On the “unforgivability” of child sex abuse

3 Feb

Mandela ForgivenessOn the weekend, Dylan Farrow published a piece in the New York Times recounting her experience of childhood sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated by her mother’s then partner, Woody Allen.

There was, predictably, an explosion of views on the matter. What caught my attention were the many observations that child sexual abuse is ‘unforgivable.’ As one who has lived through childhood sexual abuse, I find that assertion offensive, ignorant and entirely unhelpful, and I’m about to explain why this is so.

But before I do, there ought not to be any expectation for anyone to forgive injury. Forgiveness is an action that, if embarked upon, can take years to complete. It may never be completed. It may never be begun. I’m writing about my own experience as it has unfolded over many years, and what I needed to do for my own well-being.

What is meant when people talk about forgiveness?  The philosopher Charles Griswold, in his 2007 book Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration, states that forgiveness should be understood as:

…a moral relation between two individuals, one of whom has wronged the other, and who (at least in the ideal) are capable of communication with each other. In this ideal context, forgiveness requires reciprocity between injurer and injured. I shall reserve the term forgiveness for this moral relation.

I am in complete disagreement with this definition. Many situations of  injury are such that it is impossible and/or entirely unwise for an injured party to communicate with a perpetrator. Many perpetrators never concede their actions have caused harm. Griswold’s paradigm excludes many from the possibility of engaging in the process of forgiveness, as he admits:

When none of the conditions is met, the threshold of what will count as forgiveness is not crossed;sadly, and painfully, in such cases we are either unforgiven, or unable to forgive.

My own perspective is a secular one, and I think of forgiveness as perhaps belonging in the human rights discourse rather than the religious, or any crypto-theological morality such as that espoused by Griswold.  When I have foresworn all desire for revenge, and any of the other abuses of resentment, I have forgiven. It is irrelevant if the perpetrator knows this or not, unless it is important for me that he/she does.

I don’t believe forgiveness requires the perpetrator’s remorse. I don’t believe an injured person needs to confront a perpetrator, or continue any association with him or her, in order to forgive them. Most importantly, I don’t believe forgiveness is first and foremost for the benefit of the perpetrator, but rather it’s a state of mind that can finally bring relief and freedom for the injured party from cripplingly painful and destructive emotions.

Which is not to say there’s anything amiss if an injured party chooses to confront their perpetrator. Only that this is not necessary for forgiveness.

I see forgiveness as a human rights matter because acts of revenge that cause suffering to another are always a human rights matter. …Using the suffering of a person or persons to satisfy oneself is morally objectionable, because it amounts to the treatment of wrongdoers as a means only, failing to respect their human worth, writes Trudy Govier in her book Forgiveness and Revenge. At the height of extreme pain caused by injury, it’s difficult if not impossible to think of the perpetrator as having any ‘human worth,’ however in order to inflict injury on me, the perpetrator has already used me as if I have no human worth. Am I to become like him/her? How will that help me?

While it’s perfectly acceptable for anyone to say ‘I would find that injury unforgivable if it were inflicted on me,’ it is not acceptable to apply that judgement to another. The state of non forgiveness is a horrific state in which to spend one’s life. Having been grievously injured by an abuser, is one then expected to suffer the agony of everlasting hurt and desire for a revenge that cannot possibly ever be commensurate with the injury? The desire for revenge, the inability to forgive (if we understand that term to mean the relinquishing of such desires) fixes the victim in their trauma and denies her or him the possibility of a life free from the aftermath of injury. The victim is trapped in a relationship of horrible and unwanted intimacy (for abuse is always intimate) the only escape from which is to forgive. Why, then, would anyone cruelly claim there is such a thing as an ‘unforgivable’ offence?

I will never forget, but I must, if I’m to have any life at all, forgive. The injurious act, as Hannah Arendt points out, is irredeemable, it presents us with …the predicament of irreversibility. This is but one of the challenges facing an injured person. The injury cannot be undone, the life-altering impacts cannot be undone, one is forever changed by the experience of being injured, the life that might have been, perhaps should have been is stolen, and one will never forget. As well as grieving the injury, I grieve the loss of who I would have been had this injury not occurred, a particularly difficult process for those injured while children, who can feel their childhood was destroyed by the actions of an adult.

Judith Butler, in Giving an Account of Oneself, The Spinoza Lectures, suggests that …it may be that the very way we respond to injury offers the chance we have to become human. Commensurate punishment or revenge dehumanises the victim of injury, however what humanises her/him is the opportunity to develop ...a model of ethical capaciousness that understands the pull of the claim, and resists that pull at the same time, providing a certain ambivalent gesture as the action of ethics itself.

What I understand Butler to be saying here is that in the space of uncomfortable tension creating by opposing claims (to punish or to abstain from punishing) the injured party has the opportunity to learn to live with powerful and irreconcilable desires and in so doing, move beyond the ‘unforgivable’ into a life free of revenge and its abuses.

In so doing, I am empowered. In contrast, if the injury done to me is deemed ‘unforgivable,’ I am condemned to a life of ongoing disempowerment, in which my actions are forever governed by my desire for revenge, and my bitter hatred of the one who has done this thing to me.

Commensurate punishment of a perpetrator may frequently be impossible. However, forgiveness …becomes possible from the moment it appears impossible. Its history would begin… with the unforgivable…what would be a forgiveness that forgave only the forgivable? asks Derrida.

Forgiveness must rest on a human possibility – I insist on these two words… he continues. Injury is a human action, the rape of a child takes place in the realm of human affairs. Monsters do not sexually abuse children, humans do. Forgiveness arises in the recognition of our common humanity, and the terrifying capacity for injury and destruction that humanity contains.

So this is why I object to child sexual abuse being described as ‘unforgivable.’ If I tell you I have forgiven, do you then tell me I’m deluding myself?

Do you tell me it is impossible for me to forgive what was done to me, and I don’t know what I’m talking about? Do you disempower me yet again with your opinion? Do you know better than I know myself what my life’s struggle has been? Would you have me lose my life to emotions that destroy my freedom, while affecting my perpetrator not one bit?

If I decide that what was done to me is unforgivable, though I may, at times of great distress, use that term, I am terminating all hope of freedom. Forgiveness is a mystery, beyond the reach of justice and punishment, both of which can be, and often are, incommensurate with the injury inflicted.

So let us speak of the mystery of forgiveness. Forgiving is imperative…it is extremely difficult to forgive. I don’t even know if forgiveness exists. Hélène Cixous

98 Responses to “On the “unforgivability” of child sex abuse”

  1. Caitlin McGregor February 3, 2014 at 8:36 pm #

    Such a powerful & thought-provoking post. Thank you.


  2. samjandwich February 3, 2014 at 9:33 pm #

    I thought you might write about this. And yes, I probably did expect such a thoughtfully measured indignance as well!

    I certainly agree that forgiveness is a matter (not quite a “relationship”) between the two parties involved, and no-one else. Dylan Farrow obviously feels the need to publicly express how aggrieved she feels by what happened, and was no doubt entirely aware of the consequences of doing so before going ahead. But ultimately I think you have given a very good account of why in this instance it is inappropriate for anyone to speculate as to why she feels the way she does. Rather we just have to accept it, courage and all that it takes to make such a statement, and move on (which perhaps entails setting up our own process of contemplating whether we all as individuals can forgive Woody Allen on our own terms).

    I guess one slightly dangerous exception that arises from this discourse though is that, while recognising the injurer’s humanity is one avenue towards forgiveness, it seems as though designating them as subhuman is equally effective. If we start with Griswold’s position (before he goes wrong) that “forgiveness is a moral relation *between two individuals*” (and here I would say that it isn’t necessary for two people to interact for there to be a “relation”, but that all you need to do is think about the other person), then the act of reconciling the pull, and the resistance of the pull, can be done just as feasibly if we recognise the injurer’s sub-humanity, as if we recognise their humanity – insofar as, if we think of them as sub-human then that signifies their lack of capacity for remorse (Woody having been described as “self-absorbed, untrustworthy and insensitive”). Just as you can forgive a human, for being fallible (falliable?), you can forgive a subhuman for not knowing any better. (and of course we have our friend Derrida chortling away in the back row and saying “yes, but it’s still forgiveness!”)

    Ultimately it is perhaps easiest to write someone off as subhuman when they have done something heinous, and doubtless some people deserve to be thought of as such. Certainly many abusers I have heard about can be thought of as just that (And Woody Allen’s response to Ms Farrow, that her statement is “disgraceful”, does him no favours in this regard). Perhaps this is another question for the injured party to address to themselves, but if the answer comes out as “yes” then doesn’t that make forgiveness al the more difficult?


    • Novel Activist February 4, 2014 at 12:08 am #


      You seem to assume that something happened. The matter was investigated and some formed the opinion that the incident never happened.

      I think the looming tragedy for Dylan is that in raising this issue after some 20 years, she invites journalists to dig into her background. She might not like what they find.


      • samjandwich February 4, 2014 at 10:22 am #

        I’m not particularly interested in what “happened”, precisely because no-one will ever know apart from the two people concerned – and an inconclusive investigation is no help whatsoever.

        What I do think though is that an allegation of child sexual abuse from twenty years ago should not be taken lightly, and that Woody’s insensitive response hardly does him any favours.

        Perhaps what I’m getting at is better-expressed by Mr Paul Walter below. It’s easy enough to forgive someone who is incapable of acknowledging the consequences of their actions (to themselves, much less anyone else), but to forgive someone whose humanity you still have some recognition of takes much greater effort, and may be eased by some remorse on their part.


        • Ray (novelactivist) February 4, 2014 at 12:33 pm #

          You can only acknowledges the consequences of actions that you are responsible for. If the allegations are false, then it is Allen who is the victim of a misguided smear campaign.


          • samjandwich February 4, 2014 at 5:33 pm #

            No arguments with that Ray. I’m perfectly well-aware of the uncertainties of this particular situation and their leading to the impossibility of a conclusion… not to mention the internal complexities in the concepts involved. Just because CSA is extremely damaging to those subjected to it, that doesn’t mean we have to feel a certain way about the perpetrator.

            But that’s why it’s useful to talk in the abstract – so that we can try to move away from conventional or culturally-nuanced ways of understanding these things, and figure out what’s really going on. It seems to me it’s far too early in history for people to talk about CSA and related issues in an upfront and unprejudiced manner, but we might just get there one day.


    • Jennifer Wilson February 4, 2014 at 7:07 am #

      Griswold’s book is interesting. I only mentioned a tiny smidgin of his thinking here. It claims to be ‘philosophical’ but to my mind is steeped in dogma and refers constantly to an ideal that implies a transcendental exteriority. Which is why I describe him as crypto theological, a criticism Derrida makes of most Western philosophy.

      I was highly affronted by Griswold, who seems to be claiming forgiveness for educated upper class beings!

      Re Woody – I can’t begin to enter that labyrinth of family tragedy. I’ve loved many of his films, but always with the feeling that he is a little bit creepy and narcissistic, as are most of his characters.


    • Anonymous February 13, 2014 at 2:28 pm #

      You are one of those rare people I have come across on this planet, samjandwich, who has the sensitivity, insight, depth of compassion & courage to go with it that gives comfort, hope & courage to survivors of csa like myself to choose light over hovering darkness…you really get it on so many levels….Thank-you….ps..I would have loved to have met up in Newtown or somewhere for that coffee & cake…no justifications or apologies for perhaps going a bit off the thread


      • Anonymous February 13, 2014 at 2:33 pm #

        I’m not anonymous,..it’s Maria


        • Maria Crystal-Paige February 15, 2014 at 11:25 am #

          My first reply is meant for samjandwichs’ first reply to Jennifer.


  3. malbrown2 February 3, 2014 at 10:57 pm #

    Thanks for your post and I generally agree.

    I have been assaulted and as it happens, the only way I could have peace with myself was to forgive. Once that was done, I felt stronger and special. It’s as if the assault gave me something new that I had not experienced before. A new challenge to overcome.

    Mind you, forgiveness did not occur instantly and I felt a great deal of grief and fear after the assault. Time does help but for me forgiving gave me relief more quickly than simply waiting for time heal.



    • Jennifer Wilson February 4, 2014 at 7:02 am #

      I agree, getting to the point of not wanting revenge and not feeling fear. is a long, long process.

      I wish it was talked about more, though.


  4. gerard oosterman February 3, 2014 at 11:00 pm #

    A very convincing article. I agree that to say ‘never’ precludes then any chance of liberation from the shackles of injustice or pain. While remorse from the perpetrator can be balm on a wound, having to demand that before any beginning of forgiveness might become infused with revenge, justice and other accoutrements.
    By the way; Woody Allen was found not guilty of what he was alleged to have done..


    • Novel Activist February 4, 2014 at 12:00 am #

      A correction Gerard. Allen was never charged. The matter never went to trial, so there was no verdict.


      • gerard oosterman February 4, 2014 at 12:10 am #

        You are right. There was an investigation and “A New York judge in the 1994 custody battle between Allen and Mia Farrow ruled that the abuse allegations were inconclusive, while at the same time lambasted the director as “self-absorbed, untrustworthy and insensitive”.

        Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/celebrity/cate-blanchett-hopes-woody-allens-and-mia-farrows-families-find-peace-20140203-31w2l.html#ixzz2sGQC49Yc


        • Jennifer Wilson February 4, 2014 at 7:01 am #

          I wonder if you think we should distinguish between Allen’s work, and his private life?
          This seems to have been a problem for a lot of people.


          • Novel Activist February 4, 2014 at 7:31 am #

            Many very famous artists were deeply flawed and morally compromised, yet their art is celebrated. Michelangelo was a pederast and some of his young male lovers have been immortalised as figures in the Sistine Chapel.

            I’m not suggesting here that Allen is any way a pedophile. It must be remembered that Dylan is the only person to have made a complaint. Soon Yi and Allen have since adopted two children after they went through a vigorous assessment process. That says something.


          • hudsongodfrey February 4, 2014 at 11:20 pm #

            Never meet your heroes!

            Many of my heroes have been artists. Much of art strives for a portrayal of something that is better that the artist who creates it. It stands to reason then that the better the art, the less likely that the artist can live up to whatever expectations it evokes.


  5. Novel Activist February 3, 2014 at 11:58 pm #

    In full agreement and well said. I’ve encountered some quite nasty, hate filled reactions to this open letter, many of them badly misinformed.

    I think it is important people understand a bit more of the background. These allegations were fully investigated. The prosecutor did not press charges with the agreement of Mia Farrow because he felt Dylan was too fragile to give testimony. Specialists charged with investigating the incident found serious inconsistencies and were concerned that Mia Farrow had coached her daughter. They found no evidence of abuse. Allen was never charged.

    The breakup of Farrow and Allen’s relationship was very, very bitter and acrimonious. People may remember that Allen started a relationship with Mia Farrow and Andre Previn’s adopted daughter, Soon Yi Previn. Many have assumed that Soon Yi was Allen’s step-daughter. She wasn’t. Previn was her father, Allen was her mother’s boyfriend. In any case, Farrow has never forgiven Allen. Btw, Soon-Yi and Allen are still married and have two adopted children.

    There are a number of things I find problematic with Dylan’s letter, principally that she attempts to accuse the actors in his latest film of ignoring her abuse. But how could they have known? It happened over 20 years ago and he was never charged. I doubt many would have even known he had an adopted daughter called Dylan.

    There have been a number of angry responses from Farrow’s children in response to Allen being honoured with the Cecile B De Mille award for a life time contribution. They feel that this somehow excuses his alleged abuse. This is extraordinarily narcissistic. These awards are given for the person’s contribution to film, not their moral character. And in this case
    Allen was a deserving candidate.

    I don’t know what happened to Dylan during her childhood and who is responsible (Allen or Farrow, or both) but it is clear that she is seeking some sort of revenge.

    But this goes even deeper. Sections of the media/entertainment complex have formed into camps, pro-Farrow or pro-Allen. There are a number of people intent on painting Allen as a pedophile creep and damaging his career. It is nasty, nasty stuff with little sign of forgiveness.


    • Jennifer Wilson February 4, 2014 at 6:59 am #

      I can’t begin to try to work this appalling situation out. It’s horrible. For everyone in it I suppose.


  6. doug quixote February 4, 2014 at 12:23 am #

    I can forgive just about anything. In fact I’d be totally forgiving once the perpetrators are dead. And after I get to dance on their graves. Very cathartic.


    • Jennifer Wilson February 4, 2014 at 6:58 am #

      You are funny, DQ, and I so enjoy your straightforward no bullshit responses.

      Most of the time 🙂


      • doug quixote February 8, 2014 at 10:59 pm #

        There’s a reason for that Jennifer. It is that I agree most of the time with your takes on the major issues you write about.

        If I disagreed with you I might be inclined to write a Hudsongodfrey-length post.

        So my comments are usually directed towards trying to distill the issues. As HG knows. 🙂

        A special treat for you :


    • hudsongodfrey February 4, 2014 at 11:10 pm #

      Are we back on the topic of Maggie Thatcher?


  7. paul walter February 4, 2014 at 4:38 am #

    Like doug quixote, this person is not here to quibble. The unforgivable is just that and any later hitting out of a traumatised victim is totally explicable and probably part of the process of recovery.

    It may be that forgiveness can be facilitated by a sense that the injurer has grasped the message, may be the sort of individual with enough self insight to eventually understand that an intemperate grossly irresponsible act coming from the outworkings of an also troubled pathology, with an experience of deep remorse that indicates an identification with the misery of the victim, the collateral damage.Ideally, that comes from an act of contrition, but you sense if someone has finally grasped the nature of the wrong.

    Or it finally comes of a realisation that a perpetrator is so fundamentally lacking in any empathy as to require dismissal from the mind, based on a recognition that the oppressor is more to be pitied than hated, the task then can be to avoid being dragged down in future by a ,mad dog and this is finally a calm and rational adaptation to the situation; a wiping of dirt from the shoes..


    • Jennifer Wilson February 4, 2014 at 6:54 am #

      Yes PW. My own action is to in my imagination, leave the offender to his or her fate, which no longer has anything to do with mine.


      • Di Pearton February 4, 2014 at 8:01 am #

        Yes, your reasoning and writing are brilliant, again! The concern I have is with how society seems to place pressure on the victim to forgive. For me this lets the perpetrator, and society off too lightly, and enables insufficient punishment and acknowledgment, of the crime.
        Victims can forgive, if it serves their purpose, or not, but let us think about how an emphasis on the perpetrator to be sorry, to understand (if possible??) the impact of the crime, might improve our society.


        • samjandwich February 4, 2014 at 10:31 am #

          I wonder whether Jennifer is writing from the perspective that the opportunity to seek justice has already gone, or was never there in the first place?

          I agree, it certainly is very important both for the individual and for society as a whole for there to be recognition, and even some form of restitution. That is why we have the criminal justice system, or why processes such as the present Royal Commission are pursued.

          Maybe forgiveness is the only way to find peace once all other avenues for appeal have been exhausted


      • helvityni February 4, 2014 at 10:33 am #

        I agree with Paul’s last paragraph, and with what Jennifer is saying here…I can’t change nasty hurtful people, so I ‘wash’ them out my mind, I’ll walk away from them.. I forget about them…


        • paul walter February 4, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

          I agree with the last few comments, starting with yours, Helvi.

          But samjandwich really does ask a question, just how do you get it through the head of someone, particularly someone with sadistic inclinations, that their activities cease and restitution is made to the shivering victims?

          Fortunately jam answers this question by reminding us that a legal system is in place. For all its flaws and biases there is a mechanism in place still driven by some basic rationality that identifies wrongdoing and can apportion responsibility.

          It remains in place because the worst of what we are talking about inspires revulsion and anger in the majority of people, a revulsion that could have us gleefully strangle such people, in their incorrigibility, but set a precedent for social breakdown as angry people take legal matters into their own hands and inevitably get some situations wrong, leading to retaliation, vendettas and anarchy.

          I’d like to see the justice system honed a bit more sharply as to violence and less concerned with the prerogatives of property.


          • samjandwich February 4, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

            Cripes, is the Cure’s ‘Lullaby’ a reference to child abuse as well? It never ends does it??


          • Di Pearton February 4, 2014 at 6:22 pm #

            I guess I am not even talking about the justice system, but society. We are always hearing that it is good for victims to forgive. Is it a little like blaming the victim?
            I think that we should be asking how the perpetrator can make serious and genuine restitution, even if it has to be dragged out of them.


  8. Marilyn February 4, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

    When my pedophile father dropped dead in September I finally felt free, threw away the old black cheap clothes and started wearing my favoured colours of reds, aquas, greens and blues of all shades.

    When I got my share of his loot that was left behind I threw out the ancient $25 Woollies and Coles book shelves and furniture and re furnished my house.

    My older sister and I celebrated one less pedophile on the planet? I loathed him and my only goal was to outlive the man who taught both of us, our best friends, our step sister and probably others never to trust anyone.

    Forgiveness? Not a snowballs chance in hell but I did manage to temper the rage over the years.


    • paul walter February 4, 2014 at 5:31 pm #

      There you see it.. the damage one irresponsible idiot can do.. fifteen year in the grave and I still cant warm to my father either and he wasnt even a paedophile.


  9. doug quixote February 4, 2014 at 9:35 pm #

    I feel a bit left out. My father was an even tempered, upstanding citizen and a good father. Mum was a wonderful person with not a bad word for anyone. No-one ever tried to molest me, as far as I can recall.

    Does it show?


    • Marilyn February 4, 2014 at 10:21 pm #

      Yes it does, you appear to have a severe lack of empathy for anyone who didn’t have a good family life.

      Good for you though, not enough people have decent parents really.


  10. paul walter February 4, 2014 at 11:04 pm #

    There you go doug… that ringing endorsement.


  11. hudsongodfrey February 4, 2014 at 11:05 pm #

    On the Dylan Farrow accusations against Woody Allen, they aren’t new and I think it is somewhat unfortunate if this is deliberately being timed to coincide with the upcoming Academy Awards. There seems to be a certain amount of understandable though no less unendearing spite behind them. It creates the objection that if you can neither achieve reconciliation nor justice, then using someone’s celebrity to harm them by publicly attacking their character smacks of trying to get two wrongs to make a right.

    Part of the problem there is that we’ve been given so much permission to hate the crimes Allen is accused of. We know it to be so difficult to obtain recourse through the justice system that we sometimes start to behave as if a higher standard of proof isn’t necessary. People I know are really quick to get very judgemental at the merest whiff of an allegation. It reaches a point where maybe even social permission to forgive is withheld.

    It was interesting in relation therefore to the quote from Charles Griswold that you rightly took issue on pragmatic grounds yet seemingly overlooked his appeal to reciprocity as a condition for forgiveness. There are more benign interpretations of how two people may come to terms with one another, but without discounting the version than involves taking an eye for an eye++ I’m not so sure we necessarily arrive at a better place following his recipe for forgiveness. Trudy Glover does indeed make a far better fist of things. I like her explanation perhaps because it appeals to rising above the injury that has been done to you as a way to reconcile oneself without falling into a vicious cycle of vengeance. By the time you’d quoted passages from a few other sources I began to realise you had indeed offered a more than adequate rebuttal to Glover’s open ended reciprocity, I was just up in his junk right out of the blocks.

    What emerges is something that goes beyond a view of forgiveness limited to some kind of transactional process between offending and victim parties. If only who is right and wrong were so starkly defined maybe we could begin to sort out the Arabs and the Israelis. But they often aren’t and we need alternative forms of reconciliation that recognise forgiveness may well be within the remit of somebody who has been wronged regardless of the guilty party. If you say it is then I believe you. I can see why somebody would want, maybe even need, to exercise that imperative.

    Similarly I wonder if redemption is achievable by some genuine contrition that does not reduce to a kind of vicarious hypocrisy if reconciliation with the wronged party is not possible. It would seem to me that some murderers do their best to pay their debt to society despite the fact that they can’t obtain forgiveness directly from their victims. Yet at the extreme where a sane man takes a bomb or a drone and kills many people, whether with evil intent or in a way that is in some sense justifiable for the greater good then some point there will be victims for whom the transgression is so large that the possibility of redemptions seems to break down. It raises an interesting conundrum if to deny the possibility of forgiveness is to disempower either ourselves or other victims agency and therefore increasingly restrict access to catharsis as the crimes become worse.

    I think the issue may tie in with how we psychologically process our regard for ourselves in terms of our regard, or in this case disregard, for others. In the case of knee jerk righteous directed towards Woody Allen I see people holding themselves in higher regard relative to what they’re condemning. Whereas to argue that we do better to rise above our enemies and forgive is somehow still to define ourselves relative to them. Maybe that’s a mistake, or at least it probably is if we’re using the wrong individuals as our point of reference.

    If you want to really feel sorry for somebody then take Nathan (Nate) Phelps, an American few will probably have heard of who has the misfortune not to be related to Mark Phelps the Olympic swimmer but rather to have been fathered by Fred the Westbro (God Hates Fags) Baptist preacher. I was watching a longish interview with him late last night when I first read your piece here, and wanted to include something in a way that did the whole issue justice. Nate fled the home and the extended family unit that comprises Fred’s hateful cult on his eighteenth birthday in 1976. He sometimes struggles to break free of the way of thinking he was programmed into during his childhood even today despite the fact that he’s now an Atheist and LGBT rights activist. The fact that he and his brother were severely physically abused by his father as was his Mother became the subject of a question, “Can you forgive him?” For what its worth the way he still answers many questions was to reference how his father would Biblically interpret forgiveness,

    “I’ve always thought that forgiveness required some sort of acknowledgement of the the harm done by the person that you forgive. But then there’s the question of whether it continues to do harm to me. When I look at it from that point of view then I forgive him, because I’m not that self destructive anymore. That’s the best way to put it. But as long as he continues to think that he’s right, maybe I’m wrong about the idea of forgiveness, but I don’t think you can forgive someone if they continue to do it.”

    I’m also reminded of Catherine Manning’s story of coming to terms with her abuse that I thought was very empowering without necessarily speaking to the point of forgiveness. What she did touch on however was that she could rise above it because unlike the armchair moralists who snipe at Woody Allen she was uniquely in the position to justifiably and accurately identify the source of her abuse and condemn the bastard.


    ++As if anyone needed it to get more crypto-theological.


  12. doctorrob54 February 4, 2014 at 11:17 pm #

    I’m with DQ and Marilyn,it is easy for the perpetrator to forgive him/her selves,Why must the victim forgive at all,whatever makes them feel good I guess.
    Anyone who knowingly protects a paedophile should be locked up for many years and the paedophile should be given two choices.Remain in goal until death,or take a rope to their single cell and hang themselves.


    • hudsongodfrey February 4, 2014 at 11:40 pm #

      As perhaps a more frequent reader here I respectfully suggest that it seems highly unlikely that anyone can ever simultaneously side with DQ and Marilyn.

      As for the latter part a better reading of Jennifer’s piece would not be to characterise forgiveness as “whatever makes them feel good”, if only because the idea of feeling good about surviving abuse hardly seems apt.

      As for all that draconian stuff, we’re not barbarians, one of the other points to be made is the one against taking the very thing we’re most inclined to condemn and opposing it in such a way as to sink to their level. The shorthand for it is, two wrongs don’t make a right….. If they have to go away for a very long time then its partly because we just don’t know how to rehabilitate them.


      • doctorrob54 February 5, 2014 at 1:10 am #

        These people can not be rehabilitated,they are manipulative,evil scum who only show contrition when caught.They don’t feel there is anything wrong with what they do,even to the point they swear they are showing love.FFS forget it.
        Near on 8yrs I worked in a mental inst.and for over 2yrs.in the criminally insane ward,with some paedophile child killers.
        Do some research before you print.These people have not got out of their primary stage of development and are still governed by their id,not their ego let alone their superego.
        You are right about one thing,I misread Marilyn’s post,DQ is the only one to make any sense.


        • paul walter February 5, 2014 at 3:30 am #


          Exactly what do you know of Marilyn,’54?

          Or dq,for that matter?

          As to paedophile offenders in institutions, didn’t you read Marilyn’s earliest post and grasp the real significance of it in terms of human toll?
          Her story ought to back up your argument if taken to its logical conclusion, yet you disregard her comment, why?

          No, what hudgod is proposing is, that it is no longer sufficient to just lock people away, the root causes and structures of certain pathologies must be investigated exhaustively and something definitive eventually developed as to treatment, be those under scrutiny pathetic psychopaths, (psychopathy is an illness with its roots in organic brain structure; the differences in brain structure surely must be eventually treatable, therefore?) , or walking psychological wounded from bad experiences, sick from their own childhoods, as many paedophiles seem to be, who may be responsive to some sort of treatment that can’t apply to psychopaths

          Kicking the stuffing out of a deviant might allow bystanders like you and myself vicarious gratification, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problems. Until overall society itself, reforms its own immature practices and reassigns priorities, progress will be glacial.


          • hudsongodfrey February 5, 2014 at 9:24 am #

            Chill Paul, I started it as a bit of an inside joke. Some of us don’t often agree, but that doesn’t necessarily infer disrespect to either.


            • doctorrob54 February 5, 2014 at 10:58 pm #

              Yes you are correct,I didn’t read Marilyn’s previous post,I am with her..
              Paul Walter there is a difference between having sex with a 15yr.old and a 5yr.old,rehabilitation is BS if you think the latter can be helped/changed.Find another challenge you are wasting time.


        • hudsongodfrey February 5, 2014 at 10:36 am #

          When someone uses the phrase “these people” it invariably signifies a generalisation, whereas it would be unusual to find a generalisation that isn’t overreaching. In this case I think it only holds for the criminally insane, and even then I’m sure less extreme cases receive less extreme treatment. The hint that I was talking about something that doesn’t fit that generalisation should have been mention I made of rights and wrongs.

          Based on the available research I have been presented with the case is that even those with disorders akin to psychopathy have a well enough developed sense of self preservation to express a concern for right and wrong in terms of the consequences society imposes upon them as transgressors. They can often be taught the value of repressing certain urges. After all, if the average man failed to restrain some of his less appropriate sexual urges towards women he’d be considered a letch at least or at worst a predator. So in the same way that not all men who commit sexual assaults are psychopathic rapists we would probably say not everyone who commits an act of carnal knowledge is a peadophile, and nor is a peadophile who resists temptation to be locked up for thought crimes.

          So at the point where I want to be able to say we’re not barbarians I mean to say that we shouldn’t punish anyone just for being mentally disordered. I think we need to replace permission to hate with some form of help for those who can be helped, if only because it spares their potential victims. Suffice to add that help for somebody who is already in the criminal justice system is called rehabilitation. My statement, “If they have to go away for a very long time then its partly because we just don’t know how to rehabilitate them”, may have seemed overreaching but there’s a difference between not knowing and not wanting to. We can hope research will succeed in making headway.

          Nevertheless it must not be a pleasant experience to have to deal with the worst of the worst, and in the cases of killers our antipathy towards them flowing from empathy for their victims is perfectly understandable, as is the conclusion that the risk of entrusting them under their own recognisance would be too
          high…. Unless or until we find means to forgive and reliably rehabilitate.

          We thought for a time that things like chemical castration might be a “cure”, but when I recall that they once tried that on homosexuals like Alan Turing then I’m filled with revulsion for the idea. So when I say that we don’t know…. I mean to acknowledge the problem with a suitable degree of humility but enough intellect I hope not to lapse into fear and loathing of the unknown.


    • samjandwich February 5, 2014 at 12:34 pm #

      Dr Rob – As above, I felt as though Jennifer was writing this from the perspective that the opportunity to lock the perpetrators up didn’t exist, which might be the result of them having already been aquitted, if the victim had complained but not been taken seriously, if the perpetrator is already dead etc… Maybe under these conditions the only way to find a sense of peace is to forgive them – ie come to an understanding of why it is that they did what they did.

      Nobody wants to give the perpetrators an easy ride though.


  13. paul walter February 5, 2014 at 9:52 am #

    Was just thinking,if I am a parent going for a long drive on a hot day, who the two people I would like most to have as kids; brother and sister, in the back seat for the trip?


    • samjandwich February 5, 2014 at 12:35 pm #

      Is that a rhetorical question?


      • paul walter February 5, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

        (Phew).. someone understands…

        Nah, I like’em and I understand (imperfectly) where they both come from, so to speak. At least they bother to give the real world more than a moment’s thought, so many far worse than that.


    • doug quixote February 5, 2014 at 2:06 pm #

      Mozart and his sister, Nannerl. When told to stop practising on the harpsichord “because daddy has a headache”, Wolfie wrote a symphony instead.

      When he says “are we there yet?” you can tell him to write another violin concerto.



      • paul walter February 5, 2014 at 5:32 pm #

        Wolfgang and Nannerl… that has a nice ring!


  14. iODyne February 6, 2014 at 8:56 pm #

    I am so sorry for your experience Jennifer.
    A Melbourne blogger/psychologist 6th In Line is very open about her mother being disbelieving or relieved the vile father was looking elsewhere. It is very brave to even describe personal horror.

    I read (at the time) the full court transcript of the Woody Allen interrogation. The court asked him to name the teachers of all 13 of Mia’s brood, and because he could not … he looked bad.
    She looks bad now to even hint that she was having sex with Barbara Marx Sinatra’s husband.
    it’s all bad.
    I wish all the Woody attention was going to the many Cambodian children suffering worse stuff right now.


  15. paul walter February 12, 2014 at 1:06 am #

    Jennifer, you cited in passing, Judith Butler’s comment on how a person deals with a harsh victim situation.

    I mention this to find out to what extent I may have erred in linking Butler to essentialist or separatist feminism.. the Wiki article as an intro informs that her own personal influences and her stand on some political issues should have me regard her as more “inclusive” than I may have felt recently. I should say, I read some of her stuff at uni and found that interesting, as far as I could understand it.

    I suspect that with that massive and efficient brain of hers, she offers something more nuanced than I may have given her credit for, or been able to understand, but while some of her stuff is comprehensible, some seems also torturous and difficult to follow.

    What would be the best way for a lay person to approach a philosopher like this?


    • doug quixote February 12, 2014 at 7:20 pm #

      Cautiously and with a good dictionary. 🙂


      • paul walter February 12, 2014 at 9:10 pm #

        Well.. at least someone still turns up here..


        • doug quixote February 13, 2014 at 7:23 am #

          Quality is more important than quantity.

          I first came here to support Jennifer against the disgraceful threats made against her (and others) by a woman desperate to disguise her motives and real agenda. That appears to have been successful, in part as a result of our efforts, Paul.

          Jennifer posts as the mood takes her, and her articles are excellent. I suspect that much of the readership feel no need to register support by commenting; reading is their thing.

          Keep up the good work, Jennifer. 🙂


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  32. Darrell May 14, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    Thanks Jennifer..

    Another difficult topic that requires a much deeper analysis than the everday or Consensus “common light of day” suggests.. ie. referring to Neitzche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, “The world is deep, deeper than day can comprehend”.. And all this takes me immediately to James Hillman & archetypal psychology.. “Life is psychological, & the purpose of life is to make psyche of it”.. And, from anima’s perspective, of course, “the Wound is the Womb,” or the alchemical container for our Soul-making.. Yes, the yoga is easy to say, much harder to live, of course.. And, yet what is the meaning of all “suffering,” a question religion & philosophy has been looking at since time began..

    James Hillman is best known as the founder of archetypal psychology – a branch of depth psychology that developed out of and has found its place alongside Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and C.G. Jung’s analytical psychology. And if there is one word that is most associated with Hillman’s archetypal psychology it is probably that of Soul-making. Originating out of the poetic mind of John Keats, the term Soul-making as applied by Hillman refers to a practice through which individuals: slow down and deepen their connectedness to themselves, others, and the world; emphasize being over doing and the present moment over future aspirations; embrace and prioritize one’s woundedness, humanity, and limitations over a quest for perfection, transcendence, and transformation. In other words, Soul-making occurs every time we look more closely, more feelingly at the individuals peopling our lives and the ideas, afflictions, and ever-present prospect of death which together give substance and meaning to our hours and days.

    The idea of turning inward is an important part of the psychological notion of containment. Whether referring to the “container” created by a psychologist and his or her patient in the therapy room or referring more generally to an individual’s psyche as a “container,” personal growth and development require the holding of energies and emotions by concerned parties until these same psychodynamic forces can be experienced consciously, i.e. acknowledged, understood, and owned as important in some way to one’s Wholeness and well-being. Hillman notes that this process of containing or Soul-making can only occur when we emotionally open ourselves to our own wounds and afflictions:

    “Building the psychic vessel of containment, which is another way of speaking of soul-making, seems to require bleeding and leaking as its precondition. Why else go through that work unless we are driven by the despair of our unstoppered condition? The shift from anima-mess to anima-vessel shows in various ways: as a shift from weakness and suffering to humility and sensitivity; from bitterness and complaint to a taste for salt and blood; from focus upon the emotional pain of a wound – its causes, parameters, cures – to its imaginal depths; from displacement of the womb onto women and ‘femininity’ to its locus in one’s own bodily rhythm.”

    And finally, what is meant by the fourth and final shift “from displacement of the womb onto women and ‘femininity’ to its locus in one’s own bodily rhythm”? In the section under discussion, Hillman effectively links the centuries’ old belief that hysteria was somehow rooted in a woman’s womb with his present day argument that the womb and femininity should instead be understood psychologically and something which men have as well as women. The leaky hysterics of the love-struck Soul are not to be displaced or denied as “something only women have” but instead owned as the source from which one’s own feelings and connectedness to the deep roots of things can grow. Hillman writes that “Without a proper feminine vessel, we can gestate nothing, nourish nothing, bring nothing to complete birth.” He then reiterates that the womb is the psychic container within which we reflect upon our own woundedness. As suggested above, through the process of reflection, both wounds and womb become “the very ground and carrier of fecundity.”

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