Confessions – True or False?

Interrogation Room

by Karen Topakian

While listening to Terry Gross interview Ada DuVernay about her film “Central Park Five,” my ears perked up when she asked about the boys’ confessions.

Why did they “… agree to a confession that was not true, why they agreed to implicate themselves by saying that they did things that they didn’t do?” asked Gross.

DuVernay pushed back about the word “agreed.” She responded, “I mean, we’re talking about minors. We’re talking about minors who are in rooms alone with police officers who are aggressive, who have guns on their belts and badges, who were told to mind and to respect and to follow orders from….”

Gross posed a commonly asked question, “Why would you confess to something you hadn’t done?”

Most people would say they never would. They would stand up for themselves. Substantial evidence from the Innocence Project says otherwise.

I believe only people who have never been questioned by a police officer would ask this question.

In all fairness, I have never been interrogated by a police officer. But I have had more than my fair share of interactions of my own doing with them. The circumstances are quite different but nonetheless I am aware of a police officer’s power to intimidate and to coerce.

While preparing for committing acts of nonviolent direct action, I have received training that reinforces the need to act politely to the police but not speak to them without a lawyer present. I do not harbor any ill will towards them but I offer them nothing. I know I’m in the tiny minority of those who have received this training, which takes patience and practice to achieve.

But all the training in the world does not remove the anxiety and fear I feel when I’m interacting with police, especially when my freedom and well-being sit in their hands.

For example, once while I was leg shackled to a chair bolted to the floor two police officers read me my Miranda rights. They asked me to affirm I understood them and then check each one off on a piece of paper. I followed their directions.

One of the officers said I appeared “familiar” with the rights, insinuating that I had heard them before possibly under similar circumstances. I said nothing in response.

I wanted to say “Yes, I’ve heard them before from cops.” But I didn’t. (I also thought about saying, “I’ve watched enough episodes of “Law and Order.”)

Since they didn’t know anything about me, I didn’t see a reason to admit I had been arrested before. Without the training, I may have.

And I’m not a black boy. I’m a well-educated middle class white woman with all the unfair associated privilege who knew that a team of lawyers would defend me regardless of what I said.

But if I were a young person of color, I could only imagine how an interaction with armed police officers would feel and look.

Therefore, if you ever find yourself asking, “Why would someone confess to something they hadn’t done?” Change that question to, “How many confessions are falsely given because people feel intimidated, anxious and afraid?”



Grief: A Journey Without A Map




by Karen Topakian

You don’t know where you’re going. Or when you will arrive.

But you know you’re traveling. Down a road full of memories. Dreams. Nightmares and spontaneous tearful explosions.

Chirping birds can send you into paroxysms of grief because they remind you of the serenading birds on your mom’s deck.

Walking on buckling pavement can instantly draw tears as you remember your mom clinging to your arm as you guided her to make sure she didn’t fall.

Chuckling at a funny squib in the paper can turn to sobs because you know she would find humor in the same bit of absurdity.

These moments. These memories. All drive you back to other times. Times when the person who is gone lived and breathed.

The loss remains. Along with the sadness and the pain. But the journey continues without her. To an unknown destiny.

My Mother’s Death Gave Me New Words

by Karen Topakian


Writing cards and letters comes easily to me. Especially birthday greetings. Or wedding cards. Anything requiring a happy, celebratory message. The sad ones prove the hardest, especially sympathy cards.

When I mentioned this to my mother, she asked, “You’re a writer. Why can’t you write a simple message of sympathy?”

I didn’t know why. I just knew I struggled to find the right words to express my feelings about loss. The only ones I could muster sounded flat and pat. I wanted to do better.

Often, I delayed sending the card while I waited for divine inspiration, which rarely arrived.

But no longer. Since I received so many caring and thoughtful cards and messages to help me through my current tear-filled moments, I can now write these words to others, hopefully providing the same comfort they gave me.

“Thinking about you as you work to figure out life without your mother. I can imagine the hard and the good memories mix and mingle frequently for you…”

“Losing a parent was like having the earth become unstable under my feet.”

“I wish you peace in heart, health in body and strength in spirit. And for you to have far more joy than sorrow.”

My mother would be happy to know that through her death I now have the right words.





My Mother Lived a Happy Healthy Life



by Karen Topakian

My mother lived a happy healthy life for 92 years. She experienced her share of sadness during her mother’s and my father’s health challenges but she managed to avoid other struggles and heartaches that plague many families.

She lived through lean times, which fostered a commitment and practice to not waste money or resources.

While visiting her, I helped around the house including taking out the trash. As I prepared to empty the kitchen basket, she never failed to instruct me.

“Just empty the contents into the trash barrel but not the bag. That bag is clean. I can use it again.”

As I huffed off, annoyed at her for schooling me about how to empty the trash, I stopped to realize she was practicing one of the tenets of environmentalism: reuse. By reusing a paper bag she was protecting resources.

My mother enjoyed owning nice things and taking care of them. She didn’t mind spending money, if she received value in return. Though she owned lovely clothes, she didn’t spend a king’s ransom for them because she knew how to shop. When we would enter a clothing store, she immediately felt the sale rack’s magnetic pull. As her mobility decreased, she would ask me to check it out for her.

We shopped together for decades. Truly a rite of passage. She possessed a keen eye for color, design and appropriateness.

She liked to hold the item, feel the fabric, see how it hung, look at the color. She wanted the full experience.

And she had opinions about every garment.

While plowing through a pile of sweaters at Talbots, I held up a red V-neck sweater. “Mom, what about this one?” She smiled and said, “Theoretically, it’s a nice sweater.” Then pointed out it was the wrong color red, the V was too deep and she didn’t like the sleeve length.  Other than that, it was fine.

My mother always enjoyed improving her home, going places, and seeing people. Despite her advanced years, she never lost those desires. Her mobility slowed her down but didn’t take her out of the game. She maintained the same level of enthusiasm for people and new experiences.

For example, before I arrived for a visit, I would suggest she start a list of things we could do together. At first, she poo pooed the idea saying she just wanted to see me. But as time wore on she would jot down a few items. Shortly after I arrived, we would review her looong list so I could organize them into time blocks.

Here are some examples of what she wrote:

  • Visit the cemetery
  • Pick out a light fixture over the kitchen sink
  • Visit Helene – a friend since childhood
  • Try the new restaurants in Garden City
  • Buy a new wicker chair for the deck
  • Go to the movies, preferably the Avon Cinema and Andreas Restaurant
  • Visit our CT cousins
  • Go to Wickford for lunch
  • Go to Newport to see Judy
  • Visit cousin Bob in MA
  • Go to the RISD museum

Miraculously, we managed to do all if not most of them. If Peg had come to visit she would join us sometimes my sister and sometimes just the two of us.

I would drive while my mom chattered away in the front seat about politics, family news or her friends’ lives. She made the journey as enjoyable as the destination.

My mother had an uncanny ability for remembering people whom she may have only met once or twice or met many, many years ago. Once they entered her memory they never left.

My friends fell into that category. Often she would ask about people whom she had met years ago during her visits to San Francisco or may have never met but heard me talk about.

“You haven’t mentioned Joell and Tricia lately, how are they?’”


“How are Nina and her daughter doing?”

Frequently, I didn’t have an answer because I hadn’t seen these friends recently. She never made me feel badly for not knowing about their wellbeing but her query reminded me of the importance of maintaining friendships and relationships.  And of the importance of remembering people.

My mother possessed a strong sense of humor but she couldn’t tell a joke. She could tell you about the joke, then couldn’t quite remember the punch line. But she could tell a story.

Nothing left her memory. For example:

“I still remember the first time I saw Cousin Eddie with a woman. We were all at Sophie’s beach house in Buttonwoods. He never brought a woman to meet the family. We all thought this must be serious. There was Lillian looking very pretty wearing a polka dot dress. I can still see her standing with Eddie.”

She could tell you about taking her dinner break with Helene when they worked at Kennedy’s in the 1940s. “We would walk down Weybosset Street to a Chinese restaurant. We ordered chow mein and it came with cole slaw and a roll. All for 25 cents. Imagine, a Chinese restaurant serving cole slaw?”

She connected with people very quickly. Always looking for a common thread.

Recently, a physical therapist named Sonja came to the house to help improve her mobility and balance.

When I inquired anxiously about the first visit, she responded. “She’s young. Very pretty with long blonde hair. She lives in Cranston and has two children. I don’t think either one is in middle school.”

I interrupted her, “Mom, what about the exercises? Did you do any exercises?”

“I marched around; I lifted my knees.”

Relieved to find out they hadn’t just been gabbing, I continued, “Did she give you homework?”

“Yes, but I don’t know if i’ll do them.”

Before I could chastise her, she beamed through the phone, “She’s a Baxter’s customer.”

Bingo my mother had a found the common thread with Baxters Jewelry her former employer and most favorite place to work.

When my mother was a child, her Uncle Archie commented about her chatty nature by asking, “Hey Alice, were you vaccinated with a Victrola needle?”

Her gift of gab never left her and created a rich world of friends and family.

One of my mother’s longtime friends former Cranston mayor Jimmy diprete once described my mother has someone who could “talk a dog off a meat wagon.”

Her talking not only forged relationships but also kept her vibrant, relevant and sane.

She kept up on political news, local, national and foreign and tales from the Mafia.

When the head of the Gambino family was shot recently in front of his home on Staten Island, I called my mother to discuss the details.

“At least he wasn’t shot at that steak house in New York.”

“You mean Paul Castellano in front of Sparks?” showing off my mafia history cred.

“Yes. Your father and I ate there once,” She proudly answered.

Her politics changed with the times and as she aged. From her family roots in Republicanism, she moved toward more liberal ideas and values until today where she supported the ACLU and Greenpeace.

One time many years ago, she shared a revelation with me “While I was vacuuming, I thought about how national borders and organized religion caused so many wars and problems in the world. Why don’t we just get rid of them?” I said, “wow mom that’s pretty deep.” She responded “I’m just a middle-aged middle class housewife, if I can think this then…”

My mother lived her life surrounded by Armenians. Not all of them had a firm grasp on English. Once when she was driving a friend of her grandmother’s home, the woman said, “Thank you for delivering me.” My mother laughed when she told us later. That phrase stuck with me.

Every year on my birthday, I would call my mother to utter one phrase when she answered the phone, “Thank you for delivering me.”

I’m so grateful for having had her loving presence in my life for so long.

Earlier, I talked about how Alice always remembered people. Once someone entered her memory, they never left. I like to think the reverse is true, too. Once she entered their memory, she never left.




Your wife wants you to do this






by Karen Topakian

This subject line appeared in my inbox from someone I didn’t know.  I didn’t have to open it to know what to do. Because I know what my wife wants.

But how did the mystery sender know….

  • She wants me to finish collecting the information to complete our tax return.
  • She wants me to schedule the new toilet installation from the SF PUC.
  • She wants me to confirm my Greenpeace meeting travel plans for July.
  • She wants me to schedule the tree pruner.
  • She wants me to be happy.


You Don’t Forget



by Karen Topakian

You don’t forget. The unwanted hands covering your body. Their laughter. The grinding hips. The thrusting. The smell of alcohol. The faces so close. Bearded. Shaved. Stubbled. The fear. The embarrassment. The humiliation. The guilt.

You do forget the date. The time. The make and model of the car but not how your bare calves feel pushed repeatedly against the vinyl seats. You do forget the story you made up to explain your disheveled clothes and hair to your parents.

You tell no one. You lock the secret in your heart. Push it down deep. You try to shake it off.  You convince yourself you dreamt it. Imagined it. You tell yourself. You’re ok. You can handle it. It doesn’t matter. You tell yourself it never happened. Until it happens again.

We Should Be Afraid NOT TO MARCH For Climate Jobs and Justice

by Karen Topakian


Recently a friend told me she knew people afraid to march on Saturday.

But she didn’t know why.

I speculated maybe they never marched before and didn’t know what to expect. Maybe they worried someone might drive their car into the march to injure or kill people. Maybe they were afraid for their job or career, if they were seen taking to the streets.

I mentioned this to my friend and colleague, Annie Leonard, who said, “We should be afraid NOT TO MARCH.” And she was right.

If we don’t march for climate justice, I’m afraid our leaders will think we support the status quo – drilling for oil and gas, laying pipelines and burning fossil fuel.

If we don’t march for climate justice, I’m afraid we will regret not taking action to mitigate the planetary destruction while we still can.

If we don’t march for climate justice, I’m afraid for the people who live in low-lying coastal communities around the world who will lose their land, their culture and their way of life because we didn’t do enough to stop the seas from rising.

Let’s face our fears and MARCH!!

Mangroves – Nature’s Hero



by Karen Topakian

On our recent trip to Senegal, Peg booked us a three day stay at this restful spot, Ecolodge Simal, located on the banks of the Sine Saloum River, home to a wealth of mangrove forests.


We stayed in this traditional house, which we fondly referred to as our “furry hut.” A round thatched mud hut. Spacious, comfortable. With the bathroom open to the sky.


On our first morning, we hopped into a pirogue, a long narrow canoe made from a single tree trunk, for a tour of the mangrove swamps/forests.


On the second morning, we paddled out ourselves in a double kayak to explore the mangroves up close.

These short shrubby trees deserve hero status. It not only manages to survive in salty conditions, it thrives. Plus it traps sediment and colonizes mudflats.


According to the Livelihood Funds: Mangroves protect vital arable land and serves as effective filtration systems that prevent the influx of saline water which renders soil unfit for agriculture. Without mangroves, the salt content of water increases, impeding the growth of rice. Lastly, it boosts depleted fish stocks along with shrimp, oysters, and mollusks that mangrove forests harbor.




Mangroves store carbon, provide breeding grounds and nurseries for fish, prevent erosion during tropical cyclones, and help cleanse waters of pollutants, says Earth Observatory.

What more do you want from a plant?

The male plant forms a pod, a propagule, which falls into the salty water, floats on the current before dropping to the muddy bottom and taking root far from its parents to establish a new mangrove colony. Roots form and others join the fray to form a swamp or forest.


Once again, nature proves resilient, if we humans would just step out of the way and let it perform its miracles.

Thank you Daniel Ellsberg for Naming My Religion


by Karen Topakian

On a warm August 6th morning, Daniel Ellsberg stood next to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and publicly declared his religion as nonviolent resistance to nuclear weapons.

I too announced my commitment to this religion.

After his declaration, I participated in one of my religion’s annual rituals – commemorating the August 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by joining a die-in at the gates to the Lab. (The Lab tests and designs nuclear weapons.)

My commitment to this August ritual started in 1982, when I protested at the entrance to the Pentagon and at the National Air and Space Museum next to the exact replica of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” the bombs dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Thereafter in Rhode Island, I protested at Electric Boat, which manufactures Trident nuclear-armed submarines.

For more than 10 years, I have faithfully made a pilgrimage to this Lab to mark the moment that occurred long before I was born but has dominated the world ever since.

I claim these days as holy days to recall the horror the US unleashed on Japan and the world.

Holy days to reflect on the cascading events that have led to environmental destruction and loss of life.

Holy days to invigorate us to re-double our efforts to end this chapter in human history.

I hope in my lifetime my religion will no longer need practicing because we will have abolished all nuclear weapons. Until then, my religious practice will continue.

Tomorrow, I will visit a place


by Karen Topakian

I visit every year to commit an act I commit almost every year to mark an event that many have forgotten.

The U.S. bombing of Hiroshima, Japan on Aug 6, 1945.

I will go to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory because the Lab is the place where the US government continues to test and design nuclear weapons.

Tomorrow, I will listen to Daniel Ellsberg and others speak at a rally. I will march to the Lab gates. Lie on the ground when my colleagues sound the alarm at the time the US dropped an atomic uranium bomb, 8:15 a.m.

While I lie there, I will think about the terror that this one bomb unleashed on the world. The wars fought over which countries may have one. The wars threatened against the countries that want to have one or may have one. The lives lost on all sides from the radiation poisoning, from the testing, the uranium mining…. The dollars spent  protecting, designing and testing nuclear weapons.

I will cry at some point as I contemplate the enormity of the problem. The ability for nuclear weapons to destroy all life forms.

And I will laugh at myself wondering how lying on hot pavement in Livermore, CA could change anything about this global nightmare.

But I will stay down on the pavement until the police come to take me away because in this moment, at this time, lying down to block the gate is what I must do to ensure I never forget. Humanity never forgets. And we abolish these weapons forever.