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In Wally Lamb's novel I Know This Much is True (1998), Dominick
recounts his memories of a turbulent family life of violence and mental
illness. Yet at the end, he is able to say:
I am not a smart man, particularly, but one day, at long
last, I stumbled from the dark woods of my own, and my family's, and my country's
past, holding in my hands these truths: that love grows from the rich loam of
forgiveness; that mongrels make good dogs; that the evidence of God exists in
the roundness of things. (897)
the time Dominick reaches this state of clarity and peace, readers welcome the
relief it brings him. But novelists (and the rest of us) also sometimes
question the rightness of treating forgiveness as a universal moral imperative.
In Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres
(1991), sisters Rose and Ginny are portrayed as having made moral improvements
in their characters by refusing to forgive their abusive father his wrongs.
Rose, reflecting on her life as she lays dying of cancer, says All I have is
the knowledge that I saw! That I saw without being afraid and without turning
away, and that I didnt forgive the unforgivable. Forgiveness is a reflex for
when you cant stand what you know. I resisted that reflex. Thats my sole,
solitary, lonely accomplishment (355).
Whether or not forgiveness is a moral demand--and whether or not
refusing to forgive is ever morally praiseworthy--intersects with concerns
about mental health: injury, especially grievous or repeated ones, damages us
in ways that may be healed by forgiveness. But when is that the case? And is
forgiveness the only route to healing from the wounds of being wronged? These
are some of the questions under consideration in the anthology Before Forgiving: Cautionary Views of
Forgiveness in Psychotherapy.
This is a strong anthology that
should appeal to clinicians and philosophers alike. It is interdisciplinary in
that its authors come from the fields of psychology, philosophy, research
science, education or the ministry, and many writers have training or
experience in more than one field. The philosophical analyses nicely complement
discussions of clinical practice, and the collection of articles is
well-balanced in critique and defense of what is referred to as
"forgiveness therapy." It is also set up well with an introduction by
Sharon Lamb that situates the anthology in the context of current therapeutic
and philosophical debates in a clear and concise manner.
Many of the standard philosophical
questions are taken up (Are there certain conditions that must be met in order
for the forgiveness to be appropriate? How important is self-forgiveness
compared to the importance of forgiving others? and so on), so readers who are
unfamiliar with this terrain will be quickly caught up. Philosophical articles
are, for the most part, relatively accessible and clear. But what is unique
about this anthology is the application of these questions to mental distress
and healing. In addition to advancing our conceptual clarity and practical
knowledge on the subject, this book illustrates the wisdom of philosophers and
clinicians working and thinking together: each discipline is mutually enriched
by such dialogue.
A majority of the authors refer to
writings of Robert Enright, some to endorse and others to repudiate. Enright is
an advocate of forgiveness therapy and clearly has been deeply influential in
clinical literature. Expanding on Enright's work, Margaret Holmgren argues that
forgiveness is always good and
desirable as long as the clinician observes certain constraints, and the
constraints she discusses seem reasonable. (They do leave one wondering,
though, what the force of the obligation is; Holmgren draws on Kantian ethics,
but moral imperatives, according to Kant, must not be conditional.) Norvin Richards, also drawing on Enright,
offers a fair and balanced discussion of forgiveness therapy and uses numerous
examples to illustrate his points. Jeffrie Murphy, although not so balanced,
gives a compelling argument against Enright. Readers familiar with Murphie's
work will know that he does not think we have an obligation to forgive others
and that sometimes we may even have an obligation to ourselves not to forgive
others. Here, Murphie considers not only persons as moral agents but as persons
whose mental distress might be due to the wrongs we have suffered; still, he
argues, it may sometimes be therapeutically bad for us to forgive. I take his
point, but as a philosopher of peace as well as of psychiatry, I cringe at the
suggestion that perpetrators of evil should be "brought to
self-hatred" (49). I am persuaded by the argument by psychiatrist James
Gilligan (1996) that shame and self-loathing are at the heart of violence.
The question of how to live with
ourselves when we are the wrongdoer is crucial to address, both for moral
integrity and for mental health. Janet Landman's analysis of Katherine Ann
Power's efforts to earn the forgiveness of a family whose father she was
complicit in murdering is a wonderful contribution to the book. Landman makes
clear that the process of earning forgiveness from others is painfully slow and
demanding of ourselves.
Landman draws on the work of Joanna
North, who sees the process of earning forgiveness as involving nine stages.
The idea that forgiveness is a process that has steps is a thread throughout
the book. While I see the merits of viewing
forgiveness as a process, I'm less enamoured of the idea of identifying stages.
Yet when I read Landman's article, I appreciated the theory and analysis as it
applied to Powers.
A stage theory of forgiveness is
called into question in the important article by Janice Haaken. By focusing on
internal representations, not just interpersonal relations, Haaken suggests
that much of the thinking about forgiveness as therapeutic is too simplistic.
Her work is also important in that it pays attention to issues of power and
cultural difference. Also arguing for the importance of considering culture and
context are Joshua Thomas and Andrew Garrod, who present empirical studies from
Bosnians after the war. They offer several important criticisms of the forgiveness
model when applied to Bosnians or other victims of war trauma, and their
article is fascinating and rich. This article and two other ones in the
collection directly raise the question of whether there are not additional
appropriate paths to healing other than forgiveness. Lamb, for example, focuses
on gender differences and argues that women bear a greater burden to forgive
than do men. It might be more appropriate, Lamb suggests, for therapists and
clients to focus on apology rather than forgiveness when the client has been a
victim of abuse.
Throughout this book, the critics of
forgiviness therapy imply that clinicians may be wrongly advocating forgiveness
to their clients. The concern appears to be that clinicians not only believe
forgiveness would help heal their clients, but that many of them press their
clients into forgiving either too quickly or under conditions when being
forgiving may do further damage to the client.
It's not clear whether this concern is warranted, though. The article
"Forgiveness in Practice" by Varda Konstam, Fern Marx, Jennifer
Schurer, Nancy Emerson Lombardo, and Anne Harrington, is an important
contribution, because it presents research findings on the degree to which
clinicians really do push their clients towards forgiveness. Their empirical
data shows that, although the clinicians studied believe forgiveness is an
important aspect of many people's therapy, relatively few of them were
initiating it as a topic. The authors propose that clinicians need to be
trained in this area.
Regardless of whether forgiveness is
always, or only sometimes, good and right to do, we need both theoretical and
practical knowledge about forgiveness as well as other ways to deal with the
wrongs we do one another. This book is a necessary step towards that end as it
applies to mental health and distress. There are a few weaknesses, though. One
of the tasks of this book is to identify the goals and purposes of therapy and
to critically examine the role of clinician as moral or spiritual guide. Although
these questions were alluded to, they were not developed sufficiently or
rigorously enough. Readers may also wish there were more defense of the
assumption in many of the articles that resentment is debilitating and that
peace of mind is a great good. Lamb is right to suggest that forgiveness
advocates seem to be afraid of strong feeling.
Feelings should sometimes be
strong; it is part of being human. As Aristotle says, the good person is one
who not only does the right things but has the right feelings in the context of
a given situation. And this brings me
to my final comment about the anthology. A number of the authors call
forgiveness a virtue, but not one of them actually employs virtue theory to
fill out the idea. Given questions about whether we can "hate the sin,
love the sinner" (Holmgren) or whether our characters are constitutionally
given (Norman Care), and claims about the need to contextualize and
particularize the moral appropriateness of forgiving, one would think virtue
theory would be a natural avenue to pursue. (For readers who want to see what a virtue
theory of forgiveness would look like, see my article "Is Refusing to
Forgive a Vice?") Nevertheless,
these shortcomings do not outweigh the significant contribution to the interdisciplinary
fields of philosophy and mental health.
James, M.D. 1996. Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. New York: Random
Wally. 1998. I Know This Much is True.
New York: Harper Collins.
Nancy. 2001."Is Refusing to Forgive a Vice?" in Feminists Doing Ethics, ed. Peggy DesAutels and Joanne Waugh,
Rowman-Littlefield Press, 135-150.
Jane. 1991. A Thousand Acres. New
© 2002 Nancy Potter
Nancy Potter, Ph.D. is an
Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Louisville. Her research
interests include philosophy and mental illness, philosophies of peace, and
ethics. Her book How Can I Be Trusted? A
Virtue Theory of Trustworthiness, published by Rowman-Littlefield, is due
in the bookstores December 2002.