Lessons from the court and the chapel in dealing with addiction, mental illness, and some of society’s most despised
One Saturday each month, Liz Bruno ’82, M.A. ’86 makes a point of getting out on the water. She boards a ferry in Steilacoom, Washington, at the southern end of Puget Sound, for a 30-minute ride to the McNeil Island Special Commitment Center to spend time with inmates who are among society’s most despised: They are Level 3 sex offenders, persons the state of Washington considers to have a high risk to reoffend. Many women would be terrified to enter the same room with these men.
Bruno has been making the monthly trip since November 2005. That was when she learned that Nancy Kennedy, an administrator at St. Jude Parish in the Seattle suburb of Redmond, would no longer be able to maintain a ministry at the Special Commitment Center. Bruno volunteered to take over and, for her first journey, accompanied Kennedy. Off the ferry, they stepped into a gray, single-story concrete complex, where a uniformed guard unlocked three heavy doors for the two women to pass through. They entered a small, nondescript room with a sign on the door identifying it as the chapel.
That first time, Bruno says, the sense of isolation “reminded me of purgatory.” But the desolation speaks to a basic human need for hope: “I want them to know that someone remembers them.”
“You may have just pulled someone out of a fire.”
Late on a cloudy and cool summer morning, over a public address system a metallic voice announces that the “Catholic service” will soon begin. Bruno sets up metal folding chairs in an irregular oval. Eight men drift into the room dressed not in institutional garb but in whatever clothing they prefer. Each man greets Bruno with a smile. Hugs are not allowed. Bruno is also required to wear stockings; the sight of her bare ankles could be a trigger for some of the men.
Today, she presents each man with a gift: a rosary with wooden beads brought back from the Holy Land for them by her sister, who was there on a recent visit. The men seem genuinely thrilled by the gift. Though before the men may keep their rosaries, Bruno has to collect them and give them to institutional authorities for approval.
Next is the Liturgy of the Word and Communion service. One of the men plays an electric guitar; Bruno leads the men in a song they follow in standard Catholic parish paperback hymnals. It looks and sounds like a prayer group in Any Catholic Parish, USA. Following the song, she invites one man and then another to read aloud the biblical lectionary readings for the day. She comments briefly on the passages from the gospel, drawing parallels with the experiences of the men in her little assembly. She invites all to add their own thoughts. Most do.
RAISE YOUR HAND
During the week, Liz Bruno is a clinical therapist about 50 miles northeast of the island, at Fairfax Hospital in Kirkland, Washington. She’s worked there for two years with a dual diagnosis unit, where patients struggle with both mental illness and chemical dependency. Eighty percent of them were sexually assaulted as children. Twelve hundred of them are survivors of suicide attempts.
Another day, another group, and a particularly despondent man says that he has never done anything worthwhile in his life. “I haven’t pulled anyone from a fire,” he says.
But he has attempted suicide. Bruno asks if he would be willing to tell the group about that. He agrees. He describes, step by step, what he was thinking and feeling when he made a plan to jump off a bridge, how he jumped, and how he broke his back. He was in the hospital for six months.
The story leaves the listeners in tears. Bruno says, “Raise your hand if you are going to delete jumping off a bridge from your list of suicide plans.”
All hands go up. Bruno turns to the man who has just told his story. “You may have just pulled someone out of a fire.”
She also tells them: “Do not be married to your addiction and do not be married to your mental health diagnosis; you are all individuals, with your own strengths, challenges, dreams, hopes, stories.”
Liz Bruno herself was married for 20 years before divorcing. The divorce experience also brought a renewal of her Catholic faith. She began attending daily Mass. There she would sit surrounded by many of the older members of the parish. “Sometimes I’d quietly weep, and gradually I felt their love and prayers and support, and when I would lose my faith I would lean on theirs until mine returned.”
For all the years that her two sons—Tim, 23, and Patrick, 20—were growing up, Bruno was a stay-at-home mom. She’d earned a master’s in counseling psychology at Santa Clara after finishing her undergraduate degree. But re-entering the workplace after all those years left her petrified, she said. Now, though, pulling through a deep lack of self-confidence seems to her a gift in its own right, since it helps her empathize with her clients.
RECORDS AND AFFIRMATIONS
In the late 1970s and early 1980s at Santa Clara, there was no mistaking the fact that Elizabeth Anne Bruno was a big woman on campus. At 6 foot 2 she stood well above most women—and men. As a member of the women’s basketball team, she played center and set a record for rebounds—1,218—that stands to this day for all Broncos. She’s the only woman with more than 1,000 career points. In her junior year, she received the prestigious Northern California Athlete of the Year award. Her per-game rebound average was 12.8, which ranked her 10th nationally for the season. All this was with a ball the same size that the men played with, rather than the smaller basketball women hoopsters use today. But this wasn’t the only difference female basketball players lived with then.
“There were no sports bras,” Bruno says, “and no women’s shoes; we had to wear men’s shoes when we played, which meant little or no arch support. Our halftime talk happened with us standing up in the equipment room with the washer and dryer running … We had to practice at 5:30 a.m. so the men could have practice at a decent time after us.”
Born in Seattle, Bruno was 4 years old when her parents moved her and her three siblings—John Bruno ’80, MBA ’85, Katie Bruno ’81, and Christopher Bruno ’84—to San Francisco, where her father started his own business. When she was 9, her father died from a congenital illness, and her mother moved the family to Burlingame. At Mercy High School, where even today there is no gym, the budding basketball star and her teammates played outdoors on an asphalt court with chain-link nets on the hoops. Liz Bruno played well enough in high school to earn a Title IX basketball scholarship to Santa Clara.
Basketball played its part in the kind of therapist she became. As a high school player, she memorized affirmations given by her coach Naomi Ruth Tuite ’74, such as: “We are calm, poised, and efficient under exciting and stressful situations.” Bruno says that she has 60 affirmations memorized today. “This is what I pound every day into my patients: affirmations, affirmations, affirmations.”
Basketball also brought her into the SCU Athletic Hall of Fame. Her jersey, No. 42, was retired at a ceremony on campus in February 2014.
She is proud of her basketball stats and career at Santa Clara. Counseling at the hospital is hard but meaningful work. And she is aware that her monthly visits to McNeil Island involve a ministry to men who have committed crimes for which many people think they should be executed—or worse.
On one Saturday, at the concluding part of the Communion service, she leads the men in praying aloud the Our Father. All stand and join hands for this prayer—likely, she suspects, the only time in their days here that the men experience a truly human touch. Then, from a small golden pyx on a cord around her neck, obtained from her parish early that morning, she gives the men Communion.
“The body of Christ,” she says.
Each man quietly replies, “Amen.”
Bruno believes it is appropriate to recall that Jesus was crucified in the company of two despised criminals. To the one who expressed repentance, He promised heaven.