A rather disturbing class session

In the Forgiveness Project I use video material to help stimulate discussion. I try to insure that these discussions are not abstract. Rather, I want the video material to help all of us reflect on our own questions and issues surrounding forgiveness.

To this end I recently showed the chapter, “The Language of Anger,” from the video “Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate,” a film by Helen Whitney. (By the way, this entire video is just excellent, addressing so many of the relevant questions many people have about forgiveness).

The chapter I showed was about a brutal assault that took place in the late 1970s near Redmond, Oregon against Terri Jentz and her roommate, who were journeying across the country by bicycle. In the video, Terri Jentz describes the ordeal, the trauma she experienced, her anger and, ultimately, her effort to find some closure by returning to Redmond and trying to find the man who assaulted her. He had never been caught or prosecuted even though several members of the community felt sure they knew that he was guilty of the crime.

Terri Jentz’s story raises many important questions about the place of anger, evil, forgiveness that is granted too easily or quickly, and injustice. For the most part, the discussion following the video was constructive.

Toward the end, however, the conversation took an unexpected turn when one participant began to import into the discussion his doubts that Terri Jentz had told the truth about what happened to her. He admitted he had no basis other than his own speculations for doubting her story. But he suggested that she had known the perpetrator, meeting him in a bar and “rubbing up against him,” only to probably spurn his advances when he assumed she wanted to get intimate. Within a couple of minutes, the inmate had made Terri Jentz the cause of the man’s anger and violent action, which he implied were understandable, if not justified.

To be truthful, I sat there stunned. But it wasn’t over just yet. I looked around the table at nine other inmates, a few of whom were nodding in agreement. As I opened my mouth to respond with whatever came to my mind (and I had no idea what that was going to be) the recall announcement came over the public address system and the class abruptly ended. All I could say as they left the room was, “We shall continue this discussion next time.”

So now I have a week to ponder how someone can think  the victim deserved what she got and that her own story about a years-long journey wrestling with questions about anger, evil, forgiveness and justice is nothing more than an effort to shift responsibility onto someone else.

Stanton Samenow, in his seminal work, “Inside the Criminal Mind,” offers the thesis that irrational thinking is largely the basis of criminal activity. He dismisses, virtually out of hand, the popular idea that criminals are the products of environmental factors such as poverty, broken homes or lack of opportunity. Samenow’s extensive work with men in prison gives him confidence to assert that criminals can be reformed, but it takes a fairly radical change in the way they think. Samenow’s method is confrontation — criminals must be confronted with their irrational thinking and be helped to recognize it as the cause of their criminality and imprisonment.

Next week, I will dig a bit deeper with the class participant whose interpretation of the video so shocked me. Look for a follow-up blog post on it.


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