For more than a week, Ria Ramkissoon watched passively as her one-year-old son wasted away, denied food and water because the older woman she lived with said it was God’s will.
Javon Thompson was possessed by an evil spirit, Ramkissoon was told, because he didn’t say “Amen” during a mealtime prayer. Javon didn’t talk much, given his age, but he had said “Amen” before, Ramkissoon testified in a US court in Baltimore.
On the day Javon died, Ramkissoon was told to “nurture him back to life”. She mashed up some carrots and tried to feed the boy, but he was no longer able to swallow. Ramkissoon put her hands on his chest to confirm that his heart had stopped beating.
Ramkissoon and several other people knelt down and prayed that he would rise from the dead. For weeks afterward, Ramkissoon spent much of her time in a room with her son’s emaciated body — talking to him, dancing, even giving him water. She thought she could bring him back.
Ramkissoon told the tale of her son’s excruciating death from the witness stand on Wednesday, at the trial of the woman she says told her not to feed the boy. Queen Antoinette was the leader of a small religious cult, according to police and prosecutors, and she faces murder charges alongside her daughter, Trevia Williams, and another follower, Marcus A. Cobbs.
The three are acting as their own attorneys.
Javon died in either December 2006 or January 2007; Ramkissoon isn’t sure of the exact date. His body was hidden in a suitcase for more than a year and has since been buried. But even now, she maintains her faith in his resurrection.
“I still believe that my son is coming back,” Ramkissoon said. “I have no problem saying what really happened because I believe he’s coming back.
“Queen said God told her he would come back. I believe it. I choose to believe it,” she said. “Even now, despite everything, I choose to believe it for my reasons.”
Later, she acknowledged that her faith makes her sound crazy. “I don’t have a problem sounding crazy in court,” she said.
Ramkissoon, 23, was born in Trinidad and moved to Baltimore at age seven. She stands 5 feet (1.52 metres) tall and weighs about 100 pounds (45.4 kilograms).
She wore a white sweater and blue jeans and was calm throughout her testimony, speaking in a clear and even voice. She appeared mildly agitated at certain questions but otherwise showed little emotion, even as she described how her starving son lost weight, became lethargic and lost his voice.
She was led to the courtroom in handcuffs. She pleaded guilty last year to child abuse resulting in death, agreeing to the deal only under the condition that if Javon is resurrected, the plea will be vacated. Prosecutors and a judge accepted that extraordinary condition, specifying that only a “Jesus-like resurrection” would suffice.
Because Antoinette is representing herself, she was able to cross-examine the young woman who lived with her for two years, much of that time after her son’s death.
Antoinette asked whether her statement about not feeding Javon was an order or a “suggestion”.
Ramkissoon said she has consistently told prosecutors and her attorney that she was not forced to starve her son, but she made clear the idea was Antoinette’s.
“When I was about to feed him,” Ramkissoon said to Antoinette, “you said, ‘You shouldn’t feed him anything’, and then you told me why. … I believed you.”
Williams and Cobbs also lived in the home, along with Antoinette’s three other children and a childhood friend of Ramkissoon’s. No one challenged Antoinette’s statement that the boy should not be fed, Ramkissoon said.
Ramkissoon detailed how the group relocated to Philadelphia and brought Javon’s body in a suitcase. She described how Javon was packed with sheets and blankets and how she sprayed his body with disinfectant and stuffed the suitcase with fabric softener sheets to mask the odour.
The suitcase was hidden in a shed in Philadelphia for more than a year before it was discovered by police, according to testimony.
Members of Antoinette’s household were told to wear only white, blue and khaki. They left the home only in pairs, and they avoided doctors or hospitals. They destroyed identification cards and had little contact with their families.
Ramkissoon said she often questioned Antoinette’s rules and orders but never disobeyed her because she believed her to be “a godly woman”.
“Looking back now,” Ramkissoon told Antoinette, “I won’t say that everything you thought was right, was right.”
The Utah Senate has joined the House in allowing homicide charges against expectant mothers who arrange illegal abortions.
The bill responds to a case in which a Vernal woman allegedly paid a man $150 to beat her and cause miscarriage but could not be charged. The Senate on Thursday approved HB12 on a vote of 24-4, criminalizing a woman’s “intentional, knowing, or reckless act” leading to a pregnancy’s illegal termination. It specifies that a woman cannot be prosecuted for arranging a legal abortion.
The measure now goes to Gov. Gary Herbert for final action.
Some Senate Democrats attempted a last-minute amendment to remove the word “reckless” from the list of criminal acts leading to miscarriage. They argued that criminalizing reckless acts leaves open the possibility of prosecutions against domestic violence victims who return to their abusers only to be beaten and lose the child.
“It’s part of the cycle of domestic violence,” said Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City.
“I hope none of you ever have to face that situation,” she said after realizing the majority would pass the bill as is, “or have a daughter facing that situation, or a granddaughter.”
But the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said the bill doesn’t target victims at all — only those who arrange to terminate their pregnancies illegally.
“I know it’s well-intentioned,” Dayton said of the attempt to lift “reckless acts” from the bill, “but I don’t think we want to go down the road of carefully defining the behavior of a woman.”
Robles and Sen. Ben McAdams said they had spoken to the bill’s original sponsor, Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, just before the debate and believed he would support the change on behalf of domestic violence victims. Dayton, though, said Wimmer sent her a text message during the debate asking her to press on.
Wimmer later said he had been open to the Democrats’ suggestion, but it had come too late.
“I wasn’t about to hold the bill up,” he said.
CARRIE Prejean isn’t the only beauty queen open to expressing her objection to same-sex marriage. Miss Beverly Hills 2010 Lauren Ashley is also speaking out in support of traditional nuptials, Fox News reported.
“The Bible says that marriage is between a man and a woman,” Ms Ashley told Fox News.
“In Leviticus it says: ‘If man lies with mankind as he would lie with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death and their blood shall be upon them.’
“The Bible is pretty black and white
“I feel like God himself created mankind and he loves everyone, and he has the best for everyone.
“If he says that having sex with someone of your same gender is going to bring death upon you, that’s a pretty stern warning, and he knows more than we do about life.”
Ms Ashley, 23, will be representing Beverly Hills in the Miss California pageant in November.
Her statements mirror former Miss California Carrie Prejean’s answer to a question about same-sex marriage in last year’s Miss USA pageant.
At the time, Ms Prejean said her answer opposing same sex marriage cost her the title.
But with the Miss California Pageant still months away, and Ms Ashley already echoing the views that got Ms Prejean in trouble last year, is she concerned that she may ruin her chances of taking home the tiara?
“That isn’t really the issue,” she said.
“I have a lot of friends that are gay, and … I have a lot of friends who have different views, and we share our views together.
“There’s no hate between me and anyone.”
And according to the Miss California state director, Keith Lewis, a contestant’s personal opinion should have no bearing on the result.
“The Miss California USA system has always had a place for an individual’s thoughts and opinions when it comes to all sides of political issues,” Mr Lewis told Pop Tarts.
“It is an organisation which empowers women, and everyone is entitled to their own beliefs.”
Christians: Being un-Christ-like, since.. well.. forever.
A month before Haiti’s devastating earthquake, prominent musician Theodore “Lolo” Beaubrun and a few friends were summoned by spirits who tried to warn them about the impending cataclysm.
“They told us to pray for Haiti because many people would die,” says Mr Beaubrun - the frontman of the group Boukman Eksperyans.
“I thought it was about politics. I didn’t know it was going to be an earthquake.”
The spirits may have failed to make themselves understood, but according to Mr Beaubrun – whose music and outlook are steeped in voodoo culture – they are standing by the Haitian people in their hour of need.
“We are extremely traumatised,” he says.
“We have seen death. But the spirits entered the minds of people to advise and help them heal. They speak to us. It’s like therapy.”
But Mr Breaubrun’s idea that voodoo should play a leading role in helping victims of the country’s worst-ever natural disaster is currently little more than a hope.
Haiti’s traditional religion has kept a low profile in the aftermath of the earthquake.
The songs and prayers heard amid the rubble and tent cities around Port-au-Prince are overwhelmingly Christian.
The voodoo religion may be practised by many Haitians – the exact number is unknown – and has not been totally absent from the aid effort.
Louis Leslie Marcelin, another singer who also describes himself as a spiritual guide and healer, has used his home in Port-au-Prince as an alternative school and a care centre.
“We work with children and parents,” he says. “We work with poor people whose relatives have died.”
But such efforts by voodoo leaders have been few and far between. The bulk of the religious relief aid work in Haiti has been carried out by Catholic and Protestant groups.
“For a religion that’s supposedly the national religion of the Haitian people, it’s amazingly absent in the earthquake phenomena,” says Gerald Murray, a University of Florida anthropologist who has carried out extensive fieldwork in Haiti.
Some argue that voodoo’s conspicuous absence in the aftermath of the quake is due to prejudice. Many Christians – especially Protestants – regard voodoo as devil worship.
This idea was expressed in its most striking form by the US televangelist Pat Robertson, who said shortly after the quake that Haiti had made a “pact with the devil” when it defeated French colonists two centuries ago.
According to Mr Beaubrun, such attitudes have been in evidence during relief operations.
“Some Christian communities do not want to give food to voodoo followers,” he says.
“As soon as they see people wearing peasant clothes or voodoo handkerchiefs, they put them aside and deny them food.
“This is something I’ve seen.”
Hostility to voodoo – which blends elements of Christianity with West African animistic beliefs and practices – is indeed rife among some evangelical groups in Haiti and elsewhere.
However most mainstream Christians – notably Catholics – have insisted on not marginalising the voodoo faith.
Father Reginald Jean-Marie of Notre-Dame, the largest Roman Catholic church in Miami’s Little Haiti, insists: “Any system of belief that people cling to especially in a time of crisis can be of help to them.”
Blaming voodoo for the country’s problems, he says, is “theological nonsense”.
“When the (Asian) tsunami happened it was not because people did wrong,” he says.
“Things happen because they are natural disasters. If you claim that voodoo is responsible for those things, then is God responsible when bad things happen to good Christians?”
The three days of prayer held for earthquake victims on 12, 13 and 14 February pointedly included voodoo practitioners.
And, perhaps equally pointedly, a houngan (voodoo priest) taking part in the event stressed the common element between his faith and Christianity.
He told the BBC he would “pray to bondye” – referring to the voodoo supreme god, while not stressing the “loa”, the lesser spirits that are at the centre of rituals.
This suggests tension between Haiti’s rival faiths is not the main reason for voodoo’s lack of visibility after the earthquake.
The principal factor, according to anthropologist Gerald Murray, could be theological.
In the voodoo belief system, natural disasters are not caused by the “loa”, but by a distant “bondye”.
The supreme being that unleashes the forces of nature is an unfathomable entity which cannot be influenced.
Only the lowly “loa”, Mr Murray notes, can be accessed or propitiated – often through rituals led by houngans.
The main role of these specialists, Mr Murray adds, is the diagnosis and healing of an individual’s illnesses.
“They have not traditionally played a role of national, social leaders of any type,” he says.
“They will continue to be spirit healers for people who believe that their problems have been caused by the loa – but this earthquake was not caused by the loa.”
Many Haitians will find solace in voodoo, which remains an important element of Haitian identity.
But the coping strategies it offers in the aftermath of the earthquake may be limited.
When she left, she left everything behind — even her name. She no longer wanted to be known as Sarah, the name her parents had given her. She’d felt imprisoned by that name for too long; it made her feel different and subject to laws that others imposed upon her. So, she started her new life with a new name, Mayan, the Hebrew word for “source.”
It’s been seven years since Mayan “landed on planet Earth,” as she puts it. But the 27-year-old doesn’t feel completely at home here yet. She’s a young, modern Israeli woman. Still, despite the dragon tattoo on her shoulder and the loose top offering occasional glimpses of her bra, there are always some moments that betray her past. For example, when her friends talk about old TV series, classic pop music or their first schoolyard crushes, Mayan can’t join in. Until she was 17 years old, Mayan lived in another world, a world where those things simply didn’t exist.
A Life Completely Focused on Religion
The “parallel universe” Mayan used to live in has around 550,000 inhabitants. It is the world of the Orthodox Jews in Israel, whose adherents live in tight-knit communities where everything revolves around religion. They radically shield themselves from modern life. Television is frowned upon, as is non-religious music, telephones and the Internet. News that is important to the community is disseminated via notices posted on walls. Boys and girls go to school, but their education is primarily focused on religion.
“Everyone can read and write, but math was over after simple multiplication,” Mayan says. “When I left school, I didn’t even know what New York was, and I had never even seen a dog because nobody kept any pets.”
According to Irit Paneth, it is this lack of education, in particular, that makes it almost impossible for doubters in these communities to break out of the inflexible corset of their belief. Paneth is a member of Hillel – The Right To Choose, an organization that helps those leaving the Orthodox faith start a normal life. “We are not against the religion,” Paneth explains. “But Ultra-Orthodoxy is more like a cult that intellectually cripples children in the name of religion.” For most young people who break away from the Orthodox life, she explains, it’s like leaping off a cliff into the unknown. “They come without money, without education in the classical sense, without any chance of employment,” Paneth says.
One of the Fastest Growing Groups in Israel
According to government estimates, ultra-Orthodox Jews make up one of the fastest-growing groups in Israeli society. By 2025, the government forecasts that roughly 22 percent of school-age Israeli children will come from one of the groups with strong religious beliefs.
Over the 19 years it has been operating, only around 2,000 defectors have turned to Hillel. “There are tens of thousands who have doubts and want out,” Paneth says. But only a small number are ready and willing to make the sacrifices that defection demands. For example, most families completely break off contact with defectors. “Some even hold wakes,” Paneth says, “as if the daughter or son has actually died.”
Mayan grew up in Beitar Illit, an Orthodox settlement just south of Jerusalem in the Judean Mountains of the West Bank. There, men wear black suits and wide-brimmed hats. The women — whose style of clothing is intended solely to denote chastity — wear high-necked blouses, long skirts and often a head scarf. Likewise, the men don’t hold jobs but, instead, devote their lives to studying the Bible. The women feed their families and often raise up to 12 children.
Mayan’s childhood finished when she was seven, when her widowed mother remarried. From then on, she had to wear socks and long pants to bed under her nightgown — even in the summer — lest the bed cover slip off and expose here bare skin to her stepfather. And since her stepfather was not a blood relation, he was not allowed to touch her. In fact, he barely spoke with her, either.
Scientists have identified areas of the brain that, when damaged, lead to greater spirituality. The findings hint at the roots of spiritual and religious attitudes, the researchers say.
The study, published in the Feb. 11 issue of the journal Neuron, involves a personality trait called self-transcendence, which is a somewhat vague measure of spiritual feeling, thinking, and behaviors. Self-transcendence “reflects a decreased sense of self and an ability to identify one’s self as an integral part of the universe as a whole,” the researchers explain.
Before and after surgery, the scientists surveyed patients who had brain tumors removed. The surveys generate self-transcendence scores.
Selective damage to the left and right posterior parietal regions of the brain induced a specific increase in self-transcendence, or ST, the surveys showed.
“Our symptom-lesion mapping study is the first demonstration of a causative link between brain functioning and ST,” said Dr. Cosimo Urgesi from the University of Udine in Italy. “Damage to posterior parietal areas induced unusually fast changes of a stable personality dimension related to transcendental self-referential awareness. Thus, dysfunctional parietal neural activity may underpin altered spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviors.”
Previous neuroimaging studies had linked activity within a large network in the brain that connects the frontal, parietal, and temporal cortexes with spiritual experiences, “but information on the causative link between such a network and spirituality is lacking,” explains lead study author, Urgesi said.
One study, reported in 2008, suggested that the brain’s right parietal lobe defines “Me,” and people with less active Me-Definers are more likely to lead spiritual lives.
The finding could lead to new strategies for treating some forms of mental illness.
“If a stable personality trait like ST can undergo fast changes as a consequence of brain lesions, it would indicate that at least some personality dimensions may be modified by influencing neural activity in specific areas,” said Dr. Salvatore M. Aglioti from Sapienza University of Rome. “Perhaps novel approaches aimed at modulating neural activity might ultimately pave the way to new treatments of personality disorders.”