Flannery O’Connor Country

Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols were together for seven hours. This is Nichols’s mug shot. This is Nichols’s face after he gave himself up to police Saturday.

Something changed.

Something happened.

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This is from the transcript of Ashley Smith’s testimony when she met with reporters in her lawyer’s office on Sunday, March 13:

    It was about 2 o’clock in the morning. I was at—I was leaving my apartment to go to the store. I noticed a blue truck in the parking lot with a man in it pulling up. And he parked in the parking space. And I really didn’t think too much about it because I just moved into that apartment, you know, two days prior. So I thought maybe he was a neighbor coming home or something.

    So I left and went to the store. And I came back to my apartment about five minutes later. And the truck was still there. And he was still in it. . . . And I kind of got a little worried then. I thought there’s somebody still in that truck. So I got my key to my house ready. And I opened up my car door, and I got out and shut it. And I heard his shut right behind me. I started walking to my door, and I felt really, you know, scared. . . .

    I started to scream, and he put a gun to my side and he said, “Don’t scream. If you don’t scream I won’t hurt you.” He told me to go into the bathroom, so I went to the bathroom. And he followed into the bathroom and he said, “Do you know who I am?” and I said no because he had a hat on. And then he took his hat off, and he said, “Now do you know who I am?” And I said, “Yeah, I know who you are. Please don’t hurt, just please don’t hurt me. I have a 5-year-old little girl. Please don’t hurt me.”

    He said, “I’m not going hurt you if you just do what I say.” I said, “All right.” So I got—he told me to get into the bathtub, so I got in the bathtub. And he said, “I really don’t feel comfortable around here. I’m going to walk around your house for a few minutes just so I get the feel of it.”

    I said, “OK.”

    He said, “I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt anybody else, so please don’t do anything that’s going to hurt you.” He said, “You know, somebody could have heard your scream already. And if they did, the police are on the way. And I’m going to have to hold you hostage. And I’m going to have to kill you and probably myself and lots of other people. And I don’t want that.”

    And I said, “OK. I will do what you say.”

    He looked around my house for a few minutes. I heard him opening up drawers and just going through my stuff. And he came back in. And he said, “I want to relax. And I don’t feel comfortable with you right now. So I’m going to have to tie you up.”

    He brought some masking tape and an extension cord and a curtain in there. And I kind of thought he was going to strangle me. I was—I was really kind of scared. But he told me to turn around and put my hands behind my back. And he wrapped my hands in a prayer—in a praying position, so I did that. And he wrapped masking tape around my hands. And then he told me to go into my bedroom. And I sat down on the bed like he asked. And he wrapped my legs with masking tape and an extension cord. . . .

    He said, “Can you walk?”

    And I said, “No.”

    And so he picked me up and took me to the bathroom. And he put me on a stool that I have in my bathroom. He said he wanted to take a shower.

    So I said, “OK. You take a shower.”

    He said, “Well, I’m going to put a towel over your head so you don’t have to watch me take a shower.”

    So I said, “OK. All right.”

    He got in the shower. Took a shower. And then he got out of the shower. And he had the guns laying on the counter. But—I guess he really wasn’t worried about me grabbing them because I was tied up.

    He asked me if I had a T-shirt. I told him where to find one.

    So he got dressed. He put on some clothes that I had in my house that were men’s clothes. And then he came back in the bathroom.

    He said, “Can you get up?”

    So I got up.

    He said, “Can you walk now?”

    I said, “No, but I can hop.”

    So I hopped to my bedroom and sat on the bed. And he cut the tape off of me, unwrapped the extension cord and curtain. I guess, at that point, he kind of made me feel like he was comfortable enough with me that he untied me. So—we went back in the bathroom. That’s where he felt more comfortable—in the bathroom away from the front of the house, I guess. And we just talked.

    I asked him if—I told him that I was supposed to go see my little girl the next morning. And I asked him if I could go see her. And he told me no.

    My husband died four years ago. And I told him that if he hurt me, my little girl wouldn’t have a mommy or a daddy. And she was expecting to see me the next morning. That if he didn’t let me go, she would be really upset.

    He still told me no. But I could kind of feel that he started to—to know who I was. He said maybe. Maybe I’ll let you go—just maybe. We’ll see how things go.

    We went to my room. And I asked him if I could read.

    He said, “What do you want to read?”

    Well, I have a book in my room.” So I went and got it. I got my Bible. And I got a book called “The Purpose-Driven Life.” I turned it to the chapter that I was on that day. It was Chapter 33. And I started to read the first paragraph of it. After I read it, he said, “Stop, will you read it again?

    I said, “Yeah. I’ll read it again.” So I read it again to him.

    It mentioned something about what you thought your purpose in life was. What were you—what talents were you given? What gifts were you given to use?

    And I asked him what he thought. And he said, “I think it was to talk to people and tell them about you.”

    I basically just talked to him and tried to gain his trust. I wanted to leave to go see my daughter. That was really important. I didn’t want him to hurt anybody else.

    He came into my apartment telling me that he was a soldier. And that people—that his people needed him for a job to do. And he was doing it.

    And—I didn’t want him to hurt anybody else. He didn’t want to hurt anybody else. He just told me that he wanted a place to stay to relax, to sit down and watch TV, to eat some real food.

    I talked to him about my family. I told him about things that had happened in my life. I asked him about his family. I asked him why he did what he did.

    And his reason was because he was a soldier.

    I asked him why he chose me and why he chose Bridgewater Apartments. And he said he didn’t know, just randomly.

    But after we began to talk, he said he thought that I was an angel sent from God. And that I was his sister and he was my brother in Christ. And that he was lost and God led him right to me to tell him that he had hurt a lot of people. And the families—the people—to let him know how they felt, because I had gone through it myself.

    He told me that he didn’t—he didn’t want to hurt the agent that he hurt. He begged and pleaded with him to do things his way, and he didn’t. So he had to kill him. He said that he didn’t shoot the deputy, that he hit her. And that he hoped she lived. He showed me a picture of the—the agent that he did kill. And I tried to explain to him that he killed a 40-year-old man that was probably a father, a husband, a friend.

    And he really began to trust me, to feel my feelings. He looked at pictures of my family. He asked me to—if he could look at them and hold them. . . .

    I really didn’t keep track of time too much because I was really worried about just living. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want him to hurt anybody else. And I really didn’t want him to hurt himself or anyone else to hurt him. He’s done enough—he had done enough. And he really, honestly when I looked at him, he looked like he didn’t want to do it anymore.

    He asked me what I thought he should do.

    And I said, “I think you should turn yourself in. If you don’t turn yourself in,” this is what I said, “If you don’t turn yourself in, lots more people are going to get hurt. And you’re probably going to die.”

    And he said, “I don’t want that to happen.”

    He said, “Can I stay here for a few days? I just want to eat some real food and watch some TV and sleep and just do normal things that normal people do.”

    So, of course, I said, “Sure. You can stay here.” I didn’t want—I wanted to gain his trust.

    Most of my time was spent talking to this man about my life and experiences in my life, things that had happened to me.

    He needed hope for his life. He told me that he was already dead. He said, “Look at me, look at my eyes. I am already dead.”

    And I said, “You are not dead. You are standing right in front of me. If you want to die, you can. It’s your choice.”

    But after I started to read to him, he saw—I guess he saw my faith and what I really believed in. And I told him I was a child of God and that I wanted to do God’s will. I guess he began to want to. That’s what I think.

    He got to know me. I got to know him. He talked about his family. How—he was wondering what they were thinking. He said, “They’re probably—don’t know what to think.”

    We watched the news. He looked at the TV and he just said, “I cannot believe that’s me on there.”

    About 5:30, 6—well, 6, 6:30—he said, “I need to make a move.” And I said, “A move?” He said, “I need to get rid of this car before daylight, this truck [the agent’s].” I said, “OK.”

    I knew that if I didn’t agree to go with him, follow him to get the truck—he’d just take the truck, then one thing—or two—one of two things. He would kill me right then, and say, “All right, well, if you’re not going to help me, then I won’t need you anymore.” Or the police would never find him, or it would take longer. And someone else would get hurt, and I was trying to avoid that.

    So I went . . . I said, “Can I take my cell phone?” He said, “Do you want to?” I said, “Yeah.” I’m thinking, well, I might call the police then, and I might not. So I took it anyway. He didn’t take any guns with him. The guns were laying around the house. Pretty much after he untied [me], they were just laying around the house.

    And at one point, he said, “You know, I’d rather you shoot—the guns are laying in there—I’d rather you shoot me than them.” I said, “I don’t want anyone else to die, not even you.”

    So we went to take the truck, and I was behind him, following him. And I thought about calling the police, you know, I thought, he’s about to be in the car with me right now. So I can call the police, and when he gets in the car, then they can surround me and him together, and I could possibly get hurt, or we can go back to my house.

    And I really felt deep down inside that he was going to let me see my little girl. And I said—or then when I leave, he can be there by himself, or he—he finally agreed to let me go see my daughter. I had to leave at 9, 9:30. And I really believed that he was going to.

    From the time he walked into my house until we were taking that truck, he was a totally different person to me. I felt very threatened, scared. I felt he was going to kill me when—when I first—when he first put the gun to my side. But when I followed him to pick—to take the truck, I felt he was going to—he was really going to turn himself in. So he took the truck.

    He got in the car and I said, “Are you ready now?” And he said, “Give me a few days, please.” I said, “Come on, you’ve got to turn yourself in now.” I didn’t feel like he might—I felt like he might change his mind, that he might not want to turn himself in the next day, or a few days after that, and that if he did feel that way, then he would need money, and the only way he could get money was if he hurt somebody and took it from them.

    So we went back to my house and got in the house. And he was hungry, so I cooked him breakfast. He was overwhelmed with—”Wow,” he said, “real butter, pancakes?”

    And I just talked with him a little more, just about—about—we pretty much talked about God . . . what his reason was, why he made it out of there.

    I said, “Do you believe in miracles? Because if you don’t believe in miracles—you are here for a reason. You’re here in my apartment for some reason. You got out of that courthouse with police everywhere, and you don’t think that’s a miracle? You don’t think you’re supposed to be sitting here right in front of me listening to me tell you, you know, your reason here?”

    I said, “You know, your miracle could be that you need to—you need to be caught for this. You need to go to prison and you need to share the word of God with them, with all the prisoners there.”

    Then 9 came. He said, “What time do you have to leave?” I said, “I need to be there at 10, so I need to leave about 9:30.” And I sat down and talked to him a little bit more. And he put the guns under the bed, like . . . I’m not going to mess around with them anymore.

    He gave me some money when I was about to leave. Just kind of like he knew. I said, “You might need this money.” And he said, “No, I don’t need it. I’m going to be here for the next few days.”

    I basically said, keep the money. And he said, “No, I don’t need it.” He asked me if there was anything I could do—or he could do for me before I left, or while I was going. He says, “Is there anything I can do while you’re gone?”

    I know he was probably hoping deep down that I was going to come back, but I think he knew that I was going to—what I had to do, and I had to turn him in, and I gave him—I asked him several times, you know, “Come on, just go with me.” He said, “I’ll go with you in a few days.”

    But when he asked me, “Is there anything I can do while you’re gone, like hang your curtains or something?” And I said, “Yeah, if you want to.”

    He just wanted some normalness to his life right then. He—I think he realized all this—all this that I’ve been through, this is not me. I don’t know, that’s my opinion of what he . . .

    Then I left my house at 9:30. And I got in the car. And I immediately called 911. I told them that he was there, and she asked me where I was. I said, “Oh, I’m on my way to see my daughter.” I felt glad to just really be on my way to see my daughter. She said, “You’ve got to turn around and go to the leasing office.” So that’s what I did.

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It is an idiot’s errand to follow such testimony with commentary. It’s too big. There is nothing newspaper-eloquent to say. We have entered Flannery O’Connor country, and only geniuses need apply.

Here are mere facts. They were together seven hours and each emerged transformed. He gave himself up without a fight and is now in prison. She reported to police all that had transpired, the police told the press, and now she is famous.

Tuesday evening on the news a “hostage rescue expert” explained that she “negotiated like a pro.” Actually what she did is give Christian witness. It wasn’t negotiation. It had to do with being human.

It is an amazing and beautiful story. And for all its unlikeliness you know it happened as Smith said. You know she told the truth. It’s funny how we all know this.

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On CNN on Monday afternoon Kyra Philips focused on the angle of the book, “The Purpose-Driven Life,” that Ms. Smith had shown Nichols. She had a local preacher on to tell us more about the book, and more about Christianity. It was informative, loving, a beautiful moment of television.

The more the news played the testimony of Ashley Smith, the more each news show came to seem elevated, ennobled. The past few days the TV screen has been filled with some wonderful light.

Ashley Smith is a national hero—a brave, resourceful single mother who has suffered in her life, and who at a series of pivotal moments did the right thing and the kind thing and helped a killer end a killing spree.

Country songs will be written about her. She’s going to enter our folk lore.

Some people are unhappy to hear rumors she is going to write a book. This is understandable, but they are wrong. More is needed. I hope Ms. Smith reaches to a writer on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which was rocked by the story and did exceptional work covering it, and produces a book that answers these questions: How did she come to believe in Christ, who helped her know what she knows? How did this knowledge transform her? What did “The Purpose-Driven Life” tell her that she needed to know? Whose Bible was it she kept at home and read—one she bought or one she was given? Which book or part does she find herself going back to? What from the Bible did she read to Brian Nichols?

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Is it a matter of happenstance, is it without meaning, that America was taken by this drama at Eastertide, in the days before Palm Sunday, when a wanted man rode by donkey to an appointment at Golgotha?

Is it an accident that a great but troubled country that yearns so to be good is given such instruction at this time?

Maybe we should be thinking: God loves all of us, every one of us most tenderly, even convicts, maybe especially convicts, who know what they are and hang their heads and one of whom, so long ago, looked up, and cried out to the man on the other cross, and received from him a promise of forgiveness and a promise that soon, very soon, they would stand together in a place without pain.

Maybe we should think: This is all quite a mystery, too big to be understood, too beautiful to be ignored.

I just feel like bowing to everyone, all the victims and all the survivors, the good judge, the good guards, the good woman, the reporters, all of whom became part of something big and without borders. The only lesson is love. I feel certain this is true.