It was September 28, 1998. Yom Kippur, the holiest of all Jewish holidays would begin at sunset. I sat in the small cubicle wearing the standard issue blue paper-plastic gown as I waited to be called in to see the doctor. I had already had an infinite number of films, having been asked to stand in an inordinate number of painfully contorted positions. Dr. Braken was finally ready to see me, and I was escorted into the examining room.
I could tell when she walked in that she was shaken. We knew each other. She had done my first ultrasound when I was pregnant with Sammy. Moreover, I knew she identified with me. We were about the same age, Elli and her son were in the same fifth-grade class; Sammy was in the same first-grade class with her younger son. We belonged to the same synagogue.
“Diane, I want to do a needle biopsy. We don’t have to do it today but since you’re here and it won’t take long, I think it best be done now.”
It was an offer I could not refuse, as much as I wished I could. The procedure was short, and Dr. Braken made casual conversation.
“You know, Diane, breast reconstruction is really great nowadays.”
With those words, I knew it was bad.
She quickly caught herself and added, “But let’s not put the cart before the horse.”
We both knew.
“It’s Tuesday, and so I expect that I ‘ll have the results on Thursday morning,” she said, “and I’ll call you as soon as they come in.”
And so, it was. On Thursday, the results were in: aggressive stage 3C breast cancer. I started to write my story. It began as a chronicle of my journey through surgeries, chemotherapy, stem-cell transplant and radiation therapy and years of anti-hormone treatment – for as long as I would make it. I recall sharing the first chapter with my former husband. His response was telling.
“If it makes you feel better,” he said as he took a cursory look and then handed the papers I had given him back to me.
It took close to twenty years to complete my memoir that began as a story about my cancer diagnosis and journey but quickly evolved into a story about the unraveling of my marriage, which became increasingly abusive during my illness. My husband had always been controlling and critical., but some things had been good; ways in which each of our needs were met. It changed when our children came along and when I became ill his sadism, gas-lighting, and betrayals were no longer subtle. I had two young children and whatever strength I had, besides devoting to my treatment needed to be directed toward them. My story broadened into interweaving the complexities of my lifetime narrative. As is true for many women, through my writing I became acutely aware of how I chose to “not see” what I actually saw… to not trust my own instincts and turn a blind eye to things I saw from the beginning of the relationship. My writing started as a cathartic process, sometimes sad, sometimes angry, sometimes vengeful. There were years where I re-wrote the same chapters over and over again. There were years that I didn’t write at all. In the four years since I began writing again, I’ve realized that I still don’t have all of the answers about why things happened as they did. What has changed, though, is that I no longer feel compelled to know the “whys” of everything that happened. With that understanding has come a great deal of freedom. Letting go of the need to have answers to unanswerable questions—accepting that there were things that were, that are, and that will always be beyond my control—has allowed me the freedom to move on, to find myself once again.
There is something significant that I have thought about a great deal throughout this process – the concept of Forgiveness. Don’t forgive, and you will be forever cast to a life of bitterness. The principle of universal forgiveness is quite a harsh edict to bestow upon someone, especially someone who has already experienced abuse and trauma. Nevertheless, today we often hear from both religious and psychological scholars, that only by granting forgiveness can one move beyond the injustices have been heaped upon someone. Isn’t it ludicrous that punishment in perpetuity is heaped upon someone who is already a victim? I find it disconcerting that in the name of spirituality and moral virtue one must forgive all inequities, to heal from the evil or harm that has been received.
Alice MacLachan, in The Nature and Limits of Forgiveness, states that “the very act of forgiving … makes a number of claims: that something wrongful was done, that the wrong has caused harm and you (the forgiven) are responsible, even culpable, for this harm” (MacLachlan 2008:16). I would add another. Forgiveness is a relational concept and has been throughout the ages. It implies that the Forgiver and the Forgiven take a journey TOGETHER to reach conciliation. Throughout time, this transactional process has been a means to resolve debt and other interpersonal injuries. Whatever the injury, genuine forgiveness involves more than just one person. Therefore, it makes no logical sense to consider forgiveness unless both parties are engaged in the “transaction”.
As my own marriage was ending, I asked my husband if we could sit down and talk. I asked if we could try and process what had happened to our relationship, to us. His response was always the same: “I’m willing to talk to you; I’m willing to tell you my point of view. But I have no interest in hearing what you have to say; I’m not interested in your truth.”
Forgiveness comes when the individuals involved can talk about what happened with each other and are able to listen to one another, and to make amends where needed. It is a relational process. Forgiveness comes when one is willing to understand the other’s point of view.
To be clear, I believe that the capacity for genuine forgiveness is important, even necessary, for ourselves and our children, especially in these times of societal interpersonal turmoil. Nevertheless, I question whether it is always warranted as a universal principle. Are there times when it is counter-productive to forgive? Are there times when it lessens the meaning behind the act? And more importantly, is forgiving a perpetrator the only way that one can move forward? Does universal forgiveness, the belief that the only way to heal is to bestow this gift, leave the victim in a position of “double-victimhood.” If one doesn’t forgive, one is “condemned to never move beyond anger and pain.”
Having been in an abusive marriage and as a psychologist, I have worked with countless victims of trauma and abuse. It is a fallacy, perpetuated in our world where there is a need for immediate gratification and quick-fix solutions, which one needs to forgive to heal. Healing does not happen quickly, and there is no magic involved. It takes hard work and introspection. One must get to a place of understanding. Then can come acceptance of what was and what is; one does not have to be condemned to continue self-defeating choices and a life of bitterness.
For me, writing my memoir has been an integral part of how I have processed my own traumatic experiences. At first, the writing was cathartic; it was the raw expression of the pain and anguish that was my life. In time, though, my writing became more focused and became a way to give meaning to my story. With increased understanding came increased distance from the pain, and the narrative of my life began to unfold, become more integrated, and change.
I have moved on and am no longer angry. But forgiveness is not a word I would use to speak of how I moved through my experience. It was through understanding and acceptance. My memoir, Lost in the Reflecting Pool, which will be published in October of this year, is a story and it is my story, but it is not about my pain. The pain was something I processed; forgiveness was not involved.