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The Ultimate Forgiveness

To Err Is Human, to Forgive Divine--to Befriend Someone Who Took the Life of a Loved One Is Another Matter. What Motivates People Whose Empathy Seems to Know No Bounds?

April 04, 2004|Vince Beiser | Vince Beiser last wrote for the magazine about maximum-security units in California's prisons.

Now that she lives in Oregon, Aba Gayle is only able to get down to San Quentin State Prison a couple of times a year to visit her friend Douglas Mickey. Gayle used to see him often when she was in nearby Santa Rosa, but now contents herself by exchanging letters and phone calls with the man who stabbed her daughter to death.

Gayle is a lively, silver-haired grandmother of five with little oval glasses framing her gray-blue eyes. She recently retired from a career in health care. For eight years after the death of her daughter, Gayle was submerged in a miasma of depression and rage. Then one night, in an epiphany, she decided to forgive Mickey. She wrote him a letter saying so. From his cell on death row, where he has been since 1982, Mickey wrote back, full of remorse, and invited her to visit. The two corresponded, which led to more visits, until today Gayle says unabashedly, "I consider Douglas a good friend. He's such a wonderful man."

Gayle's story is extraordinary by any standards. But what's even more surprising is that it's not unique. She is one of a small but resolute society of individuals who have had a beloved relative murdered--and gone on to befriend the murderer.

Gayle and about 5,000 other people are members of a national anti-death penalty organization called Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. It seems safe to assume there are other murder victims' relatives who oppose capital punishment but aren't affiliated with the group. Out of those many thousands, there are a much smaller number who say they have found it in their hearts to forgive the killer. And within that is an even smaller subset who have gone a step further, by actively supporting and befriending the person who took the life of someone they loved.

There's no way of knowing just how many people have made this bewildering emotional leap. When I started researching this story after meeting Gayle, I thought I'd find perhaps two or three. But each one I met knew of one or two others, and so on, until I had collected a list of more than a dozen. Renny Cushing, executive director of the Victims' Families group, who is not interested in forgiving the man who killed his father, estimates there are probably "scores" of them.

There's the San Diego investment banker who wants to see the man who gunned down his son released from Pelican Bay State Prison. The Connecticut reverend who helped get his son's murderer out of the penitentiary and later officiated at his wedding. The Kansas housewife who sent birthday gifts to her stepfather's slayer and tearfully witnessed his execution last year. The retired steelworker in Alaska who helped get the girl who butchered his grandmother off of death row and regularly writes her letters. The Texas machinist who visited his sister's killer, Karla Faye Tucker, in prison, spoke out on her behalf and went to her execution as a friend. It's not even an exclusively domestic phenomenon: After Newport Beach native Amy Biehl was beaten and stabbed to death by a mob in South Africa in 1993, her parents hired two of the convicted murderers to work for the foundation they had started in her name.

Most people consider the ability to forgive a generally positive trait. We don't tend to think highly of someone who holds a grudge against the co-worker who snagged the choice office, the in-laws who gave a cheap wedding present, the ex-wife who made off with the Loretta Lynn boxed CD set. The fact that these exceptional murder survivors exist answers one question: Can a person forgive someone who has killed someone they love? But it also forces us to think about other questions: about the nature and meaning of forgiveness, its possibilities and limits--and whether it's always a good thing.

These survivors--let's call them "befrienders," for the sake of convenience--are doing something beyond just holding fast to an abstract opposition to capital punishment or a belief in forgiveness. Forging a connection with someone you have every reason and right to hate is evidence of something much deeper--although what, exactly, isn't clear. Are these people proof of the human spirit's powers of mercy, of the infinite possibility of redemption, of the existence of God's love in this world? Are they born with an extra impulse to kindness, the opposite of whatever equally inscrutable impulse to evil drives a similarly small group of individuals to open fire on their high school classmates?

Or are they just plain nuts?

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