I have trouble with the concept of forgiveness. Maybe I don’t understand what it means to forgive. Having been raised Catholic, to me it means to be absolved of sins. Or as the forgiver, to absolve someone else of their sins. But to get forgiveness, you have to be remorseful, to apologize, and to not repeat the act. I’ve known many abusers in my life. And I can tell you that while they may have apologized, they always were repeat offenders.
The first abuser in my life was my father. He verbally abused my mother and his four children, and he physically abused my two brothers. Being the youngest, I escaped the worst of it until my elder siblings had left home. I then became his target. He broke down doors. He hit me. He threw me onto the floor and kicked me. He would later apologize. My mother would force me to accept his apologies. I never accepted them freely. He’s now 82, has Alzheimer’s, and is incapable of abusing anyone. He’s a weak, harmless old man. But he’s still an emotionally and verbally abusive asshole when he can pull it off. And he doesn’t have remorse. Case in point: I was in Canada this summer with Mack. My dad was there. He “joked” several times that I had better do what I was told or he’d beat me like when I was little. Funny guy. Except we all knew he’d done it and he wasn’t speaking in jest. Sometimes at his weakest, most pitiful moments, and there are a lot of those of late, I feel sorry for him. And I imagine what his childhood must have been like with his own alcoholic father and abusive mother. It’s at those times that I feel forgiveness. It’s taken thirty years, but it’s happened. I didn’t force it. It just happened with time. But with some kinds of abuse, I don’t think enough time could ever go by for me to find forgiveness for the abuser.
My brother-in-law was sexually inappropriate (aka, abusive) with me when I was fifteen. He was married to my sister, and he and I were very close. One day when he was teaching me to drive out in the country, he kissed me. A nasty, slobbering, full-on french kiss. I didn’t tell anyone for decades. And then my niece came to live with me. She told me that her father (the same brother-in-law that had abused me) had sexually abused her from about age eight to age sixteen. At sixteen, she got fed up and told a school counselor. Child Protective Services investigated. A protocol was set up to be sure he didn’t do it again. He was not prosecuted. My sister forgave him. Despite being perfectly capable of supporting herself financially, my sister stayed with this man. You see, we learned from my mother that you forgive abusers. You stay with them. No matter how much damage they have done, how much hurt they have caused, you forgive them. You let it go. Shit happens. Accept it. Ignore it. My sister’s choice to forgive her husband, her daughter’s abuser, damaged my niece. She felt her mother had chosen her abuser over her. And she had. That kind of forgiveness is harmful. I learned of this five years ago. I do not forgive my brother-in-law, and I do not forgive my sister for staying with him. Maybe when he is dead and gone and she and I are old, I’ll feel forgiveness for her. But not now. I will never forgive him for what he did. Some things simply are unforgivable. The effects of his acts continue to this day. I hope they stop with my niece’s generation.
And then there’s the latest abuser in my life: Mack. His acts seem almost trivial in comparison. But they weren’t. Emotional abuse does damage to our spirits. Emotional abuse turns strong women into sniveling, apologetic doormats. We can’t afford to forgive emotional abusers. Emotional abusers are manipulative. They prey on our goodness. They count on our forgiveness. And they don’t stop abusing. To forgive an abuser is dangerous.
So how then, do we move on? I think there is a place for forgiveness when recovering from abuse. But the forgiveness is of ourselves. We forgive ourselves for getting, and staying, involved with these men. We forgive ourselves for ignoring the red flags. We forgive ourselves for going back. And eventually, organically, with time, we stop feeling angry. We stop feeling a tightness in our guts when we think of them. We stop feeling that boiling, red fury when we think of the way they treated us. We forgive ourselves for allowing them to treat us this way. But we don’t forgive them. And we don’t forget.
With time, we simply let go.