Most of us have heard Pennsylvania’s Megan’s Law being referred to as the scarlet letter, the mark of Cain, or the Star of David patch that was used in Nazi Germany during WWII to mark out the Jews. But have you considered comparing Megan’s Law to the parole papers that Jean Valjean received from Inspector Javert in the timeless tale of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo? For this short essay, I will use the Les Miserables feature film adaptation that premiered in 2012, directed by Tom Hooper, with the heartfelt performance by Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and Russel Crowe as the callous Inspector Javert.
We see Valjean in a chain gang pulling a warship into a dry dock for repairs. As he heads back to the prison with the other prisoners, Inspector Javert tells him his time in chains is over, but his parole is just beginning. Javert tells him to “follow to the letter of your itinerary. This badge of shame you’ll show until you die. It warns you’re a dangerous man ” (emphasis added). Valjean disbelievingly explains that he stole some bread to save his young niece from dying of hunger. “You will starve again unless you learn the meaning of the law,” argues Javert. “I know the meaning of those 19 years. A slave of the law,” replies Valjean. Javert explains it was five years for theft and 14 years for fleeing and eluding the police (he should’ve appealed). Javert will only ever see Valjean as inmate 24601. The “badge of shame” he is referring to is his parole paper. No matter where he goes, he must show it to those whom he encounters for their own protection from this “vicious” man who stole a loaf of bread. A loaf of bread! Showing those papers is something he must do for the rest of his life.
Pennsylvania’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) version (colloquially called “Pennsylvania Megan’s Law”) currently has the precise idea behind it. It marks and shames everyone who’s on it as an offender at a high risk of re-offending, 42 Pa.C.S. §9799.11(a)(4). Even those who have not been convicted of any sexual offense like unlawful restraint, 18 Pa.C.S. §2902(b); false imprisonment, 18 Pa.C.S. §2903(b); interference with custody of a child, 18 Pa.C.S. §2904; are globally branded as “sex offenders.” Numerous registrants must register for life.
Valjean believes he’s walking to freedom, but the chorus keeps singing, “Look down, look down, you’ll always be a slave.” We’re given the undertone: “As long as he exists, his past will always be there to haunt him.” Before exploring this “freedom,” he sings, “[t]he day begins, and now let’s see what this new world will do for me.” He had hope in the world, but the world only let him down. He’s denied work at a stone quarry, one of the most challenging jobs. He’s denied lodging at an inn; he even asks to sleep in the stable and is still rejected. Children throw stones at him, and the police beat him. He did not expect such rejection. All he wants is to be a productive member of society and move on with his life. I don’t think any of us on the registry was prepared for how difficult life would become. We put in dozens of applications, a handful of interviews (if that), and constant rejections. Housing is nearly impossible to find as landlords don’t want the reputation of a registrant lover. It seemed all opportunities of re-entering back into society were gone for Valjean. That was until he met Bishop Myriel, played by the remarkable Colm Wilkinson.
Here at a village church, Valjean is finally shown love and compassion. Bishop Myriel takes him to warm up, be fed, and rest. He tells Valjean, “[t]here is wine to revive you. There is bread to make you strong. There’s a bed to rest till morning. Rest from pain, and rest from wrong.” This holy man sees the hurt in Valjean. He knows that being wronged brings the emotional and psychological pain of being disregarded feeling worthless, powerless, and unloved. He is offering a place of solace for the weary and forsaken outcast. I, myself, as a Catholic and on Megan’s Law, am forbidden from participating in the choir, church socials, and serving at Mass in my diocese. The leaders of my diocese have fallen prey to the fears that the legislators and media have put out there to feed the public. The church leaders know what they should morally do but choose not to because they fear judgment from society. I’ve heard stories of others being thrown out of their churches because of their previous transgressions.
I believe everyone can learn much from Bishop Myriel, especially when Valjean steals silver from the church in the middle of the night, gets caught by the authorities, is brought back to the church for the Bishop to press charges, and, yet here again, the Bishop shows nothing but love and compassion towards Valjean. He gives Valjean the silver with two additional silver candle holders. He saves Valjean from prison and gives him more silver as financial help. Bishop Myriel instructs him, “You must use this precious silver to become an honest man.” Bishop Myriel reminds Valjean that there is hope in a dark, cruel, unforgiving world. Compassionate people are few and far between. They can see the real person and understand that everyone deserves a second chance. I have been truly fortunate to find several such people. I hold them near and dear to my heart because I have learned that they are the strongest supporters. They will listen to my frustrations and be there in times of despair. They will give me a hand up when the world wants to put me down.
Valjean is perplexed and overwhelmed, “If there’s another way to go, I missed it 20 long years ago. My life was a war that could never be won. They gave me a number, and they murdered Valjean when they chained me and left me for dead…Yet why did I allow this man to touch my soul and teach me love? He treated me like any other. He gave me his trust. He called me brother. My life he claims for God above. Can such things be? For I had come to hate the world, this world that always hated me! Take an eye for an eye! Turn your heart into stone! This is all I have lived for! This is all I have known!” He reflects on the love bestowed on him and how contrary it is to the usual ways of the world. The world taught him there is no room to be remorseful and forgiving; only vengeance and callousness pay. He cries out, ponders, and plans, “Sweet Jesus, what have I done? Become a thief in the night; become a dog on the run! And have I fallen so far, and is the hour so late that nothing remains but the cry of my hate?… Is there another way to go?… I’ll escape now from that world; from the world of Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean is nothing now! Another story must begin!” He realizes the system has set him up for failure. He believes the only way to have true freedom in a world that continues to condemn is to rid himself of that identity and take on a new one.
Those of us on the registry know full well where he comes from. The registry intends to protect society, but the result of it leads others to commit more crimes out of desperation to survive. Sometimes, it feels like the best way to escape from an unforgiving world is to vanish and become someone else. We might hide in a prison that we make for ourselves called home. We become hermits because we fear someone recognizing us due to our past. Many times, it feels like isolation is the answer.
Who am I?
Valjean owns and operates a textile factory with the silver that Bishop Myriel gave him. Because of his business success, he becomes the mayor of a town. He’s a man of great character with his new identity, Mayor Madeliene. He gains a predominant status in society that couldn’t have been achieved under his old identity. I know many of us could make better lives if given the chance. Before I go further, I must disclaim that I do not suggest absconding as Valjean did. It may look appealing, but two wrongs don’t make a right.
Coming back to the story, we are quickly reminded of the less fortunate when the town poor sing, “The righteous hurry past. They don’t hear the little ones crying. And the plague is coming on fast, ready to kill. One day nearer to dying.” They explain the lack of empathy from those in power for the ones tragically affected by the tense political atmosphere and the plague. This is in deep contrast to what Valjean has become, but it remains a humble reminder of what he once was. As the musical plays on, he’s given opportunities to pass on the same love, compassion, and mercy the Bishop showed him years ago. He rescues Fantine from a life of prostitution, takes her to the hospital, and promises to take in her daughter, Cosette, as his own child. He saves Marius from death and spares Javert’s life when the revolutionaries want him dead.
Was it right that he was punished unjustly? No! Was it right that he went on the run even though he was able to create a new life where he did a lot of good for others? No! There is a due process that all parties must follow. Our world continues to go down this road of injustice that Valjean experienced. We are like Jean Valjean, forever living a marked life with people like Inspector Javert. Javert grew up in a family of convicts. He detested that lifestyle. He vowed he wouldn’t follow in their footsteps. He thought that he could correct his family’s wrongs by becoming an officer of the law. Unfortunately, he overcorrected and left out empathy and compassion. He believed convicts could never be changed.
Our legislators have overcorrected and become zealots while, in the process, leaving out empathy, kindness, and compassion. They need to remember that many registrants want to better their lives but cannot because irrational laws and a society frightened by decades of myths and falsehoods have blocked the provisions to do so. Let Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables be a lesson for all: unjust punishments are not the answer to correction. True correction must come from true justice with understanding and compassion.
Cover Photo Credit: Dreamvisions86 on DeviantArt, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License