You would think that the question would be whether the women there can feel forgiven – by their victims, by society, by God – for the harm they have done. But usually the most immediate question is whether they can forgive those who have harmed them. And it’s not a small question. Virtually every woman in prison in the U.S. is a survivor of abuse; the studies yield numbers between 92 and 98%. Almost all of that abuse starts in childhood, and for many it has been horrific: neglect as well as sexual, emotional, and physical abuse.
As children, most of these women were betrayed by the people who were supposed to care for and protect them: mothers, fathers, older brothers, uncles, babysitters, cousins, neighbors, and friends. Their hurt and their anger are real and legitimate. A Christian message to “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” and “forgive them seventy times seven” is hard to reconcile with the broken lives and depth of suffering these women have experienced.
Ann had her leg broken by her mother – with a baseball bat. She was six. Martha was sold to her father’s friends for sex; it started when she was seven. Georgia ran away from home when she was twelve because her mother’s boyfriend was raping her. She lived under a bridge. I am asked: “The Bible says I have to forgive them. How do I do that?”
Many will say, “just let it go,” “you have to move past it”, “look to the future, not to the past.” But when we try to forget our hurt, ignore it, deny it, it doesn’t really go away. And when we feel that God insists that we “get over it,” guilt is added to our anger.
When the hurt is real, when real damage has been done, how do we go about forgiveness?
The women who talk with me are showing me the way. They need to talk. They need to explain what was done to them and to feel the horror of it. They need me to hear it and to bear witness.
Before we can forgive, we must first acknowledge the hurt. Wrong was done. Harm was done. Real damage was done. It is necessary to feel that anger, the hurt, the betrayal, the pain, and the grief for what was lost.
The women need, also, to feel that that person cannot hurt them again in that way; that they can keep themselves safe; that they can protect themselves. Perhaps they need to have that safety in order to fully look back at the damage.
I have learned to say, “you don’t have to talk to her again,” “you don’t have to answer his letters.” God does not expect us to allow ourselves to be hurt over and over again.
And when a woman has begun to feel safe, when she can speak more freely about her history and her hurts, sometimes she is able to turn her attention to her abuser. Sometimes she is able to ask what drove him or her to act. Sometimes she is able to perceive the suffering in her abuser and feel sad. And that sadness feels like forgiveness.
Not that the behavior was excusable. Not that she wants to “be friends” or “forget it happened.” Not that she wants her children exposed to that person. Not those at all. All of those would deny the truth of what happened.
But to sense the pain in the other and to feel compassion. That can be forgiveness.
Dorothy Muller is a Chaplain at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and a Parish Associate at Bedford Presbyterian Church.