Should All Be Forgiven?

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The change in Bell is palpable. Where once she was silent and confused, she is direct and focused. This is all the more remarkable since, as she calmly informs Cardis, last October she underwent surgery for breast cancer. In the days before her forgiveness sessions, such a setback would have sent her into a vortex of helpless rage, and she admits, "At first I wanted to blame someone." That passed, however. The cancer has apparently not spread, and she values her new composure. "I can buy another breast," she explains. "I can't buy another life."

Bell, a paid research subject, signed up for Enright's project with no expectation of a breakthrough. But citing a similar study with incest survivors, Enright says, "People who came to us with moderate psychological depression--and that is a lot of pain--all ended up being not clinically depressed and retained that over 14 months." He and his students have also applied his forgiveness "intervention" to elderly parents angry at distant children and men hurt by the abortion decision of a partner. His latest project is with sex offenders in a Madison mental-health facility. Enright feels that by helping them forgive the abusers in their own past, he may awaken empathy for their victims and decrease their recidivism.

Forgiveness has even wider social applications. An unusual coalition of liberal lawyers and religious thinkers has pioneered something called the restorative justice movement, whose favored instrument is conferences between crime victims and jailed perpetrators. There are now more than 300 such programs in prisons country-wide, including a $1 million religion-based juvenile-justice initiative in Florida.

While restorative justice has roots in Christianity, its payoff is political and psychological. The conferences give victims the chance to confront criminals with the heartbreak they caused. The meetings' end goals, however, are rehabilitation and social engineering: they rehearse the prospect of a whole community once the prisoner is released back into society. Forgiveness is not a conference "agenda item," says Bruce Kittle, a Wisconsin pastor and clinical professor who consults on the state's restorative justice programs, but "we talk about it with victims beforehand. Particularly in violent cases, it sometimes has a more direct role." Says Walter Dickey, a former head of the Wisconsin department of correction: "What you end up with is a lot of apologies by offenders." And about 85% of the time, he estimates, these are followed by a two-part victim response: "a flat-out statement that what you did to me was wrong--and then a willingness to forgive and let it go."

Long before restorative justice gathered steam, Aba Gayle, 65, learned to forgive and to let go. Gayle says she knows all about "the big lie"--the promise that prosecutors make to relatives of murder victims that "everything will be O.K." once a murderer is caught, tried, convicted, sentenced to death and executed. In 1980 her daughter Catherine, 19, and a male friend were stabbed to death on a pear farm near Sacramento, Calif. Virtually disabled by what she called a kind of temporary insanity, Gayle attended the sentencing of Douglas Mickey as he received the death penalty for the killings. She left the proceedings "horrified" that such a sentence could be imposed so matter-of-factly. Yet when Mickey's execution date was set, she asked for a seat as a witness, hoping to be able to see him pay for her daughter's death.

Then one night in 1992, Gayle wrote her daughter's killer a letter. "It just flowed," she says. She told him she forgave him and was willing to visit him. "The instant the letter was in the mailbox, all the anger, all the rage, all the lust for revenge disappeared," she says.

And Mickey wrote back. He told her that what he had done was an "unspeakable burden" to his soul. He said that if he could undo the night he killed Catherine and her friend, he would gladly give his life. Since then, Gayle has visited Mickey several times and corresponded with him regularly. And she has joined Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, a group that opposes the death penalty. "It is the way I honor Catherine," she says. "To murder someone in her name and to say we are doing it for her is horrible." Gayle sees herself as a spark for smaller mercies. "People think, If she can do that, maybe I can forgive my sister for what she did to me or my brother-in-law or mother--or whomever they've been holding a grudge against all these years."

For all its feel-good potential, however, forgiveness has more problematic reverberations than, say, Prozac. Can a woman's healing be helped by forgiving a physically abusive ex-husband who continues to savage her verbally among friends? What if they are still married and he is still beating her? Should the unrepentant be forgiven at all? Kittle, the Wisconsin restorative justice consultant, warns of misuse: "In religious traditions, there can be a sense of revictimization. They say to themselves, Here I am, and my child has been killed, and my pastor during my grieving period says, Jesus says you need to forgive, and if you don't, you are a sinner."

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