Ms. Magazine

spring 2003
* * * *
this is what a feminist looks like

Features
The Feminist To-Do List by Gloria Steinem
Ms. Poll Feminist Tide Sweeps In as the 21st Century Begins by Lorraine Dusky
Affirmative Action on Trial by Teresa Stern
Women on Death Row by Claudia Dreifus
In the Thick of Life at 70 by Jessica Chornesky

Special Action Alert
Women Take Action Worldwide
Listing: Coalitions and Groups
National Council of Women's Organizations Statement on War with Iraq
NCWO Partial Members List
Why Peace is (More Than Ever) a Feminist Issue
by Grace Paley

Writing of War and Its Consequences
Ghosts of Home by Patricia Sarrafian Ward
Tales from an Ordinary Iranian Girlhood by Marjane Satrapi
Snow in Summer: LA, CA, 1963 by Helen Zelon

News
Pat Summitt's 800th Victory
Augusta Golf Club's Red Face
National Map of Priest Abuse
Women Warriors
Lesbians with Strollers
Kopp Trial
Trouble in Herat, Afghanistan
Reproductive Rights in Poland
Health Clinics in Guatemala
Congolese Women for Peace
Global Good News Round-Up
The Opposite of a Nuclear Bomb

Departments
Lower Breast Cancer Risks by Liz Galst
The Making of an Activist by Gloria Feldt
Nature Conservancy Gains by Rachel Rabkin
Harvard Stumbles on Rape Rules by Lorraine Dusky
The Bush Overhaul of Federal Courts by Stephanie B. Goldberg
My Friend Yeshi by Alice Walker

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Claudia Dreifus is a political journalist whose most recent Ms. article, "Berlin Diaries," recounted her trip to Germany to investigate the fate of family members during the Holocaust. Her most recent book is Scientific Conversations.


Women on Death Row
A Special Report by Claudia Dreifus

 

To visit with Brittany Holberg, a reporter has to apply to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, obtain the inmate's permission, and agree to a dress code that includes no halter tops, no mid drift [sic] exposure, no low-cut blouses, etc.

Ms. Holberg on the day we meet is wearing standard prison whites and is sitting in an absolutely centered position within a glass and steel box at a special visitor's center within the women's prison. Though she is presented like a specimen in a museum-case, there s something moving about how Brittany has composed herself. Her hair and make-up are carefully done; her upright posture bespeaks a quiet defiance. Amazingly, after hundreds of interviews with world leaders and film stars, I am struck dumb by the setting. I've never interviewed a person in a box before. I find it hard to be talking to an individual about the conditions of her planned death. She's healthy. She doesn't have cancer or AIDS. But there's a huge machine working to scientifically, legally, kill her.

Brittany is uncomfortable too. She doesn't know me from Eve, but I'm asking her about her deepest thoughts and nightmares, while the prison officials are, no doubt, listening in.

At first we chat-- I swear-- about the weather, and then, guardedly, about her existence before death row. Brittany says her parents were hippie-drugsters, but she doesn t blame them for her fate. She made a teen-aged marriage and has a beautiful daughter from that, Mackenzie, now age 10, who lives with her father in Tulsa.

At 20, Brittany left him, moved back to her hometown of Amarillo, fell in with a bad crowd, and got hooked on hard drugs. To support herself and her habit, she began working in the sex trade. Because of the appeal, I can't talk about that night, Brittany whispers, referring to the crime. I wish I could talk to you about it. I would, I would tell you everything."

The day after her jury came in with their lethal sentence, Brittany was transported to the death row at Gatesville: "I can't even explain to you, she sighs, what it s like to have someone say, 'you are sentenced to die.' It's words. You feel helpless, numb. It's almost as if your emotions shut you down."

For weeks, Brittany lay catatonic in her cell, staring at the wall, not quite believing where she'd landed. Eventually, I made myself get up. I learned how to stop focusing on where I was, whether it was right or wrong, because all that doesn't matter. The desire to live was what mattered, not the reality of her surroundings. "I don't dwell everyday on the fact that I'm on death row," she tells me. "I would go mad if I sat here everyday and thought to myself, 'The State of Texas wants to kill me. They want to put a needle in my arm and they want to kill me.' So I have learned to take every day one little step at a time."

Having a daughter gave her impetus to pull herself together. Mackenzie is the reason I am where I am right now, mentally, Brittany says, smiling. "I cannot live, and I cannot die, knowing that my child has to live with the horror that these people tried to say about me, the story of the crime, their depiction that I was a cold-blooded person."

Leaving a decent record for Mackenzie, seeking to be fully present in whatever time she had left, plus detoxifying from the cocaine, transformed this woman.

When one meets Brittany Holberg, she seems difficult to decode. She is muted and, at the same time, open. Though she is poorly educated, there is a thoughtfulness to her. It was carelessness about her very being that landed her in Gatesville, but today, there's nothing careless about Brittany Holberg. Brittany spends her days reading, writing to her family, and working on her appeals. And she keeps up with the death penalty debate out there in the free world.

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