The Washington Post
Bone to Pick: Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Reparation, and Revengeby Ellis Cose
In a world riven by conflict, reconciliation is not always possible -- but it offers one of the few paths to peace for a troubled nation or a troubled soul. In Bone to Pick, bestselling author and Newsweek editor Ellis Cose offers a provocative and wide-ranging discussion of the power of reconciliation, the efficacy of revenge, and the possibility of forgiveness.
People increasingly are searching for ways to put the demons of the past to rest. That search has led parents to seek out the murderers of their children and torture victims to confront their former tormentors. In a narrative drawing on the personal and dramatic stories of people from Texas to East Timor, Cose explores the limits and the promise of those encounters.
Bone to Pick is not only the story of victims who have found peace through confronting the source of their pain; it is also a profound meditation on how the past shapes the present, and how history's wounds, left unattended, can fester for generations. Time does not heal all, Cose points out. Memories and anger can linger long beyond a human lifespan. The descendants of Holocaust survivors and African slaves alike feel the effects of their forebears' pain -- and in some cases are still demanding restitution.
What is behind the movement for reparations? Why are truth-and-reconciliation commissions sprouting all over the world? Why are old wars being refought and old wounds being reopened? In Bone to Pick, Ellis Cose provides a moving and nuanced guide to such questions as he points the way toward a more harmonious world.
The Washington Post
James Hoge Editor of Foreign Affairs magazine Atrocities by individuals and by states occur with dismaying frequency, leaving in their wake abiding memories of wounds that cripple lives and whole societies. How to disarm those memories and thereby find peace and, where possible, reconciliation is the moving theme of this powerful and insightful study of man's inhumanity to man.
Anthony D. Romero Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Bone to Pick provides an eloquent and engaging analysis of the process of forgiveness and reconciliation that is central to the human experience. Cose analyzes Jim Crow racism, apartheid, sexual abuse, the caste system, and genocide drawing conclusions about hurt, forgiveness, revenge, and reconciliation that are as relevant for individuals as for entire societies. The well-researched and poignant examples elucidate how our past is intimately connected to our future, and Cose pays tribute to the indefatigable perseverance of the human spirit.
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Read an Excerpt
To forgive the truly horrible is to kiss the robe of God, to emulate no less a figure than the dying Jesus Christ. Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. Those words leapt into Colleen Kelly's mind when she realized her brother was gone forever, buried in the smoldering graveyard that had once been the World Trade Center. The architectural pride of Wall Street, an icon of America's power and beauty, was now a symbol of incomprehensible horror, an unlikely resting place for Bill.
Bill was in financial services, a salesman for Bloomberg L.P. He did not normally work at the World Trade Center. So the family initially had no idea he was there. But once the planes plowed into the towers, New Yorkers everywhere picked up phones, mostly to reassure one another life would go on.
Colleen learned that Bill had been attending a conference at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center. And that September day it fell on her, a nurse and mother of three living in the Bronx, to make the trek into Manhattan. Sustained by the hope, the dream, that Bill had somehow made it out, she wandered from hospital to hospital, inquiring about her brother. Eventually she grew cognizant of an ominous fact: though doctors and nurses abounded, there was no one for them to treat -- no one, at any rate, from the World Trade Center. "That's when I knew Bill was dead." And that's when the words of Jesus Christ flashed through her mind. Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.
She realized the words made absolutely no sense, not in the present context. The terrorists had clearly known, with horrifying precision, exactly what it was that they were doing. Her response, she later concluded, stemmed not from an urge to forgive but from an almost instinctive resolve not to hate. The leap to Jesus' words on the cross was her mind's way of reaffirming values that she had clung to all her life, values that embraced peace over war. In the face of the most wrenching provocation imaginable, she rejected vengeance. "These terrorists had taken my brother," she told me over lunch many months later, "and I wasn't going to let them take anything else."
Colleen was among the founders of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. The families sought to honor their lost loved ones by condemning vengeance and violence -- even if that meant visiting Iraq as America prepared to make war on Saddam Hussein, or meeting with the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui (the so-called twentieth hijacker) in an effort at dialogue and reconciliation.
It is not my purpose here to consider the political effectiveness or appropriateness of such efforts. I am more interested in Kelly's initial impulse, in the notion that forgiveness, albeit as a proxy for a larger set of values, could even be considered in the context of acts so vile as those perpetrated by the September 11 terrorists.
Are some things so awful they cannot be forgiven? Or does wisdom lie closer to Kelly's instinctive response? Are some acts so horrifying, so incomprehensible, so beyond the scope of normal humanity, that they must be forgiven -- or at least consigned to that section of the heart most open to mercy and compassion, most inclined to let go of the urge to revenge?
A developing school of psychology argues that forgiveness is a gift not only to the person forgiven but to those who grant the gift, those strong enough to forgive. Robert Enright, a leader in that school, sees forgiveness as a route to personal freedom, a way of rejecting the self-imposed, self-reinforcing label of victim and escaping an ultimately soul-destroying maze of anger and resentment. Indeed, practicing forgiveness may even lower your blood pressure, while relieving other ailments -- physical and mental -- traceable to the stress of chronic anger.
It is not just a handful of psychologists, but also holy men and philosophers, who trumpet the benefits of a forgiving soul, who see forgiveness as much of the answer to what is wrong with mankind. Like all true believers, they overreach; many would turn the whole world into the church of forgiveness. And they tend to seek converts where they cannot (and perhaps should not) be found. But I believe they are onto something important -- at least for those capable of or willing to take on the challenge of living the attitude these particular believers promote.
In Forgiveness Is a Choice Enright tries to explain what forgiveness is and what it is not. It is not giving up the ability to hold people accountable or letting wrongdoers off the hook. It does not mean forgetting the wrong that they did, or becoming complicit in continued abuse. It does not mean turning your head as a pedophile abuses children or a violent husband batters his wife. Instead -- and he borrows the definition from philosopher Joanna North -- forgiveness means responding to unjust hurt with compassion, with benevolence, perhaps even with love. While it does not deny the right to resentment, it does not wallow in bitterness; nor does it necessarily demand that the perpetrator respond with gratitude or grace. Or as Enright and Richard Fitzgibbons spell it out in Helping Clients Forgive, "People, upon rationally determining that they have been unfairly treated, forgive when they willfully abandon resentment and related responses (to which they have a right), and endeavor to respond to the wrongdoer based on the moral principle of beneficence, which may include compassion, unconditional worth, generosity, and moral love (to which the wrongdoer, by nature of the harmful acts, has no right)." Michael McCullough, another psychologist and forgiveness researcher, defines the concept considerably less grandly -- as ending estrangement and letting go of resentments and of the urge to revenge.
Granting the kind of forgiveness Enright endorses seems a tall order for a mere mortal -- even one who hopes it will lower her blood pressure and otherwise make her a better, more healthy human specimen. Yet I have repeatedly found myself amazed at the capacity of and willingness of otherwise ordinary human beings to return injury with compassion.
Consider Azim Khamisa, an elegant, international investment financial consultant who is of Persian and Indian lineage. Khamisa was born in Kenya, educated in England, and immigrated to the United States in 1974. He was living in La Jolla, California, in January 1995 when tragedy shattered his theretofore peaceful existence.
After returning from a business trip to Mexico City, Khamisa had gone directly to a party. Having just endured a painful breakup with his then-girlfriend, Khamisa was soaking in the warmth and goodwill from a group of people particularly close to him. Khamisa and his friends left the party together and went to his home. Once they departed, an exhausted Khamisa collapsed in bed; he apparently slept through the knocks on the door later that night. The next morning, Sunday, his maid brought him a business card from a policeman -- a homicide detective -- that had been left in his door.
Khamisa called. It was then that he received the heart-stopping news that Tariq, his son, was dead. At first, Khamisa refused to believe it. The news was so shocking, so unexpected that he simply couldn't accept it. He hung up, dialed Tariq's number, and waited with every expectation that his son would come on the line. Instead, Tariq's fiancée answered, sobbing.
At that moment, the truth sank in. It was as if a nuclear bomb had exploded inside, tearing him into a million pieces, recalled Khamisa. "Life drained out of me." His soul left his body, ascending to another plane. "I felt the long arms of my Maker."
In time, Khamisa's soul returned, and he had no choice but to face facts. Tariq, then twenty and a student at San Diego State University, had been at his pizza delivery job that Saturday night when a woman ordered a pizza. Her call aroused no particular suspicions, nor did the delivery address -- a building in a lower-middle-class community not far from the university. When Tariq arrived, however, he found that the given apartment number did not exist.
Four gang members lay in wait. They pounced as Tariq headed back to the car. He made it inside, but the eighteen-year-old gang leader was not about to let him go. "Bust him," he ordered a fourteen-year-old soldier. The bullet passed through the window, through Tariq's shoulder, underneath one arm and came out under the other. The youths fled. A priest in a nearby building heard the shot and rushed out of the shower and into the street. He tried CPR, but Tariq, his aorta ruptured, was already dead.
One of Khamisa's close friends had also lost a son to murder. In an effort to comfort the grief-stricken Khamisa, the friend expressed the hope that Tariq's killers would "fry in hell." He also talked about his own lost son, and about how, if he could only get his hands on the murderer, he would execute not just the killer but "his whole clan." To Khamisa, who harbored no lust for revenge, the confession brought no relief.
He buried his son that Thursday. "My rage came on Friday," Khamisa recalled. "I was angry, but not at Tony [the shooter]," he told me. His anger singled out no particular individual; it was something more generalized, aimed at whatever it was in American society that had produced a fourteen-year-old kid who had killed a stranger on command. "My rage was mostly directed at society and my country." For the eighth-grade murderer, he felt compassion.
Khamisa's religious beliefs played a role in his reaction. A Shiite Muslim, Khamisa belongs to the Ismaili sect and extols Sufism -- an "inner, mystical, or psycho-spiritual dimension of Islam," in the words of Alan Godlas, a scholar at the University of Georgia. Khamisa's faith is "more eastern, more Buddhist than fundamentalist." It is about a quest for "the hidden meaning in the faith," Khamisa explained.
That faith, as Khamisa practices it, embraces peace, forgiveness, love; and it doesn't allow much time for mourning or for self-pity. "We mourn the first forty days. After forty days, excessive mourning will impede the soul's journey," Khamisa's Ismaili spiritual adviser reminded him. The adviser also told him that his response to the death of his son would determine the quality of the rest of his life.
Those words spawned a great deal of solitary soul-searching, some of it spent on Mammoth Mountain, immersed in nature's tranquility. Khamisa struggled with a dilemma. "I wanted to do something for my son; but how do you do something for somebody who's not here?"
"This was a meaningless tragedy, very random. Tony and Tariq had never met. But for me to continue the rest of my life" -- Khamisa paused as he gathered his thoughts -- "how do you do this without taking it and making some meaning out of it?" He continued, "I had lost my will to live."
The answer came that April; he would form a foundation in his son's memory. The Tariq Khamisa Foundation tries to save people like the fourteen-year-old Tony Hicks, an alienated kid who committed murder for lack of something better to do. It holds forums in schools to teach kids the consequences of violence. The hope is that young people will learn how "to make the kind of choices that Tony did not make," said Khamisa. "If he had gone through this program, he would have made different choices," Khamisa added. As it was, Hicks ended up pleading guilty to first-degree murder and was given a sentence of twenty-five years to life. He was the first juvenile to be sentenced as an adult under a new law aimed at young offenders.
The foundation "may not bring my child back; but we're going to stop other children from dying," vowed Khamisa.
When we spoke in early 2003, Khamisa noted that the foundation had grown to the point where it had a six-person staff, including his daughter, who was twenty-two when Tariq was killed. Since launching the foundation, Khamisa has received grateful letters from thousands of young people. "They help to mitigate the loss," he said. Khamisa had also noticed some changes in himself: "I'm a better person as a result of this tragedy...more compassionate, less self-indulgent."
The killer, Tony Hicks, had also undergone a transformation. Initially Hicks, as Khamisa tells it, was unrepentant. "He thought the pizza delivery man was stupid." But in the months leading up to his sentencing, Hicks's feelings changed. He ultimately begged for Khamisa's forgiveness.
Meanwhile, Khamisa developed a relationship with Hicks's grandfather and guardian, Ples Felix, who was nearly as traumatized by his grandson's choices as was Khamisa by the death of his son. The two men forged an alliance and they now appear onstage together, promoting nonviolence in Tariq's name. Khamisa dreams of the day when he, the grandfather, and Hicks, who may be paroled in 2017, can appear together to tell the story of the events that have forever changed and connected their lives.
"Azim's journey is a testament to the power of forgiveness. Through that power, we both rose up from the devastation that struck us down," wrote Ples Felix in the afterword to From Murder to Forgiveness, the book Khamisa published about his son's murder and its consequences. As for Tariq, the foundation was contributing to his spiritual life. It was building up "millions and millions of dollars of spiritual currency" in his name, said Khamisa. "Maybe Tariq will complete the rest of his journey in a Learjet."
Khamisa is an exceptional man. And yet he is not all that different from Richard Nethercut, or from Marietta Jaeger, who managed to reach out, in a spirit of conciliation and forgiveness, to the man who had kidnapped her daughter.
That kidnapping took place during the summer of 1972. Jaeger was in Montana on a camping vacation with her family when her seven-year-old daughter, the youngest child of five, was taken from the tent. When family members finally awakened and realized she was missing, they knew that she had not wandered off. Susie was much too well schooled to do such a thing. And when they saw that the tent had been cut, they had no choice but to assume that she had been abducted.
The response from the authorities, and even from ordinary people, was amazing and overwhelming. Soldiers with tracking dogs, private pilots with their own planes, and countless others -- most just ordinary people willing to search on foot -- showed up and offered their help. Businesses also contributed by releasing employees for the search. But despite all the assistance and good wishes, nothing turned up.
A week or so after Susie disappeared, the killer called the FBI. To confirm his identity, he mentioned a detail -- Susie's deformed fingernail -- that had not been publicly disclosed. He demanded $50,000 to be left in a bus depot in a locker; but he neglected to say exactly where or how the money should be delivered. The instructions were so maddeningly vague that Jaeger held a press conference to ask the kidnapper to please get in touch again.
It was around that time, said Jaeger, that she realized how much she had repressed her anger. She had simply not allowed it to surface. Suddenly, the damned-up rage crashed through. "Until that point," she recalled, "it had not occurred to me to be angry." That all changed. "I allowed myself to get in touch with my anger, and I realized I had every right to feel the way I did....I was just ravaged with hatred and a desire for revenge."
One night as she and her husband prepared for bed, Jaeger turned to him, consumed with anger, and said, "If the kidnapper were to bring Susie back alive and well, I could kill him." "And I knew I could," she said years later, "with my bare hands and a smile on my face." She was shaken by her own reaction. A "wrestling match with God and my conscience" ensued.
Jaeger was raised a Catholic. Hatred was unholy. To give into rage, decided Jaeger, would be to diminish herself and her relationship with God. So she "made a decision to make a commitment to forgiveness, to work toward forgiveness."
When the police and FBI came up empty, Jaeger returned to her home in Michigan. A few months later, the kidnapper called a second time, reaching Jaeger's sixteen-year-old son. The kidnapper repeated the demand for ransom but again hung up without giving coherent instructions.
A period of intense frustration followed. Clues emerged that led nowhere. Hopes were raised only to come crashing to earth. Jaeger renewed her faith. She continued to reject hatred and revenge. However she felt about the kidnapper, "in God's eyes, he was just as precious as my little girl," she told herself. Also, as a Christian, she was called on to pray for her enemies. So she forced herself to say little prayers on the kidnapper's behalf. If he is fishing, prayed Jaeger, let him have good weather, let him catch plenty of fish. All the while, she held on to the hope that her daughter was alive, and that the kidnapper would get in touch and that the nightmare would end. As the one-year anniversary of the kidnapping approached, a reporter from Montana called. She would "do anything," Jaeger told the reporter, for the chance to talk to the kidnapper. The reporter published her statement.
In June 1974, a year to the date of the abduction, the kidnapper called a third time. He started out by taunting Jaeger, but she ignored his taunts. "My primary concern was to reach the man. Find out who he was, why he had done this. How to get her back....I felt like I was standing outside, watching myself....I just desperately wanted to make a human contact with him."
"What can I do to help you?" she asked at one point. The kidnapper did not answer directly. Instead, he said something along the lines of "I wish this burden could be lifted from me." Jaeger realized that her words had touched him; his mood was very different from what it had been when the conversation began. They ended up talking for nearly an hour, during which the man made increasingly self-incriminating statements.
The clues he dropped led her to realize that he was one of the suspects who had been picked up originally, a twenty-six-year-old with a troubled emotional past. After he had passed a lie detector test, the authorities had let him go for lack of evidence. They had kept him under surveillance, but he had managed to slip out of Montana and drive to Salt Lake City, from where he had called Jaeger, confident the call could never be traced back to him. Eventually she started to call him by his name, which so rattled him that he vowed, "You'll never see your little girl alive again," and slammed down the phone.
He reappeared in his hometown a short while later, insisting he had never left. But the conversation, which she had taped, was evidence enough for the cops to get search warrants. They combed through an abandoned ranch not far from where he lived. There they found the remains of an eighteen-year-old female, along with the backbone of a small girl. Apparently Susie had been dead all along, killed perhaps a week after being kidnapped.
The kidnapper was arrested but initially denied involvement. Eventually -- after the prosecutor, prodded by Jaeger, took the death penalty off the table -- he confessed to Susie's murder and three others. Days later, he committed suicide by hanging himself.
Jaeger and her family quietly buried "what little was left of Susie." Later, she sought out the mother of the murderer. "Maybe it would be helpful to her to know I had forgiven him," she figured. "Together we were able to grieve for the loss of our children." To this day, the woman remains a friend.
In 1998, Jaeger returned to Montana, to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of her daughter's death. Her first husband, Susie's father, had died. And during that visit she met a cattle rancher. They married. She moved permanently to Montana and now lives outside the town where Susie disappeared.
Patricia Stonestreet, an elegant, gray-haired interior designer from Houston, Texas, had a strikingly similar experience. In June 1986, as she was getting ready to leave her office, she got a call telling her that her twenty-eight-year-old daughter, Lisa, was dead. At that moment a part of the mother died as well: "I felt like I was in a pit...screaming."
A twenty-five-year-old truck driver -- who as it turned out had raped numerous other women -- had broken into Lisa's apartment, raped her, stabbed her in the eyes, strangled her with pantyhose, and ultimately drowned her in the bathtub. Authorities found the slender, dark-haired beauty slumped over the bathtub, her head submerged in water. The assailant, Kenneth Bernard Harris, blamed his crack cocaine addiction for his acts.
The night of Lisa's funeral, recalled her mother, "My husband said, out of the clear blue, we have to forgive that man....We felt it would benefit us greatly if we followed the Scriptures and did what the Bible commanded us to do."
Harris, who was originally scheduled to die in 1995, got a stay of execution. Lee, Patricia Stonestreet's husband, died the following year -- of a "broken heart," she believes. Nonetheless, the family stayed firm in its resolve to forgive.
"We wanted to let him know we had forgiven him. It wasn't for revenge; it wasn't for closure....There is no closure for a victim."
The rules of the penitentiary prohibited them from making direct contact with the murderer. So when he had a new execution date set -- June 1997 -- Stonestreet and her three remaining children decided to attend. Before Harris died they would let him know he was forgiven.
They wrote the words "We forgive you" on a three-by-five card, which they planned to show him. But they were told no such display would be allowed. A chaplain, however, took Harris the message; and when the curtain opened, he asked to make a statement.
"I am sorry for all of the pain I have caused both families -- my family and yours," he said.
Even though forgiveness allowed the Stonestreet family to let go of the anger, it did not take away the pain. The healing, said Stonestreet, took years. And it was facilitated by her decision to volunteer for Bridges to Life, a faith-based program in Texas that sends crime victims into prisons. Over a twelve-week period, victims share their stories with the aim of helping the inmates realize the deep damage they have done. Since starting her work with Bridges in 1998, Stonestreet said, she had participated in the program, as of June 2003, some twenty-three times: "We heal a little bit when we tell our stories."
Marietta Jaeger (now Marietta Jaeger Lane), Azim Khamisa, and Patricia Stonestreet found solace in their respective faiths. Indeed, to some substantial extent, their reactions were dictated by their faiths. But their behavior was not dictated by faith alone. Religious obligations can be interpreted in any number of ways; and neither most Shiites nor most Christians respond to murder by expressing compassion for the murderer. Vengeance is mine...saith the Lord. And when it comes to the particularly horrible, many of us are just as content to let Him do His own forgiving as well. The choices made by Khamisa and Jaeger Lane and Stonestreet, I suspect, have at least as much to do with the kinds of human beings they are as with the brands of faith they happen to practice.
For Robert Enright and his forgiveness-minded colleagues, religion is not exactly beside the point, but it is subsumed under a much broader set of human dynamics. "Forgiveness...transcends the narrowly religious or denominational" but is "of profound spiritual and moral relevance to all of us, regardless of whether we hold specifically religious beliefs," wrote philosopher Joanna North in an essay in Exploring Forgiveness, a book she coedited with Enright.
Obeying religious principles is only one of countless possible human motivations for walking down the path of forgiveness. There are those who want to save or resurrect a relationship with a parent, a lover, or a spouse. And the price of resurrection is often forgiveness -- a forgiveness that, in some sense, may be harder to grant than forgiveness to a stranger. For a stranger, even a stranger who murders your daughter, had no relationship with you to violate. He committed a terrible act; but there was no betrayal of trust, since he had been granted no trust to violate.
In Exploring Forgiveness, Joanna North takes on the question of why a woman might forgive someone who attacked and robbed her. Certainly the woman would be justified in feeling contempt for her attacker. But what if years later she is still feeling the effects of that attack, if she is "anxious, nervous, depressed, suspicious, and mistrustful," if the "attack has corrupted and all but destroyed her life...because she cannot let go of the pain, cannot forgive the man who attacked her." Through forgiveness, argues North, "the pain and hurt caused by the original wrong are released, or at least they are not allowed to mar the whole of one's being for all time."
For close relations -- a mother, a lover, a spouse -- things are considerably different. One is not seeking merely to be released from pain, but also to understand, deepen, and perhaps redefine a relationship. And it is that very relationship that makes the offense worse -- that, in some cases, even makes the offense possible. You cannot be abandoned by a stranger whom you never expected to know. And though rape under any circumstances is horrible, rape by a father is infinitely worse. And that relationship is also what complicates the question of forgiveness.
The process of, the motivation for, and the expectations of forgiveness are different when dealing with a stranger who emerged from the night. Consider two stories, one told to me by a psychologist and therapist, the other by a woman struggling, in the most personal way, with the weight of betrayal and the possibility of reconciliation.
It was not so long ago that Sharon, as we will call her, used to cut herself -- small cuts with a razor where they would not be seen, on her upper arms, on her inner thighs, places covered by clothing. Painful though the cuts were, they were nothing compared to the pain inside from which the self-mutilation provided a release. "When she cut herself, it was as if the pain left her," said her therapist.
Pretty, athletic, with thick, dark hair, Sharon was sixteen when she came into therapy. On the surface, things could not have been better. She was an A student in advance-placement classes at her exclusive prep school, a standout in three sports, the kind of child that causes parents to puff up with pride. All that was lost on her mother -- an alcoholic divorcee, who had been rejecting Sharon virtually since the moment of her birth.
The most memorable brush-off occurred when Sharon was eleven. Her mother, in the throes of an alcoholic rage, chased her out of her house and tossed Sharon's clothes out behind her. Frightened and confused, Sharon waited on the front lawn until her father, called by a neighbor, appeared and rescued her.
Her dad, already estranged from the mother at the time of the incident, won Sharon in the divorce. The two younger girls stayed with their mom. "I was never what my mother wanted," confided Sharon. "I'm not blond and skinny with blue eyes; I'm a dark-haired Jew who's a lesbian."
Her two sisters, who were indeed blond and blue-eyed, took after their mother, while Sharon was cast in the image of her father. And though her father loved her unconditionally, her mother's rejection ate away at her. "The anger was so overwhelming, it debilitated her," observed her therapist. A friend, who had noticed the cutting, had prodded her into therapy. And not a moment too soon, as the therapist saw it.
"Cutting is a real tricky thing. And kids who do it are clever at knowing where to do it. But she was getting awful close to where she should not have been cutting." It did not take the therapist long to ascertain that the root problem was Sharon's mother, who thought nothing of disrupting her daughters' lives for her own purposes, even to the point of bringing false charges of child sexual abuse against the children's father.
During her first year in therapy, Sharon improved dramatically. Her depression lifted -- in part due to antidepressant drugs -- and she stopped cutting herself. She also began to feel better about herself, a process helped immeasurably by the incredible support her classmates gave her when she came out as a lesbian. Most dramatically, her attitude toward her mother changed. She went from rage and resentment to a state of partial understanding,
Her mother's behavior, Sharon decided, was really not totally her mother's fault. The woman was trapped by forces, including her drinking, beyond her control. So Sharon forgave her mother. And the change was astounding. She went from being an angry, self-destructive teenager to someone whose face reflected an inner sense of peace. "The burden of anger, of not forgiving, is more powerful sometimes than the trauma that causes the damage. Carrying around hurt and anger absorbs an enormous amount of energy," observed the therapist. So though she supported the decision to forgive, she was wary of Sharon's impulse to reestablish a relationship with her mother. The therapist had seen too many cases of abused children all too eager to embrace an abusive parent just so they could return to what they considered a state of normalcy.
Forgiveness, of course, does not necessitate acceptance of the unacceptable. It does not mean excusing abuse. In many cases, it makes sense only if forgiveness is part of a "larger package of understanding," noted Paula Panzer, a trauma expert and psychiatrist with the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services in New York. "If I don't also know that my inability to concentrate at work, or my subsequent dating problems, or my stomachache, or my drinking problem is related to trauma, forgiving is not going to solve those other problems," Panzer pointed out.
Indeed, for some who have decided to forgive, that decision itself can create conflict -- especially if the object of one's intended forgiveness is considered unworthy.
Consider Amy's dilemma. Like Sharon, Amy, as I will call her, was seeking a new relationship with her mother; and she, likewise, was dealing with issues of abuse. A petite redhead whose irrepressibly friendly manner gives no sign of a childhood spent in hell, Amy was raised in a Mormon household that, at least superficially, was deeply devout. Her mother was the head of the women's auxiliary and extremely active in the church.
Amy is not precisely sure when the abuse began. She was either six or seven. Her father, nearly three hundred pounds, was a frightening, chronically angry man. Initially, he fondled her; but he eventually tried to have intercourse. He stopped only because of the bleeding and the noise. "I screamed so loud, he decided not to hurt me."
He did not, however, stop the abuse. He continued fondling her and subsequently moved on to oral sex. He kept it up until she was fourteen and finally summoned the nerve to fight. When he would touch her, she would kick, scratch, do whatever she could to make him leave her alone. Eventually he gave up and Amy kept his secret. She felt she had no choice. If their "affair," as he termed it, became public, he warned, the family would disintegrate. Having seen the effects of divorce on her aunt's family, she knew it was nothing she wanted to cause. So she kept quiet: "I felt a responsibility to keep the family together."
Amy believes the abuse tainted her entire childhood. A pale redhead with a translucent complexion, she stood out at her mixed-raced school. Many kids, especially the Latinos, taunted her. But her father had sapped so much of her spirit that she could never fight back.
It wasn't until she got married -- at the age of sixteen -- to another domineering, older man -- that she began to feel safe. She quickly started a family of her own. At the time, her sister, who was five years younger than Amy, was still living with her parents in the trailer across the street. Amy had never imagined that her father would dare abuse another child; but one day when she walked into the trailer, she saw her sister, then thirteen, emerge from their father's room. "I just thought, 'No way. She's not going to go through that,' " said Amy, who by then had two children of her own.
Struggling to stay calm, Amy pulled her younger sister aside and told her how their father had violated her. "Is he abusing you?" she asked as tears flooded her sister's eyes.
Her anguished expression gave the answer. The abuse had gone on for as long as she could remember, the sister confided. "I was totally shattered," recalled Amy. "Something welled up in me I had never experienced before." She marched into her father's room and yelled, "It's over. You will never do it again to my sister. I don't care what you do to me. You can kill me, but I'm turning you in."
Amy was terrified; she had seen her father pummel her brothers and put his fist through a door. He was capable of smacking her, perhaps capable of killing her. And she feared the worse. But instead of striking out, he collapsed within, and he cried, begging her forgiveness. "I don't blame you. Go ahead. I need help," he said.
She turned in her father to the bishop of her church. The church elders ordered the father into counseling and advised Amy to keep her mouth shut. It was important, they told her, to "allow your father to repent without being judged by our community."
Now she realizes the church erred in not sending the whole family into counseling. When she did get counseling on her own, the therapist's advice contradicted that of the elders'. "He encouraged me to get it out in the open."
She believes the abuse and subsequent trauma undermined -- and ultimately ruined -- her first marriage. During the marriage, she struggled with "insecurities, horrible jealousy issues...I was hypersensitive...constantly watching for any kind of reason to suspect." And when her husband touched her in the night she would respond as she had to her father as a child -- hitting, kicking, scratching, instinctively defending herself. After the battle with her father over her sister, things got worse at her own home. "My husband wasn't aware of the abuse. And when he found out, it changed the way he looked at me....He felt betrayed that I hadn't been honest with him prior to the marriage."
Nonetheless, said Amy, "I forgave my father early on." His upbringing had been horrible, she reasoned. He was an orphan, and his guardians had beat him with a horsewhip. He had been made to drive cattle in the snow with holes in his shoes and he had been forced to work in the middle of the night, feeding the mink on which the family relied for a livelihood. "If I had been raised like that, I might have done what he had done," she said.
Amy's empathy notwithstanding, her dad did not make forgiveness easy. "Once I had forgiven him, he wouldn't let it go....He would keep asking my forgiveness....I wanted to move on. I didn't want to keep experiencing it. I wanted to create something new with my father, and I never did, which I regret."
Although forgiving her father was relatively easy, forgiving her mother was not. How, she wondered, had her mother allowed the situation to continue? Why had Mom signed up for night classes, knowing her departure would leave Amy alone with her dad? How could her mother deny culpability when, on one occasion, she walked in as dad performed oral sex? "She cried all night," Amy recalled. "I know because I was on the other side of that door. You can't tell me she didn't see it."
Amy tried to be proactively positive. She consumed personal improvement books for tips on dealing with her pain and she found work in the personal empowerment field, leading seminars to help men and women take control of their lives. She refused to feel sorry for herself. "I will never again be a victim," she said.
Still, nearly a quarter of a century after the abuse, she still seethed at the thought of her mother's betrayal. Some years ago she tried to talk it out with her mother. But her mom continued to plead ignorance, refusing to accept any responsibility. "To this day, she has not come to me with remorse," said Amy.
She found a life coach who was "able to show me what a frightened person my mother must have been to risk her daughter's physical, emotional, and mental well-being, for the sake of appearances." As a result, said Amy, "I've forgiven her. I don't understand it; but I don't feel the need so much now." Yet the forgiveness is far from complete. "I need to move beyond accepting it...to compassion for my mother," she said. "When I sit and think about it, I can go there. And then when I experience my mom..." Her voice trailed off. Through much of here life, she added, she had felt that her mom was jealous of her. "My mother says she loves me, but it's like it's out of duty....Even her hugs feel mechanical. They didn't feel genuine and they still don't."
Given Amy's plainly conflicted feelings, why did she feel such an obligation to forgive? "In the end," she replied, "I don't think there's any true healing, unless it all heals."
Can she ever get to that point of forgiveness? Should she? The answer to the first is almost certainly yes, though it is easy to see why the journey has been so difficult. She had no basis for understanding her mother, nor any reason to feel particularly charitable toward her. And when I interviewed her in early 2003, she had yet to receive anything remotely resembling an apology. "Without an acknowledgment of what the perpetrator did and an expression of regret, to forgive is complicated," observed Ervin Staub, the University of Massachusetts psychologist.
Still, even in the absence of contrition, forgiveness is possible. Indeed, Enright's prescription for forgiveness does not assume the perpetrator meets the victim halfway, or even that she cares whether she is forgiven or not. He believes forgiveness is worth the effort, quite apart from anything the guilty or offending party might do. And that effort, as laid out in four stages and numerous steps within those stages, is considerable.
Those stages, conceptually, are straightforward enough. First comes the acknowledgment of anger; for anger -- and its effects on a person's mental and emotional well-being -- must be acknowledged before it can be effectively assuaged. In acknowledging the hurt or betrayal, in stripping away the defenses that keep pain at bay, you must be prepared for the resurfacing, the reliving, of trauma as scars that never properly healed are exposed anew.
Second comes the decision to forgive. Implicit in that decision is a commitment to forgo even small attempts at revenge. Enright suggests that you might want to come up with your own definition of forgiveness, one that fits the particular circumstances of your case. At any rate, in the second stage, you are opening yourself up to the possibility of answering abuse with compassion.
The third stage begins the process of implementing the decision to forgive, which most likely means engaging the person who caused your distress. It is also the phase in which you accept the pain but then begin to move on, perhaps with the help of God. You may try to put yourself in the other person's shoes. You may even offer a gift, a small token, such as a greeting card, symbolizing the rejection of rancor.
Fourth, and finally, comes forgiveness itself, accompanied by the release, as Enright puts it, from the "emotional prison." In emerging from that prison you might find a new focus in life. You might find a way, as Khamisa put it, of "making some meaning" out of adversity. And you may also find it possible to say "I forgive you" and to mean it, as Richard Nethercut did, when he was able to purge his heart of anything other than goodwill toward the man who had murdered his daughter.
The obvious question is "Why bother?" Even if forgiving does make you feel better, the road is so arduous, the process potentially so difficult. There must be easier ways to release oneself from emotional turmoil than to embrace the one who harmed you. And what of those like Amy, who have already been deeply traumatized by wrongdoing or betrayal? Dare we risk making them feel even worse by insisting they forgive the transgressor?
"Society often tells us that revenge is unhealthy and that our only way for peace is through forgiveness. However, we victims feel this is another of society's guilt trips....Forgive if you must, but do not allow these insensitive people to shame it from you." That defiant declaration is on the website of an online victims support group called DOVE (Dignity of Victims Everywhere).
Richard Cress is the man behind the website. His thirteen-year-old son was murdered in 1983 and left in a ditch. The killers were never found. Cress got little solace from a victims' group he joined in the Seattle area, so he subsequently formed his own support group, which evolved into the online service it is now. Cress does not much believe in forgiveness and reconciliation, not when it involves people like those who took the life of his son: "Restorative justice is fine when it deals with nonviolent crime," he said, but when dealing with people who have committed horrible acts of violence, forgiveness makes no sense. A person who murders is likely to do it again, he believes; and therefore revenge -- execution -- is the most reasonable response. If the persons who killed his son were caught: "I would give [the lethal injection] to them myself....I would like nothing better."
Some truth commissions -- and in particular the one in South Africa -- have been criticized for making a fetish of forgiveness, for orchestrating scenes where forgiveness is so expected that it is essentially coerced, and is therefore granted, whatever the victim's true feelings or needs may be. The magic of animosity evaporating, the symbolism of former enemies embracing, trumps any qualms about whether the reconciliation is real.
In A Human Being Died That Night, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a psychologist who served on South Africa's TRC, recounts the story of Winnie Mandela's appearance at a TRC hearing. The TRC was investigating Mandela's role in the murder and torture of young black men in Soweto. The commission was particularly interested in how it was that a youth named Stompie Seipei came to be killed. This is Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela's account:
At the end of the public hearing, during which Madikizela-Mandela essentially denied any knowledge of what had been happening in her own backyard, and offered no meaningful apology, she approached Stompie Seipei's mother while the TV cameras rolled. With a triumphant smile and open arms, she embraced her. I watched the moment of contact between the two women: the mother's humble smile and return of the gesture, and Madikizela-Mandela's triumphant smile, enacting her imposing power through her embrace. Two smiles: one a symbol of power, and the other a symbol of impotence.
Stompie Seipei's bereaved mother had sat for nine days at the public hearing of the TRC looking silence in the face as Madikizela-Mandela revealed nothing, ending where she had started, with more silence. Yet she opened her arms to receive the embrace of this woman who was prepared to offer nothing beyond flat denial. It was an embrace that stripped the victim of what we call dignity, the reverse of what the TRC public hearings were meant to do.
When Ghana's National Reconciliation Commission began hearings in early 2003, there were some scenes reminiscent of the ones in South Africa. The victim and the victimized publicly reconciled, with great emotional impact. But there was "a feeling it was contrived. People were talking about it....We stopped it," recalled Araba Sefa-Dedeh, a psychologist and the NRC's director of counseling. "If there is to be a reconciliation, it's done in private." The emphasis, she told me, was not on embracing one's former perpetrators but on "letting them go and not letting the perpetrator ruin their lives."
In spring 2003, I observed several sittings of Ghana's NRC. The hearings were held in an elegant remodeled structure that once housed the Ghanaian parliament. It is a formal setting, one that engenders solemnity. On one of the days that I attended, the commission heard the case of William Thomas Bruce. An elegant man in his sixties, Bruce wore a tailored, short-sleeve maroon shirt and carried himself with the confident air of a man accustomed to being taken seriously. His self-assurance foundered, however, as he tried to describe what had occurred on July 20, 1979. He opened his mouth, but no words came out; then he openly wept.
A mental health counselor quickly took the seat next to Bruce and whispered in his ear. Within moments, Bruce regained his composure and proceeded to tell his story. The month following the 1979 military coup led by Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, four soldiers appeared in the small restaurant Bruce owned in Accra. It was a simple place that served okra stew, rice and beans, and other local fare at what Bruce deemed to be reasonable prices. The soldiers ate happily and well. But when time came to pay the bill -- which amounted to a few thousand cedis, less than three dollars U.S. -- they refused to pay. The food was too expensive, they said. And they ordered Bruce outside, bundled him into a truck, and drove to a detention center.
There they proceeded to torture him. One of the soldiers produced chunks of salt and ordered Bruce to chew them. Terrified, Bruce obeyed; and as blood trickled out of his mouth, the soldier ordered him to swallow the salt. Later, after making him remove his T-shirt, they beat him with electric wires. After tiring of that, they forced him -- at this point covered with blood -- to chop firewood with an ax. Then they ordered him to crawl on the floor as they stomped on and beat him. "I was so weak, I couldn't feel anything," recalled Bruce. But the torture continued. They blindfolded him and ordered him to hop about while reciting, as they poked him in the chest with bayonets.
Finally, they'd had enough and took him home. His first act was to call a waitress at his restaurant to provide details on his life insurance policy along with instructions that his nephew in London should take over the business in the event of his death -- which he then thought might be imminent. A few weeks later, soldiers returned and ransacked his restaurant and stole his liquor; and some weeks after that, other soldiers came; and -- as he had not yet replaced his stock -- they beat him for not having liquor. At no point during the ordeal were charges brought; nor was any coherent explanation ever offered as to why he had become a target. Apparently, for reasons only known to themselves, the soldiers had become annoyed with him -- perhaps because, as a successful businessman, he owned things simple soldiers did not.
Later that year, one of the soldiers among the original assailants returned and ordered one glass of gin after another. At one point the inebriated soldier apologized for having tortured Bruce in July. He solicited Bruce's forgiveness and invited the restaurant owner to join him for a drink.
"No way will I have a drink with you," stammered Bruce and then asked the man what he would have done if Bruce had died. "Would you have brought the drink to my graveside?"
Bruce concluded his testimony with a tribute to the commission, thanking the commissioners for providing the opportunity for him "to make the whole of Ghana, the whole world, know what happened to me."
One of the commissioners, a former military commander, shook his head in apparent disgust. The world needs to know, he said, of "the sort of people who have been humiliated, who have been embarrassed. People who command respect." He sighed. "Young boys, maltreating elders, crawling on your elbows." The commissioner's eyes turned upward, toward the spectators' gallery, and he added, "Let him [Bruce] cry, to get [out] some of the pain....I hope that by the end of this morning, a lot of the pain has come out."
Another commissioner, a Catholic bishop, asked, "If that soldier came back today and offered a drink, would you accept it?"
"I would embrace him and tell him I have forgiven everything," said Bruce.
During a recess, I asked Bruce what had changed. Why was he willing to forgive the man now, but not at the time? During the months following his torture, Bruce explained, he was still suffering from the beatings. He was in considerable physical pain and was unable to raise his arms above his head. As he spoke, he raised both hands above his head. Although he did not have full mobility, he had regained much of what he had lost.
I took his answer as a way of saying that, for him, forgiveness stemmed primarily from the healing of his physical injuries. It was not the result of an intense conversation with God, or of following a complicated process of working through resentments. Nor was it the result of any particular insight into the soldiers' motives or psyche. It was simply that his suffering no longer defined his life. His physical recovery -- and the passage of time -- had allowed him to let go of his bitterness.
Clearly other things had happened as well. In the years since 1979, he had managed to thrive. Despite his traumatic experiences, his businesses had grown. His position in society had been strengthened; and Ghana itself had changed. He was no longer in fear of soldiers who might suddenly appear and subject him to unimaginable indignities. A sense of stability and fairness had returned. All was right, more or less, with his world. So he could afford to forgive -- at least theoretically. Who knows what might become of that commitment to forgive if Bruce, like Amy, had to take it out of the realm of theory and put it into practice with a real human being who is not particularly forgivable?
While in Ghana, I reflected on a similar hearing I had attended in Peru. A man had appeared to talk about his brother who had been abducted by soldiers and had never returned. The man was in no mood to hear talk of forgiveness. So he preempted any such discussion by announcing that he had no intention of forgiving or of shaking hands with the men who kidnapped his brother. He merely wanted them to tell him what they had done with him. Clearly, the hurt was too raw and his world too unsettled for him to consider giving the gift of forgiveness to the people who had brought so much trauma to his family.
For some people, forgiveness is part of the process that helps to set their world right again. For others, it is a step that can only be taken -- if at all -- once a sense of normalcy and security have returned. Even the most diehard forgiveness advocates, such as Enright, do not see forgiveness as an automatic or necessarily natural development. If the injury is deep, attaining a state where one is free of resentment, where one can consider embracing one's tormentor, can be an arduous, even painful, process -- which is only one of many reasons why you might ask whether certain people, certain acts, should be forgiven at all.
Copyright © 2004 by Ellis Cose
Meet the Author
Ellis Cose, author of seven books, including the bestselling The Envy of the World, Color-Blind, and The Rage of a Privileged Class, is a columnist and contributing editor for Newsweek magazine. He has appeared on Nightline, Dateline, Good Morning America, PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, NPR, and other national television and radio programs. He lives in New York City with his wife and daughter.
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