Interview of Prof. Pittmann
HOLI: How has your day been so far?
HOLI: When you were young, did you think you were going to be a professor?
Pittmann: When I was young –for a quick minute—I wanted to become a hip go-go girl. I had a lot of funny dreams like that. I think most young kids do. My strongest desire though, was to go to college. Since neither of my parents had finished high school when I was growing up, they didn’t really know how you go about planning for college. They always said: “Yeah, go to college.” And later on, when my mother completed high school and started community college, I thought that I really didn’t want to do it that way. By the time I was 16, I decided to join the Navy to take advantage of the GI Bill and its educational benefits. It did work out because the military paid for my college education for almost 5 years. I got my BA and through my MA degree. It was only about $400 a month, but it was still really helpful. I had to have a part time job while attending school so I could manage. By then, I really wanted to be a writer but was not ready to admit it. That career was just so unheard of! In my background no one had any experience with writing as a career. If you told anyone that you wanted to write, they thought it was unrealistic and that you could never make any money to support yourself.
HOLI: That same thinking still goes on today. What was behind that? Did you write all the time?
Pittmann: I started writing in junior high school; I started writing in a journal. I had a teacher who told us to just write to a friend or to no one. We could write to ourselves. Whatever we wanted to do, we were required to write. So I started writing a letter to a friend and then I just kept it up. I liked it. I called my “reader” a friend forever. I still have that journal. I just remembered thinking: “You know, it would be great if you could just write and express yourself all the time.”
HOLI: When you showed the class your blog, one of the things that interests us the most was the writing about your mother. We read a little and it says that she was killed by her neighbor because of her sexual orientation. Can you talk to us more about your mother and your relationship with her?
Pittmann: My mother was born on October 31st, which was the Witches Day or Halloween, and she thought it was funny because people are so superstitious. She just took the meaning of her birthday as a playful sign of personal empowerment. I liked the way she could reverse the meaning of symbols and my blog is dedicated to her. I can’t say that we didn’t have a complicated relationship when I was growing up. She used to call herself fertile Myrtle because she started having kids when she was 19 and every year after that she had five. She decided after we were all raised to go back to college. I was in the Navy and everyone else had moved along. I think it was when she was studying social work and gender that all of the questions about her gender orientation started coming up. At that time, a Wayne State professor had the students do a project – a self-ethnographic study. After she was murdered, I found the journal-like study and read through it. I found out she had gone through a lot of tough times when she was growing up and that society wasn’t helpful or forgiving. Her parents had problems and the world was a violent place in this young girl’s eyes. I still think the world is still a violent place for a lot of people. In her case, she never seemed to question her sexuality. For her, she thought of herself as just a tomboy. After going to school and talking to a lot of people, I think she started to realize and acknowledge that she was attracted to women. One time she called me on the phone when I was living in California and she wondered aloud, “Why is everybody was always asking me if I’m lesbian? This conversation was a several years before she died. I told her: “Well, are you?” And then she didn’t say anything. I think she started to acknowledge that she liked women. Her call was a sort of testing the water, to see how her family would react to the news. Because I was okay with it, and my older sister was too. My brother has a little trouble accepting Mom’s same-sex gender preference, he doesn’t think it’s right. That resistance to unconditional acceptance is why I have so much of my mom in my blog. I take her life as an inspiration. She and her partner Christine Puckett started Affirmations in Michigan, and the group is for LGBTQ rights as well as a social organization, which is nationwide now. It offers a lot of support. I’m proud of her for doing that.
HOLI: Where were you on the day that she was killed? How did you find out?
Pittmann: I was working at the Naval Consolidated Brig in Miramar, California. It was Communications Counselor/Life Skills teacher for confined people who had problems with violence, with themselves, or just problems in general. They talked to me about their personal problems. When I was at work, my sister called me and she said that Mom’s been murdered. I said that it wasn’t true and asked her how she knew. She said our cousin called and I still said, “How do you really know?” I didn’t want to believe it unless I really new for sure. I said to her, “Call me back when you really know.” She kept trying to convince me, but I wouldn’t believe her. I think it was a self-defense mechanism. I refused to believe her. Work was a strange dynamic after that because some of the inmates were confined for gay bashing, or some were sexually active while knowing that they were HIV positive and not informing their partners. It was a new kind of crime that was just classified as assault. I was in that kind of situation where assault related to gender prejudice was visible and relevant. At that moment, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about the trial we had to go through, and writing letters to the judge, and most of all trying to find out why it happened. When that kind of thing happens (a murder), you have so much curiosity. I think that’s also a way of being protected from feeling. You think that if you know how it happened, you can change the past but you cannot. That thinking process is good for you because it helps you to open up to the reality of the murder slowly. And then dealing with the real truth, which is that your neighbor has killed your mother and her partner. So, it was tough for everybody in my family.
HOLI: What is the current position of the person who committed the murder?
Pittmann: James Brooks? He was convicted of double homicide, and since he was an older man, he stayed in jail until he died. We didn’t ask for a capital punishment because most of my family members didn’t believe in it. The majority of us don’t but the lawyers thought that double homicide was the way to go and so that’s the way we went. It’s surprising because I knew him so well. When Christine, Mom’s partner was out in the yard stabilizing some fence posts, he was in the kitchen with a bunch of guns. He just picked one up and shot her from the kitchen door and then he got another gun and walked over to her. My mom went out when she saw Christine on the ground, and while my mom was talking to him, he just lifted the other gun he had in his hand and shot her right in the center. And then, he went back and shot Christine in the back just to make sure that she was gone. He had a strong feeling that it had to be done because they were violating a natural law or something. He felt that he was doing a necessary service – like when you shoot a horse with a broken leg. His idea was that it had to be done, it’s a part of society to be eradicated.
HOLI: How did you look for closure or do you embrace the situation?
Pittmann: Early on I learned in that there wasn’t going to be a complete closure from this experience. The only way you could deal with something like this is if you look for meaning and some kind of way to help— to memorialize your loved ones or help prevent that from happening to other people. That way you develop compassion rather than bitterness. One of the inmates at the brig talked to me about his reason for confinement. He told me that he had friends in Texas, and sometimes they went to a bar and when they saw a gay person leaving the bar they would follow him and used a bat to beat him. He was ashamed because he never connected a person to the violence until he found out about my mother. He needed to confess and asked me for forgiveness.
HOLI: In some way, you’ve seen bad or evil in people. What’s keeping you so sane, or at peace with yourself? What’s giving your life meaning?
Pittmann: I do a lot of thinking about how people are in life and in general. I’ve realized that through connection with others and developing compassion for others you can have a meaningful life. It gives your life meaning. I’m not excusing Brooks for his violence but I believe everybody has that possibility of violence within themselves. We need to develop compassion and to realize that we’re all connected. We need to realize that it’s not always just one person who is responsible for a violent crime. Sure one person goes to jail but in this case, I feel that it was a bigger problem. Society was involved. There were people who shared his beliefs and made him feel that he was doing the right thing. We need to learn to love one another, and I know that sounds cheesy, but to connect with each other no matter our differing backgrounds. Make the world better for ourselves. I think I had that belief before my mom was killed, but this experience has put it to the test. We have to be tolerant with one another. We’re disconnected from our inner world and we’re products of our immediate environment. We are not aware of what our hearts feel and as a result, we forget that human beings matter. Maybe Brooks got too isolated? And maybe he felt confused. My mom didn’t think he was going to do it. Maybe he felt angry, and probably felt he was doing something out of loyalty to my father who had died years before.
Pittmann: Yes. I had a disconnect when I found out my mom was killed, and that kept happening over and over. I would forget and then painfully remember. My mind pushed away the pain. We have these pain barriers that sometimes keep us from the opportunity to feel empathy. Our mind is engage, but our hearts are not. We have to be all together in this world.