Writer's Workbook: Forgiveness

July 7, 2015


Today's blog will be a quickie. RWA Nationals are coming up in a couple of weeks and while I am thrilled to be attending, there is so much left to be done that it's almost funny.  Like, just-open-a-bottle-of-wine-and-give-up funny. Besides pitching a new manuscript, I've got to get these edits in and these synopses written and oh, hey, yeah, maybe laundry should be done, too.



Last week I finished reading Victoria Dahl's Looking for Trouble.  Besides writing one of my favorite book boyfriends of all time, Dahl is a whiz at creating characters who must live in the shadow of their family histories.  In this book, the male protagonist Alex Bishop is a motorcycle-riding groundwater engineer (much sexier than it sounds) with a needy, unpredictable mother.  Mrs. Bishop's obsessions derail his relationship with local librarian Sophie Heyer.  Mrs. Bishop is passive aggressive and narcissistic.  She is the instigator of a very painful slut-shaming scene.  She's a great character and a formidable obstacle between Alex and Sophie.

Illustration by Charlie Powell  via Huffpost.
This morning I stumbled upon this Huffpost article, "The Debt" by Emily Yoffe.  Yoffe explores the stories of adults whose parents were abusive or neglectful but who now require emotional, medical or financial support.  The article is interesting in that it discusses themes of obligation and dealing with old traumas.  But I found its strengths to lie in its exploration of forgiveness. 
Loved ones and friends—sometimes even therapists—who urge reconnecting with a parent often speak as if forgiveness will be a psychic aloe vera, a balm that will heal the wounds of the past. They warn of the guilt that will dog the victim if the perpetrator dies estranged. What these people fail to take into account is the potential psychological cost of reconnecting, of dredging up painful memories and reviving destructive patterns.
As a romance writer, I am always on the lookout for ways to resolve conflicts between friends and loved ones. But I have always struggled with the idea that forgiveness is the panacea we think it is. It always just seemed too easy to me, a tiny band aid over a giant wound. 

A: "I have hurt you for many years."
B: "That's okay. I forgive you."
A: "Okay, then I'll stop."
B: "Yay! All is well with the universe."
(Curtain.)

Take a look at this:
History professor Wilfred McClay writes that as a society we have twisted the meaning of forgiveness into a therapeutic act for the victim: “[F]orgiveness is in danger of being debased into a kind of cheap grace, a waiving of standards of justice without which such transactions have no meaning.” Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School writes that, “There is a watered-down but widespread form of ‘forgiveness’ best tagged preemptory or exculpatory forgiveness. That is, without any indication of regret or remorse from perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes, we are enjoined by many not to harden our hearts but rather to ‘forgive.’ ”
Dahl resolves the conflicts between Alex and his mother in way that doesn't ignore past experiences or patterns of behavior.  In the story I'm working on now, my female protagonist has a verbally abusive father.  As I explore their relationship, it's important to me that I don't fall back on a glib "I forgive you" scene.  A scene like that would kill the dynamic between the father and daughter.  As they resolve the matter at hand, I want the reader to know that their relationship will never be perfect.  Father and daughter will continue struggling with old issues long after the book is finished.

Anyhow, just some thoughts on forgiveness.  If you have time, read the article! It's interesting.