“I paid little attention as the glare of headlights briefly illuminated my boyfriend Mark’s face and then swept on…” So begins Debbie Morris’s amazing story of suffering and forgiveness. On a Friday night in the 1980’s Debbie and her boyfriend Mark were kidnapped while on a date. One of the kidnappers was Robert Willie, the character made famous in the Susan Sarandon, Sean Pean movie Dead Man Walking. After shooting her boyfriend in the head and leaving him for dead in the woods, the kidnappers subject Debbie to two terrifying days of rape and brutalisation.
Just two days in a lifetime, yet they understandably left an indelible Mark of Debbie’s life. She spent years struggling with pain, anger, depression, alcohol abuse and guilt. Most remarkable of all however is her journey towards healing and forgiveness. In the book Forgiving the Dead Man Walking she tells how she learned to forgive her kidnappers.
She realised that she needed to forgive Willie, if nothing else, for her own good. She had seen the way rage and bitterness consumed the lives of the parents of another girl raped and murdered by her kidnappers. She didn’t want to become a prisoner of her past. And so the night Robert Willie was executed, Debbie realised she could forgive him. She prayed, “Lord, I really do need to forgive Robert Willie. As best I can anyway. If the execution goes on, make it fast and painless. I don’t want him to suffer anymore.”
But what does it mean to forgive in a situation like this? Debbie describes how helpful psychology professor Dr Terry Hargrave was. Dr Hargraves divides forgiveness into two parts: salvage and restoration. Salvage involves insight – recognising how we were violated and who bears responsibility, and understanding – trying to understand why something was done. Restoration involves overt forgiving, where forgiveness is openly sought, given and received and compensation, where there are things which compensate us for past hurts. Hargraves explains that restoration is possible only where there was a prior relationship, or a relationship you want to restore. This was not the case with Debbie. For her salvage was the highest goal she could seek. With its twin dimensions of insight and understanding, its allowed her to move beyond her self blame and bitterness to “salvage” something from her hurtful experience.
Debbie was also helped by Lewis Smedes book Forgive and Forget. In a section entitled “forgiving Monsters” Smedes writes “If we say monsters are beyond forgiving we give them a power they should never have…The climax of forgiveness takes two, I know. But you can have the reality of forgiveness without its climax. Forgiving is real, even if it stops at the healing of the forgiver” In this light Debbie writes “The refusal to forgive him meant that I held onto all my Robert Willie-related stuff – my pain, my shame, my self-pity. That’s what I gave up in forgiving him. And it wasn’t until I did, that real healing could even begin. I was the one who gained.”
Throughout this process Debbie has struggled with what she feels about the death penalty. She closes her book with these words, “God seems to put a higher priority on forgiveness that on justice. We don’t sing ‘Amazing Justice’; we sing ‘Amazing Grace’. Does that mean I think a holy God would oppose the execution of a convicted murderer like Robert Willie? I don’t know; I’m still wrestling with that question. But I do know this: Justice didn’t do a thing to heal me. Forgiveness did.”
Source: Based on reports in Debbie Morris, Forgiving the Dead Man Walking (Zondervan, 1998)