Joan Becker is a woman of astounding faith and strength. And she is also a mom, Mark Becker’s mom. Joan has been speaking for 6+ years about her story: being the mother of the young man who took the life of Parkersburg legendary coach Ed Thomas. It’s amazing to me that she has the strength to do so. One of the first things she shared with us was a conversation with her older son Brad. He had asked her how she would ever be able to completely heal if she kept opening up the wound. She said sharing her personal story gives her strength. She noted: “I so know that it is helping other people. I don’t want any other mother or father sitting in our shoes. We have nothing to lose by sharing our story”. She mentioned that hearing from families and individuals that have gotten help because of her story is what keeps her going.
Joan mentioned that Ed Thomas was one of the few people who knew what was going on with Mark and would often pull the Becker’s aside after Sunday School to ask how he was doing. When asked about that day, Joan said: “Mark believed that God was telling him to take the life of Ed Thomas. He believed in his whole mind and heart that he was doing this for the better”. Joan’s husband Dave was got a call from the neighbors who told him that there were cops in the Becker’s front lawn and that it looked like Mark was involved with Ed Thomas’ shooting. The Becker family went to the sheriff’s office for questioning and Joan stated: “God was there with us, no doubt about it”. She said that her youngest son, 17 year old Scott, was praying out loud for his parents. Joan was impressed by the support that her family received from law enforcement. The DCI agent and other people in law enforcement told the Becker family not to blame themselves.
The trial was difficult for everyone involved. Joan had a side of the story that wasn’t in the ESPY’s or in the press. She recognized that it there was really no way that a jury could say “not guilty” because the evidence was overwhelming. However, she did note that Iowa does not have a “guilty but insane” verdict. She said it was grueling to be in the courtroom and listen to testimony because they didn’t tell the whole truth. She also said that she wasn’t angry with the jury or any of the witnesses because everyone did their best. She said: “I don’t think I have to forgive the jury because I don’t blame them, they were just doing the best they knew how”.
Obviously this was a very high profile case and it was all over the media. One of the first things that the Becker family watched on TV was Aaron Thomas’ press conference where he asked people to pray for the Becker family. Joan noted that she and her family were treated with respect by the media and that no one demanded interviews. They gave interviews after the trial to show the rest of the story and she said that none of the interviewers had dry eyes by the time they were done.
When Joan was asked what caused Mark’s behavior to culminate she said she really didn’t have an answer. She did say that she never believed that he would take anybody’s life, in fact the only person he talked about killing was himself. She said that it’s easy to look back and see the shift in his behavior but at the time, everyone was so immersed day to day that they couldn’t take a step back and look at the big picture. She pointed to his first marijuana usage as the first sign. She asked Mark why he did it but never got an answer. She said that he should’ve gotten into counseling right then. She also said that the voices started to take more control and he enrolled and dropped out of college three times and moved 12 times and had 11 different jobs in a short amount of time. She confessed that Mark felt like he was a failure so he decided to self medicate and take heavy drugs but they didn’t fix the issue. Joan revealed that Mark confessed that he didn’t want to admit that he was hearing voices because he didn’t want to be labeled as crazy.
Joan and her family visit Mark in Coralville and they have a direct line to his team of doctors. Mark has been diagnosed (officially) and has been getting treatment, medication, and therapy and is doing fairly well in general population. Unfortunately for Mark and many other people with mental illnesses, it takes prison for them to get the help that they need. Joan worked extremely hard to get her son the help that he needed but was unsuccessful in doing so. She said: “We have tried so hard to get our son help and no one listened to us”. She noted that as a parent, when all she was trying to do was love and support her child, she became so weary because there came a point where she just didn’t know where to turn. About Mark, she noted: “We learned not to disagree with him, but we didn’t agree with him either. We just listened to him because we didn’t know what else to do”. She also noted that Mark feels safe in prison and that the outside world frightens him.
Joan was asked if Mark ever acknowledged what he had done or his mental illness and she said that it had been a long process. Early on, he kept fighting the idea that he did anything wrong until he read a book by a psychiatrist who had paranoid schizophrenia and then he finally admitted that he had an illness. She said: “Once he recognized that we have seen such strides in his progress”. Joan said that he is making the most out of his life now. He works full time in the prison and mentors other inmates. She is proud of him.
Forgiveness is a powerful thing and something that can be extremely difficult especially in a case like this. Joan stated however that it was easy as a mother to forgive Mark because she knew that he had no idea what he had done. She said: “as a parent, you don’t have to love what they did, but they’re still your kid so you love them”. She found it harder to forgive the people that she felt had let them down when they were trying to get Mark help. She said that Mark’s brothers have forgiven him and that the Thomas family will have to forgive him in their own time. She said that Mark still hasn’t forgiven himself and that he often apologizes and says: “why me, why Ed Thomas? I can honestly say I wasn’t myself when this happened”. Joan said that her family has healed in different ways and in different times but has always been glued together. More importantly, she said: “God kept us together”.
Joan’s goal with speaking is that she wants people with mental illness to have parity with treatment. She said we have got to get people to the right doctors where they can get a diagnosis, treatment plan, and the help that they need. She stated that “if one family could be prevented from going through this, it’s worth it. Yes this is a tragedy, but good can come out of it”. Joan Becker has amazing perspective, outstanding strength, and unshakable faith and it was inspiring to see.