Forgiving the Unforgivable
My path to freedom began with meditation, and ended at a Texas prison
Thirty years ago a man named John Black* raped and murdered my sister. In May, I visited him in prison and told him that I forgave him.
The realization that I could actually do such a thing came unbidden. It wasn't something I struggled to attain. I just looked one day and there it was: my own voice saying, 'You can forgive him.' That voice spoke to me often. Eventually, I acted upon it.
Three years ago, after a miserable year in a career that I loved in theory but not in practice, I was struck with the idea of attending a meditation retreat. I typed 'silent meditation retreat' into a search engine, and discovered Spirit Rock Meditation Center, located on 400 acres in Marin County, California.
I hoped that whomever Donald Rothberg was, he would be good.
I arrived excited and ready, and received the traditional insight meditation instructions: 'Sit quietly and comfortably, your spine erect, and follow the sensations of your breath . . . '
I was 9 years old when my family received the news that my 22-year-old sister was murdered. John Black, who was also 22, confessed. He received the death penalty, but the sentence was later commuted to life. Well into adulthood I wanted him dead, believing that, in this case, the death penalty was just.
A month after I attended that first retreat and began meditating, the realization came to me that I could forgive John Black. It was a quiet realization, arising with no fanfare.
About a year later, I attended a second, much larger retreat, presided by Sylvia Boorstein and Christopher Titmuss. During a Q A-type forum where people were checking in, I heard a powerful 'inquiry' — a woman bravely explained she was so beset with fear for her family in this unbalanced world that she was considering buying a gun.
I couldn't logically connect the notion of forgiving my sister's murderer with this woman's fear, but my realization became, in that moment, very, very insistent. Before, it had knocked on my door very quietly; now it was pounding.
A day or so later, my whole body shaking, I inquired of Christopher Titmuss: 'Can I trust this realization to forgive? Does it mean I really need to do it?'
His reply was a cut-to-the-chase question: 'Will you do it?'
'Oh yes,' I said.
If I could have just walked into that maximum-security prison, invisible, through the security fences, the tightly-coiled razor wire, past the guards, through the heavy, polished brass doors, through a succession of locked gates, up to the 'dorm' on Floor 6 and just sat down with John Black and talked with him, offering forgiveness, then turned around and invisibly walked out, I would have. But that wasn't possible.
I discovered a 'Victim-Offender Dialogue' program administered by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The program provides a structured, safe 'space' in which victims (or, in my case, close relatives of deceased victims) go to the prison and meet with offenders face-to-face, with a mediator present.
'Something we recommend,' the young woman told me on the phone, 'is to write the offender a letter, telling him what you hope to get from the meeting.'
A month or two went by. Finally, I wrote:
I wasn't assigned a mediator for almost a year.
Hello John. This may be hard to believe, but I come to you in a spirit of peace, compassion, and understanding. I loved my beautiful, dancing, dark-haired sister very much. I was 9-years-old when you took her from the world. Her sudden death, at your young hands, was deeply tragic and traumatic to the many of us who knew and loved her. We still remember her vividly and honor those memories . . . If you would like to know more about her, I will gladly tell you.
But I want you to know that I am willing to listen to whatever you wish to tell me. If you would like to tell me about your young life before the crime, I will listen. If you would like to talk about that night, February 27th, 1978, I will listen. If you would like to talk about 30 years in prison, I will listen.
Any questions you want to ask me, I will answer as completely and honestly as I am able. There is nothing specific that I need to hear from you: in meeting with you, I am not attached to any particular outcome. I'm doing this because this is the kind of world I want to live in, where people can come together and talk and come to deeper understandings . . . I wish you well, John.Sincerely, Tom
April 27, 2007.
I knew very little about John Black. When I reached 22 years of age, some 17 years ago, I traveled to a courthouse in Austin, Texas, and read the transcript of the trial. Black's confession was blunt. I saw a picture of him — just an ordinary-looking, white guy with glasses. His signature was in grammar-school cursive.
In the Texas penal system, the victim and/or family initiates the mediation/dialogue. But the offender has to agree to the process. It is entirely voluntary. He could back out at any time, as could I.
Neither of us did.*Some names have been changed to protect family members
NEXT: Readying my heart to meet my sister's murderer