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First person

The Linden tree: Human rights, rehabilitation and the trauma response

By April 10, 2021No Comments

***Trigger warning, this piece contains references to rape and sexual violence***

Lynn Ruane examines her ability to challenge her mind’s willingness to go beyond what has happened to her…


The sacred Linden tree, known in ancient Romanian history as a symbol of life and death; an existential horizon’s embodiment, become the roots of my existential horizon. It feels known to me; I imagine my own presence in the world is somewhat familiar. A very solitary existence could have been lived by me.

Instead, I chose to step into examining the presence of myself. There is possibly nothing more existentially challenging than prison. My prison is trauma; their prison the same. Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour, in circles as I greet each inmate with a timid smile on the inside and a performative one on my face. The Linden, known for its heart-shapes, becomes the avenue by which I examine being raped versus believing in change.

I can smell the lime in the air. It gives the trauma here the illusion that these walls are sweet. A sick Linden tree is attacked from the soil, to the root and into the tree; they call it verticillium wilt; the infection runs all the way through the tree, its branches, and eventually into the leaves. As I move toward the cell’s interior, it is even more daunting than the four-storey exterior. I query whether every cell has a window; they usher to show me what each cell looks like.

There is a man inside; he stands up to greet me. His T-shirt looks old and bottoms a little baggy. Everyone is dressed the same. I suggest to my guides that they ask him for consent to look at his space; I am aware of him being like an animal in the zoo. I momentarily think about the tension in this exchange; I am offering him a choice when his victim would have had none. Am I some sort of traitor to the sisterhood for caring about this? Do we teach consent by, in turn, removing it?

I shake his hand and think about the soil that lay beneath him as he entered the world. Was it infected, was there enough light, his branches polluted, and could there have been a different future for him and his victim? I think that is what we all want, less crime, more compassion and greater accountability. I never thought a tree, a prison, or a jar of honey would lead me down a path of letting go, but it has.

Tears fall every time I think about the gardens in which we all grow, our brains, and how they develop and how they impact the choices we make. We reduce instances of sexual violence by more than just locking people up after the devastation is already caused. We still, of course, administer justice for crimes, but how do we create a society absent of those crimes happening in the first place? When justice is served, how are our systems responsible for reducing recidivism through more than just the threat of prison. How do we re-plant?

The Linden tree, if sick, has visible sunken parts of the trunk, the tissue dies. To save the Linden, we must prune the dead tissue back to health. I had no idea until I arrived that 75 per cent of the detainees were sex offenders. They were there to finish long sentences with the potentiality of reintegration. Yet here I am, having a philosophical moment about a Linden tree and how we prevent sex offenders from becoming sex offenders.

I fight the sadness of the restriction of liberty versus the celebration of justice served. I refocus, make efforts to become aware of myself, my feelings. My rape flashes forcibly into my awareness, never waiting to be asked or to be told it can enter. That’s what I call it now, ‘my rape’, I’m not sure why, maybe cause it’s mine, not his. He has done this to me, and now it’s mine to think about, feel, forget, or compare to a Linden tree’s honey. This work-related visit is now a rape-related experience.

Can I chalk some people up as evil, morally evil even? I feel the space in my head might be more straightforward if I could. Evil as the extremity of immorality seems like a point of the scale we can place people. To get me to accept the concept of evil, I feel I have to align with absolute goodness, which is also a struggle. If not human evil, then agents of evil and now my head spinning as I am contemplating the complexities of good and evil and the inmate now in front of me is showing me the education space. I take little of this in as I am now honestly trying to catch my head. We move on.

We enter a courtyard that represents what it means to be an 1800s institution. Over three hundred cells tower in tall squares around me, and my heels balance on the cobblestone, and my face welcomes the French sun. We move slowly through the warmth, chatting as we go.

I interrupt their presentation with questioning. How do you know someone is rehabilitated, how do you know they accept their actions are wrong, how do you know there won’t be more victims in the future? They barely had time to answer, and I am firing the next question. I can see my chest rise and fall in waves of grief like bees diving from the Linden tree’s pollen source and down the bark. I can feel the trauma that I am aiming at them, so I stop the presentation; we are now entering the visiting room. I ask my interpreter to translate something for me; I have to say it. I watch as he shares my experience; it sounds just as bad in French as it does in English. Rape has a universal language. I read later that beams made from the lime tree protect buildings from lightning, and I wish I had had this visual earlier.

I explained that I am working hard to separate the inmates’ human rights and rehabilitation from the trauma response that was presenting itself. I needed them to bear with me. My mind was spinning, and my trauma was in a head-on collision with the human rights principle I advocate for. As we entered the workshop, which is a print house, I look around at all the faces, and I try not to imagine the extent of their crimes. I was now flittering from caring about their rights and rehabilitation to almost bursting into tears on the spot.

“This is the print house, madame.” 

The prison has transformed into a workhouse, what I imagine any press print factory would look like. It’s a warm day, and men of all shapes, sizes and energy levels are at work. They pay little attention to me and are professional in their concentration on the machinery. Many of them wear a vest, and sweat gathers on their brows; I ask if they’re unionised. I am still not sure if that’s a silly or a reasonable question.

I was facing a new avenue of thinking, can I advocate for or at the very least understand advocacy for men who have committed the most heinous crimes against women. How far does my capacity for change stretch?

I kept my hands in my pockets as I weaved through the print machines of the prison workhouse, so no one could see the tapping of my fingers that I do when I’m trying to hold back my tears. My empathy ability is one thing I like most about myself; I feel it has fuelled my forgiving nature. For the first time that I can remember, empathy was present. Still, it felt wrong, but what was reinforced was the principles at the core of who I am: fairness and human dignity and the restoration of all that it is to be human. To say it is difficult is an understatement.

As I reflect on this, I am comforted by the image of my ability to step in there and challenge my mind’s willingness to go beyond what has happened to me. Not because I have to, but because I want to. The Linden tree’s flowers can give us yellow paint, and I imagine myself as a warrior, taking my two fingers and streaking the colour across my cheeks. Winning the war of what was inflicted on me, breathing the lime’s smell instead of succumbing to his bitterness. I feel like I’ve won, I didn’t enter the race willingly, but I won.

I walked back to the car, dazed, with a headache and a sense that I am healing. I wonder if the victims of these men are too. Just as Philyra, a fairy in Greek mythology, turned herself into a Linden tree, I hope the women found shade in the heart-shaped Linden. Their protection is more important than his redemption. Mythology would have us believe that the Linden is a symbol of marital love – such a contradiction to the taking of another against their will. I know I have found love, whole love, within myself and yes, I’ve let go. My leaves no longer stuck in the Linden’s autumn yellow or winter’s bare branch, and in the words of the French philosopher Albert Camus: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

An inmate tips me on the shoulder, and with his outstretched hand, offers a gift of honey. “Merci”, I say, he smiles, and I am thankful he has access to something so nurturing.

I will continue cultivating the soil we share with those who hurt us, but for society, not the individual. I feel naïve.

Honey and lime, I thought, how bittersweet.

@senlynnruane on Instagram and Twitter.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash