Sexual Abuse... What Place for Forgiveness?

04/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A remarkable woman came into my office last year. As director of The Forgiveness Project -- a UK-based organization which explores forgiveness through real-life stories -- I have met a lot of remarkable people, but Susan's story touched me more than most. ("Susan" is not the woman's real name, but is being used in this post for the purpose of anonymity.)

As a child, Susan had repeatedly been raped by a member of her family. Such trauma in young people produces an enormous rupture, dislodging any sense of self and relationships with others. It came close to destroying Susan and her quest to make sense of what happened has at times been unbearable, not just for her but for those closest to her as well. Yet her trauma hasn't destroyed her, and, even more extraordinarily, it seems to have shaped her into the deeply humane and engaging 33-year old wife, mother, colleague and friend she is today.

Susan explained to me why she chose to go on a journey of understanding rather than hatred. It's all about reconciliation -- which doesn't necessarily mean reconciling with the perpetrator; first and foremost it means reconciling with yourself. In other words, making peace with the event is what allows people to live with a catastrophe, and find resolution.

I recently heard Jay Beachus, a counselling psychologist from the organisation Escaping Victimhood, speak about post-traumatic stress (PTS). Listening to Beachus, it suddenly made perfect sense why Susan might respond in a way that appears to go against our more natural instincts for pay-back and revenge. Beachus described how PTS can be unshakable and untreatable, endure for years and even decades, unless or until "the mind finds resolution, at which point the effects of the trauma will start to melt away."

This was not a lecture on forgiveness -- far from it -- and yet from my work with victims I know that many are able conquer PTS by simply choosing a path of forgiveness -- ultimately a path of survival and self-healing. Whether you call it forgiveness, or understanding, or acceptance, the result is that the mind finds some kind of resolution and ultimately therefore restores.

Another woman -- with a similar experience of rape -- summed it up like this:

While I have suffered violent trauma at the hands of others, as I've got older I've realised that although not welcome in my life they have been 'gifts' that have moulded me and taught me, broken me and opened me up to life.

People usually assume forgiveness is about absolution or about excusing a heinous act. It is also often viewed either as a weakness or as some superhuman strength. In my opinion forgiveness is none of these things. From meeting many forgiving people over the years, my conclusion is that forgiveness is difficult, costly and painful, but potentially transformative. It is a problem-solving, coping strategy that first and foremost we do for ourselves.

Susan explained,

I have had to learn to forgive and by that I mean, forgive myself for not telling anyone, for not saying No, for not getting help. I have had to learn not to hate myself, my body and my history for not giving me the tools to stand firm.

To the person who so gravely wounded her, she feels "overwhelming compassion". It's hard to understand how, until she explains, "to wound someone like I was wounded can only be done by someone who hates themselves and who is suffering deeply. He has great wounds himself." In other words, hurt people hurt people.

Susan, like many of the forgiving victims I've met, has come to the conclusion that "this feeling of forgiveness is not a one off constant feeling. It is a process, lived and consciously undertaken each day. Ultimately it is an active and conscious choice." And this active choice is not only about preserving herself, because Susan's underlying aim is to promote understanding so that people who have harmed others "see that not only are we, their victims, human, but that they are too."

In the prison workshops The Forgiveness Project runs in several UK prisons -- where sharing stories helps develop victim empathy and helps those who have hurt others understand the consequences of their actions -- I invited Susan to speak at our very first workshop for sex offenders. To many this might seem like the last place to expose a woman who has suffered severe sexual abuse as a child, but Susan had asked to share her story in places where it would have most impact.

In the event, these prisoners were astonished at her bravery and at her willingness to face a room full of men like them; for some, I believe, it was the first time they understood the extent of the suffering of their victims. Afterwards Susan told me that she too had personally found the workshop enormously healing.

Ironically in that space of brokenness and desperation, there seemed to be a real possibility of connection and open heartedness.

Note: "Susan" is not the woman's real name, but is being used in this post for the purpose of anonymity.