I first heard about the Imperial Eleven during a poetry reading in their honor down at the Cleveland Art Museum. I think that was winter 2009. The voice of the poetry reading was one of outrage and helpless bewilderment. Many of the poets understood Sowell’s actions to be a personal assault on the community. Still, in the face of destruction, they united to create something beautiful and reverent. I was impressed.
A year later, The Plain Dealer ran a series of stories on each of the murder victims. I remember that I felt torn. On one hand, I was thankful for the details the articles could provide about the victims’ lives.
Many of the women had been neglected by their parents and handed off to be raised in poverty by a grandparent or distant family member. All of them began using drugs as teenagers (some as early as twelve years old). Several of them were chronically pregnant during high school. As they grew older, they struggled to come clean and take care of their children.
But they never did. That is, after all, how they ended up at Sowell’s.
The articles seemed to laud these women — who could not stay clean for the sake of their children — as heroes. It unsettled me.
Let’s be clear: As I read and discussed the articles with other Clevelanders, I wanted to uphold the victims’ dignity and affirm their value as mothers, sisters, daughters, girlfriends, and God’s creations. I grieved that they had been trespassed upon — and in the worst possible way.
But I could not celebrate their lives as the reporters did. Hadn’t the victims had a choice?
Or did they have a choice? I realize you can’t just choose to stop using, and I’ve been told that without resources and support, overcoming addiction is hopeless.
But for some reason, I was hotly indignant. I said things like, “How dare the PD celebrate these women as heroes when all they did was perpetuate the cycle of absent, strung out parenthood!” Based on my track record, I doubt that I could have done any better if put in the same position.
I guess, in my indignation, I had been thinking of the kids at church and the kids at the Mission who live blocks from Imperial Avenue. Who bounce from house to house without any sense of groundedness. Who learn in crowded and underfunded schools. Who are headed for premature parenthood or prison or both unless someone intervenes.
For them, this isn’t just some news story. This is reality.
What I want to say is this: 85% of the world (and I’m making that figure up) will read this article and focus on the killer. They will say things like, “How disgusting” or “Who could do something so monstrous?” They will be relieved that this happened miles away and not in their own neighborhoods.
The other 15% of us will remember the victims’ stories and continue to fight for the kids who are being dealt the same hands in life.