it to six. There are obviously a host of questions about how someone can ever walk freely on this earth after such an atrocity. Foremost among them perhaps being, how can someone who performed such a demonic deed can ever again have his name mentioned in the same sentence as the term “good behavior”? What is the context for this beast’s good behavior – the fact he didn’t eat anybody in the last 28 years? Is he – or can anyone guilty of such crimes ever be – rehabilitated? Is he mentally competent – and that does that even matter given the scope of his acts?
These and other questions will be decided by psychiatrists who will decide if Woodmansee meets the “very narrow” (in the words of the Attorney General’s office) definition of the terms by which he could be kept incarcerated by reason of mental incompetence.
But where does that leave the rest of us? We know there are depraved malignancies such as Michael Woodmansee who walk amongst us and maybe the news surrounding his impending release from prison is a good reminder that we need to be aware if such evil. We need to be vigilant about aberrant behavior and make the protection of our children a constant priority in our everyday activities every day. I heard a story retold in church about an incident during the Serbian-Croatian War in which a child was struck by a sniper’s bullet in a public square. As she fell, a reporter dropped his pen and pad and ran to the child, who was being cradled by a man who screamed, “My child is still breathing, get help!
A car sped to the child, who the reporter and the man holding her loaded into the back seat as the car pulled away to the hospital. “Drive faster, my child is breathing but her heart is beating fainter.” As it pulled into the hospital courtyard, the man screamed, “Hurry, my child is getting cold; we need to save her!”
The child did not make it. And later as the reporter was washing the blood from his hands in the hospital bathroom, the man who had held the child with him during their wild ride to the emergency room joined him. “I am so sorry about your daughter,” the reporter stammered.
“She was not my child,” the man replied.
“I thought by the way you risked your life by running to her she was your daughter,” the reporter said.
“Oh, but aren’t they all our children?” the man asked.
And yes, the man was right: all of our children, those such as Jason Foremen, are vulnerable and unable to fend for themselves when confronted by dangers they cannot begin to imagine or understand. Their tiny fingers need to be clutched by our larger, stronger fingers as they begin to wend their way through life. Because there are monsters like Michael Woodmansee loose, even if he is one monster who is hopefully kept incarcerated.