I only saw snippets of the landmark trial of our local mass murderer who got away with years of killing young women specifically because they were underprivileged workers and runaways. The victims were not considered high priority. Years went by before their killer was found and convicted. A caring detective kept on the trail, and healed many hearts in the process, although he could not, of course, bring back the dead. Which is why forgiveness is so hard – you can never get back what you lost, so how can you forgive? And why would you even want to?
I used to wait for a bus to community college right along the strip where we later found out that this killer would pick up women. Several men did stop at my bus stop and ask me if I wanted a ride. Some would just stop and open the passenger door with the expectation that I would wordlessly get in their car, which perplexed me. They looked sheepish and drove off when I just stood and stared at them in my turn. I just didn’t realize until years later that merely being a working class girl standing alongside a highway made me look like I would be available to sexually service any man with a few bills in his wallet. It really astounded me when I figured this out.
I avoided most of the trial and media about this killer, as it was too close to home. He had attended our high school at the same time as my oldest sister. To my many middle class acquaintances, I try to explain some of my childhood by pointing out that this mass murderer didn’t stand out. He was one angry, predatory male among many. I know many boys who ended up dead, on drugs, in jail, in the military, or the few lucky ones working for the military industrial complex in a union job. Not all the boys at my school turned out poorly, of course, yet I find that those who turned out well seem to have incredible strength of character.
What I remember most of the mass murder media coverage was when some of the family members of the dead were able to testify directly to the killer as part of his sentencing hearing. I was interpreting at a birth and the family had this on the television, which was so bizarre to me. But I am glad I saw it, because I remember it to this day. One after another, they told the killer how much they hated him. How they were so happy he was in jail where he would get his own back. How they looked forward to his rotting in hell. How nothing terrible that ever happened to him would be bad enough. That they were glad in his suffering. The cameras swung from his face to the victims’ families and back. He did not react visibly to any of this directed hatred. Not a tear, not a grimace, not any change of countenance. Nothing seemed to touch him.
Near the end, a dead girl’s father stood up and said he took responsibility for not being a better father. That he had left his young daughter to be raised in poverty by her young mother. That he had not been there to guide and support her. That when he had found out his daughter was getting into trouble and even running away, he didn’t act to try and help her, as a good father would have done. He had not been there for his daughter, and now he would never have the chance.
“I cannot forgive you for what you did to her,” he said to the killer. “Only she could do that, and she is not here. If there was something you could do to bring my daughter back, I would ask you to, I would do anything – but I know you can’t. Nobody can. I only wanted to testify so I could tell you that I do forgive you for the suffering you have caused me as a father. I don’t hate you. I don’t wish you ill. That is too much for me to carry. So I forgive you.”
The killer first blinked, then tears poured down his face, then he started sobbing and choking. Hatred, rage, anger, judgment, disdain, disparagement, revenge – none of these feelings could touch him. He was all too familiar with them, and he had hardened his heart to all of them. It was compassion alone that could touch him.
I have no illusions that he was crying in remorse for having killed that man’s daughter. But the fact that he could cry at all did touch me. And I like to think it may have added a tiny measure of comfort to those who were grieving, to see him showing some feeling. But I don’t have the authority to speak on their behalf, and I wouldn’t presume to. I only know it comforted me in that moment.
What about forgiveness? I once heard an old story repeated as it surely has been in various guises. A group of young monks who had made pledges both of silence and to never touch a woman were at the crossing of a river, where it was just deep and fast enough to make crossing on foot a danger. But the five monks were able to hold hands and keep each other afloat. In the middle of the river, one of the monks broke away. The others watched in shock as he swam downriver to help a young woman carrying a baby. He actually lifted her up into his arms with her baby and carried her the rest of the way across and then set her down on the shore. When she thanked him, he simply nodded without speaking and moved back to his group.
The monks had to walk for several days to reach the next monastery. During that time, they were wordlessly resentful. The monk should not have picked up that woman! He shouldn’t have touched her at all! What he did went against their holy vows, and he was wrong! Really wrong. He considered himself holy, but he was not. They knew each other so well that all this was communicated wordlessly. Once they reached the next monastery, one of them felt he spoke for all when he approached the head monk and told of this incident. A small trial was held and the accusation was made. When asked for his defense, the offending monk made two points. One, the woman was in distress and she and her baby could have drowned. “Secondly, I only carried her for five minutes. I put her down at the edge of the river four days ago. It is the other monks, my brothers, who have been carrying her ever since.” And so he was forgiven.
I consider forgiveness the most difficult of all the gifts we can give ourselves. Because in forgiving it seems like we are somehow condoning bad behavior or harm. Perpetrators and sinners do not deserve to be forgiven. If you do something terrible you should not do it with the expectation of being forgiven. And neither should I. It would only raise the temptation for me to know ahead of time that I will be forgiven. On the other hand, the victims of crimes and their loved ones do not deserve to be burdened by carrying around the hatred, the rage, and the intrusive memories of the injury done. So what can we do?
Perhaps we can start by realizing that failing to forgive is more an injury to ourselves than to anyone else, especially someone we are not even in contact with. Someone would have to care deeply about us indeed before our internal sufferings would cause them a moment’s remorse. How often is that the case, especially for a crime victim? One of the many great quotes falsely attributed to Buddha is the one about how not forgiving someone is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. This is especially true if you are not eating your meals together with the perpetrator. Why poison ourselves?
One answer is that there is a fundamental unfairness inherent in the very concept of forgiveness. In crimes and other transgressions, one person gets to be the perpetrator. They choose to act, and they do something they want to do. The other has to be the victim. They don’t get to choose what is done to them or against them. The action is done, and cannot be undone. Both parties may be changed forever by this action. And yet it is the injured party alone who has the additional task and burden of figuring out how to forgive. Or carrying that pain and hatred around with them for the rest of their lives. As necessary as it is, as healing as it can be, it is still a bitter cure to swallow.