I just read Paul Tullis’s recent article “Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?” in the New York Times Magazine. I have thought a lot about remorse and forgiveness, and there are a couple of things I’d like to comment on.
Tullis’s piece talks about the role forgiveness played for Andy and Kate Grosmaire, whose 19-year-old daughter Ann was shot dead by her boyfriend Conor McBride. As it is often the case, the article’s most amazing statements can be found in the quotes of the sources, particularly the victim’s mother Kate. Demonstrating her willingness to meet with and forgive her daughter’s murderer, she says, “I knew being together rather than being apart was going to be more of what I needed.” At another point in the article Tullis quotes Kate as saying, “I knew that if I defined Conor by that one moment—as a murderer—I was defining my daughter as a murder victim. And I could not allow that to happen.” Later we hear Kate say, “I think that when people can’t forgive, they’re stuck. All they can feel is the emotion surrounding that moment. I can be sad, but I don’t have to stay stuck in that moment where this awful thing happened. Because if I do, I may never come out of it. Forgiveness for me was self-preservation.”
I found this sentiment admirable and telling because we often think of forgiveness as a means of helping those who are guilty, when it actually serves—or “preserves,” as Kate said—oneself.
While I admire the Grosmaires’ generosity towards their daughter’s murderer, I also wondered about their motivation. Tullis remarks at the margin that the family is religious. When I was researching my book I noticed that the notion of forgiveness always seems to be tied to religious views. (One of my subjects converted to Islam while incarcerated, another one became a Quaker.) For humanistic and psychological purposes, I wish we could “free” forgiveness from its religious constraints and allow it to permeate our daily lives. It should really be considered one of our general values as human beings that help us to “[be] together rather than [be] apart,” instead of something God ordered us to do. Continue reading