Your letter caught me off guard. I was surprised that you were apologizing again and asking for forgiveness for what you did when we were girls. The incident must have weighed on you for forty years.
I’ve heard it said that forgiveness benefits the giver as much as the recipient—unclenching her heart and letting her breathe easy. But not in my case. I’m not doubled over with rage and resentment. Memories of your cruelty don’t haunt me. In fact, several years have passed since I’ve thought of you.
Does that mean I’ve already forgiven you? I don’t think so.
I was pleased and pained by your careful description of the event, how you wrote that long-ago letter listing all my faults—my arrogance, my self-centeredness, my bad dress sense, my screechy voice—and then cajoled every girl in the class to sign it. I was pleased that you had the courage to name your act, but pained by the memory. My heart races again as I recall finding that note in my lunchbox. I remember the brief thrill when I thought I had a friend, followed by the dull incomprehension, and then the utter misery as the message sank in.
I was “pretentious, vain, annoying, intolerable to be around.” I didn’t recognize myself in that description. But how could I—one small girl alone—hold out against nineteen who seemed so sure. I had to believe what you said. I was intolerable. I didn’t deserve to exist. So, I chose not to exist.
I was lucky. The slashes on my wrist were inept and my mother found me before I could lose too much blood. I suppose you were lucky in that too. You didn’t cause my death.
Then I got lucky again. After I left Bramwell I attended another school, this time for gifted students, where I found other oddballs who liked to play chess and read Spinoza. I attended Brown and eventually became a psychiatrist. In med school I met a kindly and intelligent man who recognized my value. We married and now have three fine children.
Well, not entirely fine. My middle son, Adam, was suspended from school last month for bullying a boy in his class. I was shocked to learn that he had poured superglue on the boy’s head causing acid burns on the scalp. I punished Adam and hammered him with questions. “Why? How could you do such a thing? You’re better than that.”
“He constantly interrupted the class, Mom. He’d just ruin math for us every single day. I had to do something.”
Adam didn’t know that his victim had a learning disability and couldn’t control his outbursts. After talking with the principal and the boy’s mother I felt a crushing sense of despair. How could I have raised a child who could act this way? After a few days my anger abated. We talked at length and he wrote a letter of apology to the boy. I sensed his genuine regret. He’d wanted to teach the boy a lesson but hadn’t realized that the glue would cause pain and injury.
I hate what Adam did, but I don’t hate Adam. He’s a clever boy who plans to do medical research and save lives, he’s on the varsity swim team and plays the cello. He babysits his little sister whenever I ask and watches Shakespeare with me. He is not to be defined by this one act of casual cruelty. I cannot not forgive him.
Perhaps you will say that my forgiveness is not the forgiveness that matters. I wasn’t injured by his act. You’re right. I profoundly hope that his victim will forgive him too. And I understand why he might not. Refusing forgiveness is one small power the victim has over the bully. Letting your abuser off the hook is the last thing you want. You want to return the injury and let her twist in the wind. I felt that way about you. I wanted you to feel some small part of my pain and not be comforted.
So I know exactly how Adam’s victim feels. But I also know that Adam must be forgiven. But if I am Adam’s victim, then you are Adam. I cannot escape the logic of this. So, you’re in luck, Imogene. My son, the closest thing to a second self, has reminded me of the old truth: if we hope to be forgiven, we must learn to forgive.
If you enjoyed this story, read more about Freya and Imogene in The Letter, another story by Frances Howard-Snyder.