The Forgiveness Of Victoria Ruvolo

I’m not great on forgiveness; it’s not one of my virtues. I especially don’t forgive betrayal, but there are other kinds of behavior that I don’t forgive. There are three local theater companies in the D.C. area that I will go out of my way to undermine and if possible, destroy, for the disgusting culture they revealed to me when I had the misfortune to work with them. When my son was four, a local T.G.I.F. that we often frequented treated our family like bugs, then using the excuse that they were short-staffed (their problem, not mine) and offering me a coupon to entice me to come to their crappy restaurant again when it had just given us a humiliating experience. I told the manager to keep his sop, and that we would never set foot in his restaurant again, and we never have. My son is now 24. My problem with  unearned forgiveness is that it diminishes the appreciation of accountability. The fact that when you behave unethically people resent it and no longer trust you is a powerful motivation to be better.

Victoria Ruvolo, who died last week at the age of 59, disagreed. Here is her own description of what happened to her. Her journey began when on November 12, 2004, when six teenagers in Ronkonkoma, New York bought a 20 pound turkey with a stolen credit card. 18 year-old Ryan Cushing threw the frozen-solid bird out of a back seat window, and it crashed through the windshield of the car driven by  Victoria Ruvolo’s and crushed her face.  Her passenger managed to steer the car to the side of the road. Ruvolo awoke in a hospital several weeks later with no knowledge of what had happened. The missile  had broken the bones in her cheeks and jaw, fractured her left eye socket, collapsed her esophagus and left her with a closed-head brain injury.

Later, she wrote,

I had no idea I’d had ten hours of surgery and I was shocked when the doctors told me that from now on, for the rest of my life, I would always have three titanium plates in my left cheek, one in my right cheek, and I’d also have a wire mesh holding my left eye in place because my left eye socket was so badly shattered.

Once I got off the medication, I remember lying in the bedroom at my sister’s house and just crying myself to sleep and asking: Why me God? What did I ever do so wrong and so terrible in my life that I deserved all this to happen to me? And I’d cry myself to sleep. But then, gradually, it began to dawn on me that perhaps God had allowed me to live through this ordeal because I was in such great physical condition. The idea that it had happened for a reason – and that I had saved someone else who might not have been able to survive – helped me get through rehabilitation.

Then the District Attorney informed me that the other teenagers who had been with Ryan had entered a plea bargain to testify against him. This, coupled with overwhelming evidence, was enough to put Ryan in jail for 25 years. It was at this point that I started asking questions about Ryan. Had he always been a bully? Was he always hurting other people? What could possibly have built up inside him so bad that he had to throw something so hard? Because I’d experienced the death of two brothers when I was much younger, I felt strongly that I didn’t want be responsible for taking this other young person’s life. I didn’t want Ryan to rot in jail.

That’s when I asked to meet with Ryan’s lawyer to be able to tell him that I wanted an amnesty for Ryan or at least a lesser sentence. On the day we went to court, I saw this young man walk in wearing a suit which looked like it was three times too big for him; it made him seem so frail. He walked in with his head hung down and looked so upset with himself. When I saw him there, my heart went out to him. To me he looked like a lost soul.

Once the case was over and it was time for him to walk out, he started veering over towards where I was sitting and every court officer was ready to jump on him. They had no idea why he was coming towards me but as he walked over to where I was sitting and stood in front of me, I saw that all he was doing was crying, crying profusely. He looked at me and said, ‘I never meant this to happen to you, I prayed for you every day. I’m so glad you’re doing well.’ Then this motherly instinct just came over me and all I could do was take him and cuddle him like a child and tell him ‘just do something good with your life, take this experience and do something good with your life.’

Cushing was sentenced to only six months in jail and five years probation. Apparently he has a job and has stayed out of trouble. After Ruvolo’s recovery, she lectured about empathy and forgiveness at schools and for various programs. One of her frequent sponsors was Taste (Thinking Errors, Anger Management, Social Skills and Talking Empathy).  Robert Goldman, its founder, said of Victoria that Cushing’s life symbolizes her legacy: “She’s an example of forgiveness in a vengeful world.”

Honestly, I’m not convinced that Victoria’s compassion wasn’t misplaced. The fact that Ruvolo and her passenger weren’t killed by Cushing’s stupid act was pure moral luck. If they had been killed, he would have paid for the consequences with much of his life. Why should luck determine society’s response to conduct this cruel and irresponsible? For that matter, why should the victim? It is society’s laws that are violated, and society that has been damaged and challenged. What happened to Cushing as a result of his own decisions would not be Victoria’s fault or responsibility, and prosecutors are supposed to understand that their client is the state, not the victim. It is also moral luck that Cushing turned out not to be a stone-cold sociopath or psychopath, and was given a chance to hurt others.

No doubt, Victoria’s forgiveness was healthy for her as well as a boon for her attacker. Whether it was in the best interest of society, civilization and the rule of law, however, is an open question for me.


Sources: The  Forgiveness Project, New York Times

16 thoughts on “The Forgiveness Of Victoria Ruvolo

  1. In my opinion if Victoria Ruvolo wanted to offer her forgiveness to Ryan Cushing that’s her choice and I won’t fault her for that; however, forgiveness does not mean that a person shouldn’t suffer the appropriate consequences for their actions the state should have passed judgement against Ryan Cushing based on his actions and not taken the forgiveness of Victoria Ruvolo into consideration.

    • I agree with you, Zoltar. In Indiana, we have a Holocaust survivor named Eva Kor who, along with her twin sister, underwent medical experiments by Josef Mengele. She has caused controversy in the Jewish community by extending forgiveness to those who harmed her and destroyed her family.

      Eva explains that forgiveness does not mean what happened to you was right, exonerates the perpetrator or causes you to forget. In her definition, it clears the victim of bitterness.

      I met her once and she is a remarkable person

      • Good example. I get that bitterness becomes a weight in its own right. But I think that reflects more of an obsessive grief that cannot heal if they cannot let it go. That doesn’t negate the original action or appropriate consequences, as part of your justice system.

        While there is a time for mercy for circumstances, that does not annul the original action. That does not redeem the victims’ deaths. A victim can request mercy in sentencing, but their personal forgiveness erases nothing of the risk to society. Forgiveness from victims does not mean that personal reparation of some kind is not part of the criminal’s path. This is why the short sentencing of mass crimes in foreign countries like in Europe bothers me a lot. Justice and even mercy should not be erased due to a victim’s healing process. If ‘to forgive (is) divine,’ we are not gods. Unlike gods, we don’t know if it was an error or something more deliberate from the outside, where some inner imp wants to skate off or lawyer insists on appearance of not being a sociopath. Society must play the odds when sentencing and not the exceptional long shots.

        I’m all for redemption stories- I love writing them, but redemption and forgiveness do not remove the weight of the crimes, and that weight is part of any redemption.

        • I’m not. I’m more for justice. The three kids who forcibly precipitated Charlie Howard to his death in Bangor for no reason other than he was gay shouldn’t have served less than three years each, yet they are walking around, telling their stories. As much as I think Charlie Howard was dealt a lousy hand in life from the beginning, and as much as I think he didn’t help the situation by being flamboyant, the fact is those three kids threw him to his death for no reason other than they wanted to kill a gay man. There’s no reason they shouldn’t still be rotting in some prison in Maine up near the Canadian border where it’s as cold as the grave with slightly less hope.

          • I wasn’t disagreeing with you. Private forgiveness must be subservient to the societal justice for major crimes like assault and murder. Forgiveness and redemption are at most a victim-centered post script having little to do with penalties. Throwing someone to death is just plain murder, I don’t care how stupid they are, whar would stop them from being stupid again if the self-centered bigoted bubble isn’t popped.

            (Rude words and private opinions should not involve the justice system)

  2. I’m not big on forgiveness either. Sometimes you have to accept what happened and move on, and sometimes you have to accept that the books won’t balance out, but there’s no reason to say that someone who did wrong shouldn’t suffer the logical consequences of his actions. Ethical people don’t do what this kid did. This was not a stupid act. A stupid act is turning around with a hose squirting hot water and tagging someone because you weren’t thinking. This involved theft, at least two active decisions, and a complete disregard for the consequences of something someone with the most basic level of comprehension was going to cause danger to life, limb and property. This was a deliberate act of maliciousness, and as far as I’m concerned, this kid should have been done, doubly so because very bad injuries resulted. He was 18 and could have been facing murder charges if death resulted.

    I think generally we aren’t as tough on wrongdoers as we should be. There is no way in hell Melissa Drexler or Amy Grossberg, who killed their own newborn children should be walking around free having served only 3 and 2 years respectively. There is no way that Thomas McMahon, who aided in the assassination of Lord Mountbatten, should have gotten a break under the Good Friday Agreement and be walking around free. There’s no way that bastard cop who killed Eric Shaver while he was begging for his life with a gun that said “you’re fucked” on the side should have been acquitted or that sociopath sergeant who kept screaming and threatening like he was a marine capturing a terrorist in Fallujah should have been allowed to just retire. There’s no way in this world or any other world that might happen to be that we should still be talking about freeing Mumia, an unrepentant murderer.

    Most of us thankfully don’t deal with murders, but I don’t think the one kid I knew in high school is required to forgive the classmate who deliberately twisted his nose and tried to break it while on the bus. I don’t think another kid I knew in Scouts is required to forgive the other scouts who lowered him down into the pit toilet. I don’t think my college classmate is required to forgive the entitled prick from the football team who pretended and charmed his way into her confidence so he could rape her. There’s value in these people moving on. There’s no value in forgiving so these bullies, sociopaths, and rapists who escaped the consequences of their actions can go on laughing at what a rip-roaring good time they had earlier in life when they were a bit more high spirited.

  3. We are witnessing the results of what happens when a large swath of the population clings to anger. Bitterness resolves nothing.

  4. “Why should luck determine society’s response to conduct this cruel and irresponsible?”

    If the turkey had missed the car, or bounced off the windshield, or gone through it and missed both occupants, that too would have been luck, but would the guy still have been facing 25 years if any of the above happened?

    If Ryan had gone to prison for the max sentence, he would’ve been 43 when released. I could see this being a problem not just for him, but for society at large. With a felony record and minimal job skills for someone his age, he’d be hard-pressed to find work, and would likely end up on public assistance. Or he could return to a life of crime, not just for thrills but because he has a hard time finding legit work, and because he’d have spent over two decades with bad influences dragging him further down.

    I would consider all this moot if Ryan had a history of trouble-making. In that case it would be better for society to at least have a 25 year break from his behavior, and if he had been brushing off previous encounters with the law, this longer stint would probably be what it took to straighten him out. It seems to me though, that he was just an impulsive, teenage idiot committing his first crime, who probably saw his life flash before his eyes when his lawyer told him he’s looking at a quarter century behind bars, and after learning of his reduced sentence, resolved never to test fate like that again.

    I think in some cases, forgiveness and mercy do have practical benefits. If the Prodigal Son had come home only to be told, “You made your bed, now you sleep in it. Get lost!” where else would he go but back to bumhood, or worse? There are cases where cases where trust can never be restored, when someone has committed a wrong so grievous that no-one can afford to take a chance on them again, but there are other cases where it’s better to give a person another chance, rather than have them wallow in the consequences of their transgression forever.

  5. Forgiveness is good for the soul and among the highest Christian values, but it does not undo the act and may not mitigate the consequences. Her personal forgiveness may be relevant, but a sentence that reflects the damage to society (read, long) is appropriate.

  6. One of the problems with the analysis is that it only focuses on Ryan and Victoria. One of the reasons we punish people for crimes is to make it known that such behavior is wrong and has consequences. It doesn’t actually take many examples like this before teenagers believe that they won’t have to face consequences for their actions, because “Well, Ryan destroyed that woman’s face, almost killed her and he almost got no punishment”.

    It is very difficult to try to convince a teenager to obey the law after they see 1 or 2 friends get away scot-free. I found it impossible to convince a teenager that they couldn’t drive drunk or stoned because they had 3 friends who were pulled over driving drunk or stoned and the police just let them drive home if they promised not to drive more that night. You might think this teenager would change their tune if they were arrested for DUI, but you would be wrong. They will just complain that X, Y, and Z did it and didn’t get in trouble! I need justice! That cop is corrupt! That judge is just a jerk!

    Locally, there were two teenagers killed driving recklessly. They had skipped school, were driving over twice the speed limit and couldn’t make a turn. They hit a car with an elderly woman, almost killing her (and probably killing her within a year) and both of them died. No one was willing to stand up and say that what they did was wrong and they brought their deaths on themselves. Instead, the newspaper memorialized them with pictures and stories of their entire life. The principal at the high school cancelled classes for a whole-school assembly to celebrate their lives and mourn this tragic ‘accident’. However, what message does this send to the kids? Was there any message that what these kids had done was wrong? Instead, did this send the message that these kids were, in fact, heroes for what they had done?

  7. “Cushing was sentenced to only six months in jail and five years probation.”
    What is the appropriate sentence for the guy whose victim doesn’t share the same inclination toward forgiveness, if the victim gets such broad input into the outcome? 25 years? 50? (Of course the fact that he faced a possibility of 25 years doesn’t mean he would have received such a sentence. Actual killers often receive much less time.)
    That’s why crimes are thought of as committed against the state rather than the individual, or as we say in my state, “against the peace and dignity of the state.” Allowing the victim’s forgiveness to influence the prosecution is one factor that kept domestic violence prosecutions from being effective for so long. Forgiveness is a wonderful thing, but not a valid consideration in criminal cases until perhaps after the sentence is served.

  8. I gotta admit, I’m not big on forgiveness. Vengeance, however, is a different conversation. Thus, I will fail as a progressive.

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