In 1989, I attended synagogue on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, in Israel. I was invited by an American family to babysit, to take their child home when she became too restless to stay. They belonged to one of the only conservative synagogues in Israel. The toilet paper was torn ahead of time and the lamps were on a timer. As we walked to the synagogue, the profound silence was cathartic to me. The cessation of traffic was highlighted by the serious and yet joyful mood. The women dressed in white fluttered in the women’s balcony like doves, the children were free to wander among the men praying downstairs, the sounds of plaintive Kol Nidrei wafted up like smoke from a celestial fire drenching us in holiness. Although I couldn’t understand all of the Hebrew, I could follow along in the prayer book as we enumerated our sins and asked to be covered by God’s merciful forgiveness.
The High Holy Days are a time of repentance in the sense of self-reflection, to consider harm you may have done to others and ask their forgiveness before God opens to your page in the book of life at the end of Yom Kippur. I loved the fact that we asked for forgiveness as a congregation, that we were part of a ritual cleansing as well as personal evaluation. The community supported us as we declared those sins, those choices and decisions where we missed the mark, aloud. This year I read Michael Lerner’s additions to the traditional prayers in Tikkun Magazine and was astounded by their clarity, admitting to sins of social injustice as well as the more personal sins of slander and lying, not looking out for others, neglecting our obligation to act as responsible members of a community.
Last year I taught a writing workshop at Stillwater prison for the purpose of holding a reading during Victim Awareness week. We entered this exploration together. They wanted to hold a reading to express their remorse and I would do whatever I could to help them make that possible, to write stories and poems that were well crafted, thoughtful, and honest.
I told them, “You can’t just write a letter of apology and expect to be forgiven. Your victim may never be able to forgive—but if I were a victim, I would want to know how you have changed. How you are different now and would never commit that crime again. I want to know about the work you have done on yourself.” The word I used is metanoia, literally with-mind, to find mindfulness which is translated in the RSV New Testament as repentance. To me, the concept of metanoia goes beyond repentance, it means that you have changed. That you would never commit that crime again because you are not the same person that you were.
As a victim, it can be a long hard road to healing. It can take years. It can take forever. I was lucky to have a therapist who was able to guide me through the trauma and tell a new story of survival and strength. After years of silence about my rape, I was finally able to speak about it, write about it, read my writings aloud at an exhibition through the MN State Arts Board called The Art of Recovery. I also have written about it in both memoirs Flowers in the Wind and To Catch a Dream, hopefully to find publishers someday. And yet, my impulse was to forgive the man who perpetrated the rape immediately after it happened because during the four hours he held me captive, I listened to his story. I knew he was a victim as well and that the violation he was pouring out onto my body were the results of his own abuse, humiliation and anger. It is not an excuse. I don’t believe forgiveness needs to include forgetting. However, I remember with compassion for both of us.
A few years ago I attended a Radical Forgiveness workshop led by Rev. Sher McNeal. We formed a circle and she read questions such as “Have you ever been hurt, ever been unkind to someone?” “Have you ever been bullied, have you ever bullied someone?” The acts of unkindness, abuse, violence mentioned became more and more specific. We were instructed that if we were either victim or perpetrator, to step into the middle of the circle. Then she asked us to look each other in the eyes and say, “I am sorry that happened to you”. No one knew who was victim or perpetrator. Rather we witnessed that with each question, some of us stood in the middle of that circle together. Sorrow and forgiveness included all of us. Remorse included all of us. Forgiveness included all of us. Kinda like Yom Kippur. A covering over us of Divine Mercy.
After my Restorative Justice class, I felt that I would like to lead a class of victims and perpetrators, although not from the same crime as I am not a therapist but a devoted writer who has used writing for healing through my own intuition. However, it was interesting to me to realize I would not want to face my own perpetrator in a workshop, no matter how genuine his intentions were to make restitution. I know he went to prison and I have no desire to be in any form of contact.
The work I needed to do was on myself: the crime was a wake up call because at the time I was far away from living my own integrity, spiritual life and values and that I needed to remember self respect. I had to heal the belief and guilt that if I had been attentive, I would not have been a target. He had told the court, “I picked her because she was the kind of girl who would never have a man like me.” At the time, I was recovering from rejection and was hanging out with gay men because I felt safe and comfortable; they pampered me.
If my perpetrator had entered the Radical Forgiveness circle with me, would I have been able to look him in the eyes and say I am sorry that happened to you? Would we be able to weep together over his life wasted in prison and my years of PDST and distancing myself from relationships? Would we be covered by the mercy of God? I like to think it could be so.