I watched a documentary a few years back about a program that gave victims the opportunity to confront perpetrators. The family of a fifteen-year-old boy shot dead at his part-time job in a takeaway food store during an armed robbery met with the men imprisoned for the crime.
The meeting took place in a small bare room which may have been within a prison. Sitting on plastic chairs in a circle were the boy’s parents, his best friend, two of the three perpetrators, and the police psychologist who ran the program.
The boy’s mother was consumed with rage. She threw a bag of dirt on the floor and said that’s what they’d left her of her living breathing son, spitting the words, barely controlled. The father was angry too; he’d become an advocate for victims of crime, had made it his life’s work.
The dead boy’s best friend had a different response. She looked at the perpetrators, tears running down her face as she spoke of her friend, his sense of humour, his love of music, what he brought to her life. That’s what you took away from me, she said, and I wish you hadn’t.
One of the perpetrators, who was maybe twenty years old, looked up and met her gaze and said he was sorry for what he’d done. He was the oldest, he said, the one in charge, and so it was his fault. A second perpetrator, who had fired the gun, had chosen not to come to the meeting. The third, a boy of seventeen, sat in the meeting with his head down.
The film makers interviewed the victims months later to see if the meeting had helped them. The mother and father were the same. She was still consumed by anger, he was still working very hard for victims, and neither of them felt the meeting had helped. But the best friend said she was glad she’d met the perpetrators. She was still sad, she said, but moving on with life. The opportunity to tell the perpetrators what they’d taken from her had helped.
When bad things have happened to me, I have never managed to be as vulnerable as that boy's best friend. My first response is to try to find someone to blame. It’s like a recording goes off in my head before I can press pause. But I’m finally learning that anger doesn't help me.
When I first heard that a twenty year old had killed twenty young children, six teachers, his mother and himself in Newtown Connecticut last week, I started by wanting to find someone to blame. I’m pretty sure we can all apportion blame in this situation, even if my apportionment doesn’t match yours. The twenty year old, his mother who owned the guns, those peculiar beliefs in the US about owning weapons, the lack of treatment for mental illness – are all in the mix.
It may be that anger gives us needed energy to make changes when bad things happen but I'm not sure. My friend Debra has taught me more than anyone about who our anger harms. Her baby Lillienne died because midwives and doctors at a hospital didn’t work together. This was a needless, tragic death. But Debra refused to give in to anger and blaming. “I know anger would have consumed me,” she said. “I didn’t want to destroy whatever memories I had of Lilli.” Her courage and resilience amaze me still.
While many things that followed what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School last week moved me to tears, I thought the most courageous act was that of the father of six-year-old Emilie Parker who gathered in his arms of compassion the family of the twenty year old who’d shot and killed his daughter. His love and support would go out to them too, he said. They were also grieving. I don’t know why such bad things happen to good people. I don’t know how Emilie’s father managed such largeness of spirit. But I am so glad there are people like him and my friend Debra in the world. I only hope there are enough of them.
“God has taken them home,” Obama said. I hope that too.