Forgiving the Unforgivable
What good is forgiveness when the damage can never be mended?And then I hold next to my heart all the sins and trespasses I don’t forgive. Actually, there are only a few. But they are big ones.
Here is one. Twenty-four years ago, a man killed my husband’s best friend—I will call him James—when James picked him up hitchhiking. I was the one who got the call, and I was the one who had to tell Vincent. I was the one who watched Vincent, my boyfriend of only a few months, the person I loved then and love now more than anyone else in my life, fall to the ground on hearing those words out of my mouth.
The man was crazy. He hanged himself in his prison cell some months after they caught him, after they found him with James’s silver cigarette case. I know his crime’s reverberations, like rings from a stone thrown into a pool of water. I know how the loss of James changed, shaped, distorted my husband’s life. I know what James’s death did to James’s widow and to her two boys. From his crime, we had to pick up the pieces. I know what this killer’s crime cost other lives; he does not.
And worst of all, what it cost James.
We never even got to talk to James’s killer about James’s last moments on this earth. The people who testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa say there was an odd intimacy between those who were murdered and those who did the murdering; that the person who did the killing knew what the victim said and looked like moments before he or she died. And the relatives of the victims wanted to know.
Jacques Derrida says that forgiveness is only really meaningful when we forgive what is unforgivable. He was speaking, as a Jew, of the Nazis.
I wonder if I had been able to see James’s killer, what might have happened. Had I visited this crazy man in prison, would I have felt something move in my heart?
In the documentary about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, A Long Night’s Journey into Day, the parents of a young American woman who was killed by a South African boy, visit the mother of the boy to speak to her, and to forgive him. Almost everyone in the audience immediately begins to weep. The act of forgiveness makes everyone cry.
A psychologist who worked with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission says that when you forgive a person, you restore that person to his or her humanity. This is done because the forgiving person understands that he or she could have committed the same crime. You understand you could have done it yourself. A story from the Nuremberg Trials: A man who had been a prisoner in one of the Nazi death camps was supposed to testify against another man who had been a guard in the camp. When the witness saw the guard in the courtroom, he fainted. All those around him thought it was because he was so horrified to see his oppressor again. But when the man regained consciousness, he said, “No. I fainted because I realized I could have been him.”
I know that forgiving James’s killer is for myself, blah, blah. I mean, he’s dead. Why do I hold this against him? Because I had to say, “Vincent I have something terrible to tell you. James has been killed.” We were standing in the driveway of the house we had only moved into a few months before, starting our new life together, as a young man and a young woman, full of hope. He fell against the fender of the car. Our new life, full of unfettered hope, was killed.
I want to take the man responsible for this, and rub his nose in it. I want to tell him of everything that happened because he pulled the trigger of a gun on a remote highway in southern California. I want to tell him of how James’s widow moved from Santa Barbara because she could not afford to stay here. Of his elder son’s face, five years old, on the day of James’s funeral. Of the boys growing up without a father. Want more, I will ask him? One of those boys later died, too. He hanged himself in the basement. I want to sit there and force this crazy murderer to feel what his work has wrought. But of course he did feel it. Something made him take a strip of cloth one morning and thread it through the light fixture in his cell.
And that does not feel like it resolves anything. Ashes in my mouth. And it would not have resolved anything had the state executed him. More ashes. What is done is done. More death cannot undo it.
And that’s really the point, isn’t it? If you don’t forgive, you don’t break the cycle of violence. It just goes on and on until there is no one left standing. In the Philadelphia Museum there is a room of drawings by Cy Twombly on Homer’s Iliad, his poem about the Trojan War. One is of a huge red cloud, filling most of a canvas that must be six feet tall. Scrawled underneath are the words, “It consumes everything in its path.”
The truly terrible part is that Jesus loves that man who died in his cell as much as he loves James. As much as he loves me. I actually get this. Or some part of me does. Jesus loves James’s killer because he knows that there is something more to him than that one terrible act. Just as there is more to James and more to me.
I think of Jesus tunneling back from the dead, a gossamer figure, thin as lace, threading his way through keyholes in locked doors. To say over and over, Forgive others. Forgive yourself. Take this second chance. Begin again.
And that, too, is the point. I must leave that young man falling to the
ground, and the young woman standing helpless beside him, as if they
photograph, in the past. James’s killer changed our
lives. So be
James’s widow and her surviving son have
unendurable. I must let my
hatred and fury at
James’s killer loose into
the wind, into God’s heart, so that
it lies in the past where it
finally belongs. Forgiveness is a way to unburden
oneself from the
constant pressure of rewriting the past. It’s a
the future. Not for the future as a future in time, but
what the French call
avenir, to open the way for what is
to come, for the unexpected.
Copyright ©2004 Nora Gallagher