An unknown student contacted me out of the blue a couple weeks ago to ask if I’d be willing to contribute to his research on how prisoners’ art affects those who were, directly or indirectly, victims of their crimes. He particularly wanted to know if I would react to the art of Harold Wayne Nichols.
Who is Harold Wayne Nichols? He’s the man who, under cover of darkness, broke into our home in Chattanooga where one of my housemates, Karen, lay sleeping. My other housemate, Sue, and I were both working overnight shifts, leaving Karen home alone. He violently subdued her, raped her, and left her for dead. She died the following day. He raped 8 more women over the next couple of months, one of whom was a co-worker of mine. He killed Karen. Sue became an addict in the aftermath of this event and died prematurely last week at age 50. My co-worker (ST) never recovered any normalcy in her life.
How do I react to the art of Harold Wayne Nichols? There’s no simple answer to that because the truth is, a whole host of reactions immediately go to war inside me. These internal opponents can be summarily identified as indignation and mercy and have waged war inside of me since 1988.
There’s one part of me that identifies with the brokenness of his humanity and feels compassion for the abandonment and abuse he endured in his childhood, which no doubt left him unwhole. There’s a part of me that knows he was created, like each of us, in the Image of God and I genuinely hope and pray for his repentance and restoration. But there is that part of me that wells up with anger when I remember his heartless acts, his temporary remorse, and his absurd attempts to force re-trial after re-trial with no regard for the peace of dozens affected by his heinous acts.
That part of me says, “I don’t give a damn about your art! It’s nothing but hideous child’s play from the soul of the man who destroyed the lives of many beautiful, young women. Burn it.”
But more than the art itself, I despise your flippant descriptions of it and of your life in prison. Your words are laced with undertones of victimization: “I haven’t seen the stars in many years because the glare of the prison lights and cages and other obstructions meant to keep me in also seem to keep the stars out.”
Well, guess what, Harold? Those stars have not been visible from 6-feet under for the past 29 years to a girl whose eyes have long since been eaten by worms. You bastard. How dare you bemoan your own hardship when Karen is dead, ST never “lived” another day, and Sue died a long, slow, tragic death? Not one of them chose the deaths you handed them…the choices were all yours. They’re dead at your hands. And yet you live…to complain about the absence of stars. How dare you?
“Everywhere I turn, prison is the most prominent aspect of my existence. No matter what I do, no matter what color or beauty I attempt to bring into my life, I am always reminded every day that I am in prison and that I have a death sentence looming over me and that I will be forever limited in what I can accomplish.” You poor mistreated soul. How can society be so cruel? After all, it was just a couple of rapes…well 9…and a murder….but you didn’t really MEAN to kill that 21-year-old Christian virgin. If only she hadn’t fought so hard. Explain to me why I should feel sorrow for your confinement in a place that provides you shelter, safety, warm meals, a bed, a warm shower, a library, education, counseling, and even PAINTING LESSONS…all at no cost to you?
“I still have a life and intend to enjoy it as best I can. I think that is the reason I draw and paint – because I enjoy living.” How dare you brag about how much you delight in living when you robbed so many others of life? Karen enjoyed living too until you snatched her breath in a moment of violent self-absorption, Until you decided you had the right to do as you pleased with her life.
“Does it sound bizarre that a man sentenced to death by electrocution would work making electrical repairs? Well I guess it is but until the State takes it away I still have a life and I intend to enjoy it.” You nonchalantly mock the “irony” of this then follow with a taunt of “Ha! I’m still alive…that is, until the evil state robs me of my life”? I hear an undercurrent of amusement, but there is NO humor in this for those of us on the outside who have lived with the consequences of your choices, Harold. No humor at all.
You know, I might find your words and art tolerable if there were even a slight hint of humility in them. I understand making grave mistakes…I’ve made them. I understand desperately needing a new start…I’ve needed more than one. I even understand the lasting effects of abuse…recovery is long and hard. But when your words drip with frivolity and victimization, I want you to go to hell. Indignation drowns mercy.
You beg for sympathy. when you should give thanks for mercy. You want sympathy? If you want MY sympathy, then demonstrate that you have grieved and suffered and carried the weight of your sins. Talk of sorrow and repentance. Make things right with those whose lives you shattered. Use your energy to help others avoid your sins, rather than justifying and dismissing them. Acknowledge the hurt and destruction that OTHERS still bear today BECAUSE OF YOU. Your attempts to garner pity leave me cold.
BUT…by virtue of my confession that Christ is the Refuge, the Shelter, the Savior, the Great Merciful One…by virtue of my declaration that I am his follower…by virtue of him rescuing me and forgiving me…I am called to more than indignation. I am called to rescue even those who don’t yet see their need for it. I am called to extend mercy where it is not deserved. I find this a fierce and difficult calling when confronted with your art and your words, Mr. Nichols. A very fierce and difficult calling.
And THAT, young student, is how the art of Harold Wayne Nichols affects me.