by Kevin Annett
Whenever my abusive boyfriend wanted to make up with me, he’d tell me he was sorry for beating me up, and naturally, I’d forgive him. That was just a green light for him to start beating me up all over again.
- Carol M., Vancouver, February 2010
By refusing to forgive, I give up my illusions.
- Alice Miller, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence
While Harry Wilson lived he was homeless, starving, plagued by alcoholism and drug addiction, and regularly beaten and robbed on Vancouver’s meanest streets. Yet neither that suffering, nor his childhood rape and torture by a clergyman with an electric cattle prod, caused him to collapse, as had most of his fellow alumni from the death camps called Indian Residential Schools.
Most of these others never found their voice, but Harry did: and when he spoke of his life, he often ended by saying the same thing:
“I’ll never forgive those bastards for what they did to me.”
Harry Wilson proved to me something I have observed over many years as a street counselor and practicing clergyman: that the people who endure torture with a semblance of self-respect are those who have never forgiven what was done to them, especially as a child.
I’ve recently begun to ask counselors and other “helping” professionals why they believe that a traumatized man or woman must forgive their abuser if they are to become well. I have yet to receive a clear or logical answer. Rather, it is simply a self-evident and unquestioned assumption of these “experts” that forgiveness is indispensable to recovery from any form of torture or abuse.
In reality, when we look beneath this surface conjecture, we find that the exact opposite is true: namely, that the most basic requirement of commencing recovery from any pain or trauma is to never surrender the capacity to remember and name the wrong and the wrongdoer, but rather to be able to freely speak about it and express our natural outrage at what has happened to us. And yet precisely such a surrender and self-silencing is required for survivors to undertake the gesture of “forgiving”, which in practice means to inwardly resign oneself to having been tortured at the hands of another who has invariably escaped justice or accountability for his crime.
According to the dominant religious, medical and psychological paradigm in our culture, “forgiving” a tormenter is inexplicably framed as a medicinal stage towards recovery, and yet must involve a unilateral, non-reciprocal act on the part of the victim that does not require the victimizer to change. “Forgiveness” is seen as a simple end in itself that will somehow magically bring about “healing”, rather than in reality being the start of a long, painful process of change that prevents the abuse from re-occurring.
The fact that, under this dominant model, the abuse can continue, and is actually encouraged to continue, doesn’t seem to count for as much as the need for supplication and self-abasement by the one who has been abused. In short, modern “therapists” seem intent on subjecting victims of trauma to precisely what is needed to sustain them in a state of unalleviated humiliation and non-recovery.
Anger and the refusal to let go of our violation is seen by such therapists as a hindrance to “moving on”, as if not accommodating to one’s wronged condition is the source of one’s problem. “Forgive and forget, and you will be better” is the unchallengeable secular creed of counseling psychology. The onus, in other words, is placed upon the victim, and not the victimizer, to change.
Why is this?
It is alarming to the extent that so-called “helping” professionals base their methods not upon provable truths but on this partisan bias towards the abuser. To do so is to operate from an underlying and very destructive assumption that there is something wrong and unhealthy about challenging or confronting one’s abusers.
In this approach, there seems to be endless room for “reconciliation” and “forgiveness” by the victim, but just so much time and space allowed for the naming of the full and terrible truth: as if the sheep cannot be “reconciled” with the wolf except by agreeing to be eaten over and over again.
More people than I care to remember have told me how their counselors have told them that healing is only possible by moving beyond their past, “having closure”, and learning to live with the injustices and betrayals done to them. Remarkably, a victim of violence is thereby being asked to repress the memory of the crime and disassociate their life from its consequences: precisely what one should not do if one is to come to grips with a traumatic experience, and not be legally and morally complicit in aiding the concealment of a crime.
Torture and rape victims are told over and over by modern “therapy” that they are somehow damaging or belittling themselves by not forgiving and forgetting those who harmed them. And so “closure” means, in practice, closing off forever one’s memories, legitimate anger, and the capacity to secure justice and personal vindication.
It is pretty clear whose interests such a self-destructive approach actually serves.
In the case of aboriginal survivors of Christian genocide, such a charade of “healing” is an obvious political maneuver by government and church-paid therapists to sideline and prevent lawsuits and protests by the survivors. But the argument is the same, whether for aboriginal or non-native refugees from childhood rape and torture: the abuser is not responsible for changing, and must ultimately be appeased and placated by being forgiven by his victims.
The fact that this attitude is so universal, and that the capacity to “forgive” their torturers is held up as some sort of qualifying morality test for victims, suggests that it arises from something more intrinsic and basic in our culture. I suggest that this something is the collective, fearful memory of parental retaliation: a fear that gives rise to our entire structure of personal and societal morality in European Christian culture which is based on a dominater, “winner and loser” model of social relationships.
In a nutshell, Christian morality states that goodness consists of respecting and obeying constituted authority and one’s elders, especially the ultimate parental authority: God. By definition, one cannot be wronged or abused by those in such authority because they are superior to us, and thus, are incapable of being in error in relation to us or guilty of a crime.
Or in the words of medieval inquisitors, “Holy Mother Church is never in error; only the heretic is.”
This explains, in part, why no prominent politician, church leader or other father-figure ever goes to jail or is even held accountable for the crimes and murders committed by their institution, when the law clearly requires that they be. For the terrorizing of the innocent by the mighty is in practice not only legitimate, but a functionally necessary part of any hierarchical social order.
The template of such elite-worshiping morality, of course, is the Biblical message that a “rebellious” humanity and all of creation is being punished by an all-wise father-figure “god” because his instructions were disobeyed by our original ancestors, Adam and Eve. Yet the same punishing deity offers us a way back into his graces if we will return to our original unthinking state of obedience through our blind faith in his son Jesus Christ – and in those who claim to “represent” him. If we reject this one-time offer, however, we are damned for eternity as amoral and evil people.
In this Christian paradigm, we are all inherently lost and sick souls, but we can become “moral” and well again through obedience to those powerful and dominating figures who know better than we do, whether they are familial, religious or political leaders. In short, morality and well being means unflagging obedience and conformity to the very power that harms and endangers us.
To kiss the hand that strikes you makes no sense, at the best of times. But the absolute mandate to do precisely that pervades all of our clinical and therapeutic thinking and social practice, however subtly it is disguised or elaborately it is rationalized. And so it is hardly surprising that the pressure to conform to the unchallengeable interests of authority figures conditions virtually every aspect of our lives, from religion to political activism to social and family relationships.
By this scheme, humanity is divided into the dominaters and the subjugated. In our western religious-philosophical tradition, one cannot envision anything – and in fact, nothing is allowed to operate in any substantial way – outside the bipolar dynamic between the dominater (abuser-winner) and the accommodater (the abused-loser) personalities.
Even for those unfamiliar with this prevailing paradigm of Euro-Christian culture, it remains their firm belief that they must personally forgive a wrong done to them if they are to avoid a crippling resentment and thirst for revenge. This attitude is especially prevalent in not only Christian circles but in allegedly “secular” treatment centers, where it’s routinely espoused that “I must forgive not for the sake of another, but for my own sake.” And after all, Jesus himself explicitly seems to condone an absolute forgiving of all those who harm us.
In reality, the word “forgiveness” in the New Testament, the Greek word aphiemi, is not an absolute moral term, but is akin to the Biblical Hebrew word for “repentance”, shuba, which means to turn around and walk in a completely different direction. Jesus was saying, simply, to not be like the person who has harmed us, but instead to be different. This is a radically dissimilar thing than saying be reconciled with one who has harmed you. Indeed, it actually means the opposite: to leave and be separated from such a person.
Further, even on the level of the moralistic claim that forgiving those who trespass against us bestows a sort of psychic and personal cleansing, the empirical evidence does not bear this out.
To try to forgive one’s abuser is to deny our most basic common sense and our capacity to freely express our feelings and defend ourselves from further attacks. Unilateral “forgiveness” is not only unhealthy and suicidal, but fosters the illusion that a wrong is somehow wiped clean by killing in oneself the desire to protect our dignity and seek restitution for our pain. Not only is this not true, but it requires that the victim feel ashamed of harboring a natural and just desire for accountability.
That is, it’s clear that when we forgive one who has abused and wronged us, we must not only repress our natural feelings but deny what we know is true for the sake of a supposed settlement with an abuser who usually shows little or no remorse for his action.
In practice, such a resolution is rarely achieved, and yet the desperate “forgiver” is not permitted to recognize this but is invariably blamed for not finding a settlement with his adversary. For only the abused, and not the abuser, must change. As a result of such masochistic assumptions, the victim becomes entrenched in an even deeper denial about his own condition, like any battered child who keeps proclaiming, “I’ve told my abusive father I love him! Why does he keep beating me?”
In this manner, the cycle of abuse and torture continues.
To accept on blind faith the efficacy and “healing power” of unilateral forgiveness is simply another form of repression and denial of one’s actual condition. By repressing one’s own truth for the sake of a phony unanimity with an abuser, the abused person must immerse himself in a permanently dissociated mental state to convince himself that his act of “forgiveness” has both redeemed his abuse and reformed his abuser – neither of which is true.
For modern “therapists” to help engender such a neurotic and fragmented psyche in those who have survived abuse and torture is not only sadistic and untherapeutic, but actually continues that affliction under another name. And yet, aided and abetted by such a fraudulent model of “therapy”, this destructive pathology is imposed most strongly on those people who have suffered most severely at the hands of others.
I witnessed this in 2010, when a strange and sad gathering of aboriginal people assembled on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to unilaterally offer to the government of Canada a so-called “Forgiveness Charter” in the name, absurdly, of everyone who ever attended an Indian residential school, the dead as well as the living.
The event was sponsored, predictably, by the very churches that ran the death camps called “schools”, acting through various puppet aboriginal politicians and preachers. But the rally was filled with hundreds of everyday survivors of rape and torture in these institutions: people who sincerely believed that their unilateral “forgiving” of the government would make everything better.
The very fact that this forgiveness was directed not to those who are actually responsible for the residential schools atrocities – the Catholic and Protestant churches themselves – but to the more distantly guilty government of Canada, spoke volumes of the deceitful and obscuring purpose of the event. Nor did the enormous pretense and travesty of publicly absolving murderers for a crime on behalf of the silent and slaughtered victims who have no say in the matter seemed not to have occurred to anyone at the rally, or to the slavish national media that widely and uncritically reported the charade.
Nevertheless, what I described earlier as the innate dread of parental retaliation that so molds our society’s notion of well being and morality was displayed everywhere at the Forgiveness Charter Rally. Each aboriginal speaker implored his fellow survivors of Christian terror to believe that much harder in Christianity, to love those who had harmed them, and to completely absolve both church and state for all the wrongs they had committed against native people: even the massacre of children.
The fear in the speakers’ eyes and voices was palpable that day, as was their pitiful hope that their torturers would approve of their words, and stop their reign of terror against them. I have seen the same look in every battered woman who is convinced that just a bit more love from her will still the blows of her husband. The hopes of the eternal victim, robbed of their own voice and the capacity to confront and then depart from their abuser, are always the same – and are never realized.
What would a genuine recovery, geared to the needs of the victims themselves, look like? I have given such recovery the name “Aletheia Therapy”, from the Greek word for Truth.
Aletheia means, literally, that which is not concealed, but is seen and expressed as it really is. Such genuineness is at the core of all life and recovery, but is accessible only through complete self-honesty and remembrance in a climate free of intimidation and domination.
Rather than the Christian paradigm that sees humanity as inherently debased and flawed, and in need of continual correction by a wiser external authority, Aletheia Therapy arises from the Natural Law axiom that every man and woman is born as a complete , sufficient and self-governing being who holds within themselves the key to what is necessary for their own health and recovery. Since the truth is indeed within us, it is only by remembering who we are and what we have experienced in its totality that we can find ourselves and our wholeness again.
This approach is radically in line with the teachings of Jesus, and ironically, radically counter posed to the heritage of institutional Christianity and western patriarchy, and its authoritarian insistence that we respect and reconcile with our abuser-dominater.
In short, we begin by ignoring such a “forgiveness imperative” in dealing with our own pain and trauma, and begin instead from the first and fundamental necessity of knowing our own truth by always retaining our capacity to speak freely for ourselves about who and what has caused our affliction. Doing so, we can avoid the self-defeating pitfalls of silencing ourselves and burying our feelings for the sake of our abusers.
By not worrying about forgiveness, we free ourselves from any illusion about our actual condition, and we retain our capacity to speak freely about what we feel and know is true. Time and again I have observed in trauma healing circles that only when victims have reached such a stage of inner freedom can genuine recovery from self-isolating destructiveness begin.
In the words of Alice Miller, “To live with one’s own truth is to be at home with oneself. That is the opposite of isolation.”
My fondest and most inspiring memory of such actual recovery occurred not in a healing circle at all, but at a public protest inside the sanctuary of the Roman Catholic cathedral in downtown Vancouver just before Easter in 2007. Aboriginal survivors of torture in Catholic residential schools held aloft their banners and signs, and spoke to the congregation of the crimes committed against them by their church, and in the process burst apart their own fears.
The same men and women who could not enter a catholic church or see a crucifix without becoming nauseous because of the awful memories of their torture as children strode bravely and calmly amidst the pews that day and handed leaflets to the dumbstruck crowd.
Remarkably, these survivors faced down the threats of policemen and priests that day, and stated their case to them without a trace of fear; and then they peacefully left the building to the sound of their own drum beats, laughter, cheers and joyful triumph.
Outside, as we all hugged and congratulated one another, a permanent cloud of despair seemed to lift from the native men and women gathered there, and during the following week, several of them actually stopped drinking and doing drugs, for the first time in many years. Time and again these people would remark, “I really showed them this time” or “I’m not afraid of them anymore”.
What had caused this incredible change that day was summed up by one of the victors, a native man named William Combes, when he said later on my radio program,
I thought I was going to crap out and let you all down, but then I saw you outside the church and it gave me the courage to walk up those steps with you. Then inside the church you all kept me safe. Just doing the right thing with everybody made me feel safe. Just speaking the truth to those bastards and facing down the priests, then I didn’t fear them. I didn’t give a shit anymore what they could do to me. I was angrier at what they’d done to all my little friends at residential school. I felt like a man for the first time ever.
On that glorious day, William and the others reminded me that when the battered victims finally speak and act in their own name without thought of their abuser is when the true process of recovery begins: not just for victims but for all of us, by making justice an actuality. And such justice, and the equality it breeds, always precedes any possibility of the kind of mutual forgiveness that abolishes all distinctions of winners and losers.
Standing by our own painful truth is as necessary as standing by one another – and as dangerous to a society like ours which is based on domination and torture. In times like these, just naming what we feel and know to be true is a subversive act, and will become more difficult to do in the face of ever-growing oppression by the few who rule by psychically dominating a crippled and traumatized majority.
It is perhaps for this reason that, among establishment educators, counselors and “helping professionals” whose devotion to the political status quo is as solid as their own dogma, encouraging such inner freedom and the owning of one’s own truth among the abused and victimized is seen as rank heresy and, in the words of one psychologist, “can be dangerously provocative.”
So be it. Our aim, after all, is to turn the world upside down. For once we unite and confront those who are the cause of our torment, there begins to grow something even greater than healing, or forgiveness, and that is transformation, both of ourselves and a hierarchical and oppressive society that requires that we remain dissociated and brutalized people.
On one of the last times I ever saw William Combes, he handed me a scrap of paper with a brief poem he’d found that summed up his triumph. It read,
I looked for healing, but healing escaped me. I sought after God, and I searched for love, but neither could I see. I found myself, and I discovered all three.
The author (right) and Canadian Genocide survivor Harry Wilson, 1997