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.
When you say, “I forgive you,” what you’re really saying is, “I know what you did. It’s not okay, but I recognize that you are more than that. I don’t want to hold us captive to this thing anymore. I can heal myself, and I don’t need anything from you.”
After you say that, and you mean it, then it’s just you. No chains, no prisoners. Just the good, the bad and the ugly of whoever that person was from the start.
Our culture thinks that vengeance is freedom, but it is a total prison. Any act of violence, whether it’s emotional or physical, is this weird, twisted form of intimacy. That’s why the Greeks said that a death by a good man was a good death. Think about it.
Every time somebody thinks about my mom and my brother, they think about the fact that they’re not here, and then they think about the kid who did this. That one act of violence actually bound the three of them together in people’s minds for eternity.
When we choose vengeance, we’re actually signing a blood oath to chain our story to our enemies for the rest of time. Forgiveness is the only real path to freedom. But to get free, you have to get super specific about what exactly it is that you’re forgiving because you cannot forgive something that didn’t happen to you.
In my research, I came across this idea from Judaism that hit me in the chest. In Judaism, the family can’t forgive murderers, because they were not killed. They can only forgive the pain, anguish and grief that the loss caused them. This was a total jackpot moment for me.
I had to compartmentalize my damage: not what happened to mom and Jim, not what happened to my family, not what happened to society, what happened to me. This is why justice often feels really cold for victims. It’s justice’s job to assess what is owed.
And it is the criminal justice system’s job to assess what is owed to society. Not to victims. It is up to us to get really clear, individually, on what we are owed. You can’t forgive your father for beating your mother. You can only forgive him for how sad, alienated and angry that made you feel. I couldn’t forgive him for killing mom and Jim. I’m still here. I had to assess my damages.
The wedding that I had without the two of them. The parts of me that my husband and kids will never get to understand without knowing the two of them. The way my life was supposed to start at 22, and he broke it. My inherent sense of safety and belonging, which, I got to be honest, I don’t think are coming back. Those are my damages.
Most of us avoid forgiveness like the plague because we do not want to look at our wounds. Wounds are scary, they are nasty, they are icky, it is why most of us look away when we donate blood. It is way easier to take all of that emotion and channel it into rage at another person. I got to be honest with you, I say: do it. You thought this would be about forgiveness, huh? It’s an important part of the process.
Anger is important; it is the fire that cauterizes our wounds and lets them scar over and heal. Too much anger, and yes, you’ll get third-degree burns. Without a little bit of heat, you’ll never scar over, and you’ll never know exactly what happened to you.
If you don’t know what happened to you, you can’t know what you’re forgiving. But once you know what’s happened to you, it’s time for some good old-fashioned justice.
Sorry, I married a Texan. So what in justice’s name am I owed? An apology? An explanation? A front-row seat to their torture chamber? Maybe – not the last part – but maybe you are owed those things in general.
Nine times out of ten, if you ask for those things, you will get them. Which is why forgiveness is not the right thing in most situations. Forgiveness is only right when waiting for what we’re owed comes at too high a cost.
In all those years, with that guy chained to my side, I got a lot done. I went to grad school, I married a wonderful man, I started a career that I honestly really love. But I did it all a little more slowly, and I wasn’t just dragging him along, I was dragging my mother and brother in the process, twisting the three of them up together in those chains.
Pretty soon, that little posse started to crowd me out of my own body and my own experience. And one day, losing myself in order to punish him and keep the two of them alive felt like too high a cost to bear.
It was there, in that crossroads, when I knew what had happened to me. I knew what I was owed, and I decided that choosing myself was more important than being right. That’s when I was ready to forgive.
So I stepped away from Google, and I didn’t ask any more questions, and I wrote him a letter. I tore unused pages out of my mom’s journals, actually, and I wrote.
I told him that what happened on December 19, 2008, was not OK and would probably never be OK for either of us. But just because it wasn’t OK, that didn’t mean he owed me anything – not an apology, not an explanation, not his role as my villain. I told him that I hated to be reduced to one thing that happened to me one day. I yearned to be more, to be whole, and I didn’t think that I could do that if I looked at another person and reduced him to one thing he did one day and made evil the sum of its parts. I told him that I wished him a lifetime full of healing and that I forgave him.
Then, without thinking, I plopped that letter into a mailbox on the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Church. For the first 10 steps, there was this lightness of being, and then that lightness started to feel like a lurch in your stomach, when you hit the spiritual tripwire.
My chest unwound, it burst, and suddenly, I was alone with myself. I mean, really alone, giving birth to a stranger, saying hello to a girl that I hadn’t spoken to in seven years. Sometimes I miss him. Not him, the monster that I created.
Things were a lot harsher and black and white, but they were a lot simpler when I had a villain to fight, and more familiar. As long as he was around, mom and Jim were never that far away. They were characters, just offstage, waiting in the wings, the rest of us on stage, talking about them.
But my story was about the three of them, always. To get free, I had to get clear on exactly what contract I was shredding. Once I did that, I found myself alone, center stage, in the spotlight, with endless possibilities.
Real forgiveness has to let go of all expectations. You can’t expect a certain outcome. You can’t accept them to reply. You can’t even expect to know who you’re going to be on the other side of it.
Forgiveness is really tricky. It’s one of those tools that is only properly wielded when we have healed just enough that we have nothing left to lose. If you’re still hemorrhaging in pain, it is too soon to forgive. If you can’t roll up your sleeve and show me your scars and tell me exactly what happened to you, it’s still too soon to forgive.
But it’s never too late to let go of your villains and reclaim yourself. And if you’re ready to let it all go – the grief, the pain, the anger, the trauma – and you’re open to finding out who you are instead of always trying to prove yourself – I got to be honest with you – all this forgiveness hype is legit! Ten out of ten, five stars, would highly recommend.
Resources for Further Reading: