For trauma survivors, there are many paths to healing and moving on. Why does forgiveness culture demand that survivors forgive their abusers?
hen I say that I am against forgiveness, I am not judging individuals who choose to forgive. If doing so helps you, then by all means, forgive. What I abhor is a culture that places demands on victims and survivors, insisting that we are not whole until we forgive. Forgiveness culture implies that betrayers and abusers can expect to be forgiven — they can hurt and harm and rage — and should their targets decline to forgive, they can rest smug in the assurance that the refusal reflects a flaw in their victims, not in themselves.
I can relate many small wrongs after which the offender has apologized, claimed he would never demand forgiveness, and then become condescending when I’ve not immediately accepted the apology. “We don’t have to be enemies, but sure, I’ll leave you alone,” said one text message. I had not said I would not forgive him; I had simply not forgiven on demand. Still, this incident was relatively minor.
I have chosen not to forgive the perpetrator of my worst trauma. I will never forgive the man who raped me. Despite conventional wisdom, I have not failed to move on. I have continued to grow as a writer and a teacher, moving around the world (literally — I’ve lived in three new countries since that night) with an open heart because I have chosen to do the work to keep myself open to everyone and everything I have yet to know. I have dated and had one long-term relationship, which failed not because I am a survivor of sexual assault but because the man was an alcoholic who envied every success I earned.
Following the end of that relationship, I took advantage of the free counseling to which I had access as a doctoral candidate. I wanted to make sure that I had dealt with whatever issues may have lingered. My counselor was taken aback by how high-functioning I was despite my traumas. She never asked me if I had forgiven the rapist. She knew I did not need to forgive to thrive. There may be correlations between forgiving and having better physical and mental health, but correlation does not prove causation. In a culture that stigmatizes those who refuse to forgive, the added stress can lead to poorer health and slower recovery. Those of us who choose not to forgive would be much happier and healthier if we were not told we were simply not ready, or were hurting ourselves by making such a choice.
Worse, the stigma can silence victims. I never reported my rape to the police. I had no proof; Jon and I had been dating and had had consensual sex on many occasions prior. Moreoever, the NYPD is not known for compassionate treatment of sexual assault survivors, and I moved in radical-progressive social circles that viewed the justice system as a site of unenlightened vengeance. But I did post my story on Livejournal where mutual friends would see it. I wanted to warn other women who knew him. Some people supported me, but others criticized me for naming him. One even told me I should forgive him, just days afterward, since at least I would get a story out of it.
Over the next few years, I heard stories from other women, stories that had I heard beforehand would have stopped me from getting involved with Jon. In some cases, the women had repressed the memories until reading my experience. But there were women who said they had forgiven him (after all, as more than one pointed out, he had his own history of being sexually abused — though we had only his word on that) and remained friends with him. Many encouraged me to do the same. I don’t blame them.
What I blame is the cultural assumption that forgiving makes a person superior. Without that assumption, more women would have called him out, and it would have been harder for him to continue his predation.
The story gets more troubling. During my first week in Belfast, where I was working on my Ph.D., Jon sent me an email that carefully skirted anything legally actionable but let me know that he had been tracking me and could show up any time. After that, I took to Googling him occasionally so that I knew where he was living. A few years later I found his obituary. I celebrated. I’d have danced on his grave if it wouldn’t have required a transatlantic flight — not out of vengeance but out of joy that he could never hurt anyone again. If I’m ever in the nowheresville in Pennsylvania where he died, I will have my dance.
At the time, however, I was curious about what happened and I found the answer in a Livejournal entry by his first love and lifelong friend — a woman who knew that he had raped me and sexually abused at least one mutual friend of theirs. He had overdosed on barbiturates. She went on about how she had forgiven him for the ways he had hurt her and it was especially sad because he had been getting his life together. He was studying to teach disabled children. And it was that last fact that put me in a rage. I commented, anonymously, that the way he died was not as painful as he deserved. Then it was her turn for self-righteousness: What was wrong with me, speaking to someone who was grieving that way? People like me had ruined Livejournal! So I asked what was wrong with her, thinking it was fine for a known predator to work with a vulnerable population. Then I answered my own question: She valued her fairy tale of forgiveness and redemption over the right of those children not to be abused. I never went back to see if she responded because nothing she could have said would have made it OK.
But I was wrong. I should not have blamed her personally. Trying to derail his redemption narrative, even for such legitimate concerns, would only have led to accusations of a failure to forgive. True, forgiveness is not supposed to mean tolerating someone’s foul actions, but the effect of mandatory forgiveness is often the same as if it did. If you cannot publicly condemn someone, then you must condone them by your silence.
Now that Jon has died, forgiving him would not endanger anyone, but I have no reason to do so. I have let the hurt fade into the background of my psyche and gone on with my life as best I can — much in the way I have dealt with the grief of loved ones’ deaths. Forgiveness would not add anything to that. It would not make me a better person, though it might well make me more certain of my goodness.
Pseudo-spirituality has made forgiveness a marker of personal virtue. If you forgive, then you know you are enlightened. Deepak Chopra describes forgiveness as the “recognition that actions that are perceived as hurtful or wrong are the perspective of the small ego mind, not the higher self.” If you perceive an assault on yourself and your body as too wrong to forgive, you are being small-minded.
This attitude ignores that the choice not to forgive can come from a place of strength. It can represent a legitimate response to an offender’s continuing actions and place in society. The absence of forgiveness implies neither desire for revenge nor lack of enlightenment, and assuming otherwise minimizes what forgiveness really means. Those who truly forgive make a conscious choice to do so for personal reasons that go beyond wanting to be healthy or enlightened. And it takes work after that decision. Real forgiveness is an achievement, and denying the validity of other paths to healing minimizes that truth, even as it erases other, equally authentic ways to thrive.
At the same time, coerced forgiveness — a forgiveness granted because it is believed to be the only virtuous or healthy thing to do — breeds resentment. Coerced forgiveness merely paves over rage or the desire for vengeance. Nietzsche saw violence as the solution for such ressentiment. According to Anglican theologian Giles Fraser, that perspective reflects Nietzsche’s treatment of violence as “almost a game” and, as also argued by sociologist René Girard, Nietzsche’s failure to understand that Christian ressentiment results from the triumph over violence. But I would argue that as long as hatred lingers, even corralled, the cycle of violence is only paused. Breaking the cycle requires transformation. Real, voluntary forgiveness is only one way of achieving that kind of internal change. Simply living a life of my choosing is my way, but compulsory forgiveness is not another.
The truth about my rapist’s death is that no one will ever know whether he committed suicide or overdosed accidentally. If I knew the former were true, I would choose to forgive him because I would know that he was aware that he had done horrible wrongs. Indeed, the work I have done to move forward would transfer to the path of forgiveness, meaning that I would have little work left to do once I made that choice. Genuine forgiveness and other ways of learning to thrive despite wrongs are not so different. Demanding that survivors of trauma forgive denies us agency in choosing how to heal, even though denial of agency is often a key part of trauma and its reassertion is essential to moving forward. Forgiveness culture claims to know what is best for us, but it only makes it harder for many survivors to thrive.