'Angel' makes a career in kindness at the 'Bangkok Hilton' prison
Susan Aldous is a friend of inmates and guards alike.
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It's Saturday afternoon, and she's just arriving for her weekly rounds of a women's shelter. Aldous waves to a clutch of women – battered wives, rape victims, single mothers – unwinding in the leafy yard. "You're sitting there like in an old folk's home!" she jokes.Skip to next paragraph
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The women cackle, greeting her delightedly.
Kids mob her. Aldous hands them toys and chocolates – two each so they can donate one to a sibling or friend. "This way they learn they never lose by giving – if only a smile, a kind word, or a helping hand," she explains.
On weekends, Aldous holds birthing courses here for expectant mothers and "laughing yoga" for the sick, throws parties, and teaches English and dance to the kids. "Sister is so kind to us. No one else cares about us," says Oy, an emaciated resident suffering from AIDS.
Once, Aldous herself might have been a resident here. Raised by foster parents in an upper-middle-class enclave of Melbourne, Australia, she describes herself in childhood as a menace, "jamming pins into kids' butts" and terrorizing classmates. By her teens, in the 1970s, she'd dropped out of school and was, by turns, a spaced-out flower child (like "Mary Poppins on crack," she says); a hell-raising skinhead biker in military fatigues; and a protopunk with tattoos, safety-pin piercings, and shaved eyebrows.
Not yet 17, she was nicknamed "Petrol Head" for her gas, glue, and aerosol sniffing habits. She'd throw tantrums and slash herself with razor blades, she says. "I was angry at the world and rebelled at a predictable life in the suburbs."
But then she had an epiphany. Wandering around Melbourne's red-light district, she encountered volunteers of a nondenominational Christian group. Aldous talked to them of suicide, when one of them suggested: "If you're going to throw your life away, why don't you instead give it away?"
Compassion has been "my drug of choice" ever since, she says of her born-again experience.
A 1985 tour of volunteering in Southeast Asian slums and prisons brought her to Thailand for nine days – and she's practically never left. "My past is my PhD in this work," she notes. Last Christmas, Aldous staged a narrated pantomime of her life for women at the shelter, preaching love and forgiveness.
But, she says, she doesn't proselytize: "I despise spiritual bribery. God is love, but you have to show it before you say it. I believe Jesus can make you a better Buddhist, and I want to convert people [only] to love." She laughs. "I guess I'm a superannuated hippie."
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Aldous's close friend, Chavoret Jaruboon, is a soft-spoken, courteous man, and her most unlikely ally. Until the introduction of lethal injection recently, it was this senior guard's job to execute condemned prisoners in Bang Kwang – with a submachine gun.
He's helped her with projects aimed to improve the lot of the neediest inmates. "Prisoners call us 'the Angel and the Devil,' " he notes drolly.
When Aldous offered to help Thai inmates some years ago, Chavoret recommended obtaining eyeglasses for elderly prisoners who couldn't afford them. So Aldous launched a drive and obtained glasses for more than 150 lifers, the oldest of whom is 98.
"Thai people believe in karmic destiny," Chavoret says. "They say when you visit a prison you should walk in backward [so bad karma stays behind you]. Susan doesn't [believe that]." She heads straight in, he adds, bringing smiles to inmates "who have nothing to look forward to but her visits.
"But I tell you," the executioner adds, chuckling, "she can drive me crazy with her constant requests."