By Angela Dove
As I began writing a book about my stepmother’s murder, and how her mother solved the case and became one of California’s most recognized advocates, I entered into a world I hardly knew: the world of crime survivors. The inhabitants have experienced the worst that humanity can throw at them and are now living a wide-variety of results. Listening to their stories broke my heart. But in other ways, these folks reaffirmed something I had suspected all along. Many survivors are joyful. They are not dancing in the streets and leaping for joy; instead, they are like the patient who emerges from triple-bypass surgery and looks up into a sky that’s never been so blue. They are living with PTG: Post-Traumatic Gratitude.
Others walk a very different path. They are angry. Depressed. Some are stuck in the moment of victimhood. In the analogy of our bypass patient, these are the patients who never come out of post-op.
What makes the difference? How do some survivors achieve PTG? During four years of interviews, survivor’s conferences, and vigils, I’ve noticed some similarities.
Remembering life B.C. (Before the Crime) is painful. It conjures feelings of loss, of a thwarted future, and often stands in brutal contrast to life in the wake of violence. Because of these feelings, some victims try to lock away the past. That level of denial—of erasing a B.C. life or relationship—takes a tremendous amount of energy. So much energy, in fact, that there’s almost nothing left to carry to victim into his or her future.
Those survivors living with Post-Traumatic Gratitude have not locked away the past. They confront the pain of remembering, realizing that the joy inherent in those memories can be even stronger. As one woman told me, “Someone stole my child’s future from me, but I decided he couldn’t have my past.” That mother grieved as much as any other, but her past with her daughter was too important not to claim. Listening to this woman tell funny stories about her daughter and laugh—really laugh—was so empowering for me. And I was just a bystander! I could only glimpse the power that remembrance gave this woman.
Without exception, every victim and survivor I’ve spoken to has nothing good to say about the perpetrator of their particular crime. No surprise there. But the variable between those who have stalled in their healing and those who are headed toward gratitude is the issue of release.
I won’t use the word forgiveness. Frankly, it’s a term that has all kinds of confusing connotations, from moral to psychological. I have no intention of wading into those waters. But what I have noticed is that it takes a lot of energy to hate someone.
Take Stan, for example. Stan lost his wife several years ago, and his hatred for her killer was visceral. His days are spent wishing for the perpetrator’s slow and painful death. His nights are marathons of vivid dreams of vengeance. I could not—and would never—tell this grieving husband what he should or should not feel. And I don’t relate this story to indicate any judgment. But Stan’s cycle of hatred leaves no room for anything else in his life—not joy, not peace, and certainly not gratitude.
On the other hand, a woman named Jenny told me about releasing her hatred for her rapist. “I didn’t do it for him,” she said. “I did it for me.” Jenny realized that her hatred for this man was not harming him, but it had become a major stumbling block for her. “He took what he could from me. I live with that. But he doesn’t get to be a part of my life now.” For Jenny, hating her perpetrator meant taking him through the rest of her life. Releasing her hatred meant she could leave him behind and walk into her own future.
In cases of homicide, many survivors have made a deathbed or graveside promise to their victimized loved one. Mike Reynolds, author of and force behind California’s “Three Strikes” law, promised his daughter that he would stop repeat felons from collecting more victims. My stepmom’s mother, Jacque, stood over Debi’s grave and promised to bring her unknown killer to justice. Both of these parents made promises that were huge, that sprang from love and grief more than from common sense. But every day Mike and Jacque reaffirmed their promises to their daughters, and every day the power of that reaffirmation propelled them forward. Eventually, Mike changed California’s criminal code, and Jacque found her daughter’s killer.
In cases where the survivor was the victim of violent crime, the process of reaffirmation is internal. It’s a promise to the self—and often a promise not to lose self identity. Too often, victims who have had their personal power stolen through violence or sexual assault inadvertently continue to lose their power. They live in fear. They isolate themselves from friends or family. They block themselves off from a world they feel has betrayed them. Sadly, these victims have taken over the role of the perpetrator, victimizing themselves day by day.
On the other hand, those with Post-Traumatic Gratitude have promised not to lose themselves in the moment of the crime. They reaffirm who they are—a husband, a daughter, a friend, a coworker. They reaffirm their inner worth and the importance of their relationships, simultaneously adding value to themselves and their connections to others. They are grateful for the good within them. They feel blessed by the love of those around them, even though many of those people cannot—and hopefully never will—understand what it feels like to be a survivor of violent crime.
Angela Dove is an award-winning columnist and the author of the true crime memoir, No Room for Doubt: A True Story of the Reverberations of Murder(Berkley/Penguin 2009). She was most recently seen in the April 26 edition of The National Enquirer, much to her surprise.