Updated: Jun 3, 2020
I've been thinking a lot recently about forgiveness. I'm trying to tease out what forgiveness, justice, and amends means to me. Specifically, how does one make amends (reparation, restitution, restoration) for serious offenses such as domestic and sexual violence? What would that look like? Most importantly at the moment (setting aside the broader social implications that we are all involved in--especially white Americans), what does that look like for me?
My therapist asked me that in a recent session. I was stunned. I sat silent for a moment while I attempted to process the question. (Robot voice: "Does not compute.") No one had ever asked me that. Within a matter of seconds my mind started spinning through memories. Sitting in meetings with therapists, attorneys, guardian ad litem, custody evaluator, mediators, bishop, stake president, and telling each of them I wanted my perpetrator (in that instance) to receive help. I asked if he could be provided resources to combat the issues that were fueling the violence. I had faith that if he could be held accountable and given appropriate services all our lives would change for the better. I held out hope for reconciliation of our eternal family. Unfortunately, I was dismissed each time. Little came of my pleas other than more meetings in which I was not believed and my mental stability was called in to question. It was easier to accept the false idea that I was mentally unstable and out for money than to believe that I saw good in my then husband and wanted to save all of us from the cycle of violence. I ultimately had to remove reconciliation from the table when accountability and amends were not offered at any level of the process.
I didn't have the vocabulary at the time (and in all honesty I'm in my infancy of true understanding*) for restorative justice but that's what I was looking for. As I read more about restorative and transformative justice I see that my idea of repentance from my LDS (Mormon) upbringing and understanding was a very similar model for me. That the way I had interpreted scripture, teaching, and the life of Jesus Christ was what set me on that path. What I was shocked to find out was that my interpretation was not the accepted understanding of those I was working with, nor the majority of those around me. I realize now that it is my privilege that allowed me to be floored at that "revelation". I was not interested in punishment. As a parent I recognized early that punishment did not foster love and real change. Punishment is not restorative or transformative. Punishment breeds shame and shame helps no one.
(We know from work by Brené Brown, and many others, about the power of guilt to change behavior. Guilt being different from shame and also a large topic for a different day though I would highly suggest you look into it. It's powerful stuff.)
My understanding of the "Repentance Process" as presented to me from my LDS instruction was that it had multiple steps (or elements as the link provided refers to them):
-Faith in Our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.
-Sorrow for Sin.
-Abandonment of Sin.
I am no longer bound only to the teachings of the LDS religion so I no longer consider faith in any deity to be a prerequisite for changed behavior. Here is how I interpret those steps now. (Really not that different. This language is simply more universal, accessible, and clear.) In order to change harmful behavior we must:
-Acknowledge the behavior.
-Accept full accountability including the use of accurate terminology to describe our behavior.
-Do the excruciating work, including enlisting the help of appropriate professionals (therapist, etc.), to understand the personal underlying causes of why we acted in the way we did and to redirect our actions in healthier ways.
-Restitution. Which may include accepting that there is no possible way to make amends for our actions and finding healthy ways to live with that understanding. (More on that coming up. Huge learning moment for me.)
-Conscious intention to cause less harm with our changed behavior, and willingness to start at the beginning again when we do.
While sitting in her office my mind also recalled the trauma of my youth. How on earth does one make amends for harming a child? Childhood trauma can set a person on a path that they alone have to struggle to cope with for the rest of their lives. [Here is information from the CDC on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)] As I sat in that chair with the full weight and understanding that I currently live with chronic PTSD, several autoimmune issues, and of course, the memories of the trauma I could not imagine a gesture big enough to make up for the damage of any single event let alone the collective effects.
I stumbled through expressing that and she met me with an idea that flooded my body with peace. What if there was no way to make amends? What if there are some actions that cannot be made up for? What if the behavior(s) stopped and no further requirements were placed upon me regarding that person? Wow. Even as I sit here right now typing this, a few weeks after that session, that idea is vast and comforting. It's like fresh air and sunshine. Free. Clear. Fluid. Warm. Lovely.
As I processed this idea with a friend after that session we talked about forgiveness in terms of how we most commonly see it in practice. The idea of asking for forgiveness has always felt forced. It seems as if the perpetrator of the wrong needs the forgiveness from the survivor in order to exonerate themselves. More often it's used as a tool to ignore and bury an issue so as not to have to do the hard work of facing what they've done. As long as they are "forgiven" they are "good". It is also a muzzle placed on the survivor. Once "forgiveness" is given they are no longer allowed to openly experience the pain of the trauma. They are left to shoulder the responsibility of the trauma alone. In my experience there isn't a lot of amends, restoration, or transformation in the way I've witnessed repentance and forgiveness.
Our discussion led us to talk about this Ted Talk (link to transcript) entitled, Our Story of Rape and Reconciliation. Strong content warning from here: Sexual Violence. (More after video.)
I remember seeing the headline for an article discussing this talk last year and instantly being repulsed. I had to sit with that for a while before I could seek it out and watch it. It became clear to me that I struggled with the idea that she hadn't been coerced into this. I projected my own trauma onto her and assumed this was furthering her trauma. I was afraid that this was performative and fake given my own failed experiences attempting a more restorative and transformative model. To witness separate yet mutual healing is a concept so foreign to me it felt like an attack.
When I was finally able to watch it I was thrilled to see that the survivor, Thordis Elva, was the one who initiated each step in the process. Her healing and safety was centered. She was driving this ship. This was also only possible because the perpetrator, Tom Stranger, practiced complete accountability. In the video he says:
“[At the time] I didn’t see my deed for what it was…It wasn’t so much a conscious refusal, it was more like any acknowledgement of reality was forbidden. My definition of my actions completely refuted any recognition of the immense trauma I’d caused…To be honest, I repudiated the entire act in the days afterwards and when I was committing it. I disavowed the truth…I gripped tight the simple notion that I wasn’t a bad person.”
“It was only me in that room making choices, nobody else. When you own something and really square up to your culpability, I do think a surprising thing can happen. It's what I call a paradox of ownership. I thought I'd buckle under the weight of responsibility. I thought my certificate of humanity would be burnt. Instead, I was offered to really own what I did, and found that it didn't possess the entirety of who I am. Put simply, something you've done doesn't have to constitute the sum of who you are. The noise in my head abated. The indulgent self-pity was starved of oxygen, and it was replaced with the clean air of acceptance -- an acceptance that I did hurt this wonderful person standing next to me; an acceptance that I am part of a large and shockingly everyday grouping of men who have been sexually violent toward their partners."
"Don't underestimate the power of words. Saying to Thordis that I raped her changed my accord with myself, as well as with her. But most importantly, the blame transferred from Thordis to me."
Tom has not only rightfully transferred responsibility to himself, he has also removed the requirement that often comes with "forgiveness" of silence from the survivor.
To hear those words. To imagine those words being said to me (in different contexts) by the perpetrators of harm in my life. What would that feel like? It would feel as though the wounds could finally stop bleeding and actually heal over. This would be revolutionary. Life changing.
Thordis Elva explained why she reached out to Tom so many years after the incident:
“Deep down I realized that this was my way out of my suffering, because regardless of whether or not he deserved my forgiveness, I deserved peace. My era of shame was over.”
“How will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognize the humanity of those who commit it? And how can we empower survivors if we're making them feel less than?”
I have not read their book so I'm going off of the information provided in this video. Thordis found a way to provide justice for herself. She is incredibly fortunate, and as she admits, privileged that this is the case. Most survivors will not see cooperation like this from their perpetrator. As Thordis herself understands:
"What we did is not a formula that we're prescribing for others. Nobody has the right to tell anyone else how to handle their deepest pain or their greatest error. Breaking your silence is never easy, and depending on where you are in the world, it can even be deadly to speak out about rape. I realize that even the most traumatic event of my life is still a testament to my privilege, because I can talk about it without getting ostracized, or even killed. But with that privilege of having a voice comes the responsibility of using it. That's the least I owe my fellow survivors who can’t.”
How does the idea of forgiveness fit in with restorative and transformative justice? The views on that are varied. For instance, nowhere in the video did Thordis claim Tom deserved her forgiveness. That process wasn't about him. It was about her. While reading more on the topic I came across this interview on AlterNet with restorative justice facilitator, Sujatha Baliga where she reminds us that:
"Restorative justice never requires forgiveness as a prerequisite for participation or as an outcome. We don’t want to put pressure on victims to forgive. But I can’t think of a better cauldron for cooking up some forgiveness than a restorative process, because it makes an opportunity for some of the things that people need for a feeling of forgiveness, a letting go of anger."
Forgiveness is not a requirement for justice! That means each survivor of violence has the right to choose for themselves. Something the perpetrator violently stole from them in the first place. For a survivor to fully regain their ability to choose is powerful to envision.
This led me to wonder how a survivor of violence who does not have the privilege of restorative and transformative justice regains their power? That is a question I am not qualified to answer for anyone but myself, and I'm not sure I can even answer it for myself yet as is evidenced by the art at the top of the page. While searching for this answer I came across this video from the Makers series, Have a Little Faith entitled, Forgive Assholes (link to transcript) featuring, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. (More after video.)
I made the art piece at the top of the page July of 2017 representing how I continue to feel regarding my trauma survival. (I have more pieces I want to make about the process including one portraying me trapped in a too small cage with my wings crushed around me. Time! I need more time!) I've done incredibly difficult work to release myself from the cage and repair my heart, mind, body, soul, and wings. This page is full of those experiences. However, I am not fully free. I am still asked to carry the burden of what the perpetrators did to me as they have not accepted accountability nor fully changed their behavior [there cannot be changed behavior (repentance) without first acknowledging their behavior and then doing the work to change it]. That leaves me to continue to do the work of freeing myself from the trauma which is why I continue to search for ways to help me move through and let go.
As Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber claims:
“What if forgiveness, rather than being like a pansy way of saying ‘It’s OK,’ is actually a way of wielding bolt cutters and snapping the chain that links us. Like it is saying, ‘What you did is so not OK that I refuse to be connected to it anymore…There really is a light that shines in the darkness, and that the darkness cannot, will not, shall not overcome it.”
What if? I breathe that concept deep into my body.
As long as a survivor is legally tied to their perpetrator (child custody, marriage, youth, etc.) they cannot sever those chains. One day though they may finally have the opportunity, whether through the extremely rare courageous act on the perpetrators part of doing the vulnerable and trying work of changing their behavior (repentance), or by time, distance, and heartbreak that they will shoulder on their own to break free of their trauma chains. Each situation is different and each survivor will survive in their own way.
For me, right now (I'm allowed to evolve), I need the idea presented in this last video that I have the power to cut the chains that bind me, and that I am strong enough to fly, despite the current restrictions, in the meantime. When the time comes I take courage knowing I can free myself completely. I will fly. I will soar higher and freer than ever before. Since the perpetrators in my life are unable to offer the sunshine and fresh air of accountability and space free of their requirements on my life and expression, I will continue to learn to claim it for my own.
*I am incredibly grateful for the work Jasmine Banks provides in the cohort for white allies. This is where we white folks can take personal questions like this one and then apply it to anti racism work. Invaluable, life changing work.
Image description: Photograph of a femme presenting nonbinary, trans, white person (me) with brown and green, straight, shoulder length hair, in a low cut black floor length dress with yellow, orange, purple, red, pink, and blue wings (taken from an abstract, acrylic painting entitled Flight) attempting to fly yet shackled to the salt flats in Utah with the Wasatch Mountains in the distance.