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.