Your most recent post about forgiveness was beautifully expressed. It is true that forgiveness benefits the offender, but I have also seen forgiveness benefit those who forgive. Forgiveness has an underrated and extraordinary ability to relieve the anger and pain of the person who was harmed. Clearly some acts make forgiveness difficult to imagine, but the greater the harm the greater potential to heal. Not until we forgive can we set aside or move past the consequence of the harm that was done.
By way of example, I want to tell you what happened to the 17-year-old gang member who shot me in ’97. I sent you an email a few years back on gun violence and related the events of that night. What you don’t know is the “ending” of the story. I call it an ending, but it was really more of a beginning.
In 2016 I attended Jason’s first parole hearing. I went to the hearing prepared to argue that he should remain in prison for the rest of his life. Even though I was attending to speak as the victim, I prepared like I would for a trial.
Jason was serving life in San Quentin and I expected to see a hardened, tattooed, remorseless prison gangster. When they led Jason into the hearing room, I was surprised to see a shackled, slightly overweight, shuffling middle age man with glasses and downcast eyes. He looked like he was going to his execution and he was nothing like the killer I expected.
What followed affected me profoundly. I learned that Jason had taught himself to read and write in solitary, that he was a good worker who cleaned the prison hospital and that he was sorry for what he had done. I remember writing on my legal pad “not what I expected.” While I’m sure that some victims appreciate these hearings as an extension of the punishment the offender deserves, I was ashamed to be a member of a society that would subject anyone to such scrutiny. The hearing included a thorough recitation of Jason’s childhood, foster care, juvenile and adult criminal history, incarceration offense, prison misconduct, and as a final indignity they went line by line through a psychological evaluation. It was not lost on me that the stakes of these hearings are nothing less than one’s freedom.
Once the commissioners finished their recitation, Jason was allowed to speak. While I was moved by his apology, he said two things that resonated with me. The first thing he said was he had always viewed the police as just another gang. Better funded maybe, but a gang nonetheless. He next told a story about how during his attendance at one of his self-help groups he met with a retired police officer who volunteered his time at the prison. Through tears he told how much it meant to him that this retired officer would listen to the story without judging or shunning him.
When it was my turn to speak, I went through with most of my presentation, but when I reached the end I told the commission that because of what I heard I would not ask them to deny Jasons parole. I told them that I would respect whatever decision they made.
Jason was denied parole that time, but I could not stop thinking about what happened at the hearing and what he had said. The more I thought about his description of the police as simply another gang, the more I realized that, he was right, at least from his perspective. With that realization I began to understand that we were both simply doing what each of us had been trained to do [Ed. Note: Tom is a retired policeman.] Considering his upbringing, illiteracy, physical and emotional abuse, and all of his negative contacts with the police I began to see that the violence of that night was all but inevitable. Once this became clear to me, I realized that his apology was unnecessary. Once I understood why it happened, I was able to release whatever anger I still harbored.
However, while I may have been able to let go of my anger, my wife was not. It would be difficult for me to effectively and fully express the degree to which the shooting harmed my wife. When Jason was sentenced to prison, so was she. She suffered deep depression, substance abuse, and an intense fear for her safety and mine. For most of the first 10 years she hardly left the house and spent most of time sleeping or self-medicating. She was in a masters English program and trying to teach at our local JC, but she was never able to finish her thesis and she simply walked out of her English class one day, and has never returned. While things eventually improved I feared that she had been irreparably broken.
When I was given notice of Jason’s first parole hearing I asked Christy if I should attend, and while the idea that Jason might get out of prison clearly terrified her, she told me that if it was important to me, that I should go. When I returned from the hearing and told her what I had done, I was surprised that she didn’t object to my decision.
What Jason had said about the retired police officer got me thinking that I could have a similar or even greater influence on his life if I were to offer my help. About a year later, at Jason’s second parole hearing, I got that chance. At the second hearing, I again told the board that I would respect whatever decision they made but that I wanted to reach out to Jason and help him, if I could. I told the board that I had come to understand why he had shot me and that because I understood I would accept his apology if it helped him, but that for myself it was unnecessary. When they denied Jason parole a second time, I realized that if he wanted my help he would be unable to contact me. In fact he was precluded from contact by a stay-away order. Not really knowing what my next step would be, I contacted the Department of Corrections Victim Services, who put me in touch with the Victim Offender Dialogue program.
The assigned facilitator, Martina Lutz-Schneider, next began the lengthy process to determine whether our talking to one another was a good idea. All through this process, Christy continued to support me, even as I could see that she was increasingly anxious and fearful. That said, every time I told her that I would back out of the dialogue if she wanted me to, she would simply say that I should keep going if it was important to me.
As the dialogue approached, Martina asked me to think about having a support person attend the dialogue with me. She said this was important even if I didn’t need the support, because as time passed it would be valuable to be able to talk about the dialogue with someone I was close with, who was able to witness our dialogue.
One night while I was trying to figure out who would be a good candidate, I asked Christy if she had any thoughts on who would be good and to my complete surprise, she said “What about me?” To be clear, given her fear of Jason, she was the last person I would have thought to ask.
As the day of the dialogue approached, Christy became increasingly anxious and fearful, but every time I suggested we cancel, she told me no, that she knew this was important to me and she insisted the dialogue go forward.
The day of the dialogue, Christy was too frightened to be in the same room with Jason, but she was able to watch it via a monitor set up by a documentary film crew. Jason and I had a great conversation, we laughed and cried and I found myself thinking what a waste it was that he had been abused and thrown away by society. We talked for a couple of hours and at a break, the producer approached and said that Christy wanted to talk to Jason. I found my wife in tears and she told me that she could see the remorse in his eyes and that she wanted to tell him that she was proud of what he had accomplished in prison that she forgave him.
I know that I will never again in my life see anything as beautiful as my wife walking into that room, throwing her arms around the man who nearly killed me and opening up her heart.
I hope that I haven’t taken too long to get to the point, but your apology and plea for forgiveness reminded me of the power contained in both the apology and the forgiving. Since that day, my wife is a different person or rather she is person whose strength and beauty are a distillation of her struggle to confront her deepest, darkest fears. Her act of forgiveness released her from her prison and has led to a succession of amazing events, not the least of which is her support for his release at his third and last parole hearing.
The anger generated by that act of violence could have destroyed us, but the simple acts of understanding and forgiveness instead made us all better, stronger, more compassionate and loving human beings.
Jason texts Christy and I every morning and I can’t tell you how much joy that simple act gives us.
To each person you apologized to, you gave a key to unlock their self-imposed confinement. You can’t make people do anything, but your act of humility and contrition has the power to allow them to release themselves and that is a beautiful gift.
Thank you for your insight, self awareness, and for taking us along on your journey.