By Charles Moncrief
I met Pumpkin at a wedding reception for Frieda, her grandmother. This five-year-old charmer had won the heart of Frieda’s new husband, Benny. He was a dear friend from high school days, and it was a blessing and a testament to our long friendship, that Benny had invited my wife and me to share their joy. We didn’t get to spend much time with Benny, since he spent most of the reception dancing with his adopted granddaughter.
Just two months later this joy was shattered when Frieda received a frantic call from her daughter, sobbing because Pumpkin had died in her bed. Frieda and Benny were grieved by the news that her precious granddaughter had died, but it was nothing compared to the next call that came before they could leave to be with her daughter. The precious child’s death was being investigated as a homicide. The whole family was devastated by this news, and an unimaginable drama began to unfold before them.
The child had been raped and strangled, and all signs pointed to a family member as the one who committed the crime. The police took Frieda’s oldest son into custody, and charged him with the rape and murder of her granddaughter. Frieda’s sadness turned to rage and hatred toward her firstborn son, while Benny did his best to comfort his new wife.
As Frieda’s hatred grew toward her son, she knew Benny was alongside her. But the closeness of their relationship suffered as she relived her son’s brutality. Every act of intimacy between Frieda and Benny became THAT act, causing a growing sense of helplessness on Benny’s part and a distancing of each from the other. Both of them knew that they’d come to a defining moment in their marriage.
Frieda had also gone to pre-trial court appearances concealing a baseball bat under her topcoat. She planned to beat her son’s brains out before being overpowered by the officers of the court. She knew that her life would then be shattered, but she felt that it would be worth the price, since her life had already been destroyed by her granddaughter’s death. What caused Frieda to be unsuccessful is beyond me; postponements, flat tires, and other obstacles to Frieda’s being in the courtroom with her son defy natural explanation!
A few weeks before the trial, Benny and Frieda received some wise counsel. The counselor said, “The way you respond to this tragedy can lift your marriage to new heights, or it can destroy your marriage, but the choice is for you both to make.”
Reaffirming their commitment required them both to be open to anything they needed to learn about themselves and their relationship. Benny learned where he had been strong in his support of Frieda, as well as some areas in which he had not been supportive at all. Frieda learned that she had to forgive her son, which meant rethinking everything she had been taught about forgiveness.
In what Frieda thus learned, she did in fact forgive her son before the trial began.
Throughout human history – religion, politics, art, literature, cinema, and even psychology – men and women of good will have misled others with their teachings on forgiveness. Many lives have been destroyed, even ended, by failures to understand what it means to forgive.
One of the most insidious examples of misleading is the pairing of the word “forgive” with “forget.” The person who says “It’s time to forgive and forget” likely means well, but he or she has never taken the time to examine the meaning of the expression. Such a person is implying that you aren’t truly forgiving unless you also forget. Tell this to Harry Whittington, the man who forgave Dick Cheney after the hunting accident. Do you really think he will ever forget that he was shot, and by whom? On an international scale, we have forgiven the Japanese Empire long ago for their attack on Pearl Harbor, but the event will never be forgotten. (This brings up questions of culpability, of whether the Japanese had truly committed a wrong, and a host of other subjects worthy of discussion elsewhere, while having no relevance to the subject of forgiveness.)
My operative position is that forgiving is not forgetting. In forgiving her son Frieda was not required to forget what he had done to her granddaughter, nor was she compelled to forget the details of the child’s death.
Forgiveness is not the removal of accountability. Frieda in no way failed to forgive her son when she testified for the prosecution. His conviction for capital murder was due in part to Frieda’s testimony.
Forgiveness is not reconciliation, a return to the vulnerability in which the violence had occurred. While this is impossible in Pumpkin’s case, it is so often a tragic misunderstanding that causes an abused wife to return home to her husband. This is where I want to get down on my knees before all survivors of spousal abuse and beg forgiveness for my misguided predecessors and colleagues who counseled them to return home after having been beaten even once. I again want to honor any hesitation on your part to trust me as a Priest. I agree with the decisions of many who chose not to re-enter a relationship in which they have been abused, and I believe they are not deceiving themselves when they say they have forgiven the abuser.
Forgiveness is not denial of the reality or the cruelty of the action. Forgiving someone does not make a person’s behavior acceptable when it was once unacceptable. The wrong remains wrong, irrespective of Frieda’s choice to forgive her son.
If we talk about what forgiveness is NOT, then how about considering what forgiveness IS?
Frieda knew that neither her son’s execution nor his life imprisonment would bring back her granddaughter. She was slightly longer in coming to the realization that her son’s punishment would not balance some cosmic or spiritual scale to bring her any satisfaction. It would have done her no good to have interviewed the family of a murder victim who found no comfort after having witnessed the execution of the murderer. She would have had to experience this herself, or she would have to have received the insight supernaturally. But this too is the subject of another discussion.
Frieda knew that she needed healing, and she came to terms with the three things that this healing required.
First, she learned one more thing about forgiveness. Forgiveness is just as valid in third person as it is in second. That is, Frieda could say “I forgive him” about her son and obtain the same effect as when she would say “I forgive you” to her son. This leads to the second and third points of understanding.
Second, she learned that in her rage and hatred she slammed shut the door to a prison cell. That cell was not her son’s, but it was her own. And she had slammed it shut from the inside. Using a different metaphor, Frieda was performing a lethal injection. She was not killing her son, but she was killing herself. She was doing this much more slowly than the state would have done with her son, but her death was just as certain.
The third point is that Frieda realized she held her freedom, and even her life, in her own hands. She alone could turn the key and open the door to the prison cell. By forgiving her son Frieda would release a prisoner, and she was that prisoner. In the other metaphor, Frieda alone could stop the lethal injection. By forgiving her son Frieda would shut off the flow of deadly poison into her body and remove the IV to begin the healing process.
I will happily report that Frieda’s is a success story. She and Benny are enjoying their life together, and they now reach out to individuals and families in need of recovery from violence, just because they’ve been there and know one of the great truths about living above the destructive effects of human tragedy.
While not all stories of forgiveness have such dramatic effects on those who forgive, the principles nonetheless remain solid. Forgiveness is simple release, letting go, and it is for your benefit. Don’t be deceived by the lies about projecting negativity toward the one you won’t forgive; you are the only one who suffers when you won’t forgive. And please don’t allow some well-meaning enemy to sow tares into these principles that would choke out the benefits that are rightfully yours to claim.
Grace and Peace,