Forgiveness and the American Fetishization of Moving On

President-elect Joe Biden announced, last week that he would not pursue criminal charges against Trump or any in his administration. Instead, he favors moving on in the interest of uniting the country. His statement read: “America faces great challenges, and they bring diverse perspectives and a shared commitment to tackling these challenges and emerging on the other side a stronger, more united nation.”

Moving on, which carries an implicit suggestion of forgiveness, derived from the Latin word “perdonare,” which means “to give completely, without reservation.” It is also where we get the word pardon, which is essentially what President-elect Joe Biden is doing, pardoning a criminal.

Granting immunity to criminals, as long as they’re high-ranking officials, is a time-honored American tradition. President Abraham Lincoln pardoned the traitors of the Confederacy. President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon and President Obama refused to seek justice against those who had committed war crimes during the Bush Administration. He also refused to prosecute the bad actors who crashed the economy in 2008 and caused the housing crisis.

Unsurprisingly, it’s a popular sentiment among Democratic party elites and centrist journalists. Harvard History professor and New Yorker staff writer, Jill Lepore wrote in The Washington Post, “Let history, not partisans, prosecute Trump.” She argues that the incoming administration should not prosecute but that they should preserve the damning documents of Trump Administration malfeasance and let the courts decide what happens to him. (Meanwhile, many documents have already been destroyed.)She believes our institutions are better suited to mete out the justice required to hold him responsible. Lepore writes, “Democracies have all sorts of other institutions that do that: investigative journalism, a functioning judiciary, legislative deliberation and action, and dissent itself. In the United States today, those institutions need fortifying, not bypassing.”

But is that enough? And will it occur if there is no central leader to focus the effort and the messaging?

Elie Mystal of The Nation believes it won’t. In his response to Lepore, “We’re Going to Need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to Recover From Trump,” he argues that the institutions Lepore cites have already failed us.

Journalists have failed to report on Trump accurately during his first campaign, his administration, and now his reelection run. The judiciary does not function as a reliable check, as both the state and federal systems have been stacked with Trump-aligned justices. ‘Legislative deliberation’ is a joke of a concept in a country that can’t even pass a Covid-19 relief bill. And “dissent itself” has been manhandled and brutalized under this administration, with Attorney General Bill Barr and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolfe deploying storm troopers into the streets to tear-gas and pepper-spray citizens exercising their right to protest.

Mystal rightfully points out that Trump has largely defeated the institutions Lepore hails, proving them impotent in the fight to preserve fairness or guardrail moral bankruptcy and callous disregard for human life.

The answer, author and New Yorker columnist Masha Gessen believes, lies somewhere in the middle of these. In “Why America Needs a Reckoning With the Trump Era,” Gessen writes,

American political culture turned forgiving and forgetting first into a virtue and then into a fetish. A reckoning would require a future Biden Administration to dispense with this tradition. A reckoning may take different forms — investigations, hearings, trials, public assemblies — but it must be a national project, not the heroic quest of a lone federal prosecutor, state attorney general, or investigative reporter. The Administration would have to lead it, and would have to accept that its policies and actions need to share the front pages, for some time, with an examination of Trump’s four years in office.

There will be further-reaching consequences to Trump’s policies, behaviors, and lies than those we see today. Democrats will find that the GOP and future Trump-like leaders will blame them for his devastation. It’s the first play in the GOP playbook, devastate people’s lives with their craven greed then point to Democrats as the cause of their ruinous policies, then ride their wave of devastation right back into power. If we don’t reckon with what just happened, they’ll do it again. Yet Democrats never learn, perhaps because they’ve made forgetting their religion.

We can’t let them.

I’ve written about forgiveness in the past. In an article I penned for Salon back in 2015, I wrote, “Abuse of any kind, particularly this kind, boomerangs back and the more we work to suppress it, the stronger it becomes. It must be integrated. So it’s not in the past. It never will be again. Because forgiveness is not a one-time act, not in these matters. It’s an ongoing battle. Otherwise, it’s not really forgiveness. It’s denial.”

As a nation we’ve been abused by the Trump Administration and this trauma will not dissipate with time on its own. In fact, it will fester, grow and continue to tear the country apart, eroding whatever trust we have left in our institutions still further. We bear wounds and they bleed. By not leading a unified reckoning, President-elect Biden is doing exactly what bad parents do to a child who has been abused, not believe her. We can’t address these wounds individually because they were inflicted on us collectively. Biden’s desire to “unify the country” ignores the wounds of the abused and puts them at a dinner table with their abusers. It expects the abused to sit quietly and eat their soup while the abusers scream, red-faced about how they are the real victims.

Over 70 million Americans voted for Trump, which means, those voters are racists and misogynists who long for tyrannical rule, or they’re OK with it. Gone are the days when the two political parties simply disagreed on policies. One party believes in democracy and one party doesn’t. One party caged children and one party disavowed it. One party protests when video of a police officer crushing the trachea of a black man with his knee goes viral, and one party supports the police officer.

I’m not suggesting we try Trump voters for his crimes, but I am suggesting we clear up the moral ambiguity of Biden’t response to them. The American people must, in no uncertain terms, understand the full extent of Trump’s actions. Whether Trump voters choose to believe it or not is irrelevant. Some will, most may not, but everyone will know that we are a country that does not tolerate criminal and dehumanizing behavior.

Isn’t that what a Biden/Harris win should really mean?

The Salon article I cite above, “Can I ever forgive the Josh Dugger In My Life,” was published anonymously and until today, I’ve never claimed it. At the time we discussed it, my editor mentioned that Legal was concerned about libel. In it I tell of abuse I experienced as a child and identify which member of my family perpetrated it. Yet, once my editor saw that I’d written about the abuse elsewhere, and confirmed it with a person close to me, she left it up to me as to whether or not to sign my name to it. She warned me that the Internet can be a brutalizing place for abuse victims and told me I may not want to read the comments once they published it. It turns out that they turned the comments off anyway. However, it was enough to give me pause and I decided to err on the side of caution. “Post it anonymously,” I said.

It was a mistake. Silenced, again, but this time it was self-inflicted. I never wrote about the abuse after that and worked to bury my feelings. “I’m over it. Time to move on. Don’t have time to wallow,” I told myself. My abuser’s secret was safe with me. Abuse victims do that, silence ourselves. Many of us also, in our zeal to heal ourselves and our families, rush to forgive and forget.

Though quite a bit older, my abuser was still a child when he violated me. I was five when it began. I believe it ended around nine or ten. Memories of that time are spotty, but I’ve no doubt that there was a fight between us where I bested him, physically and he ran to my mother, terrified. “He’s afraid of you,” she said and grounded me. After that our fights were verbal and vicious, but he never touched me again. We barely spoke except to fight and I remember him being nice to me exactly once on a family vacation when I was 13. We were swimming in the hotel swimming pool, just him and I, and he asked about my life and we laughed.

Later in life, following drug addiction and homelessness, he was diagnosed with schizoaffective borderline personality disorder. He’s medicated now and he’s a different person. Without it he’s a monster. With it, he’s a funny, sensitive, insightful, a sometimes self-effacing and often charming guy. I genuinely like him. The other day we spoke for about 10 minutes on the phone and it was a lovely conversation. He’s a writer as well and often we even enjoy the same books and films. He recommended a book he’s currently reading and we ended the conversation telling each other we loved one another. You’d have thought us the poster children for forgiveness.

The following day however, I had a panic attack. My whole body shook and I burst into tears. I then fell into a black, nearly suicidal depression. And it was my birthday. My nervous system remembers the trauma even if my mind has tried to tell it we’re over it. That’s my point. He and I have not spoken about the abuse since the day he told me it never happened.

In this country we talk a lot about choosing to forgive, how forgiveness is an act of willpower, something one does regardless of whether the other person deserves it or even wants it. That’s what I thought, but I’m not so sure anymore. I don’t know what it is. “An ongoing battle,” I called it in that article, but I don’t know what that means when from the outside we’re all just moving on as if it never happened.

It’s not just the panic attack and the depression. It’s not like that was a singular episode. I have chronic pain throughout my body and anxiety that defies medication.

A friend of mine told me I didn’t have to forgive, that forgiveness was a lie the Catholic church told to those it conquered because it didn’t want them rising up in revolt. I loved that, but couldn’t find any support for it. Perhaps they did, but forgiveness as a concept dates back further than the Catholic Church. Judaism and Islam both teach it, for example. What’s more, copious amounts of research has been done on the physical toll not forgiving takes on your body. One study even suggests it may shorten your life.

Yet, there are schools of thought that may support not forgiving in the case of sexual abuse, or not forgiving for a time. A post on forgiveness in Psychology Today states, “There are scenarios in which forgiveness is not the best course for a particular person. Sometimes a victim of sexual abuse becomes more empowered when they give themselves permission not to forgive.” In the same publication, Psychotherapist and author Sean Grover writes, “to deny our feelings is to keep ourselves in a perpetual state of internal conflict. The more you distance yourself from your feelings, the more disempowered and out of touch with your true self.”

I forgave my abuser in order to distance myself from my feelings and it has kept me in a near-constant state of internal conflict. I submit that moving on without a reckoning of the Trump presidency will do the same for the country.

There is no act of will strong enough to free us from the trauma of the Trump presidency and our slavish devotion to moving on hasn’t healed our deepest wounds — slavery and Jim Crow to name just two. Not reckoning with these has led to festering grievances that continue to bleed this country of the will to unite. How will caging children, raping women, craven disregard for human life in the face of a pandemic, how will these things age? Not well, I imagine. Not well at all.

CEO of Punt On Point Media, Masters in Communication & Directing for Film & TV. I write about trauma, mental health and culture.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store