How I Became John Lee’s Mother – 1

John and JoannaOne of the most frequent questions Joanna gets is: How did you become John Lee’s mother?

It does seem a little unusual.  A British/Australian woman with six kids, three of them adopted, suddenly adopts a grown African-American guest of Death Row.


Here’s the story in three parts:

I became John Lee’s de facto mother before I ever thought of adopting him. I had recently confided in him my grief over how a youthful divorce had hurt my three Australian children growing up.

He had spent many hours telling me about his life, all the good, all the bad, all the stumbles and failures and successes. One day I asked him, “Why do you tell me all this stuff?”

“Because,” he said, “I want you to truly know me. Most people don’t know me. They don’t understand me. They judge me by my mistakes. But I think you’re different. I think you know how to look at the real person.”

“Oh,” I said. “I see.”

“No, I don’t think you do. Joanna, I hope one day to be free from this hell-hole. You know how I got here better than anyone. You know I am having a very difficult time coping with this injustice. I need someone to fight for me.

“Lawyers are lawyers and fight accordingly. A mother is a mother and fights accordingly. A friend is a friend and fights accordingly. And family is family and fights accordingly.

“I am in prison and the question is, who is going to fight for me the most? I don’t believe in the words weak and can’t. For me, it’s no picnic. It’s a lot of daily suffering, but I don’t complain when you come to visit.

I have no right to ask you to fight for me when my own blood family won’t fight for me, but the guys who went home from Death Row in the past had people fighting for them, and this is one of the hardest things for a person on Death Row to have in his life.

“Oh,” I said again. “I see.”

“I believe that sometimes good things happen when we are humble and seek to live a good and gentle life. I do believe that, yes. And when you look at you and me, even though we’re from different sides of the tracks, even though we’re different from each other in everything––race, education, experience in life, it seems to me we can help each other.

“Because you have a burden and I have a burden too. I have the burden of being innocent in prison. You have the burden about how divorce hurt your children. I need family to fight for me and love me. You need a son to love and fight for.”

He stopped and took a breath. “Joanna, I give myself to you as a son. Will you accept me?”

And then the door banged back, the guard called, “Time!” and he was gone.


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