Sarah Montana is a writer, editor, and branded content producer. In this vulnerable and heartfelt talk, Sarah takes us through her journey of forgiving her family’s killer.
Here is the full text of her talk titled “The Real Risk of Forgiveness — And Why It’s Worth It” at TEDxLincolnSquare conference.
Sarah Montana – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
In the summer of 2016, I did the sensible thing: I quit my cushy job at a hedge fund to write a play about my family’s murder.
I told my friends and family that this was about art, but in truth, I was on a spiritual vision quest. I was seeking closure to a relationship with someone that I barely knew – the kid who killed my mother and brother.
He was my friend’s younger brother, a kid from our neighborhood. He came over a handful of times to raid our family’s snack cabinet. My mom actually used to wave to him from the van and say, “He’s going through a hard time, I just want to make sure he knows that I see him.”
He broke into our house a couple of days before Christmas, looking for some stuff to sell for cash. When he came across my brother Jim asleep on the couch, he panicked, shot him and fled the scene. Then he realized he forgot his coat.
By the time he came back, my mom had found Jim. Because he knew that she recognized him, and, to quote him, “Because she wouldn’t stop screaming,” he shot and killed her too. He is currently serving back-to-back life sentences in a prison in Southwestern Virginia.
Over the course of the next seven years, I somehow managed not to hate him, but my grief and trauma did something a little bit weirder. He became a non-person to me. He wasn’t a person, he was the face of all evil.
He was the twister that came through and ripped up our house and threw it in some hellish version of Oz, but not a 17-year-old boy – or, I realized now, a 24-year-old man. A man who came of age in a cell, if he came of age at all.
And as I set down to write the villain of my play and my life, I realized I had a name, some fractured childhood memories, a brief court document and nothing else to go on.
So I went to the source of all answers, Google. I googled his prisoner ID number. That’s when the internet sucker punched me in the face. Two-thirds of prisoners in his penitentiary spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement in eight-by-ten cells with slats for light.
Conditions are so bad that in 2012 the entire prison went on a hunger strike. As I scrolled through case after case of human rights violations at this prison, suddenly, he became a person to me again.
I remember the first time I saw mom and Jim’s bodies in the funeral home, how my hand recoiled when I felt the small, destructive supernova that the bullet made in the back of Jim’s skull. My mom’s face just collapsed in on itself. Not her, just flesh and bones in that black dress we bought at Kohl’s the week before.
Those were my most painful memories.
But when I pictured him – beaten, starving, crying out in a dark cell – yeah, that was somehow just as painful. And I realized it was because we were still connected. That steel tether of trauma that he hooked into my side when he killed them was still there.
And I had been lurching against its pull and dragging him through the mud for the past seven years, whether I knew it or not And it was with a little horror that I realized that he may have killed them, but I chose to keep us connected.
So after wading through all the options – I mean, literally every option at my disposal – I realized the only way to get rid of this dude was to forgive him. That was a real bummer of a conclusion to come to.
Because the truth was I thought that I already had forgiven him. I told my friends I forgave him; I told my family I forgave him. I even said “I forgive you” in the national news.
So if saying you forgive someone is not the same thing as doing it, why was this guy still hooked into my side, dragging me around, making me do dumb things like quit my job to write a play? Turns out there is no fake it ’till you make it in forgiveness even though that’s exactly what society expects us to do.
So how do you forgive effectively, once and for all?
That question started another Google rabbit hole, and then the theological rabbit hole, and then the Psychiatric-Journal and medical-journal rabbit hole until finally, my poor husband came home to a frantic wife, feral, just pacing the apartment, spewing statistics about forgiveness, like, “Did you know that there are 62 passages in the Bible with the word forgive and 27 with the word forgiveness? Not a single one tells you how to do it!”
They just say how great it is. It’s like the Nike of spiritual gifts: “Just do it!”
And then there’s this doctor Wayne guy over here, who says, “To forgive, we just got to let go and be like water.” What does that mean?
My husband approached me very cautiously: “Sweetie, what are you doing?”
“Trying to forgive the kid who killed my family, but nobody will tell me how.”
Oh, there are endless five-star historical Yelp reviews for forgiveness. The sales pitch is fantastic, but literally, what do I do? I think I was asking the wrong question, starting with how, when really what I needed to know was why.
Why forgive? Why do it? That’s when I discovered that most of us are forgiving for the wrong reasons. Some victims, like me, try to forgive right away because it’s the right thing to do.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, there’s only three reasons a victim forgives automatically.
One: you think that forgiving quickly will make you a good person. That’s an easy mistake to make, right? If forgiveness is good, a good person should forgive right away.
But in all my research, I actually didn’t find a timeline for forgiveness. Everybody was just really desperately urging us to get around to it because they knew we didn’t want to. Even Jesus, when he talks about turning the other cheek, isn’t talking about forgiveness. He’s talking about non-violence.
There has to be a middle ground between letting someone of the hook right away and going full an eye for an eye on them.
Two: victims feel a lot of pressure to forgive from everyone else. It can come from your friends, from your family, from the media, from mixed up religious messaging. But the truth is, everyone wants you to forgive quickly so they can feel more comfortable, and they can move on. That’s a crappy reason to do anything.
Three: you think that forgiveness is a shortcut to healing. You think if you skip to the end of the story, you can bypass all the angry, vulnerable, messy healing crap. Spoiler alert: that one will come back to bite you in the butt.
For me, it was all three reasons. I want to be a good person, I love pleasing other people, and I hate the vulnerable, angry, messy, healing crap.
But it turns out that forgiveness is such a potent force that none of those reasons were strong enough to make it stick.
Just like love. If your motivation is selfish, even a good selfish thing like healing, it will collapse in on itself like a dying star.
So why do it? Why forgive? It can’t heal you; it won’t save you or the other person; it can’t make you a good person – at least not all by itself – because that’s not what forgiveness is designed to do. Forgiveness is designed to set you free.