On forgiveness

I have been thinking a bit about forgiveness recently. It has been a recurring theme in therapy over the past few months, which is hardly surprising when you think of some of the things that have happened to my patients. It’s something that seems to come up more when I do family therapy, which perhaps makes sense – there will be times when the tormentor, or the one who failed to protect, will be there in the therapy along with the tormented and unprotected. In individual work the tormentor is always there, of course, but only in a metaphysical sense; tainting everything but with no potential for real resolution.

In addition, today The Guyliner, whose writing I think is tremendous – by turns arch and acerbic; painful and true – posted a link to a blog on the school bullies who try to apologise twenty years later. You really ought to read it but the long and the short of it is that frankly, you’re not compelled to show any kindness to someone who made your life hell when you weren’t able to defend yourself. His timeline today is hard to read – the kids who picked on the one who was different; the teachers who did stuff like this:


I wasn’t bullied at school and I am eternally grateful for that. I never had to dread going to school in the way so many people do, but even aged ten I didn’t believe your school-days were the best of your life. School – even my school, which was ‘good’ and which churned out droves of Russell Group-types – was tough for many and I suspect lots of people hated it and were simply trying to survive; waiting desperately for the day they could leave and acquire some kind of freedom. I feel guilty writing that, because when you go to a ‘good’ school and you come out with decent results and you swan off to a fancy university and get a good job and achieve some kind of success it can seem disloyal. But that’s part of the problem – bullying is always so insidious; so hidden; and loyalty to an institution is I think, often  faintly suspect. And of course most of the ways in which we hurt others are insidious and hidden; usually with the person being hurt left wracked with shame and fear and self-loathing and, if they don’t find a way out, quite possibly a lifetime of mental health and substance problems and relationship difficulties and heaven knows what else.

Anyway. The fact is that I now spend my working life with lots of people who have been bullied and terrorised and persecuted to an almost unholy degree. If I have learned one thing working in mental health for the past ten years it is this: life can be almost unbearably cruel and it is almost always other people who enact that cruelty. Rarely is it pure bad luck which breaks people; far more often it is people who break other people.

I never quite know what to do with all the after-effects of such experiences. Lots of people talk of forgiveness, often from a religious perspective, and there’s a raft of literature out there on the healing, restorative power of forgiving those who have hurt you. It all sounds lovely – they say sorry; you forgive them; everything is solved. Third parties – well-meaning third parties, in general – often advocate forgiveness; occasionally telling you should not only forgive but also forget, as though we’re living in Hollywood.

Sometimes – and please indulge me here, dear reader – I wonder if it isn’t all nonsense.

Don’t get me wrong – it takes a big person to forgive someone who has intentionally caused you harm; it shows a remarkable humanity and a strength that not everyone possesses. But that doesn’t mean that to be unable or unwilling to forgive makes you inhumane or weak. Tell me, how can I possibly ask my patients to forgive the parents who beat them or neglected them; the people who abused their power and molested them; the systems which took their children or incarcerated them? What right do I have to placate them with talk of ‘healing’ when they are angry; when they are emotionally and physically shattered; when they want revenge; when they want to be believed, vindicated, listened to?

So many of the people I see only talk about these terrible abuses late in life, for the simple reason that there was no one to listen at the time. They carry these scars for decades and they have an absolute right to be angry and hurt and want some justice. And that’s one of the problems, I think – when someone well-intentioned talks of forgiveness it’s often without a visceral understanding of the anger and the pain and the betrayal that the one being asked to forgive is battling. I often think that in circumstances such as these it’s the person who committed the crime who gets off easier, because it can be so very easy to say ‘sorry’, and once you’ve done that you have the moral high ground because the person you’re apologising to is expected to be gracious and accept it and if they don’t they become the bad guy; the one so caught up in resentment and themselves that they can see no further. Saying sorry is not necessarily indicative of taking responsibility for your actions; it’s frequently a get out of jail free card. Saying sorry means nothing; not if there’s no attempt at reparation. And of course making attempts at reparation is great, but that doesn’t mean your offer has to be accepted. You don’t have the right to terrorise and victimise people weaker than you; you certainly don’t have the right to tell them how they should react when you want to assuage your own guilt years later. And I know that many of the people who are cruel to others were damaged long before, but, when it comes to my patients, I have to work with the damage I see in front of me. I know that damage perpetuates damage but it’s not my job to defend the person who hurt my patient; it’s my job to protect my patient because other people haven’t, and sometimes that means loyalty to my patient regardless of other aspects of the story. It’s not always that simple, of course; I also have a responsibility to stop my patients perpetuating that damage in any way I can, but I think that still counts as doing your best by the people you see therapeutically. I am categorically not there to side with the aggressor, the abuser or the tyrant.

I’m not sure what some of my colleagues would say about this. I suspect some would be more circumspect, but I’m afraid  I can’t be – or at least I can, academically; I can think about the physiological impact of long-term anger and the effect of stress and resentment on well-being; but I can’t, not in my guts, which is where the stories I hear hit me. The things I read and see and hear don’t have an academic impact on me; they have a human impact on me, as they do on every clinician who cares about their patients and their stories.

Perhaps with time I will have more or a philosophical approach to forgiveness, but for the moment I think any attempt on my part to encourage it in people who are not that interested in doing so would be patronising and would diminish them and their stories of survival. Because most of the people I see have survived and often only through grit and a refusal to drown in the mire.

And so, when I see someone who has survived, against all the odds, and who has retained courage and strength and humanity and who is actively trying to change their life through therapy, how can I possibly tell them that forgiveness is key? Because the truth is, dear reader, when I hear stories like that I’m never sure if I would be able to forgive. But then I look at some of the people who manage it and I am awed. And when I realise that I remember what I have always known: that our patients are often bigger and better people than any of us who have the temerity to think they need our help.



On offenders, rehabilitation and the importance of books

It is one of the great mysteries of life that government policy is never rooted in anything as mundane as evidence. We have seen this in terms of drug policy and the advice given to expectant mothers over the amount of alcohol they should (or should not) take. It’s there in Gove’s disastrous education rhetoric and in Hunt’s much-criticised health reforms. The latest piece of dangerous twaddle relates to books, which are now apparently to be used as a carrot to convince prisoners to ‘be good’. Let’s think a bit about what we know of prisoners, shall we?

• A third of prisoners has been in the care system
• Half ran away from home as children
• Poverty is highly correlated with offending
• A third truanted from school on a regular basis
• Between a third and half were excluded from school
• Up to 70% have no qualifications when they leave school
• Up to a quarter attended a school for people with special educational needs
• 65% have poor numeracy levels (below the standard expected of an 11 year-old)
• Half have poor literacy
• 80% have poor writing skills

Incidentally, these figures are all taken from a report published by the Cabinet Office. So we have a group of people who are severely disadvantaged and who, unsurprisingly, tend not to be in secure employment, if any. They tend to have drug and alcohol problems (remember the social and emotional effects of an unstable childhood and traumatic experiences. If you’re not sure what they are, use your imagination, and then look again at the list above. The consequences are often bad).

We often talk in forensic services (those for offenders with mental disorders) about whether prisons are there to protect the public, to punish or to rehabilitate. Governments tend to like the first two; people who actually work in the system tend to favour the latter, with a healthy regard for the former. We see that there are reasons for offending behaviour; not excuses, but reasons. For lots of people life is tough and if you haven’t experienced it, it can be hard to understand why someone won’t just sort themselves out, get a job and a flat and be a good citizen. But it’s not always that easy. Some people do manage it and I take my hat off to them. But when you work with offenders you are likely to be dealing with people who have already been excluded from their families and schools and marginalised by society. No matter how liberal you think you are it’s quite possible you won’t want your children to be friends with the truant who began smoking and drinking when they were young and that you’ll try to encourage them to have more ‘suitable’ friends. What we end up with is two quite distinct social groups, with a significant disparity between them.

No matter what your political leanings, my suspicion is that almost everyone wants offenders to stop offending. A lot of time and effort and research goes into working out what helps. There are lots of offender training and treatment programmes in use but I won’t re-hash it here. Put simply, with appropriate input, even the most dangerous, high-risk offenders can demonstrate a reduction in violent and offending behaviour. Some will re-offend, but there’s no magic wand and none of us would claim there is. But do you know what does help? Being able to read. Literacy opens doors. If you can read and write, you are more likely to be able to get onto a training course. With qualifications you can get a job. With a job, you can enter another part of society. Yes, the stigma persists. Ex-offenders might not be top of your list of people to have to dinner, but don’t for one moment think that a criminal record stops you from wanting to change your life. The role of government and the public sector, therefore, is to facilitate that change. As a result, there has historically been a significant focus on providing prisoners with opportunities to learn, do to Access courses and NVQs and GCSEs and degrees. And lots of people come out of prison with qualifications and, crucially, with literacy levels which will enable them to get qualifications from mainstream providers. What’s more, the research backs all this up.

Chris Grayling, in his infinite wisdom, has decided that he doesn’t like this and that prisoners can’t be sent parcels of books or magazines. They still have access to prison libraries (which are unfortunately often under-funded and dependent on charitable donations) but can’t be sent them by those charities or their families. If prisoners are very, very good, they can get a little more money for privileges and are welcome to spend them on books. Most prisoners get £10-15 a week to spend on privileges. Once you’ve paid for toiletries and cigarettes, how much do you have left for books? Do you know how much books cost? Eight pounds for an average paperback. It’s not as though prisoners can nip to Oxfam to pick up a stack of improving literature, is it?

It’s not just books, of course. The prohibition relates to all parcels. No Christmas cards or gifts from your kids, so bang goes your relationship with them (never underestimate how important it is for a child to send their parent a card at Christmas). No stationery (so God help you when you want to practice your writing). No packages of clothing; not even underwear. Instead you go to the prison shop, run by a private company, to get whatever you need. Even if you took out all my costs of food and travel and curtailed my social life, I could not buy everything I need for a week for £15. Grayling thinks this will encourage rehabilitation. Like many of his colleagues in the Cabinet, he’s a dangerous fool. Humiliating people is anathema to rehabilitation, and make no mistake; this policy, dear reader, is nothing but sheer, vindictive humiliation.