Flashbacks to the Origins of Self-Condemnation
The solution begins with a courageous—and daunting—look to the past
Unless we remember we cannot understand.
—E. M. Forster
My brother’s suicide was not the first major loss I had suffered due to violence. My introduction to the horrors of violent death came on New Year’s Day 1996.
I received a call from my brother, Mike. His voice was shaky. He said, “You have to come to Tennessee. Call Kathy. Mama has been murdered.”
I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. “What happened?”
“I phoned to wish her Happy New Year. She didn’t answer. Because she didn’t drive, I was worried. So I went over to check on her and the house was trashed.”
He got choked up. When he spoke, it was in fragments. “David was with me. There was blood all over the walls. I looked down and there was her body. Beaten. Bloody. I covered David’s eyes. He’s only ten. There was so much blood. I phoned the police. I’m next door now. So much blood. Come today.”
I phoned my sister, Kathy, and her husband, Damian, who lived not far from Kirby and me. I broke the news, and we decided they would drive to Tennessee and I would ride with them.
Over the next hour I packed and repacked my clothes. This couldn’t be, I thought. Who could murder a sweet, older southern woman? I pictured my mother’s soft, double-chinned face. Her gray-brown hair always seemed to be done up. And her big blue eyes peered through her glasses vulnerably. When she hugged one of her grandkids, they disappeared into soft grandmother, as if they were being surrounded by a comforter.
After a seven-hour drive from Richmond to Knoxville, we were suddenly drawn into a murder investigation. It was chaotic and unreal. The sweet smell of neighbor-made pies and cakes mixed with the teary salt of loss and anger. At one point, the police took Mike, Kathy, and me to the house where I spent my first twenty-two years. From the outside, it looked the same as always, except for the yellow crime-scene tape. The police detective, brusque and efficient, took us to the back door.
“The burglar entered here,” he said. “He broke this window.” The detective pointed to a taped and boarded section above the doorknob. “He reached in and unlocked the door. Must have started searching immediately.”
We stepped across the threshold.
“Watch the flour on the floor,” he warned, as if we would track through the mess. “The burglar was in a hurry. He was looking for valuables. He dumped the sugar, the flour. He pulled things from shelves. This guy has burgled houses before. He knew where people hide things.”
The refrigerator, pulled away from the wall, showed a black slash-wound on its door. “That’s fingerprint powder,” said the detective. “We hoped for prints. No luck.”
Then we turned right and stepped into a book-strewn hallway. From the corner of my eye I could see Mike pull back. It was strange to see a three-hundred-pound, six-foot-tall man recoil. He probably was reliving his first sight of Mama’s crumpled body. My eyes skipped over the bookcase and landed on two drying, but still-sticky, pools of blood on the carpet. Mama’s head and hips had lain in those circles as her life drained away. The burglar had bludgeoned her with a crowbar and violated her with a wine bottle.
I kept looking sidelong at the blood as we examined the debris in the living room and bedroom. We identified two things that might be missing.
Putting Together the Story
That night, Mike, Kathy, and I met in Mike’s back room to piece together what we had learned. Apparently, one or two teenagers—at that point the police were not sure which—thought they could commit the burglary without being caught. My mom had gone to bed early, and there was no car sitting in the driveway beside her darkened house because she didn’t drive. It looked to the intruders like the perfect setup for their crime: family gone to a New Year’s party until after midnight.
She must have awakened as the youth hurled books from the bookcase in the hall. She had surprised the intruder as she came out of her bedroom. He was still holding the crowbar he had used to break the window to get into the house. He attacked her with the steel rod. Then, angered and upset, he molested her with a wine bottle as she lay bleeding.
I have told this story before in other books1 and in talks. I moved from mind-numbing initial rage to later rumination. At first, all I wanted was revenge. What type of monster, I wondered, would enter an elderly woman’s house and do this? No punishment was too harsh. Other innocent citizens needed to be protected from such an animal as this.
At first I had no interest in forgiving the young man who killed my mother. But I did forgive him. I would never have done it on my own, but in this instance my professional work benefited my personal life in a way that I desperately needed.
Finding the Way to Forgiveness
If you are like me, you have tried to achieve forgiveness on your own. You know it’s the right thing to do, and you’ve read that refusing to forgive gives the wrongdoer power over you. You have heard sermons or talks on forgiveness, pointing out that it sets you free regardless of how the offender responds or chooses not to respond. Clearly, forgiveness is the difficult yet necessary course to take.
Few of us dispute the slogans that stress the personal benefits of forgiving others. And it would take a hardened heart to resist the inspirational stories about wronged people who finally found a way to overcome their desire for revenge by extending forgiveness. I knew intellectually that without forgiveness, we are destined to hold on to our anger and bitterness. But simply knowing it to be true and coming to a place where forgiveness makes a difference in your life are two very different things.
While it is necessary to be reminded that taking the hard path of forgiveness is beneficial to you when you are the wronged party, ultimately it is not all that helpful. It’s like being told that your car’s engine needs an overhaul. You know you’ll be better off with a smooth-running car. But unless you’re a trained mechanic with all the necessary tools close at hand, knowing your car needs an overhaul does you no good. That is one reason why my colleagues and I researched and developed the five-step approach known as REACH Forgiveness,2 to help people take the necessary steps in forgiving those who have wronged them.
While this approach was developed in my work as a psychologist and has been supported with twenty-two published research studies around the world,3 I found that it was valid for me personally as well. I worked through the five steps, just as we recommend for all who have been wronged and need to forgive.
I will develop the approach in detail in part 6 of this book, where REACH Forgiveness is applied to the more difficult task of forgiving yourself. For now, here are the five steps of REACH in summary form:
R stands for recall the hurt. You need to reframe the event or series of events—the pattern of having been wronged—differently from the way human nature tries to direct you. When you are hurt unjustly, your default reaction is to blame the offender and feel that you have been victimized and seriously injured.
E stands for emotional replacement. Unforgiveness, once it takes hold, is stubborn. It won’t step aside of its own doing. It has to be replaced with a healthy, constructive, sustainable response. Working through the five steps of REACH Forgiveness can lead to empathy, sympathy, compassion, or love for the offender. A stands for giving an altruistic gift of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not deserved, nor is it fair, which helps explain why it is so difficult. Why should the wrongdoer escape your wrath? After all, you are the wronged party. And why should you be denied the satisfaction of getting revenge or evening the score? This third step in the process shows you why.
C stands for commit to the forgiveness you experience. Memory experts tell us that once we have experienced an emotional change—such as forgiving someone who wronged us—we will hold on to that memory and live it out, but usually only if we make a big deal out of it. For instance, when Joshua led the ancient Israelites across the Jordan River into the Promised Land, the people erected a monument to commemorate what God had done. They never wanted to forget how God had freed them from slavery and taken them to their own land. Committing to the forgiveness we experience through a public statement helps us remember. That also brings us to the last of the five steps.
H stands for hold on to forgiveness whenever you doubt you have forgiven. Our bodies hold on to a memory of having been hurt in the past. This helps explain why we react emotionally when we get into a situation where we were hurt previously. Emotional warnings such as anger and fear can alert us to be careful so that we won’t be hurt again. But after we forgive someone, we often think that we should no longer feel negative emotions when we see the person again. That is a wrong assumption. If our bodies are working properly, we will still experience fear and anger in the presence of a forgiven offender. That is why we work hard to put in place an effective reminder of our commitment to forgive. This serves to call to mind the fact that we have forgiven the person.
The REACH Forgiveness program is captured in one acronym, and the letters serve as easy reminders of the five essential steps. It has worked for tens of thousands of people who have been through our research groups and many thousands of other people in churches and community groups from Singapore to Africa to Brazil. But implementing the steps is hard work. I found that it was one of the most difficult things I have ever attempted when I applied it to the challenge of forgiving my mother’s murderer. But I had God’s help, and God moved me though the steps.
I found forgiveness for the murderer even as I remembered my rage of that first night: “I wish whoever did this were here. I’d beat his brains out.” I said this out loud in Mike’s back room. But later, as I worked through the REACH Forgiveness model, forgiveness finally grabbed me in the gut. At last I thought, Whose heart is darker here? The youth with an impulse control problem who reacted in rage at having his perfect crime interrupted, fearing he would go to jail? Or the university professor, couple counselor, Christian, and forgiveness researcher—who wanted with all his heart to beat the young man to death?
I knew the painful answer. Yet, I also knew that God had forgiven me and continues to forgive me. I thought, If I can be forgiven my darkness of heart, then how can I not forgive this young man?
Forgiveness is necessary, and much research shows that it is an action that leads to improved physical health.4 But it does not take away the sadness and grief caused by the loss. I didn’t experience the trauma of discovering my mother’s body. Instead, I had more than eight hours to prepare before seeing her blood on the carpet. My brother, Mike, however, was deeply traumatized—though he tried to hide it.
Over the next two years I dealt with my grief. But Mike couldn’t purge the sight of the body and the blood.
On one trip back to Knoxville for a visit, I drove past the house where we grew up. Another family was living there. People with their own flour jars, neatly stacked books, ordered rooms, unbroken mirrors. People who had never seen the yellow crime-scene tape choking the life out of our memories. I never drove by again.
Whenever I was in Knoxville on business, I would visit Mike and Charlene. In November 2004, almost nine years after the murder, I offered to take Mike, Charlene, and David out for our usual trip to the Chinese buffet near their home. This time, though, Charlene had a migraine and David was going to a basketball game. So Mike and I went. We had the best conversation of our adult lives.
Mike confided to me. “I have these spells. I get depressed. It’s like a darkness covering me. I can’t stand light. I picture Mama’s body at the end of the hallway, and those walls covered with splattered blood. I can’t do anything to help, to ease her pain or fear. It is so vivid that it feels like I’m there.”
“How do you handle it?” I asked.
“Some Saturdays it gets so bad that I’ll go to our bedroom, pull the shades, turn out the lights, and sit in the dark all day. After almost nine years I should be over this. But I get these spells. I know that isn’t good.”
I said, “Mike, it sounds like you have posttraumatic stress disorder. These are the symptoms. You might need some counseling.”
He looked at me with a trembling lower lip and said, “I’m not going to any shrink.” He said this, of course, to his brother the shrink.
I tried again. “Mike, if you have not gotten over these ‘spells,’ as you call them, in almost nine years, chances are you aren’t going to get over them in another year—unless you get help.”
“I am not going to any damned shrink. And I don’t want to hear more about it.”
“Well, whatever,” I said, like a petulant adolescent, and I didn’t bring it up again. But that next summer, when Kirby and I returned the urgent phone call we received in Paris, it was my childish “whatever” that slugged me in the heart. I kicked myself for having been intimidated by Mike’s emotional reaction, which had thrust me back into our adolescent conflicts as brothers.
As a clinical psychologist, I knew that in the face of his resistance I needed to retreat. I also knew that after a while I could be more persistent, if I was tactful about it. But I didn’t do what I knew how to do. I let childhood patterns get in the way. In Paris I began to pay the price of having allowed my need to avoid familiar familial conflict trump doing the right thing. The price I paid was guilt.
A History of Failure
Mike and I had not always had a good relationship. I was four years older, and like most brothers I sometimes took care of him but other times excluded and bullied him.
We lived in a neighborhood that was built during the post-World War II cookie-cutter housing boom. My parents married in early November 1945. In September 1946, I was born. On our block, Mike tried to hang with us older boys, which aggravated me. Because the neighborhood friends usually congregated in my backyard, I would chase Mike indoors. Exclusion was probably natural given our age difference. I was involved in activities in which a younger brother could not participate or compete.
And sometimes I bullied him. There was good-natured big-brother-little-brother bullying. One night he was washing the dishes and I was drying. Every time I turned my back, he flicked dishwater on me. I warned him to stop. As I walked away, water splattered my head. So I opened a bottled Coke, then walked up behind him and turned it upside-down in his pocket.
But not all of my bullying was so good natured. In my senior year of high school, I came home drunk. Mike was awake, and I threatened him with retribution if he squealed to Mama or Dad.
After learning of Mike’s suicide, as I walked around Paris wondering what I should have done, many of the bullying episodes, our boyhood arguments, and my self-important exclusion of him came to mind. Of course, I also recalled the good times when we were laughing, joking, and having fun.
But my older-brother way of pushing Mike aside tended to remain in the fore. From a theological standpoint, I could understand the source of my cruelty to a younger brother. Humans are flawed due to the Fall, and our nature leads us to do the things that serve our self-interest. Psychologically, I can identify factors that fueled my cruelty as well. I had an alcoholic father who was cruel when he was drinking, and a mother who often was absent from our home due to being hospitalized without warning. Yada-yada. My self-justifications sounded lame even to my rationalizing self.
Of course, I had many memories of good times with Mike. Mama didn’t drive and Dad was a railroader, out of town three out of four weeks. Our family went to church infrequently, but I somehow developed a love of church. When I was old enough to walk the two miles there, I started going on my own. And when Mike was old enough to make the walk, I took him with me. Those were good times, brother to brother, talking as we walked to church. We talked about God, school, girls, and sports. I liked to see myself as the wise, advice-giving big brother.
Despite our financially strapped background, Mike grew up a responsible man of God who worked for many years as an IRS auditor. He read books of all types but loved history the most. And he had a great personality, always ready with a clever comment and spontaneous laugh.
Head Knowledge Versus Heart Knowledge
The flashbacks to some of our family interactions and my interactions with Mike set me into an emotional fog. As Kirby and I strolled through art galleries and around historical sites in Paris, I had lots of time to ruminate. But in those first days after finding out Mike had committed suicide, I didn’t so much think as I played in my mental DVD a jumbled mix of scenes. I could not organize my thoughts. Something seemed terribly wrong about losing a younger brother. I had coped with my father’s death in 1991, after his yearlong bout with lung cancer, and even Mama’s murder in 1996 at age seventy-eight. They both had lived long lives—though never, it seems, long enough. But Mike’s death in 2005 was different.
Intellectually, I understood the difference. I also knew that I could not have forced Mike to deal with his posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that I could not have prevented his suicide. But my intellect wasn’t causing the turmoil. My emotions were.
When a younger sibling dies, that off-time death stuns those who are left behind. Suicide adds unbalance to pain. It upsets the fruit stand and sets one scrambling and lurching after fruit bouncing wildly in all directions. And as I chased the scattering images of my brother, I could only hope that I could make some sense out of his death—and soon.
Part II: Self-Forgiveness 101: A Quick Immersion Course