The Day I Became a Secondary Survivor
By Natasha Smith-Notice
Walking up to the podium to say “a few words” about my sister at her funeral is the last thing I wanted to do this past February.
I still remember my stomach turning and clenching my notes, wondering how I was supposed to honor her in five to ten minutes when I was holding a lifetime of memories. A lecture on gender violence to the more than 1,000 attendees at her services would have been a much simpler task at that moment. Discussing my involvement in the movement for the past ten years would have been even simpler. But to memorialize my sister, who was killed by her ex-partner, was nearly an impossible task.
Every day since her passing, I live with the guilt that there was something that I could have done differently. I also wish that others to whom she pleaded would have taken her cries for help more seriously. I contemplated for months after the funeral my move to Atlanta away from all my family. I began to question my every move and replay every conversation that I have had with someone on how to stay protected. I began to wonder if I wasn’t saying enough. Four years ago, I was convinced that there were plenty of great activists in the North and that I needed to spread my activism wings and head down south. That was my two-minute elevator speech.
My sister and I both worked at our college women's centers, volunteered at nonprofits, and lobbied our state officials to get better social services to help women. My last conversation with Tiana on her 25th birthday was a long and sisterly conversation. We talked about everything and everyone, including her killer. She had been in a relationship with a young man named James Carter III for close to a year, and it started to go downhill. She quickly realized they were not compatible and was concerned about his anger issues and inappropriate behavior. She discussed their arguments and his tendency to take things too far. She explained to me in this last conversation that she had to take out a restraining order because the endless emails and phone calls were extreme; he couldn’t seem to take no for an answer with regard to their ever getting back together.
As any older sister would do, I discussed her checking in with our parents, especially our dad, who is an investigator and the superintendent of prisons in Massachusetts. If anyone could make you feel safe, it was our dad. She explained her hesitancy about talking to our parents, but I insisted that they be fully informed about the situation. As the older and overprotective sister of three younger siblings, I was viewed as a “parent spy.” My overprotective instincts were on the money, though, as I caught the unhappiness in her voice, the anger at being stalked, and the frustration with the court and justice systems.
A couple of weeks before her death, she contacted the police to inform them that all her tires had been slashed and that Carter was the likely perpetrator. The police informed her that there was not enough evidence. On February 14, hours before she was murdered, our parents told her to go to the police station again and show them the note that Carter had left on her doorstep that afternoon. This time it was clear that he violated the restraining order, and we were certain that he would be picked up. To our dismay, he was not. Five hours after her police station visit, Carter showed up at her doorstep and attacked her upon entry into her building. She was stabbed more than twenty times. She managed to call 911 and make a dying declaration that Carter had stabbed her. A couple next door heard her screams and came out to assist her. She asked the neighbors to call her parents and tell them that she loved them. She knew that she was dying and began to pray as she faded away.
The strength that my sister exhibited through this ordeal is the only thing that gets me through my days. I think about how she was able to fight back and call for help. Days when I think I can no longer do this work that began as political but is now so personal for me, I try to draw from her strength. As an educator about violence against women in college and graduate school, I remember meeting with numerous young women and men, thoughtfully explaining to them the importance of this issue. I never thought I would have such a personal story to share years later.
This work is now even harder for me as I try to navigate the pain and lessen my anger in order to do positive work that might save someone else’s little sister. The longer I have been involved in the movement, the more I realize that there are so many layers that need to be unpeeled and addressed when dealing with gender violence. It is not just about getting restraining orders to be reinforced, but about so much more. It starts with raising young boys into men and teaching them appropriate behavior, as you will read in the article of Rudolph Byrd about his mother. In most violence cases, it is a learned behavior. It is the only way some men know to show their emotions. We need to work on creating positive media images of men and women in healthy relationships. That is my new elevator speech—short and sweet because the longer version breaks my heart every time I tell it.
Sasha Smith-Notice is the assistant director for programs at the Center for Women at Emory. She is currently the board president of SPARK Reproductive Justice Now and the cofounder, with her dad Alvin Notice, of the Tiana Angelique Notice Foundation. Visit http//tiananoticefoundation.org to learn more about Sasha’s sister’s story.