Told through a series of journal entries, Charity Lee’s memoir, “How Now, Butterfly?”, opens just a few weeks after her 13-year old son, Paris, brutally stabs his 4-year old sister, Ella. The incident is inconceivable, stunning Charity into grief that manifests itself through nightmares, anxiety, and depression.
Though initially Paris claimed he’d suffered a psychotic break, killing Ella only because he thought she was a demon, evidence from the crime scene starts to reveal a more calculated and sadistic crime occurred. Paris watched violent porn beforehand; he choked Ella before stabbing her; he stabbed her 17 times.
During all of this, Charity battles accusations from officials and the media. According to the FBI, there are less than thirty-five cases a year of a sibling killing another sibling, and off those 35, most are not intentional or premeditated. Everyone, including Charity, is wondering, How did a mother not see this coming?
When Charity visits Paris at the Taylor County Detention Center, she never knows which son to expect. Sometimes, Paris behaves like a young boy battling a mental illness, a boy who needs his mother’s protection. And during other visits, Paris behaves like a killer, cold and calculating, saying things solely for the sake of hurting his mother.
When Charity is not visiting Paris, she’s grieving the loss of Ella – nicknamed Butterfly. She dreams about Ella’s final moments, second-guesses her role as a mother, and ultimately tries to find a way to use this terrible event to create some good in the world. Convinced the Texas Youth Commission was mistreating Paris, Charity begins to work tirelessly as an advocate on issues related to juvenile justice reform. Over time she expanded her focus to advocate on behalf of adult prisoners, those on Death Rows across America, murder victim family members, and victims of family violence.
There’s much to be said about the way Charity lets herself be vulnerable in the pages of her memoir. After life deals you such a shocking and traumatic hand, it’s a gift to be able to turn that into something productive and healthy.
The format of journal entries, however, can often limit the scope of language. Generally speaking, people don’t create lyrical scene settings and character descriptions when writing in their journals. Instead of seeing the cold metal bars of Paris’ cell or the look on his face when he finds pleasure in hurting his mother, what readers get is mostly summary of a day’s events. Still, the memoir is an emotional read, one that left me marveling at the strength of a single person to rebuild a life that has been forever altered.
Charity Lee is the founder and executive director of The ELLA Foundation, a 501(c)3 based in Savannah, with a mission to aid those affected by violence, mental illness, and the criminal justice system. ELLA is grounded on the belief that we can empower people affected by violence to become effective advocates for good in their own lives and advocates for change in their communities with ELLA: Empathy, Love, Lessons, and Action.
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