There’s a scene from Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls that crosses my mind when I think about the power of collections of stories and materials from victims and survivors of state violence, which we have been building into an “archive of survival” at the Texas After Violence Project since 2007.
In the scene, the book’s protagonist Robert Jordan is given the pistol his father used to shoot himself and takes it to Bear Tooth plateau, “where the wind was thin and there was snow all summer on the hills he had stopped by the lake which was supposed to be eight hundred feet deep and was a deep green color.” Jordan climbs out on a rock, where he “saw his face in the still water, and saw himself holding the gun, and then dropped it, holding it by the muzzle, and saw it go down making bubbles until it was just as big as a watch charm in that clear water, and then it was out of sight.”
British author Olivia Laing, reflecting on the pain in this scene, notes that Jordan doesn’t drop the gun “until he sees himself holding it reflected in the green glass of the water.” In some ways, archives are like mirrors. In them, we see ourselves, how we’ve changed, what we’ve become. Archives of survival reflect cruel realities created by societies that prize revenge and punishment over healing and liberation. They reflect an image of us holding the gun. What will it take to finally let it go?
The material in our archive reflects how the criminal-legal system fails to achieve justice or healing for victims and survivors of violence and their loved ones. Instead, retributive punishment compounds harm for nearly everyone involved. Policing, prisons, and executions don’t keep communities safe, but rather decimate the connections that bind us together. The stories are powerful indictments of everything we are taught to believe about violence, criminality, and punishment.
It has never failed to amaze me that so many people experiencing unimaginable loss and grief have been willing to invite us into their lives to share their stories. When I ask our storytellers why they share with us, they say they do it to help others facing similar loss. They also hope to raise public consciousness and inspire action. In this way, archives of survival are more than collections of stories and records; they are expansive networks of solidarity. In a 2009 oral history interview, Lee Greenwood discussed her son’s execution and her promise to be an advocate for abolishing the death penalty because of the many injustices that led to his killing: “There are things that you can’t do anything about and you have to deal with it … You do what you have to do. Like today … if I was going to keep the promise I made [to my son], I had to do the interview.”
Archives of survival reveal the ethical loneliness experienced by those harmed by the carceral state. Philosopher Jill Stauffer describes ethical loneliness as “a condition undergone by persons who have been unjustly treated and dehumanized by human beings and political structures, who emerge from that injustice only to find that the surrounding world will not listen to or cannot properly hear their testimony.” This deep sense of isolation in the aftermath of state violence is reflected in our archive. The stories tell of lasting feelings of powerlessness against the state, disenfranchised grief, stigmatization, and invisibility.
While the purpose of an archive is often framed by vague ideas about the future, the purpose of archives of survival is to create the conditions for escape from ethical loneliness. Not in the future, but in the emergency of now, in the simultaneous crises erupting all around us. White supremacy, police brutality, climate catastrophe, mass incarceration, food insecurity, access to affordable housing, war. When people can tell their stories on their own terms without fear, they reclaim the power often stripped from them in interactions with the carceral state. We create space for communities directly impacted by state violence to share their stories with agency and dignity. Stories name the harm. Stories reclaim power. Stories demand accountability.
The power of storytelling is often premised on the notion that the public will absorb stories of suffering and then take action. But this is rarely the case when it comes to victims and survivors of the carceral state who are ethically abandoned and carelessly disposed of. Many people in the U.S. never think about the mostly Black, Indigenous, and other people of color brutalized by the police or languishing in jails and prisons. They don’t think about the cascading collateral consequences of the carceral state, especially on loved ones and children.
When I consider the power of archives of survival to inspire action, I think about the transfer of pain that occurs during the restorative justice practice of mediated dialogue. As Marilyn Armour and Mark Umbreit explain, “Using the negative energy from the crime that generated a forced, involuntary relationship, restorative justice offers the opportunity to channel that negative energy into healing through a process of accountability that allows victims to transfer the pain from the harm done to offenders, and offenders to use that pain to give back to victims through remorse-driven responses.”
But this analogy is limited by the fact that the carceral state evades responsibility for the harms it causes. On rare occasions, a prosecutor may lose their license to practice law, or a cop may lose their badge. But, as many abolitionists point out, whenever this happens, this isn’t proof that the “system works”; rather, it’s an orchestrated sacrifice to protect the system. When the pain cannot transfer, it remains trapped in a feedback loop of traumatic repetition in the lives of victims, survivors, and their loved ones. The pain needs an escape.
Archives of survival have the unique power to transfer pain to broader communities and create opportunities for the public to absorb and help alleviate that pain. Archives of survival are conduits for the channeling of harm into opportunities for healing.
I have written about my personal experiences with trauma from bearing witness to the stories of people whose lives had been devastated by murder, incarceration, and the death penalty. What happened to me when I absorbed others’ stories, and the subsequent transformation of my entire understanding of justice, was the result of a transfer of pain. The relational dynamics between witness and storyteller that occur during an interview are replicated in the dynamics between archives of survival and the communities who engage with them.
We often ask ourselves what it will take to ignite the public to dismantle the carceral state, what it will take to shake the public awake from our deep moral sleep. In my view, the answers lie in the realization that we are all responsible for the pain caused by the carceral state. We are all implicated in its moral crimes. We are always the co-conspirator. We are always at the scene. The pain belongs to us. Those who refuse to accept this can look away but cannot hide. Pain caused by the carceral state will always find us. We have a moral obligation to open ourselves to the stories of victims and survivors so that we can receive the pain that belongs to us. Once we recognize that we are responsible, perhaps we will have the courage to look at our own reflections, interrogate our obsessions with revenge and punishment, and finally drop the gun.