Yes, I Do

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| This is the 442nd story of Our Life Logs |


My dear,

If you are set free,

Then I’ll grab the moon

And we’ll split it.

But if the earth continues its grand pirouette

And the stars do not align,

I will smile and know that

in those letters

I was the center of your universe.

-C.W.

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I was born in 1981 in Southwest France. I would say that my childhood was relatively normal. My dad provided for the family while my two younger siblings and I were cared for by our stay-at-home mom. Growing up, I was a shy girl who found reality uninteresting compared to the worlds within the pages of my books and scenes from my favorite films. These means of escape kept me entertained, but they also showed me the harsh reality of life and death. Knowing that one day we’d be here and the next we’d not always terrified me.

My concern of death heightened when I was in primary school and we learned about historical executions like the beheadings in France. I was shocked by what appeared to me like meaningless killing. Not long after that, when I was about 13, my mom mentioned a documentary she’d recently watched about the death penalty in the United States. I hadn’t known about the practice, but when she explained it, it all seemed unfathomable. Why were we killing people for their crimes to show that killing was wrong? What if they regretted them and wanted to be better? They’d never get the chance!

I started watching documentaries and researching the death penalty, and each grim detail shattered me. I was so opposed to it that I wrote essays against it in junior high. Discovering this got me into social and criminal justice, and I began searching for ways that I could help death-row prisoners. I had the time and energy to give, so why not put it towards helping such an important cause?

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When I was 18, I discovered a website that allowed you to become pen pals with prisoners in the US. I perused the website and began writing to a death row inmate. Most of the time it was just about my life or his life before prison. It felt good to brighten a part of an inmate’s day, to let them know that at least one person believed they were capable of redemption when the state determined they were beyond repair and meant to die.

In 2010, I joined the organization “Ensemble Contre la Peine de mort” (Together Against the Death Penalty) as a volunteer. Although France does not have death penalty, the organization raised awareness of countries that do. I helped by running stalls at events, protesting and collecting signatures on petitions.

Later, I was studying in Denmark and started writing to prison pen pals. I had written to 16 in total; some for just a few months and others for years. It was in 2014 that I decided to begin writing to someone closer to my age that I could have more to talk about with (I had a 30 years age difference with my first Death Row pen pal). As I searched the prison pen pal website for someone between 25 and 35, a profile caught my attention. A death row inmate in Florida named Alan, age 26, had written that he was interested in ancient philosophy, theology and foreign languages, and he had also described himself as creative and sometimes even witty. His bio was a lot more original than some of the others I’d come across, and I loved how he concluded with, “I hope to find someone to share thoughts and life stories with; wherever the conversation might lead.”

This man was interesting and met my criteria. I didn’t want any religious talk, no talk about innocence or their need of legal help, and not looking for a romantic relationship (and not posting a shirtless picture). He checked all those boxes, so I sent him a letter introducing myself. And he responded.

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We clicked quickly in between those first few letter exchanges as we discussed all sorts of things—music, movies, news, what daily prison life was like. I wanted to know every detail of what living on death row was like for him. I began eagerly checking my mailbox every day for a new letter, and as we became closer, our letters got much deeper. When we’d begun communicating, I’d lost my dad to cancer, and I confided in him in my grief about my fears of death and illness. He confided in me about the somber conditions of death row. I knew that prisoners often feel very isolated, depressed and alone, so I gave him all the support I could.

Eventually, I found myself wanting to tell him all about my life, every little detail. I liked him more than I would have admitted to myself at the time, but I still remained grounded. I didn’t think that I would ever actually pursue a romantic relationship with him. I knew it wasn’t realistic. Still, as our letters got longer, I found myself falling for him without even meaning to.

After a few months, I received an extra-long letter—30 pages! In it, Alan poured his heart out, saying that I’d grown on him and he had deep feelings for me. He asked me to visit and enclosed a visitation form saying he was sending it out of wishful thinking but he understood if I wasn’t ready for that.

He asked me to see him in a way that was so moving that I started thinking about flying from Denmark to Florida. I knew it was a crazy idea, I had never met any of my prison pen pals before. Was I really going to fly halfway around the world to meet a man I’d only gotten to know through letters? Visiting could change our relationship from a friendship to romance. What if we didn’t get along face to face? Or what if we met and liked each other even more? While I was interested in meeting him, I wasn’t sure pursuing anything was a good idea. How could we possibly have a relationship with limited visiting times and the threat of him being killed hanging over us?

So, I told him no—at first. I kept an eye on the postman every day but weeks passed with no new letter. Losing contact with him had me in tears. It was then I realized that I had completely fallen in love with him.

Finally, a reply came with the first words being “I love you” and news that he was going through a state appeal. I knew then that I had to go see him. I told him I held similar feelings and began the application process to visit.

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The application process took about a month, so while I waited, I set a date, researched affordable flights, and got my affairs in order. At the time, I was a student with no job so I used all my savings to go. In December 2014, I was approved and that’s when it all became real. I was taking the plunge not knowing where I’d end up. By myself, two months later, I flew across the Atlantic to finally meet Alan.

I was filled with anxiety as I entered the prison for our first meeting. I was directed to a small, cafeteria-type room and given a table number where I sat down and waited. 300 men were on death row here yet there were only 25 tables. Most of the inmates never got visitors. One by one, the prisoners started to appear. They entered the room slowly, opening the door and looking around for their visitor. I waited for Alan to appear, feeling a sense of anticipation each time. The wait was agonizing; the minutes seemed to tick by slowly. I had only seen old, poor-quality photos of him, and I feared I wouldn’t recognize him. I feared he wouldn’t like me in person.

Finally, Alan opened the door, our eyes met, and he nodded at me. He walked confidently up to my table, we hugged, then he kissed me briefly before we sat back down. We looked into each other’s eyes and didn’t know what to say. I felt shy about my French accent, and a bit overwhelmed to finally meet him. Alan spoke rapidly with a strong accent so I didn’t do much talking at first because I was overwhelmed and couldn’t understand him. It was awkward and I was blushing profusely, yet I couldn’t help but notice how cute he was.

After a while I started to relax, and we began to hold hands. We chatted like in the letters, and when I left, he kissed me. I left the prison with a massive smile on my face. The visit had been six hours but it felt like 10 minutes. I stayed in America for three weeks and visited every weekend on Sundays and on the holidays. He had arranged for me to meet with his mother (who drove me to prison each time). She was so kind and supportive. Alan and I continued to write letters to each other on the weekdays.

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When it came time for me to leave, Alan and I talked of what was going to happen for us. By then, I’d known I was utterly in love with him and wanted him in my life. I didn’t think I could go back to Denmark and just forget about him. Accepting that I was in love with him was hard to swallow. I had read about his crimes on the internet and in newspapers, and he occasionally hinted at it. When we did discuss the murder charge that had landed him on death row, I tried to understand his mindset back then, but I was unable to. It was difficult for me to associate him with the crimes he’d been convicted of.

He was only a teen when he’d been convicted. He had been homeless and a drug addict desperate to survive and that led him to a bad crowd that got him mixed in with the capital crime he’d been convicted of. It was conflicting to know some of the things he’d done in the past and put it next to the person he was now which was completely different. The man who entered the prison was not the man I’d fallen in love with. He was a better person now in my eyes, and I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him.

During another trip and visit, with only 15 minutes of visitation left, he took my hand and made a little speech about how much he loved me and that he couldn’t imagine his life without me. Then he said, “Will you marry me?”

I don’t feel I took forever to answer, but I did say “For real?” and “You’re asking me now that I have to leave in 5 minutes?” We talked about marriage before, but I really didn’t see it coming that day. Still, the answer was pretty obvious. I said, “I love you, so, yes.”

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Back in France, I worked in a prison as an English teacher helping the inmates obtain their high school diplomas through tutoring and weekly lessons. I enjoyed teaching there so much that after a year, I began also teaching the inmates basic computer skills once a week. Alan and I continued to write long letters regularly, and in April 2016, I went back for our wedding.

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At our wedding, 2016.

You might be wondering: how did your family and friends feel about all this? Well, it was a mixed bag. I had some love and support, and others could not fathom how I could love somehow placed on death row. A lot of people have disappeared from my life because of it, but I let those people go. I’ll admit it hurt that when I announced my engagement, I was met with blank stares and silence.

Still, through it all I have Alan. After we got married and I obtained my spouse visa, I left my life in France behind and moved to Florida to be closer to my husband. We make the most of our situation, and while we only see each other six hours a week and can only talk on the phone once a month, I cherish every moment we have together.

Prison helped Alan turned his life around. He got clean, obtained an education and became a fantastic artist, and I am very proud of what he has overcome. I wish people could see him for who he is now. Inspired by Alan’s growth, I set up a website called Wire of Hope which connects people with prisoners to help rehabilitate them. It aims to encourage people to have a prison pen pal to help boost prisoners’ moral, and keep them updated with news from the outside.

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One of Alan’s artworks.

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I didn’t know the boy Alan was before, so it’s hard for me to associate him with his crimes. But I honestly feel for the kid he was, and I know a little love and attention would have given him a completely different life. While redemption and rehabilitation may not work for everyone, I do think we should give people a chance to change. I gave Alan that chance and he changed my whole life. So, if you ask me again if I’d take this man, I’ll say, “Yes, I do,” a thousand times.

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This is the story of Sigrid Hope

Sigrid currently resides in Florida near the prison where Alan is being held. As a young girl, when Sigrid learned about the death penalty, she was outraged by what seemed to her like pointless killing before a person had a chance to change. To help isolated prisoners, she began writing to them and eventually even taught in prisons in France. She wrote to many death-row inmates in America and wound up falling in love with one, uprooting her life and starting anew in Florida to be with him. Many of Sigrid’s friends and family have disowned her because of the choices she has made, but she is happy to have Alan who makes her feel like the only girl in the world. Sigrid has positively used her experiences to help others by creating a pen pal website with a friend called Wire of Hope to connect prisoners to the outside world. Sigrid and Alan have decided that if he ever gets out, they will have a mailbox in the living room and continue to write letters to each other.

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Sigrid and Alan.

 

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This story first touched our hearts on August 1, 2019.

| Writer: Abi Latham | Editor: Kristen Petronio |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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