Healing Beyond Forgiveness: The Nothing Our Abusers Deserve

image from @rachelwrightphotog / Twenty20

Early last year, in late March, my father and I got into an argument. He was walking through the house, singing loudly about Jesus and how we’re all sinners saved by Grace, and I asked him to quiet down. What I saw as a reasonable request erupted into violence soon after, ending with him banging my head against one of the pillars that held up our back porch. Concussing me, he let me fall, my mother watching, silently, behind him.

A few months later, he came to me asking me if we could put all hostility between us in the past, forget about it and move on. “Because I love you,” he concluded. “I love you.”

“Dad,” I said, “you gave me a concussion.”

I didn’t mention any of the previous hostility. I didn’t mention how he’d smashed my laptop a year prior, nor did I mention how he’d locked me out of the house when I came back from visiting my then-boyfriend for Christmas back in 2018. I didn’t mention how he’d called the cops on me a couple hours ahead of my first date, nor how he’d call me “stupid” or “useless” whenever I was too busy or simply didn’t want to help him out with a bill he needed to pay or something he needed to order. In that moment, the concussion was the only thing I brought up.

This man looked me dead in the eyes and demanded that I recognize the ways I’d hurt him. He asked me, the person who was now suffering chronic migraines because of him, to wrack my aching brain for some sort of penance, never even admitting what he had done.

I don’t forgive him.

I’ve spoken about my relationship with my father at length, both to those closest to me and on social media. While some have offered meaningful support, others have offered what they see as necessary lessons: sermons of forgiveness, lectures about how we must love those who claim they love us, even when they express that love with brutality and absence.

I don’t forgive my father.

There’s a shallow wisdom that so many unfamiliar with the realities of parental abuse love to profess: that the abuser who dominates your life, bruises your body, and crushes any sense of self-worth you’ve built should be viewed with empathy, as a human who makes mistakes the same as you. This is, to put it lightly, absolute bullshit. My mistakes — even the most harmless among them — were met with physical and emotional cruelty, but this fantasy logic demands that the resultant harmful “mistakes” be met with absolution.

My father believes in Christ. I am not Christ. If he seeks absolution, he can seek it from Christ. He won’t find it in me.

I am expected to forgive because I am viewed as an object, a receptacle for both the good and the bad. If there is love to be given, I am the recipient, expected to be gracious. If there is rage enacted upon me, I am deserving, expected to apologize, no matter the circumstances. While we often believe that we should be safe in our homes, that our families should protect us from the cruelties of the world, we’re more often proven wrong, heads held underwater, subjected to power dynamics that enable the replication of those external cruelties. Abusers in our own homes wield wanton power over us, then weaponize the promises of protection to demand our supplication, our gratitude, and — finally — our forgiveness.

The metaphors here would be horrifying enough if they were contained within the walls of a single house, but they ultimately prove that the abuse Black queer women suffer at home is simply a microcosm of the great system of abuse that defines our lives from bedroom to the edge of our driveways and then far beyond. The power structures that allowed my father to smash my head against those pillars are the same power structures that form the pillars that uplift those who will continue beating my head even when I’m miles from that back porch.

I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the times I’ve been told on Twitter that we have to forgive familial abusers. I don’t have enough blood cells to count the times I’ve been told by family members and friends that I should try to see familial abusers as human, making mistakes that we are all prone to make.

Over and over again, victims of abuse — Black women especially — are told they have to find some special warm and kind pocket in which to coddle those who violate their bodies, their emotions, their fundamental sense of existence. Whether it’s the state, the partner, the father, it’s demanded of us that we look into our own spilled blood like a mirror and reflect upon what we might have done wrong, and how those who spilled that same blood might be worthy of redemption. While we should be the proverbial whipping boy, the sin eater, for our own abusers, the abusers themselves are seen as fragile, complex, and evolving. Somehow the bruised knuckle that lands the blow is daintier than the body that sustains it.

In the ongoing continuum of anti-Black violence — on both societal and personal levels — the reality of genuine justice seems less and less possible. The wounds are so deep that no amount of gauze can stem the bleeding, nor can stitches suture the skin. Rather than offering us justice, our oppressors have suggested a placebo that they term “forgiveness.” The slaves tortured by their owners, the activists denied humanity by their country: don’t seek recompense, but bask in the warm fuzzy feeling of forgiveness.

For Black people, the Christian idea of forgiveness was not meant to save us, but to sate us. For Black people, forgiveness represented not a radical discussion of the harms done, but a means to excuse those harms — an IOU that allowed those who harmed us to never actually provide reparations, but to pass the buck to some nebulous God in whose Kingdom we would finally get our due (“we promise, we promise”).

Normally, forgiveness comes in the wake of justice: an offering to those who have wronged us after they’ve paid their rightful penance. However, for me and for so many like me, forgiveness replaces justice — forgiveness is our justice, we’re told. Forgiveness is not what we reward to our abusers once they’ve shown they’re sorry, but the reward that we bestow on ourselves, for the sake of closure or whatever the fuck, while they continue to abuse us without consequence. Rather than the gift that keeps on giving, it’s the demand that keeps on taking, sapping us of the agency to tell those who hurt us we don’t have to suffer them, sapping us of the chance to tell the world around us that we aren’t martyrs or punching bags.

After my father smashed my head against those pillars, I found myself in the psych unit. After my father smashed my head into those pillars, calling me all sorts of names, I told him and my mother that I wanted to die. After my abuser took my head in his hands and beat it against the beams of my home, I was the only one taken from that home. For four days, I sat in the psych ward, where doctors puzzled over why I might want to escape the life I had been subjected to — even life entirely — my father sat comfortably at home, waiting to blame me for my own abuse.

At the end of the day abuse is an issue of control, the need to bend and break the victim, to pretzel them so that they know who is in charge, who runs the game. When my father took me and threw me against the supports of the house he owns, he was basking in that control. When, after days of headaches and isolation, he asked for my apology, he felt as though he had all-encompassing governance over our relationship, over my pain.

My father has told me how he was raised. He has told me that violent discipline was the ruling force all throughout his childhood. Denied control, pushed into the dirt, I know that my father felt once what I feel now.

I understand him. But I still don’t forgive him. I don’t owe him that.

There is that ever lingering truism that abuse begets abuse, that those who suffer violence internalize it, learn it, and are, thus, somehow inextricably linked to it. They are doomed to perpetuate it in their own quest to reestablish control in their own lives.

I believe this is a fallacy. While the redistribution of one’s own abuse might give the temporary sense of control, it does little for anyone involved. Many who have been abused escape the cycle, they’ve dove out of the hurricane. The desire to seek control through abuse is not preordained, nor is it inevitable. It’s a choice, and, like all choices, it deserves scrutiny.

I want control too. I want to take control back. I believe that we all deserve control over our souls and our bodies, but I have little interest in exercising that desire in the same way my father has. That’s a legacy I have no tolerance for and no interest in being part of.

My control rests in the forgiveness I allow myself. My control is in the responsibility of unlearning the violence I’ve been told is my fault. It rests in the people I choose to love and let in.

i like movies, music, communism, and talking about the intersections of antiblackness, misogyny, ableism, and queerantagnoism. welcome.

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Jude Casimir

Jude Casimir

i like movies, music, communism, and talking about the intersections of antiblackness, misogyny, ableism, and queerantagnoism. welcome.

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