BOOK REVIEW: Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude

Oshea Israel and Mary Johnson Hug Image for Ties that Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude

Oshea Israel and Mary Johnson on the day Oshea was release from prison in March, 2010.

MARY JOHNSON, 58, talks with OSHEA ISRAEL, 34

In 1993, Oshea Israel, 16, got into an argument with Laramiun Byrd, 20, at a party, and he shot and killed him. Laramiun was Mary Johnson’s only son.

Following the murder of her son, Ms. Johnson said she originally wanted justice and to see Israel locked up for what he had done. She said:

“My son was gone. I was angry and hated this boy, hated his mother.

“(The murder) was like a tsunami. Shock. Disbelief. Hatred. Anger. Hatred. Blame. Hatred. I wanted him to be caged up like the animal he was.”

But then, some years later, the 58-year-old teacher and devout Christian, asked if she could meet Israel at Minnesota's Stillwater state prison. She said she felt compelled to see if there was a way in which she could forgive her son's killer.

“Hurt is hurt, it doesn't matter what side you are on,” she explained.

So Mary reached out to her son's killer who at first refused to meet her, but then nine months later changed his mind.

Israel said he was shocked that she wanted to meet him. He explains:

“I believe the first thing she said to me was, ‘Look, you don't know me. I don't know you. Let's just start with right now.’ And I was befuddled myself.”

The pair met regularly after that and have since become close friends, a situation that Mary puts down to her strong religious beliefs.

She explains: “Unforgiveness is like cancer. It will eat you from the inside out. It's not about that other person, me forgiving him does not diminish what he's done. Yes, he murdered my son— but the forgiveness is for me.”

Mary Johnson has forgiven Israel. She even wears a necklace with a two-sided locket—on one side are photos of herself and her son; the other side has a picture of Israel.

Mary also founded From Death to Life, an organization that supports mothers who have lost children to homicide, and encourages forgiveness between families of murderers and victims. She considers families of murderers victims of another kind.

Israel admits he still struggles with the extraordinary situation he finds himself in.


Ties that Bind by Dave Isay.jpg

StoryCorps celebrates 10 years with the release of the book "Ties That Bind."


StoryCorps, an independent nonprofit that provides people with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of their lives, released a new book "Ties That Bind” to celebrate its 10th anniversary. The book revisits some of StoryCorps’ favorite narratives among them this incredible story of forgiveness and love. Here’s an excerpt of a conversation Ms. Johnson had with Oshea Israel:

Mary Johnson (Mary): You took my son Laramiun’s life, and I needed to know why. The first time I asked you to meet with me, you said absolutely not. So I waited nine months and asked you again—and you said yes. You and I finally met in March 2005 at Stillwater Prison. I wanted to know if you were in the same minds-set of what I remembered from court when you were sixteen. But you were not that sixteen-year-old boy anymore. You were a man. You entered, and we shook hands. I just told you that I didn’t know you; you didn’t know me. You didn’t know my son; my son didn’t know you. But we needed to get to know one another. And that’s mainly what we did for two hours. We talked.
Oshea Israel (Oshea): I found out that your son’s and my life paralleled, and we had been through some of the same things, and somehow we got crossed. And I took his life—without even knowing him. But when I met you, he became human to me.
When it was time to go, you broke down and started shedding tears. And then you just started going down, and the initial thing I tried to do was just hold you up in my arms. I’m thinking, I can’t let her hit the ground. So I just hugged you like I would my own mother.
Mary: After you left, I said, “I just hugged the man who murdered my son.” And that’s when I began to feel this movement in my feet. It moved up my legs and it just moved up my body. When I felt it leave me, I instantly knew that all that anger and hatred and animosity I had in my heart for you for twelve years was over. I had totally forgiven you.
Oshea: Being incarcerated for so long, you tend to get detached from real love from people. Sometimes I still don’t know how to take receiving forgiveness from you. How do you forgive someone who has taken your only child’s life? To know that I robbed you of that, and for you to forgive me… you can’t really put it into words. I served seventeen years of my twenty-five-year sentence, and since I got out, I see you almost every day. Although I can never replace what was taken from you—I can never fill that void—I can do the best that I can to be right there for you. I didn’t want you to wonder what this guy was doing since he got out of prison. And now, you can actually see what I’m doing—you live right next door. To know that I robbed you of that, and for you to forgive me… you can’t really put it into words.
Mary: It’s amazing. We have our conversations on our porch, and we share our stories—
Oshea: They go from “Hey, I found a job opportunity for you” to “Boy, how come you ain’t called over here to check on me in a couple days? You ain’t even asked me if I need my garbage to go out!” [Laughter.] I find those things funny, and I appreciate it all. I admire you for your being brave enough to offer forgiveness, and for being brave enough to take that step. It motivates me to make sure that I stay on the right path.
Mary: I know it is not an easy thing to talk about, us sitting here, looking at each other right now. So I admire that you can do this.
Oshea: Regardless of how much you see me stumble out here, you still believe in me. You still have the confidence that I’m going to do the right thing, and you still tell me to keep moving forward, no matter what.
Mary: You know, I didn’t see Laramiun graduate, but you’re going to college, and I’ll be able to see you graduate. I didn’t see him get married. But hopefully, one day I’ll be able to experience that with you. Our relationship is beyond belief.
Oshea: I agree. I love you, lady.
Mary: I love you too, son.


Recorded in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on April 18, 2011.




Photo by Brian Mogren