The Ballad of Monica Paul

By TaRessa Stovall, author of My Blue Suede Shoes

 (This blog first appeared in Lit Fest Magazine)
 
Author and Nazi Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel famously said that, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” 

How does domestic violence relate to that definition? Three sister-authors and I explored that question in the stories we created for our book, My Blue Suede Shoes: Four Novellas, the second in our Sister 4 Sister Empowerment Series. Our goal: to write entertaining, engaging fiction that explores the dynamics and healing of various types of domestic violence.

I never heard of Monica Paul until the day she was gunned down. As a reporter at the local newspaper, I was off-duty that Thursday evening, June 26, 2008, walking my dog when my cell phone rang and I was told to, “Get down to the Y. There’s been a shooting.”

I sped to the main YMCA in our tiny town of Montclair in Northern New Jersey, but all seemed normal. Called our photographer back, “I think it’s the new Y,” he said. “The one for the kids.”

A few blocks away, it was pure chaos outside the Family YMCA, which had been recently built for children’s programs. Kids, staff and parents were fleeing the building in a panic, leaping fences and dodging cars to get away. We took note of the scene: Police cars. Yellow tape. YMCA employees looking stunned, shell-shocked.  Grief choking the air.

We called the other reporters to the scene and spread out to observe, to inquire, and to piece together the facts of the tragedy as best we could. And so we learned that a young mother named Monica Paul, 31, was gunned down by her ex-husband, Kenneth Duckett, 37, as Monica and daughter Essence, 11, watched son, Noah, 6, take a swimming lesson. Six shots at point-blank range, inches from their eldest child.

We contributed details to the story, written mostly by my very gifted colleague, Tanya Drobness, with a gift for getting strangers to share their souls. Monica’s father, Lionel Paul, told Tanya, “’Monica was my life. I don’t know how I am going to live without her. The day she died, she called me at 6 o’clock to tell me she was going to cook for me, ’” he sobbed.

Everyone emphasized Monica’s brilliant smile, generous heart and warm spirit. The whole town felt the weight of her loss. One woman said she’d seen Kenneth Duckett driving slowly, menacingly, behind Monica and her children as they walked down one of our main streets. She said she’d known something was wrong and called the police, though she didn’t know any of them, just sensed that Monica needed help. This was a day or so before the shooting.

The woman’s instincts were on target: Monica obtained a restraining order prohibiting unscheduled contact in late 2007. That order was still in force. Ironically, those who knew Monica stressed that she had wanted Kenneth to be part of their children’s’ lives.

He fled the scene in a white jeep—shades of OJ Simpson—and was found weeks later hiding in his girlfriend’s Brooklyn, N.Y. apartment. And in a Newark, NJ courtroom, he was recently brought to justice with a life sentence. But the painful irony persists: while he might spend the rest of it behind bars, Kenneth Duckett still has his life. And any suffering he experiences is a direct result of his own choices and actions.

meanwhile, the Paul family has channeled their grief into activism, lobbying for the passage of Monica’s Law to protect victims of domestic violence. According to the website, www.MonicaPaul.weebly.com , The key elements of Monica’s Law are:

  •  If a domestic violence restraining order has been issued, the person who committed the acts of domestic and the victim have a child in common, and certain enumerated risk factors are present, the court will be required to order a risk assessment.  A risk assessment will be administered prior to establishing parenting time for the perpetrator of the domestic violence.
  • A qualified licensed professional or someone with experience in forensic interviewing who has been appointed by the court shall perform risk assessments.  All risk assessors are required to receive specialized domestic violence training as defined in the bill.
  • Qualified risk assessors are trained by “eligible providers,” defined in the bill. 
  •  The bill requires monitors to oversee and certify eligible providers. 
  •  Defendants shall be responsible to pay for all ordered risk assessment unless the court waives the costs due to financial hardship.

 On Christmas Eve, 2010, Kenneth Duckett was convicted of the murder of Monica Paul. On February 1, 2011, according to NJ Homicide News, “Judge Joseph Cassini, 3rd, sentenced Duckett to life, requiring him to serve 75 years before he will be eligible for parole. The judge said he imposed the lengthy sentence because of the nature and circumstances of the crime and Duckett’s extensive criminal record. Duckett had six prior indictable offenses as an adult in New Jersey and North Carolina, the judge noted at sentencing.”

Kenneth Duckett had an “extensive criminal record” with several serious offenses in not one but two states, and still he walked free, still he was able to purchase and carry a firearm. Kenneth Duckett had a restraining order against him, and still he drove beside Monica Paul as she walked down the street with their children, harassing her to the point where a stranger was moved to call the police, who took no action at all. Kenneth Duckett was not a member of the Montclair YMCA, yet he managed to walk past the front desk without showing identification, and knew exactly where to find his target, the mother of his son and daughter: in the viewing area of the children’s swimming pool.

Maybe the only crime Monica Paul committed is the one that countless women and men commit every day: the crime of loving someone who seemed right at one time but turned out to be tragically wrong.

 We’ll never know what combination of love or hate drove Kenneth Duckett that day. Perhaps if he’d been indifferent towards Monica Paul, she would be alive today. Her precious son and daughter would have their mother. The Paul family would have their beloved daughter, sister, cousin. The community would have one more intact family.

 Instead, we are left with a gaping hole ripped by a commonly misunderstood definition of “passion,” which can only be construed as the vilest form of hatred. Duckett’s life sentence provides scant relief—while he is locked up, there are many more just like him in our public spaces and private lives. Often, we don’t even know the heinous crimes of which they are capable until it’s too late.

Perhaps the opposite of love, in these cases, is insanity, a violent depravity devoid of conscience, incapable of affection, and steeped in narcissism so toxic that its runoff is polluting and destroying more innocent lives each day.

To learn more about Monica’s Law, and sign the petition in support of its passage, go to www.MonicaPaul.weebly.com.

 While the case of Monica Paul didn’t inform “Breakin’ Dishes,” the story I wrote in My Blue Suede Shoes, the spirit of her legacy powered our entire book, and our overall mission to address the insanity of domestic violence in a way that, hopefully, leads to greater understanding and hope for healing.

***

TaRessa Stovall, an author/blogger living in New Jersey, is a co-editor of and contributor to My Blue Suede Shoes: Four Novellas, and its predecessor in the Sister 4 Sister Empowerment Series www.EmpowerOurselves.org, Other People’s Skin. She is also Managing Editor of the civil rights blog, TheDefendersOnline.org,  for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

 
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2 Responses to “The Ballad of Monica Paul”

  1. I have enjoyed discovering…
    and appreciate your work and insight…
    there’s much to lean and understand.
    Congrats and Blessings.
    ~ G.M.W.

  2. Thank you so very much, Gary! Your support and encouragement mean a great deal.

    Blessings!
    TaRessa Stovall


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