guns, murder, prison, rehabilitation

Taking Forgiveness (And Guilt) One Step Further

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.

According to Tullis’s observation—he has spoken extensively to both victims and perpetrator—forgiveness doesn’t make the murderer any less guilty. After the restorative justice meeting, Conor, the murderer, wasn’t absolved of what he did. Tullis writes, “but in refusing to become Conor’s enemy the Grosmaires deprived him of a certain kind of refuge—of feeling abandoned and hated—and placed the reckoning for the crime squarely in his hands.” For the murderer forgiveness means to take responsibility and as such it ultimately paves the road to rehabilitation.

Tullis mentions that Conor’s father “presented a bad example of bad-tempered behavior,” and Conor himself said that he and Ann weren’t capable of talking things out and expressing their feelings in a rational manner. I wish Tullis’s had delved on the impact Conor’s upbringing had on him and his relationship to Ann—and on the fact that his father’s gun stood readily available when the fight between Conor and Ann exploded.

In my book I cite studies that suggest that children who have been physically abused are prone to become criminals and that parents who don’t supervise their teenagers or who discipline them inconsistently—sometimes ignoring their children’s misbehavior while at other times punishing them for it—set them up to commit a violent offense. The availability of weapons is another often cited risk factor that came to mind when I read Tullis’s article. These “criminogenic risk factors” can be aggravated through situational factors, such as having consumed alcohol or drugs or being judged by the victim or bystanders. Obviously, the more risk factors an individual is exposed to, the more likely he or she is to commit a violent crime.

A murder is rarely just an isolated incident; it is never just one person’s “fault.” The murderers I spoke to were terribly abused in their childhoods, and their parents never taught them such basic things as impulse control. So when we talk about guilt and forgiveness, we also have to talk about the offender’s past, examining the different forces that shaped him.