never even got to talk to James’s killer about James’s
last moments on this earth. The people who testified before
and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa say there was
an odd intimacy between those who were murdered and those who
the murdering; that the person who did the killing knew what
the victim said and looked like moments before he or she died.
And the relatives of the victims wanted to know.
Derrida says that forgiveness is only really meaningful when
what is unforgivable. He was speaking, as a Jew, of the Nazis.
wonder if I had been able to see James’s killer, what
might have happened. Had I visited this crazy man in prison,
have felt something move in
the documentary about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,
A Long Night’s Journey into Day, the parents of a young American
woman who was killed by a South African boy, visit the mother of the
boy to speak
to her, and to forgive him. Almost everyone in the audience immediately
weep. The act of forgiveness makes everyone cry.
psychologist who worked with the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission says that when you forgive
a person, you restore that person to his or
is done because the forgiving person understands that he or she could
have committed the same crime. You understand you could have done it
A story from
the Nuremberg Trials: A man who had been a prisoner in one of the Nazi
death camps was supposed to testify against another man who had been
a guard in
the camp. When the witness saw the guard in the courtroom, he fainted.
around him thought it was because he was so horrified to see his oppressor
again. But when the man regained consciousness, he said, “No.
I fainted because I realized I could have been him.”
know that forgiving James’s killer is for myself, blah,
blah. I mean, he’s dead. Why do I hold this against
him? Because I had to say, “Vincent
I have something terrible to tell you. James has been killed.” We
were standing in the driveway of the house we had only moved into
a few months before,
starting our new life together, as a young man and a young woman,
full of hope. He fell against the fender of the car. Our new life,
of unfettered hope,
want to take the man responsible for this, and rub his nose
in it. I want to tell him of everything that happened because
a gun on
a remote highway in southern California. I want to tell him of
widow moved from Santa Barbara because she could not afford to
stay here. Of his elder son’s face, five years old, on the
day of James’s funeral.
Of the boys growing up without a father. Want more, I will ask
him? One of those boys later died, too. He hanged himself in the
I want to sit
and force this crazy murderer to feel what his work has wrought.
But of course he did feel it. Something made him take a strip of
cloth one morning and thread
it through the light fixture in his cell.
that does not feel like it resolves anything. Ashes in my
mouth. And it would not
have resolved anything had the state executed
him. More ashes.
What is done
is done. More death cannot undo it.
that’s really the
point, isn’t it? If
you don’t forgive,
you don’t break the cycle of violence. It just goes on
and on until there is no one left standing. In the Philadelphia
Museum there is a room of drawings
by Cy Twombly on Homer’s Iliad, his poem about the Trojan
War. One is of a huge red cloud, filling most of a canvas that
must be six feet tall. Scrawled
underneath are the words, “It consumes everything in
truly terrible part is that Jesus loves that man who died
in his cell as much as he loves James. As
much as he loves
me. I actually
part of me does. Jesus loves James’s killer because
he knows that there is something more to him than that one
act. Just as there is more
to James and more to me.
think of Jesus tunneling back from the dead, a gossamer figure,
thin as lace, threading his
way through keyholes
doors. To say
others. Forgive yourself. Take this second chance. Begin
that, too, is the point. I must leave that young man falling
to the ground, and the young woman standing helpless
him, as if
were a photograph,
in the past. James’s killer changed our lives. So
be it. Even James’s
widow and her surviving son have endured the unendurable.
I must let my hatred and fury at James’s killer loose
into the wind, into God’s heart,
so that it lies in the past where it finally belongs. Forgiveness
is a way to unburden oneself from the constant pressure
of rewriting the past. It’s
a gesture towards the future. Not for the future as a future
in time, but for what the French call avenir, to open the
way for what is to come, for the unexpected.
by Nora Gallagher
Nora Gallagher is the author of two memoirs, Things
Seen and Unseen and Practicing Resurrection both
published by Knopf and Vintage books. To
purchase a copy of
Things Seen and Unseen or Practicing
Sacred Path Books & Art. This link is provided as a
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