“Dad Calling.” I sat on my boyfriend’s couch staring at the screen on my phone. When I was 20 and moved out of the family home he, for the first time, laid his hands on my mother, back handing her in the shoulder. The police were called by the neighbors and my parents divorced.
He made his rounds just after, calling each family member before my mother could to get his story out first, trying to get everyone on his side, and now he was calling me. The very idea that he thought he could put his step daughter against her own mother says how narcissistic of a man he is. I answer, feeling as though I had no choice, I knew he would keep calling until I answered anyway.
This is the first half of a telephone call that marked the last communication attempt between me and my step-father ten years ago, as well as the beginning of my journey to forgiving him for abusing me, and my siblings, as a child. In the following pages I will call on my experiences with my step-father and stories from The Forgiveness Project to illustrate the benefits and challenges of forgiveness in relationships and highlight the ways in which storytelling can offer us new ways of looking at forgiveness.
I would like to urge the reader to challenge their assumption that forgiveness is a simple concept. The abstract idea of forgiveness, its intricacies of possibility and limitations, is more complex than we often realize. Discourses of forgiveness are in a constant state of flux, while some researchers refer to forgiveness as a long journey, to others, it is an epiphany. To some it is a way to reconcile, while others, a way to let go. In other words, communication studies has done little to define forgiveness.
Marina Cantacuzino says forgiveness is “Not allowing the pain of the past to dictate the path of the future. It requires a broad perspective, namely understanding that life is morally complicated, that people behave in despicable ways and that some things can never be explained” while Alexander McCall sees it as “Positive celebrations of what the human spirit can do to rise above evil — to negate evil not by returning it with further evil, but by stopping it dead in its tracks, by freeing its victims of its hold.” I tend to lean towards Marian Partington’s simple assertion that forgiveness means “giving up all hope of a better past (Cantacuzino, 2015, p. 178). I’ve come to learn that the lack of a distinct definition means that forgiveness is personal, contextual, and relationally constituted and cannot, and should not, be tied down.
Challenges of Forgiveness
“Forgiveness is a hard word, it demands a lot of you and is so often misunderstood.” — Wilma Derksen (p. 137)
A large huddle of what looked to me to be naked 12 year old girls crowd the TV screen. All of which are shaking, and crying in fear as a man wearing military garb walks amongst them, grabs one, throws her to the ground and proceeds to sexually violate her as a large group of other military men cheer him on. This is one of a long list of movies my father would watch throughout the weekends, with all of his children in the room.
This memory, and others like it, used to send me into a rage and, in some ways, still does. Out of all of the stories my father and I share, this is the one that I cannot mutter out loud, or even think about, without feelings of anger, confusion, and shame. In some ways I feel as though I too need to be forgiven for seeing those images. I have never brought up this memory to him because I am convinced he will deny it ever happened. Jayne Stewart, in her story about sexual abuse at the hands of her father, asks “can I forgive him for something he denies (p. 56)?” To answer this question for myself I go to Anne Marie Hagan’s story about her father who was murdered with an axe while on a fishing trip. Anne says, “Forgiveness cannot be conditional on remorse because that would mean we can only forgive those who are sorry. Forgiveness is recognizing that the offender is a human being who is deserving of kindness, compassion, and love despite the harm they have done” (p. 89). Though helpful in some ways, this statement for me adds even more caveat and challenges to an already messy situation. Forgiveness without an apology is a challenge by itself, but Anne adds that she believes the offender deserves compassion and love, when many would not agree that ALL people deserve that treatment. There are certain culturally “unforgivable” acts, and child sex abuse, trafficking, and child pornography tend to be on that list.
Geoff Thompson in his story about being sexually abused by a martial arts instructor says, “I thought forgiveness was weak and meant letting people off the hook” (p. 124), and several other stories mirror this sentiment with the fear they are giving the offender a free pass, stating they see it as stampeding on the memory of their loved ones who had been victimized (p. 134). Some scholars fear that forgiveness too quickly, or done too often, may actually cause harm. Hall and others claim that forgiveness has the potential to allow offenders to “escape feelings of shame and guilt without appropriately making amends (Hall, et al., 2005).” As well as, a decreased motivation for a change in behavior and a possible tendency to blame others for their repeated detrimental behaviors down the road (Hall et al. 2005). But Magdeline in her story of being kidnapped and locked in a trunk says that “forgiveness is different from trusting. You don’t have to trust someone just because they are forgiven” (p. 98).
Lastly, forgiveness is hard and can feel disempowering. Ginn tells us forgiveness is giving up our right and power to seek revenge and Wilma says the pressure to forgive haunted her for decades, becoming a heavy weight (p. 68, 137). However, seeing forgiveness as a long never ending process that needs to be practiced daily like Wilma, again, who says, “forgiveness is a fresh, ongoing, ever-present position of the mind which takes on many different forms. It’s a promise of what we want to do, a goal, a North Star, a mantra” and Ray adds that he struggles with forgiveness but “I know I have to practice it every day to relieve my bitterness. It’s a moment by moment thing” (p. 52, 139). The stories have shown that taking forgiveness one day at a time and, like Ray says, moment by moment, can make the process a bit less challenging.
Benefits of Forgiveness
“No matter which side of the conflict you’re on, had we all lived each other’s lives, we could all have done what the other did.” — Jo Berry (p. 96)
“Hey! Whatcha up to!?” I had grown to know and understand his different personalities and I knew he hadn’t started drinking yet. He told me he knew he hit my mother though he didn’t think it was hard enough to hurt her. He admitted it. He told me he ran after my brother down the street that night, tearing his shirt off and choking him down to the ground. Though he didn’t think it was hard enough to hurt him. He admitted it. He then told me he knows now that some of the things he did may have caused psychological damage. He finally realized it was hard enough to hurt me. He admitted it.
This is the end of that telephone call from ten years ago that began my journey to forgiving my step-father. During that phone call he sounded sober and said that he understands that he may have caused us some mental and emotional damage, but that he never intending to. Though it wasn’t exactly an apology, for him, it was the closest to it I knew he would ever get. To this day I am the only family member who has this story with him. I consider it a gift. This inspired me to decide that the abuse I endured was a portion of a bigger picture that goes beyond individual moments. It’s helped me to understand the severity of my father’s alcohol addiction. It helped me to separate the behavior from the individual. It helped me, essentially, to forgive.
Salimata in her story about forgiving her family for putting her through female genital mutilation says, “out of rage came compassion, and the realization that this was not my mother’s fault, nor the fault of the women who had done this to me. They were simply blinded by tradition” (p. 145). I believe my father was “blinded” by drugs and alcohol, unable to make appropriate choices. Though I still struggle with the above memory and whether I can forgive something so depraved I, like Samantha, believe “that we all have good and bad in us; we’re all figuring life out as best we can. When people make wrong choices, they are figuring it out too” (p. 105).
For me, the biggest benefit of forgiving my step-father was beginning to understand him as a human, and not a monster. I want to, as Magdeline says, “be positive to open up ways for someone to become a better person. If I hate him, I’ll make him more entrenched in his attitude of greed and desperation. I want to give him a chance” (p. 101).
“Through my experience and the sharing of my story, my work has helped create an alternative narrative, that we are all interconnected and interdependent, each and every “One Unknown”; it is not ‘us’ and ‘them’.” — Gill Hicks (p. 117)
His body went limp when my mother picked him up. With either side of his body dropping toward each other, you would think he had no spine. At 5 years old the loss of my first pet, an iguana named Spike, framed for me from that point forward what death looked like. My mother laughed upon picking him up from the middle watching his body flop, and I cried not just from the loss, but of the sheer lack of support from her. I guess she did not see the big deal, he was just an iguana. That afternoon, after a few beers, my father decided to give Spike a funeral, fashioning two sticks into a cross and digging a hole at the base of our grapefruit tree, in our field of dandelions. He said a few words, and I cried, looking up at my drunk step-father, the sun blinded me for a moment and I saw his face glisten, with his eyes closed, resting his weight on the shovel, talking about what a great pet Spike was.
That last phone call with my step-father helped me to reframe our narrative and look at our relationship in different ways. I decided to choose to remember the good things as often as possible and am now able to tell a different story if I choose. For some storytellers in The Forgiveness Project being vulnerable and sharing their feelings and experiences created lasting bonds with those who wronged them, or strengthened bonds with friends and family. Sammy says while he was incarcerated he had to talk about his life “which unleashed a torrent of emotion. In an instant I went from feeling self-pity to feeling remorse. In fact, it was the first time I’d experienced empathy” (p. 85). Hearing his story out loud amidst the stories of others created a sense of empathy Sammy had never experienced before and Anne says that after she talked to her perpetrator face to face, while learning more about him as a human being and the horrendous suffering that he’d endured, everything changed, and she too was able to understand him.
Alexander McCall urges the reader to challenge their assumption that forgiveness is a simple concept, explaining that the abstract idea of forgiveness, its intricacies of possibility and limitations, is more complex than we often realize. He describes forgiveness on a micro as well as macro level, addressing the role it plays in rehabilitation of criminals, as well as its effect on larger global/cultural issues and conflicts (McCall; Cantacuzino, 2015). McCall ends by saying, “Marina Cantacuzino points out that forgiveness is neither black nor white, but is, she feels, grey. She is right — but what a warming, vivid grey it is” (xvii).
Cantacuzino, M. (2015). The Forgiveness Project: Stories for a Vengeful Age. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Hall, J. H., & Fincham, F. D. (2005). Self–forgiveness: The stepchild of forgiveness research. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(5), 621–637.