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Spotlight Report

'Hate is a useless emotion'

Experts confirm what many victims feel: Forgiveness can have the power to heal

By Bella English, Globe Staff, 7/16/2003


(Illustration / Sibylle Schwartz)
Darryl Williams was 15 years old, a sophomore playing varsity football for Jamaica Plain High School. People said he had a bright athletic future ahead of him, including college scholarships, but on the night of Sept. 28, 1979, Williams was just focusing on the next play. Williams and his coach were standing in the end zone, the coach congratulating Williams on catching a bomb, a deep pass that had put his team on the 5-yard line, which led to a touchdown, which put them ahead of the home team, Charlestown High.

One minute, Williams was elated. The next, he was on his back, wondering why his teammates were fleeing.

He tried to get up and run with them, but he couldn't.

''I thought someone had hit me good in the game,'' he recalled in a recent interview. ''I wanted to meet that person and tell them it was a good hit.''

The hit, however, was a bullet, fired by a white Charlestown teenager from the roof of a nearby building. Police called it a racially motivated shooting; tensions over busing were still simmering. Williams, who is black, was hit in the neck and left a quadriplegic. In an instant, the violent act of a stranger ended his dreams of athletic stardom. For the rest of his life, Williams would have to depend on someone else for even the most basic physical tasks, from eating a meal to turning pages in a book. Undeterred, Williams finished high school, got a degree from Northeastern University, and works as an outreach specialist at the Massachusetts State Lottery Commission.

Perhaps even more remarkable is that Williams has forgiven his assailants, two of whom were convicted, served 10 years in prison, and have been released. ''Anger did well up at first,'' he says. ''The situation would have been a lot easier to take had it occurred during the game in an actual football injury instead of a pure act of hatred.''

Even though his assailants never apologized and he never saw them, Williams chose to forgive. ''Although they put me in an unenviable position, I never hated because I will not give anyone that control over me. Hate is a useless emotion that takes up too much energy,'' says Williams, now 39. ''If I were to retaliate in anger, what would make me different from them?''

Forgiveness, he believes, has helped him heal. ''Both my religion and my common sense tell me it's the thing to do,'' he says, over lunch that is fed to him by his assistant, Rob Baden.

Many cannot understand how Williams could have moved past anger to forgive a senseless act of violence that changed his life. To them, forgiveness is the wimpy opposite of revenge, which has gained currency since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But the topic of forgiveness has also gained currency, and gone global.

New studies show that it's not only good for the soul, it's also good for the body. Several books have been published on the subject, from religious tracts to scientific tomes. In October, a national conference, ''Scientific Findings About Forgiveness,'' will be held in Atlanta; papers to be presented include ''Forgiveness Among Families,'' ''Forgiveness and Biology,'' and ''Forgiveness in Rwanda.'' The act of forgiveness is a cornerstone of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs. There are dozens of websites devoted to the issue; one features an ''Apology Room,'' where one can post a public anonymous apology.

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has helped heal that riven country's apartheid-inflicted wounds, serves as an esteemed international model in both the individual capacity to forgive and in a country's quest for restorative justice.

The Stanford University Forgiveness Project is doing pioneering research on forgiveness, ''a subject that used to be only for sermons, not for scientific research,'' says Dr. Edward Hallowell, a Boston area psychiatrist whose book on forgiveness, ''Dare to Forgive: It's Sweeter Than Revenge,'' will be published next year.

''People don't think forgiveness is in their own best interests, but it is,'' says Hallowell. ''It's a major stress reducer. It's good for your heart rate, blood pressure, immune system; it's good for prolonging your life; it reduces the risk of heart attack. It's the gift you give yourself.''

In a world that seems to feed on the notion of revenge, from terrorism to the death penalty, forgiveness is sometimes forgotten. But experts agree many who decide to forgive find it empowering.

''Although forgiveness is often regarded as an expression of weakness, the decision to forgive can paradoxically elevate a victim to a position of strength as the one who holds the key to the perpetrator's wish,'' says psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela in her book, ''A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness.'' It chronicles her jailhouse interviews with the ruthless leader of a white South African death squad - Eugene de Kock, a police colonel nicknamed Prime Evil, responsible for scores of murders and crimes against blacks during the reign of apartheid.

In Gobodo-Madikizela's view, forgiveness shifts power from a remorseful wrongdoer like de Kock, now serving 212 years in prison for his crimes, to the victim. ''The victim retains that privileged status as long as he or she stays the moral course, refusing to sink to the level of the evil that was done to her or to him,'' she says. As such, she believes, forgiveness is actually a type of revenge ''enacted at a rarefied level.'' As for Prime Evil, she feels that his remorseful sessions with her amounted to ''an outcast begging to rejoin the world of the living.''

Rising above the crime

Those like Gobodo-Madikizela who deal with victims stress that true forgiveness must also include genuine atonement by the perpetrator. And, contrary to popular opinion, forgiveness neither condones the crime nor forgets it but ''rises above it,'' writes Gobodo-Madikizela, who as a black member of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard testimony from victims and perpetrators of sometimes almost unspeakable apartheid-era violence.

Thomas Blanchette can relate to that. He released his anger toward the Rev. Joseph Birmingham, the priest who sexually abused him 30 years ago. But he will not - cannot - forget what happened. ''My view is that you're entitled to be angry as long as you want to be angry, but when you're finished with anger, I think it's imperative to forgive,'' says Blanchette, a contractor who lives on Martha's Vineyard.

Blanchette, 55, says Birmingham, who was pastor at Our Lady of Fatima church in Sudbury, abused him several times a week from age 12 until he reached 14. The crime, Blanchette says, condemned him to a lifetime of problems with trust, relationships, and intimacy. ''I thought I was the only one,'' he says.

But when he returned from the Army as a young man, he heard others on the softball field talking about Birmingham. It turns out scores of other boys he knew - and four of his brothers - said the priest had molested them, too.

In his 30s, Blanchette sought comfort in the Episcopal Church: ''It was very comforting and familiar, and the theology was very similar, only it wasn't the Catholic Church.'' As his faith deepened, he decided to pay Birmingham a visit. In 1988, he found the priest at St. Brigid's Church in Lexington.

''I'm Tommy Blanchette from Sudbury,'' he announced. ''I've had some difficulties in my life and I've had some counseling, and I realize that some of the difficulties were a result of my relationship with you.'' The two spoke for nearly two hours. The priest admitted that he lost his parish in Gloucester and was sent to Connecticut for pedophilia treatment. He was spending his final years under ''house arrest,'' unable to leave church grounds without supervision.

Birmingham never directly apologized, but Blanchette felt he was remorseful. A year later, Blanchette heard the priest was gravely ill and prayed for him at his hospital bedside. ''It was an extraordinarily powerful moment for me,'' says Blanchette. Birmingham died the next morning.

Blanchette says he found his willingness to forgive ''from therapy, Bible studies, and church fellowship. I learned that hatred just rots you from the inside out. I felt much better when I forgave him.''

Even though Blanchette belongs to a support group, Survivors of Joseph Birmingham, and is part of a priest sexual abuse lawsuit against the archdiocese, he says he harbors no animosity toward the priest or the church. ''Forgiveness is not easy, but it's right,'' he says. ''We've all seen people who allow their lives to be filled with animus toward others, and that's the kind of thing that's happening in the Middle East right now.''

As a priest accused of sexual abuse, the Rev. Edward McDonagh was on the other side of the issue. Last year, without warning to him or his parishioners, he was removed from St. Ann's Church in West Bridgewater, where he'd served for a dozen years. Steadfastly insisting on his innocence, McDonagh waited nine months with no job and little money while the Archdiocese of Boston determined his fate. In February, the church found that the 40-year-old accusation - brought secondhand by the dead victim's sister - was groundless. To McDonagh, there was no question that he would forgive his accuser.

''If I met these people, I would put my arms around them and cry with them,'' he said recently. ''I believe that my God is a forgiving God, no matter what. So that is the basis of why I believe we can forgive another person's hurt against us.''

And yet, ''you don't forget the hurt. That's part of being human,'' the priest said. ''But you don't wallow in the misery.''

' The F word'

But those who work with victims are uneasy about using the word ''forgiveness'' as a catchall for complex emotions. Dr. Judith Herman, a psychiatrist who runs the Victims of Violence program at Cambridge Hospital, calls it ''the F word.'' Many victims, she says, have a more nuanced view of what would set things right for them and resent being put in the role of ''aiding in the rehabilitation of the perpetrator.

''I guess my concern is that a lot of people have agendas for victims,'' ranging from pursuing the death penalty to forgiveness, she says, recalling a rape survivor who said her assailant ''needed his creator's forgiveness, not mine.'' The woman added: ''I don't want to be part of his healing. That's not my job.'' And for victims of domestic violence, forgiveness of an abusive spouse - without addressing the cause of the abuse - is ''a lousy safety plan,'' says Herman.

The perpetrator's role is just as important. ''I can see forgiveness as a late-stage process if there has been accountability,'' says Herman, including a full acknowl edgment of the harm done, a ''heartfelt apology,'' a plan for making amends, and a way to prevent future harm.

Repentance and forgiveness are, in many religions, soul mates. In his book ''The Sunflower,'' Simon Wiesenthal recounts the story of a dying Nazi soldier's asking him, a starving concentration camp inmate, for forgiveness so he can die in peace. He listens to the man's accounting of his sins, then leaves the room in silence.

The rest of the book asks philosophers, theologians, and writers to place themselves in the inmate's shoes and describe how they would react. Cynthia Ozick writes that forgiveness ''forgets the victim. It blurs over suffering and death. It drowns the past.'' Others argue they would forgive because the dying soldier genuinely wanted to atone for his crimes.

In the book, Rabbi Harold Kushner says that the perpetrator also benefits from atonement. To be forgiven, he writes, ''is to feel the weight of the past lifted from our shoulders, to feel the stain of past wrongdoing washed away. ... To be forgiven is a miracle.''

But aren't there certain wrongs - the Holocaust, slavery, the murder of a loved one - that cannot be forgiven?

''Obviously, some things are much harder to forgive than others,'' says Hallowell. ''But there is nothing that cannot be forgiven. Forgiveness means you renounce the hold that anger and resentment have over you. You cease to be owned by them.''

Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich, Cambridge documentary filmmakers, are working on a feature about revenge and forgiveness, ''about people who take a different path than the usual cycle of revenge and retribution,'' says Lazarus. ''Forgiveness is a hard word. It has implications that things are forgotten, and that's not what it's about.''

Nor, she believes, is it about turning the other cheek. ''I think it's about being acknowledged and letting a society or person move on, and that's very different from ignoring it.''

Hallowell agrees. ''Forgiving someone does not mean that you condone what the person has done,'' he says. ''It doesn't mean that you don't want the offender to be punished. It doesn't mean you forget what has been done. It doesn't mean you don't feel anger and resentment. But try to think of those feelings as dangerous drugs - useful sometimes in small doses but highly toxic as regular intake. They rarely do you good, and they usually do you harm.''

Elizabeth Seitz, who lives in Jamaica Plain, knows firsthand that forgiveness is healing. Her older sister - and only sibling - had always been a role model for her. But in her mid-20s, the sister did something very hurtful to someone they both loved: their grandfather. The sisters had a falling-out over it and did not speak for a while. A year later, they talked about it and made their peace. ''We had a good relationship, stronger than before,'' says Seitz.

Her sister died two years later, at age 29.

''I was grateful that we had reconciled ... and had an opportunity to become close once again. If there had been no forgiveness, her death would have been unbearable,'' says Seitz.

In ''The Sunflower,'' South African archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, reminds readers that Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years during apartheid, invited his white jailer to his inauguration as the country's first democratically elected president. Of that and all the other cases of forgiveness he witnessed, Tutu says: ''This magnanimity, this nobility of spirit, is quite breathtakingly unbelievable. I have often felt I should say, `Let us take off our shoes,' because at this moment, we are standing on holy ground.''

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 7/16/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.


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