Stories from Dr. Yukari, Story 54, A Bullet to the Face

[ Stories from Dr. Yukari ]

Guided by the hope of St. Nichiren, we continue to work towards a peaceful society. Honolulu Myohoji Mission collaborates with Psychologist Dr. Yukari Kunisue, a trained and experienced therapeutic life coach, to offer a safe online space: Stories from Dr. Yukari

 Ian Emanuel

Debbie, a 28-year-old living in Tampa FL was walking towards her car after a dinner. Debbie recently had her second baby and this was a fun and relaxing night out with her close friends. Suddenly, a couple of young black men approached her asking for change. She said, 

“No, sorry.” 

But before she finished her words, the youngest of the men shouted, 

“Give me the f*cking money, now!“

With a pistol pointed directly at her. Suddenly, a bullet shot through her mouth and miraculously went out through her upper cheek.

During this chaotic moment, Debbie took notice that the gunman was just a young boy. Debbie was covered by blood and managed to run back to the restaurant, shouting, 

“They shot me! They shot my face! Do I still have my face?!”

This incident occurred on July 27, 1990.  A few days after the incident, police arrested a thirteen-year-old boy named Ian Manuel for another burglary. He later confessed that he had shot Debbie in the face. Ian grew up in a single parent home without ever knowing his father. His mother worked several jobs to support their family. Ian was caught many times for crimes including shoplifting, burglary, and pickpocketing. 

His lawyer advised him to plead guilty in order for him to receive a lighter sentence since he was a minor when these crimes were committed. His mother also begged him to submit a guilty plea. However, he received a life sentence without parole, a serious verdict for a young boy like Ian. Ian was treated as an adult offender, and due to his bad attitude, he was confined in a prison cell for years.

Debbie was later told that the gunman was only 13 years old. While it shocked her, she needed to focus on her recovery from the trauma. Over the next 10 years, Debbie went through as many as 40 reconstructing surgeries for her teeth, gum, jaw, and palate. Slowly, her physical injuries were healed but her mental and emotional trauma stayed with her for a long time.  For countless times, she went back to the same scene—walking towards her car, replaying the boys asking for money, the gun pointing at her, receiving the impact of the bullet, seeing the boys’ faces, and reliving the nightmare. One bullet, on that summer evening, changed both Ian and Debbie’s lives forever. 

One cold day in December, just a few days before Christmas, Ian got a permission for the first time to make one outgoing phone call. He did not call his mother who also never visited him, but instead, he called Debbie whom he badly hurt. He wanted to apologize to her. When Debbie received a collect call request form the prison, at first, Debbie did not know what to do.  Upon picking up, the caller repeated, “I am sorry”, “Please forgive me”, and “I did a terrible thing to you.” He finally decides to hang up and added, “Merry Christmas!”

Debbie understood the amount of courage it took for him to give her a call. A convicted criminal, who never had equal opportunities life, and now facing the steep sentence of life in prison. Looking past her hatred and trauma, Debbie understood him with her heart. After the phone call, Ian wrote a letter to Debbie: “Thank you for accepting my phone call. I could not take back what I did, but thank you for talking to me. May I write a letter again?” Eventually she replied: “You write well. Read more books. Your prison must have a library. There is absolutely nothing you can do to what already happened. Think forward! Think to live! That’s what I do.”

The letter exchange between the shooter and the victim continued for the next 26 years. Ian spent 18 years out of the 26 years in a single cell. During those years, he tried many times to commit suicide but ended up surviving because Debbie was “there”. 

A human rights NPO group in Alabama won a court battle to protect minors from heavy sentences. Eventually, Ian was released from the prison at the age of 40. At the time of his release, Debbie was 55 years old. 

Ian said, “I could not be here without her.” 

He had close to no real world experience. He does not have a driver’s license, does not know how to cook, never used a washing machine in his life, and never opened a bank account. When Ian became reacclimated to society, Debbie was there to support him. While she hated crime, she did not hate the person who committed it. They became inseparable “life partners” and their story was quickly picked up by media and many were in awe of their story.

The story of Ian and Debbie teaches us about forgiveness. It allows us to reflect on our purpose and meaning in life. They show us how to conquer the hardships that life inevitably brings. Viktor E. Frankl, a famous survivor of Auschwitz and the author of Man’s Search for Meaning said, “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”


I don’t think many of us can easily understand the suffering of people who were shot or who had to spend life time in prison. Nonetheless, their courage and strengths within their hearts are something we can always be inspired by. 


Debbie and Ian