Category Archives: Blog Post

Letting Go As a Way of Living: Writing About Radical Forgiveness

When Cliff and Wilma Derksen’s thirteen-year-old daughter didn’t come home one afternoon in 1984, they faced every parent’s worst nightmare—the eventual discovery that their child had been abducted, tortured, and left to freeze to death in the harsh Winnepeg winter. They could have chosen to dwell in the unendurable sorrow of that new reality, but the Derksens took another path, writes Jana G. Pruden for The Globe and Mail: They decided to forgive the man who tormented and killed their daughter.

Their 33-year-long journey may be almost unimaginable to anyone who struggles with forgiving others. It’s hard enough to forget an imagined slight or overlook a harsh word, much less extend anything but hatred to a person who destroyed another human’s life. But strangely enough, the Derksens are not alone. Though the road they walk is largely uncharted, they do so as part of a long line of victims who have not just forgiven, but embraced the perpetrators of unthinkable acts—people who somehow find grace in the darkest human emotions.

How did they do it? For the Derksens, the answer was part religion, part personal resolve. After speaking with the father of another murdered child, they decided to forgive no matter what, even though they had no idea what that might mean. And as the years go by, their seemingly simple choice becomes more and more complex.

There was so much to forgive, and it went far beyond forgiving the brutality of a stranger they did not yet know. There were the police, for not believing them when they said Candace wouldn’t have run away, for implying that they were bad parents, and for focusing so long on Cliff as a suspect. For not finding her when she lay in a shed not more than 500 meters away from home. There were their own actions and choices, for the small things said and done, for not picking her up that day. There were the friends and family that disappointed them, the media that sometimes got things wrong. The strangers who piled on more hurt with false confessions and crank phone calls. There were the years Cliff spent under suspicion, even after a polygraph declared him a truthful man.

Forgiveness was not something to be done only once. It had to be a constant choice, letting go as a way of living.

The Derksens’ forgiveness is not an event, but an endless process that has changed over the years. Now that their daughter’s killer could walk free, they are once again being forced to confront their decision to forgive—this time at much closer quarters than the decades they spent having no idea who murdered Candace.  Forgiveness allowed the Derksens to survive, yet Pruden paints a picture of mercy that, no matter how radical, is under continual threat.

But what if forgiveness is also an attempted shortcut at healing? In a November 2015 cover story for TIME magazine, “How Do You Forgive a Murder?” reporters David Von Drehle, Jay Newton-Small, and Maya Rhodan interviewed the families and survivors of the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church. Just days after Dylann Roof gunned down their loved ones at a Bible study, a few of the family members stood before Roof at a bond hearing and told him they forgave him.

Somehow—perhaps the idea was planted by the judge’s remarks—Nadine Collier was able to recognize the wreckage this man had made not just for her and the other survivors but in his own life. “I kept thinking he’s a young man, he’s never going to experience college, be a husband, be a daddy. You have ruined your life,” she recalls thinking.

What she said at the podium, while choking back sobs, came out like this: “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again—but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”

Since that day, Collier has had many hours to reflect on those spontaneous words, and she says she has no reason to regret or revise them. They expressed a sense of loss and absence that remains unfilled months later, as well as her desire to move beyond the horror—a desire she still feels keenly. And she believes that her mother might have said something similar if she had lived.

For those who forgave Roof publicly, the choice to do so was a matter of freedom, of refusal to be bowed by a 21-year-old’s racially-motivated hate crime. Their decision to forgive—made in a split second in an emotionally harrowing moment—gained national attention. But for those who did not or could not make that choice, both the forgiveness and the fame that came along with it are discomfiting. If forgiveness really is a choice, their story suggests, so is the refusal to reconcile. The Charleston families who are less ready to forgive suggest that to do so might lead to forgetfulness—and lay claim to a path that is theirs to direct and experience.

Not everyone occupies the place of forgiver, though. When Darin Strauss struck and killed one of his high school classmates in an unavoidable car accident, he was saddled not just with his own guilt, but also with the ramifications of a community’s unwillingness or inability to forgive.

Strauss, who discussed his experiences on a 2008 episode of This American Life, and later in the memoir Half a Life, has lived with his actions for more than twenty years. And though he has eventually forgiven himself for what he now sees as a freak accident, his interactions with the family of the girl he killed—including their years-long lawsuit against him—illustrate the tense gray area of life without reconciliation.

Should we forgive? Not everyone is cut out for mercy and certainly they’re not required to be. Whether an act is unforgivable depends entirely on the circumstances, and the victims. But the experiences of those who have lost everything raise intriguing questions about the choices we do and do not have—and what might change if we walk a largely uncharted road.

Further reading:

Circus, Interrupted: Watching an Accident at Cirque du Soleil

Circus Trapeze Artists

I’d been leaning forward in my seat, hands over my mouth, for the entire show. This was the premiere for Luzia, a Cirque du Soleil performance inspired by the culture, history, and nature of Mexico. The acrobats were dressed in white costumes decorated with pale turquoise and coral-colored flowers; the women in flared skirts, the men in long sleeves and full length trousers, a band of turquoise painted across their eyes. I followed the swings, back and forth, acrobat flying between them. There was an impossible flip down to the leading edge of the opposite swing. The music was loud, the lights bright on the center of the stage.

Then she fell. She went down like a plank, right on to her back. The acrobats gathered, then the stage crew, until she was surrounded by people dressed in black. At the back of the stage a woman dressed like a monarch butterfly put up her hands in an X over her head and the clown next to her did the same. The lights went up, the music stopped, and eventually, the acrobat was carried from the stage strapped to a board. The crew broke the set and after 15 minutes or so they launched into the finale.

The mood was broken, of course. I was worried and anxious throughout the finale and applause. As we headed to the car, I wondered what happened to the acrobat. I later read that she was okay, but there was little detail. I found, instead, a Wall Street Journal article (paywall) from 2015 about Cirque du Soleil’s safety issues.

The article centers around the death of a performer in 2013 at Ká, the troupe’s Las Vegas show, which uses a treacherous, vertical stage. It also shines light on how punishing circus work is for the performers—and how difficult it can be to receive compensation for those injuries.

Tension over the trade-off between spectacle and safety in circuses has been inherent since trapeze performers began flying 30 feet in the air about 150 years ago. “A circus tent is not an ancient Roman arena or a modern prize ring,” wrote the journal Circus Scrap Book in 1931.

Experts said serious injuries and fatalities can, and should, be prevented with safety harnesses, nets and other protocols, so that, despite the stagecraft, the workplace is safe. “Most of the accidents that have happened in recent times have been preventable,” said Jerry Gorrell, a theater safety consultant in Phoenix.

In the past 15 years, separate from the Cirque death, at least three circus performers—including one at major Cirque competitor Feld Entertainment Inc.’s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey—have fallen to their deaths during shows in the U.S., according to federal records and company reports.

“The body is the tool [in the circus], and sometimes the tool gets broken,” said Vladislav Dunaev, a former Cirque performer in Florida. Mr. Dunaev said Cirque had “very good safety measures,” but even so, he suffered seven significant injuries over roughly a decade, state records show, the last a 2011 shoulder injury requiring surgery. In 2012 he reached a $90,000 settlement with Cirque and its insurer after disputing his benefits through an administrative process.

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Remembering Jerry Krause, Architect Behind the Greatest NBA Team Ever Assembled

There is dichotomy that naturally comes with any sort of memorialization for Jerry Krause, the general manager of the Chicago Bulls for nearly 20 years and who died earlier this week. Krause didn’t draft Michael Jordan, but it was primarily through his efforts that the Bulls won six NBA titles, dominating the 1990s with players like Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr, Horace Grant, and Toni Kukoc, among others; Krause was the architect behind the signing and drafting of those players, and without his efforts, who knows if we would even consider Jordan the GOAT. Read more…

Roger Federer is Brilliant, But Don’t Ever Forget About Serena Williams

Last week, I had the privilege of watching Roger Federer beat his longtime rival Rafael Nadal in a fourth-round match at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. Federer went on to win the tournament.

Tennis has long been a young person’s game, with the majority of the top players from both the men’s and women’s pro tour being in their 20s. At 35, an age when many tennis players have retired or considered retirement (Pete Sampras, for example, announced his retirement at 32), Roger Federer is finding success again with his latest wins in Indian Wells and at the Australian Open (his first grand slam win in five years). His resurgence has garnered him a GQ cover and a profile by Rosecrans Baldwin in the magazine’s latest issue. Baldwin asked Federer about what it felt like to win his latest grand slam title:

So how did it compare with the others? The 2009 French Open stands out, Federer said, when he clinched the Career Grand Slam and also tied Sampras’s record of 14 Slam titles. Then he beat Andy Roddick at Wimbledon a few weeks later—during the same summer that Mirka gave birth to their first children, their twin girls—and the record was his. A magical summer. But still, he said, “this one feels very different.” Less about legend, more about legacy. After a silence, Federer mused, “You have a better perspective when you’re older. You’re more at peace.” A second later, “Sometimes you want it more because you know time isn’t on your side.”

It’s a lovely profile of an athlete reaching the twilight of his career. Unfortunately, GQ undermined the story with a single tweet: Read more…

Robert B. Silvers, Editor of The New York Review of Books: 1929-2017

Robert Silvers

I believe in the writer—the writer, above all. That’s how we started off: admiring the writer. We organized the New York Review according to the writers we admired most: Edmund Wilson, Wystan Auden, Fred Dupee, Norman, Bill, Lizzie, Mary among them. Each of them had a confident sense of their own prose, and it meant a great deal to them—the matter of a comma, a semicolon, a word—and it does to our writers today. And so, when it comes to making a change, we should not do it without their permission. If a moment comes at some point where we see something should be improved, we don’t just scribble it in but call them up wherever they are. And that is, I think, crucial.

—Robert Silvers, co-founding editor of The New York Review of Books with Barbara Epstein, speaking with New York magazine’s Mark Danner in 2013, on the publication’s 50th anniversary. Silvers died March 20 after an illness. He was 87 years old.

NYRB announced the news on their Twitter feed today:

Shortly after I started Longreads, I was invited to visit the offices of the NYRB to meet their digital editor Matthew Howard. A man was walking toward the front of the office so I stopped him and asked if he knew where Matthew might be. He politely responded that he did know, then turned and walked back through the office to track him down. Matthew met me with a handshake, laughed, and then asked me, “You realize you just sent Robert Silvers to fetch me, right?”

From a grateful reader, thank you, Robert.

See more stories from The New York Review of Books in the Longreads archive.

‘We Love Europa But Europa No Love Us.’

Refugee camp graffiti

Travel writer David Farley spent a month volunteering in a refugee camp in Greece. He wrote about it for Afar. It was not exactly an introduction to the world of good will towards refugees.

Souda briefly gained prominence in November 2016, when it was reported that a right-wing mob stood atop the old city walls and launched large stones and Molotov cocktails down into the camp, setting tents ablaze. Tensions were such that one of the rules of the NGO I was volunteering for stated that once I left the camp, I had to remove my fluorescent green vest and volunteer badge for fear locals would attack me for helping the refugees.

Farley’s piece includes the voices of people we perceive as a generic mass with unified motives.

One day while serving lunch—a tomato and chickpea stew made by a Basque NGO—I met a Syrian named Dallal. He was a new arrival and was aware he might be at Souda for a while. “I don’t understand why we have to wait so long. Some people have been here for nearly a year,” he said. “Our collective goal is that we want a new future, a good future, a safe life. I have a degree in mechanical engineering. My friend here,” he pulled over a 25-year-old from Iraq, “he’s a veterinarian. We’re not poor. We just want a normal life. We are here for survival.”

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A Heart-Shaped Life: Twelve Ways of Looking at Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Amy Krouse Rosenthal

“What constitutes a life worthy of being remembered? How do you want to be remembered?” These are the kinds of questions Amy Krouse Rosenthal always asked in her work. When Amy died this week at 51, her obituary described her as a “children’s author, memoirist, and public speaker” who found “an extraordinarily large readership this month with a column in the New York Times titled “You May Want to Marry My Husband.” But Amy was far more than her final, heartbreaking column. Amy Shearn details what Amy did with her brief, inspired time, and how she came to inspire others. Read more…

Death in the Desert

Memorial coffins on the US-Mexico barrier for those killed crossing the border fence in Tijuana, México

Making it across the geo-political border doesn’t mean you’ve made it. In Documenting the Undocumented on Places, Taylor James and Adelheid Fischer find the end of the line for a number of “un-authorized border crossers.”

The public record of the Death Maps provides no detail about the private lives of its entrants. What hopes carried Claudia Patricia Oqunendo-Bedoya, Case Report 02-01321, into the desert inferno in August 2002 when she succumbed to “probable hyperthermia”? Just two days before Oqunendo-Bedoya’s remains were recovered, another crosser, Jaime Arteaga Alba, Case Report 02-01310, was riding in a vehicle that may have been taking him to his final destination: a job site in the U.S. Was he jubilant that he survived the grueling desert trek? Was he planning his new future when he was killed on August 8 in a highway accident?

Humane Borders gathers data each time a body is found, while the work of James (and Fischer, through this essay) attempts to humanize each loss.

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Mary Beard’s Voyage Into ‘Herland’

Mary Beard opens “Women in Power: From Medusa to Merkel,” her cover essay in this week’s London Review of Books, with one of the most satisfying depictions of female dominance in American letters—Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 comic novel Herland. Gilman’s book is satisfying because it’s thoroughly realized and genuinely funny, writes Beard:

It’s a fantasy about a nation of women—and women only—that has existed for two thousand years in some remote, still unexplored part of the globe. A magnificent utopia: clean and tidy, collaborative, peaceful (even the cats have stopped killing the birds), brilliantly organized in everything from its sustainable agriculture and delicious food to its social services and education. And it all depends on one miraculous innovation. At the very beginning of its history, the founding mothers had somehow perfected the technique of parthenogenesis. The practical details are a bit unclear, but the women somehow just gave birth to baby girls, with no intervention from men at all. There was no sex in Herland.

For an all-female society that’s lived without men for 2,000 years, Herland is doing very well, thank you very much. The government functions smoothly, the air is clean, and the diet is vegetarian. No sooner do three male scientists bumble along than the sexist observations follow, and sadly, they still hold up.

Beard calls on Herland not to say what one might expect—that more than a century after Gilman’s imagined future the very thought of a powerful woman is still consigned to fantasy—but rather that powerful women don’t appear in our collective imagination at all. Why? Because “our mental, cultural template for a powerful person remains resolutely male.” It’s a continuation of an argument Beard began in her 2014 LRB essay “The Public Voice of Women,” which looked at the classical history of when and why women speak out in public, and how they often use male rhetoric. “It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they don’t hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it.” In that essay, she explored how women speak and are heard; here, it is how they are seen. Of course, there are the clothes.

The regulation trouser suits, or at least the trousers, worn by so many Western female political leaders, from Merkel to Clinton, may be convenient and practical; they may be a  signal of the refusal to become a clothes horse, which is the fate of so many political wives; but they’re also a simple tactic—like lowering the timbre of the voice—to make the female appear more male, to fit the part of power.

But to my surprise, given the prominent placement of clothing in Herland, this the beginning and end of Beard’s fashion critique, especially since the wardrobe Gilman devised for her citizens is ingenious. Instead of “modern” underwire bras poking them in the soft tissue, and “panties” (that gross, girlish word) that do or do not hide so-called VPL, the women of Herland wear “a one-piece cotton undergarment, thin and soft, that reached over the knees and shoulders.” On top of this very sensible base they layer several tunics, depending on the season, the middle of which is “shingled” with pockets (not a feature of women’s clothing at the time Gilman was writing). Their hair they keep short, “hatless, loose, and shining.” And, my favorite detail: The base under-layer, which is essentially a modified union suit, doubles as athletic wear, “as perfect a garment for exercise as need be devised, absolutely free to move in,” Gilman writes. No more lugging a bag to the gym! In Gilman’s novel, even the male interlopers are impressed:

The garments were simple in the extreme, and absolutely comfortable, physically, though of course we all felt like supes in the theater. There was a one-piece cotton undergarment, thin and soft, that reached over the knees and shoulders, something like the one-piece pajamas some fellows wear, and a kind of half-hose, that came up to just under the knee and stayed there—had elastic tops of their own, and covered the edges of the first.

Then there was a thicker variety of union suit, a lot of them in the closet, of varying weights and somewhat sturdier material—evidently they would do at a pinch with nothing further. Then there were tunics, knee-length, and some long robes. Needless to say, we took tunics.

Beard writes that when we imagine powerful women we imagine “national politicians, CEOs, prominent journalists, television executives and so on,” which “gives a very narrow version of what power is.” And so she asks us to rethink our very definition of power, first by “decoupling it from public prestige.” I’d add that it would also help with this project if we rethought our relationship to fashion, in a serious, systemic way, not merely on a case-by-case basis. If I wanted to swan about in Herland tunics, I would probably pop over to Eileen Fisher, a brand that has turned comfort into an unaffordable luxury, and top it off with a pink pussy hat while I’m at it. But isn’t that joke too easy? Shouldn’t there be more than just one mass-market designer who’s addressing what it means for women to present themselves in ways that feel both professional and physically forgiving? There are an infinite number of daily negotiations and frustrations with dressing oneself and being seen in this world that Beard misses in her binary between pantsuit armor and clothes-horse.

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What Does the Women’s Strike Mean?

Women's March, Seattle

What makes a strike work? Large crowds, a focused goal, and inclusion. The evolution of the Womxn’s March on January 21, 2017, had a bumpy start, but evolved to have a focused, intersectional mission. Similar questions face the strike; who’s it for, who gets to go, and what’s its purpose?

Women’s strikes have typically succeeded when they have some clear idea of what women’s work is, some obvious problem that will become clear through women’s strategic withdrawal—for example, a French strike in which women left work early (to symbolize the time of day they stopped getting paid, as compared to men with the same job). Without a specific, labor-related point, after all, a “strike” is just a particularly righteous personal day.

In Elle, Sady Doyle looks at the history of women’s strikes and the complexity of who they serve even while finding praise for the current movement.

It’s also worth noting that the Women’s March itself was initially criticized for the fuzziness and non-specificity of its goals, and it still became the most successful protest in U.S. history.

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