How To Forgive the Unforgivable

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S1: Hey, listeners, you may notice that my voice sounds a little different today. That’s because all of us at Slate, probably like you, are working remotely during this pandemic. And so I’m using a different microphone and I am recording this from inside the closet of my home. And we really appreciate all of you sticking with us during this time. And we hope to return the favor by being able to deliver an episode to you every week that makes surviving this a little bit easier. And if you have any questions about how to get through this period, we will do our best to find some answers. Just drop us a note at how to at Slate.com.

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S2: And in the meantime, please stay safe and healthy and away from crowds and keep listening.

S3: To this day, I don’t have I don’t have pictures of her in the house. I can’t I can’t look at it. You know, in my professional life, I’ve taken care of children who ended up being murdered by their parents. And I’ve seen horrific abuse. I don’t think I can forgive her. I don’t think that she deserves forgiveness.

S4: This is how to. I’m Charles do it. Each week we talked to a listener who’s struggling with something in their life and wants to know how to make it better.

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S5: Yeah, it’s kind of unnerving to have kept this secret for so long and then to tell it in such a public way.

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S6: This is clear. She’s a retired pediatric physician living in New Mexico. Clearly not her real name because as you can hear, she’s nervous about something in her past.

S3: Well, I became the repository of a family secret.

S5: This is one of those almost like deathbed revelations.

S1: A little over a decade ago, Claire’s mom’s health suddenly started declining and she needed an assisted care facility.

S3: So my brother and I were looking for a place to put her. And it was in the car with my brother that he told me what had happened. And he started out by saying, did mom or dad ever hit you? And I said, no. Well, no. We were all children growing up in the 50s and 60s where there were spankings, but it wasn’t anything vicious. An. And he said, well, mom did. And he said that mom used to knock him down to the ground and then sit on his chest and bang his head against the floor. And this was a man who had been a long range reconnaissance patrolman in Vietnam who had known hand-to-hand combat. And he said to me, I have never seen such unrestrained savagery. And those those words have been seared onto my being. And then he said I must have been a really bad kid to deserve that. Which just broke my heart. And I and, you know, especially being in pediatrics, I said there’s nothing there’s nothing that you could do that would warrant that kind of treatment. And. It was very difficult going back after our. Outing to look at places for mom, it was hard to go back in and take care of her. I was so. Heartbroken, outraged. I’m still 10 years later thinking, how could she do that? How how could she do that to her firstborn child? How could she do that to any child? And. It not only changed my relationship with her. But it changes, it taints all of the memories that I have of her that might be pleasant. And for me, the lowest rung of hell has always been pedophile’s. But the next row up from that would be people who abuse children. And that’s exactly what happened in my own family. And I found out about it when I’m 55 years old. And I don’t know what to do with it. I’m still spending some energy on it and I don’t really want to do that.

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S7: How how often do you find yourself thinking about this? It’s been it’s been 10 years since your mother passed away. Yeah, it changed.

S8: It changed me to the point that I actually changed my name because I was named for my mother and my two grandmothers. And I didn’t want to be named for my mom, my mother anymore. So in 2015, I actually changed my name.

S9: Claire’s brother passed away last year, and she’s the only one left in her immediate family. Which is why she felt like she can finally talk about this. But this knowledge of what her mom did to her brother.

S10: It’s a really heavy thing to carry around and she wants to stop thinking about it. She says she wants to find some way to forgive her mom, but she doesn’t know how.

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S9: Then maybe you or someone you know is carrying something like this. Maybe you’ve been abused yourself or hurt or betrayed and you want to find a way to stop thinking about it so you can give up that emotional weight. Or maybe you feel guilty yourself because you can’t let it go.

S10: How do you forgive something that seems unforgivable? Today, we’ll talk to someone who experienced an awful tragedy many, many years ago and found a way to be at peace with it.

S11: Stay with us.

S12: Slate Plus members, it’s survey time, which means it’s your chance to tell us what you think about Slate. Slate podcast and Slate. Plus, it’ll only take a few minutes. You can find it at Slate dot com slash survey.

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S1: MPO to do Van Firth is the youngest daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who’s best known for winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Fighting apartheid in South Africa. But on April 12th, 2012, MPOs life changed in the sudden and tragic way.

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S6: She had spent the day out in Cape Town with her family, and when she came home, she saw something terrible.

S13: Her housekeeper, Angela, was lying on the floor. She had been stabbed to death.

S14: My brother in law and I found her.

S15: We we went into the house together and, you know, kind of I was walking through the house because it was really strange that she hadn’t answered the door and she hadn’t answered the phone and she hadn’t said where she was. And so we walked through the house and and found her tied up in my daughter’s bedroom with a lot of blood.

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S16: As it turned out, she was murdered by somebody who had been working for me as a gardener.

S6: The gardener had been stealing things from imposed family.

S16: When Angela interrupted and I just remember vividly the police officer asking as he’d kind of had been through the house, okay. Was anything taken? And I remember thinking, yeah, a life.

S17: The young man who who killed her was somebody who I knew, and and so I. I needed to be able to forgive him in order to make some space in my life to be able to move on.

S18: You know, forgiveness isn’t a requirement. It’s not an ought to or should I. I would never put should next to forgive. But I think that what you do discover in the process of. Working towards forgiveness is that bad? It’s not the person who you forgive. Who’s the ultimate beneficiary. It’s you yourself.

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S2: Two years after Angela’s death, MPO wrote a book with her father called The Book of Forgiving.

S19: In a way, what youre saying is if I say I forgive you, I’m saying I no longer reserve the right to take revenge on you for that thing that you have done.

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S20: And what the experience is of.

S21: Of walking around with something that is Unforgiven is that every time the image of that person comes up who you haven’t forgiven.

S20: There is a churning that you experience or, you know, an anger or an anguish or a hurt.

S21: In a way they get to decide how you’re feeling. They get to have the decision of what your day feels like by how much they intrude on your consciousness.

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S7: You mentioned the murder of Angela, someone who had come into your house and had looked after your children, someone someone who is a part of your family. I imagine when she was first murdered and when you learned that it was with someone else in your house who had done that. What was that like initially and how did how did your feelings evolve over time?

S22: Yeah, I think the initial feelings were shock and rage, not even anger. It was literally like seeing red and a deep sense of violation. That sense of how day you and I you know, I can imagine that perhaps Claire Hare hearing the story from your brother, that those might be things that you also recognize that you see, you spoke to being so angry as well, being one of the things that that really began the healing process for me almost immediately was telling the story with my friends and with my church community.

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S20: And that that really was the beginning of that healing process was telling the story.

S7: Well, what was the gardener’s name? Oh, no, it’s all way too. Did you have a relationship with old waiter? Was it someone whom you felt like you knew? Yes. Yes. How did you feel when when you learned that he was responsible for the murder?

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S22: A real deep sense of betrayal and this sense of it also coloring the relationship that we had in the past, that resonates because it’s not just that my relationship with my mom was changed from that time on.

S23: But knowing that changed how I looked at her and how I looked at my memories of her. And you’re right, I didn’t have the fondness and the love that of those memories. The times that we had that were good don’t seem so good now.

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S7: Claire, let me ask you, I think the argument MPOs making is that this is sometimes we forgive not because the other person deserves it, but because we need it. We need it. What do you think of that?

S24: Intellectually, I know that it’s it’s getting there emotionally. And I think that’s why I reached out.

S25: One of the things that is really striking to me, Claire, is it seems that this is maybe one of the first times that you’re telling this story.

S20: That in itself is a piece of healing just just to be able to tell the story.

S24: I was really envious of you when you were talking about the healing coming as you were telling other people the story, your church community, your household.

S3: And I just I don’t have that.

S24: In fact, I never mentioned it to our other brother because I felt like it wasn’t my. Wasn’t my story to tell.

S6: So this is the first rule for how to forgive. Tell others the story of your loss, even if you don’t feel like it’s entirely your story to tell. Even if it’s something that didn’t happen directly to you telling that story, figuring out how to explain it to someone else and then seeing how they react. That’s an important part of understanding why this is so hurtful to you and how to make sense of that pain.

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S26: Recognizing that there is a story of your own losses for which forgiveness may be necessary. This is the story of this person who you love you can’t forgive on his behalf, but you can soften the edges of the pain that you carry for him.

S27: You can’t forgive for him, but you can forgive for you.

S26: One of the things that you said clear is that my memory of my mother has changed, has been tainted by this knowledge. And that’s that’s a hurt that’s a that’s a loss. And to be able to enumerate all of the losses and maybe not be certain that you wish that your mother could rest in peace then in her, maybe ultimately that’s your check mark, or I will know I have forgiven her when when I can hope for her to rest in peace.

S2: This is the next rule. Name your hurt if you can catalog all the ways, big and small, that this event has caused you pain. You can start to put them away. But until you have that catalog, until you say write it all down. It’s hard to know how to put it to rest.

S24: You know what has come to me with this discussion and courses? My professional role with children who have been severely injured or even killed from family abuse. I mean, all of those stories that I haven’t been able to tell either because of patient privacy in that. Now, I see this is as one more secret that was laid on me that I couldn’t bear.

S7: And it’s hard it’s hard sometimes to identify. All those pains entered into honestly feel feel ownership of them that sometimes we we feel like we were not entitled to that trauma. We’re not entitled to that pain. And yet your heart still feels it. And unless you admit that to yourself, it’s hard to let it go, you know? MPO in in the book that you wrote with your father. He talked about how his father had abused his mother and how he struggled to forgive. And I imagine that must have been so painful to write. What lessons did you learn from watching your father struggle with this story?

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S25: I think actually the things that was striking to me about that one was that it was a struggle to to forgive his father. And the biggest struggle for him was to forgive himself. How do you know he was a kid and a small boy who wasn’t big enough to protect his mother from his father’s strangers?

S7: Claire, do you think that that’s part of what’s what’s keeping this alive for you? Do you think that you feel guilty, that you weren’t able to protect your brother, that you didn’t even know this was happening?

S24: I think I’m holding on to my anger to vindicate him, if I can stay angry at my mom. Then it makes.

S28: It makes it better for him somehow. Does that make sense? Yeah.

S7: And when you say that, like, does it make sense to you?

S29: Yeah. Because I’m. Well, I can’t talk, so.

S10: We’re making progress, but there’s more steps to true forgiveness. And when we come back, MPO will tell us about them.

S30: We’re back with Claire, who’s trying to figure out how to forgive her mom interacts for MPO to then Firth impulse as she learned a lot about forgiveness from watching her father, hopefully at South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid.

S15: His work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was actually what inspired the book of forgiving. It was really what he learned from the families of people who had been killed or tortured. If we don’t forgive, then there is no hope for us to reconcile. No hope for us to create a new, different and best head South Africa.

S30: This is our next role. Once you’re ready, you should talk to the person who hurt you and actually tell them that you forgive them. Sometimes those people have passed away. And so in Claire’s case, that means talking to a pair of trees in her back yard where she buried her mom’s ashes and her brother’s ashes.

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S31: So I can sit between those two. The show Cherry and the Hawthorne and talked to both of them.

S32: That’s lovely.

S7: Claire, do you think it would help if you. If you wrote this story out, if you wrote to your mother and said. I forgive you. Here’s all the ways that you hurt me. Here’s all the things that I wish I could tell you.

S33: But I. I have decided to forgive you. Do you think that would help?

S31: Yeah. And and I tend to be a fairly verbal person, so writing it. Putting it in words, but then also I can I can take each of those letters and I can vary them.

S28: At the base of the trees where their ashes are, I think it’d be a tremendous relief. Why is that? Because I don’t have to keep it a secret anymore. Yeah.

S7: MPO You write that after. After offering forgiveness, after after saying to someone, I no longer reserve the right to exact revenge on you, I’m going to I’m going to give up. This anger and this hatred. The then the final step in that. The goal is to release the relationship. What do you mean by that?

S32: The past is the past. What happened has indeed happened. Bird I have decided that I’m not going to make that story be the full description of who you have been in my life, you know, in in close case. That might be being able to reclaim the memories of your mother and of your brother in ways that, yes, you have this as another part of this story. But as staker a piece of tile in a mosaic, it’s not the whole picture.

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S10: This is our last rule to let the past be the past.

S6: You sometimes have to let go of the previous relationship you had with the person you’re forgiving and then forge a new relationship or a new memory of that person, something that isn’t what you had before, but which includes those positive things that you still share.

S34: Let me ask him if you did if you did see the gardener again. What would you want to tell him?

S14: I would want to tell him that he really hurt my heart.

S26: I still can hear vividly Angela’s mothers just heard her scream when I called. That’s Rose from Simbi when her mother lived there. And I phoned to tell them because I felt that I should be the one to tell her. And she just, you know, wailed into my ear. And it was just such a piercing cry that I can so feel it in my bones.

S35: And all of that said, I know that there is so much more to him than what he did in that day.

S31: What may I ask you a question, simple. In forgiving Angela’s murder, yes. Did that again change how you looked at your relationship or your memories of of the murder?

S36: Yes, actually, it did for me. Having gotten all of my way through the process, I am able to reclaim the young boy who know who I took halfway up to hormones and for the first time and to, you know, to remember the wonder in his eyes as he looks out over the city, you know, to reclaim the joy I had in that person and also to feel really sad for him.

S21: He was young. He was in his 20s when he did this. And.

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S36: And just to to be able to see him as a human being and not have the full description that I carried off him in my head. B, he is a murderer. No, I guess my wish for you is to be able to reclaim your mother as mother and not just abusive person.

S7: Right. And perhaps part of it for you, Claire. Is to say when the spring comes and the ground is thawed and you go through the ritual of releasing your mother from your anger. By burying the letter at her tree. What kind of memories and relationship with your mother do you wish would come back to you?

S31: Mom and I were good traveling buddies and we had some really fun times and sometimes, you know, we’d be traveling or doing something together and there would be an unexpected adverse circumstance. And usually we would just shrug and laugh and say, well, this is adventure number two thousand five hundred and fifty, or you just give it a number. And I I miss her in a sense. I miss having those good memories of her imposed.

S7: Do you think Claire can get there?

S37: Oh. I have to. I think you’ve made a huge first step.

S24: Well, when you consider I’ve been holding a secret and here I am telling it in a very public forum.

S38: That’s a big first step. If you. That’s a huge for the staff. Do you think that you will forgive your mother?

S28: Yeah, I do.

S39: I hope you do, too. I think there’s more than the ground that’s going to thaw in the spring.

S40: Thank you to clear for sharing her secrets with us and working through these enormously hard things. And we’re so grateful to MPO too, to vent first. First sage advice. Look for the book she wrote with her father. The Book of Forgiving. And as an aside, just a quick update. We checked in with Clear and she said she just buried her letters at the base of her trees and had this to say.

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S41: Hi, Charles. It’s clear I did create a racial for forgiving yesterday, and I think kimpo would have liked it. Had candles and flowers and music.

S42: I read letters to Mom and David and then buried the letters under the trees whose roots hold their ashes. I was able to ask them for forgiveness also, which I think speaks to the depth and sincerity of my forgiveness with them.

S41: But thanks again to you and Poe for a lot of help. I really appreciate it.

S43: Take care.

S40: If you have something, you’re hoping to get off your chest. Send us a noted how to isolate dicom and we might be able to help. How TOS executive producer is Derek John? Rachel Allen is our production assistant in Merrick. Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hani’s Brown. June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate podcast and Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for Audio. Special thanks to Asha Soldier and Sung Park. I’m Charles Duhigg. Thanks for listening and stay safe.