Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Forgiveness Isn't All It's Cracked Up To Be



I'm Michel Martin, and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This is the season of reflection, for many religious people around the world. The importance of repentance and forgiveness are often a focus this time of year. But faith leaders aren't the only people who talk about the importance of forgiveness.

Recently, on this program, we talked about the work of psychologists who are trying to teach people how to practice forgiveness. They note that there are often physical and emotional benefits to forgiveness.

Today, though, we want to bring a different perspective. We want to ask if there are times when forgiving someone does not bring peace but pain - pain so great that even the closest ties really ought to be cut. advice columnist Emily Yoffe recently wrote about a particular scenario we want to talk about today, one which will probably be talked about more as this country ages. Her piece is titled "The Debt: What Do Grown Children Owe Their Terrible, Abusive Parents?" She's with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

EMILY YOFFE: My pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: Also with us is Dr. Richard Friedman. He is quoted in the Slate piece, and wrote about so-called toxic parents himself for The New York Times. He is a psychiatrist; he is also a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Friedman, thank you so much for joining us as well. This is a difficult topic, so thank you both so much for joining us.

DR. RICHARD FRIEDMAN: It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: So Emily, you write the Dear Prudence advice column for Slate. What prompted you to write this piece?

YOFFE: I've been doing the column for seven years and over that time, I've gotten many, many questions from people grappling with this - I had a terrible, abusive parent; this mother or father is now old; maybe broke, sick; and I don't know what my obligation is. Sometimes, they've severed the relationship; sometimes, it's only a thread of a relationship and now, they're facing the end of the parent's life. Do I care for this person, who didn't care for me when I was little? And I started collecting these letters.

MARTIN: Give us a scenario that prompted you to want to write about this.

YOFFE: Well, one I got a couple of years ago was from a man who was very brutally abused by his mother. She used to beat him up and say, you can take it, you're a male - a horrible, horrible childhood. He completely cut off relations with her; hadn't spoken to her in many years. He was married, had children, and heard that his mother was dying. And he was getting terrible pressure from friends, family members, his wife, to - I hate this word - have closure, to forgive her, to see her at the end because he would feel so guilty if he didn't have a reconciliation. And he was writing to me about the pressure he was getting, and what was his obligation?

MARTIN: What did you tell him, if you don't mind my asking?

YOFFE: Oh, absolutely - because I had dealt with this issue before, and heard from other people. I think sometimes, what people who are saying forgive don't recognize is, there can be a tremendous cost to the person who was abused to go back to the abuser and say, all is forgiven. And I've heard from people who start getting what - I'm no psychiatrist - would sound like severe PTSD symptoms. So I...

MARTIN: Post-traumatic stress.

YOFFE: Right. So I said, this is not a cost-free thing these other people are asking you to do. And often, these people get pressure from others who really don't get what this childhood was like. And good for them because they had wonderful parents. And he, basically, was looking for someone to say, it's OK that you can't do this. And I - that's what I said.

MARTIN: Dr. Friedman, you are a psychiatrist, and I would imagine that this has come up in your life as well, and in your practice as well. Obviously, every case is different. But how do you go about determining, or helping someone understand, whether the cost is too high?

FRIEDMAN: You know, I wrote that piece, basically, because I was convinced that there were some people who really just should not be parents, and that some of the behavior and the damage that was done by these parents was irretrievably bad; and that to ask these people to go back and try to, quote, "repair" their relationship with their parents would do more harm than good.

MARTIN: I want to play a clip from a conversation I had recently - I alluded to this in my introduction. It was with Frederic Luskin; he's director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. What he's literally trying to teach people, tools to forgive people. And this is what he had to say. I asked him if there are some things that are literally, unforgivable. And this is what he had to say.


FREDERIC LUSKIN: The problem with saying that something is unforgivable is, it's really painful to imagine that somebody's life essentially stopped at the worst moment of their life. I can't imagine a more harrowing prison.

MARTIN: What about that, Dr. Friedman? I mean, the argument is that if you say something's unforgivable then that thing - whatever that thing is - it's still imprisoning you.

FRIEDMAN: It's a very good point because it actually gets to the heart of this, which is that the forgiveness is really not about the parent or the person that you think has mistreated you. It really has to do with, you know, your own psychological well-being from that point on. And, you know, when he says it's a prison, what may be just as imprisoning, actually, is to tell somebody - in a way which is not reasonable - you should go back and try to fix things. In my mind, the concept of forgiveness really allows the person basically to say, I've done everything that I can to repair this relationship, but there's no way to do it. This person is just going to be painfully abusive to me, and so I'm going to learn to call it a day. Now, if you call that forgiveness, I would say that's a reasonable outcome. But to say that everything can be repaired, and everything can be fixed and forgiven, is just not reasonable given the facts.

MARTIN: Emily, in a number of cases you cited in your story - and this is, in fact - I think something that people might have been familiar with, with a number of celebrities who had parents - people who have become very successful, you know; affluent. But then the parent - who may have been really terrible, or just neglectful - comes back looking for money, at a later stage of a person's life. And it seems like those celebrities are under a lot of pressure to give these people money. What do you advise? And - but you've also been hearing from people who are not celebrities, who are not wealthy themselves; but the same scenario applies, where the parent really does need financial support and yet has been a terrible person. What do you tell people?

YOFFE: My suggestion is that the people who are writing to me do what makes them feel best in the situation. Now, some people feel, I can't be a moral and good person if I don't help in some way. But I think it's really important - I talked to one therapist who said, I advise some of my patients in this situation maybe to put themselves in a bit of a shark cage so they aren't reiterating this very damaging relationship. Maybe you send money, if you can do that. If you don't have the money, you can't send the money.

People can be re-victimized by the sense that you must forgive and move on, and that's going to mean reconciliation and helping. I don't think that that's the case. I think people can accept things were bad; move on. It doesn't mean they're stuck. And what's missing in this discussion of forgiveness is the sense of reciprocity. Where is the acknowledgement by the abusive parent? I'm sorry, I didn't give you the childhood you deserve - that very rarely comes.

MARTIN: What about a scenario where a parent has abandoned a child, and then tries to reconnect years later?

YOFFE: I think that's almost an easier case because the child is used to the absence of this person in his or her life. I always feel if there can be a true reconciliation, a true coming to terms and acknowledgment of what happened - of course, that's a wonderful thing and can be very healing. But if it's just, hey, I'm returning to haunt you, I think the person who was abused has to think very carefully about what he or she can take.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about the question of forgiveness. Previously on this program, we talked about the Forgiveness Project - psychologists and faith leaders urging people to learn the habits of forgiveness. Now, we're giving a different perspective; and our base here is a piece by columnist Emily Yoffe, for Slate, called "What Do Grown Children Owe Their Terrible, Abusive Parents?"

Is it your impression, Emily Yoffe, that people want to skip right to the forgiveness part without the repentance part?

YOFFE: Absolutely. I think our current idea of forgiveness is that it's some kind of healing balm for the person who forgives - you will feel better because you forgive. And there's no obligation on the other person's part. At best, forgiveness is a two-way street, and I just don't think people should be told, you're stuck at the worst point in your life if you don't forgive.

MARTIN: Dr. Friedman, do you have any thoughts about this, too? And I think maybe we are entering into theological territory here as well as psychological territory.


MARTIN: It seems that people are told that they're not allowed to expect anything...

FRIEDMAN: Right...

MARTIN: ... from the other person so...

FRIEDMAN: Right. Well, I think that Emily is exactly right. I mean, the whole concept of forgiveness, it seems to me, is based on the idea that somebody who's done something wrong to you acknowledges that and says, I'm sorry, and gives you an explanation - I was going through a terrible time; I didn't know myself; I was wicked back then; I was using drugs back then. I was irredeemably bad. I want another chance.

But before you can forgive somebody, there has to be an acknowledgement of transgression. They have to be able to say to you, you know what? I really screwed up. I did a terrible thing, and I'm so sorry. I don't even know how I can repair it. I mean, at least that's a starting point. But to ask somebody who is the victim of abuse to simply give a carte blanche forgiveness, is a psychologically meaningless and potentially, really harmful task to set them.

MARTIN: You know, Emily, the other one I wanted to ask you about is the whole question of - you know, sometimes people in the same family have different relationships with the same person, right? You'll have - maybe you'll have a group of siblings, and a parent was really awful to one child but was OK to the others. Or perhaps, you have a parent who was horrible to the spouse, but was OK to the kids, and the kids feel caught in that, like maybe you're the sibling that was treated OK, but you know that this parent was horrible to another person. It's kind of like a secondary experience of abuse - if I can sort of put it that way. What do you advise in a situation like that?

YOFFE: Yes, I've heard that variation. Usually, I hear from the person who was the target. And you're right - family dynamics, sometimes one person is the goat and devil and the other - there's even a golden child. When I hear from the child who was abused, who is getting pressure from the other siblings, just say - you know, look, we've all had our different experiences. I'm glad you have a good relationship with Mom. I don't, and I'm just going to have to have the relationship that I do have.

One thing that I found - and I wonder if Dr. Friedman has seen this in his practice because I only get these, you know, questions in my inbox - is that if there was just a generally abusive parent, sometimes I'm hearing from the healthier person who got out and doesn't have the relationship; and the people, the grown siblings who are really basket cases, are still tied in with that parent.

FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, the scenario that was just sketched in some ways seems, to me, worse - where, you know, you grow up in a family where the parent is, you know, abusive to one but not all people in the family - because then you're isolated, and then it feels extremely personal. Whereas, you know, if you see the parent is bad across the board, you know, two things happen. One, you know, there's often solidarity with other family members - that's siblings, etc. - where, you know, everybody draws support and realizes they're in this together. Whereas, you know, if it's just you, you're really singled out and you feel really, quite awful.

MARTIN: You know, Emily, I'm dying to know what kind of reaction you got to this piece because in some ways, it's a very bracing and difficult subject...

YOFFE: Right. And I...

MARTIN: ...that kind of goes against the grain of what it is that we're actually taught.

YOFFE: And I took a very tough stance, saying sometimes, there's no closure; you just need to close the door. And I expected to get a lot of criticism. I was astounded by the reaction. We got more than 2,000 comments to the piece in Slate, and it became a mass group therapy session. People said, thank you because I felt this pressure people don't understand.

MARTIN: Dr. Friedman, what about you? When you've written about this, what reaction do you get?

FRIEDMAN: I had exactly the same experience that Emily did - which was, I anticipated a lot of criticism from colleagues of mine, but what happened was an avalanche. I mean, literally hundreds - if not thousands - of emails, and there were postings at the website where it was published, The Times; and they were all anecdotes and stories that people wanted to share. They were going back and forth between one another, and creating this kind of virtual therapeutic community. It made me think, gosh, it's very hard to be a parent and that - you know, maybe not all of these stories are stories of truly toxic parents. But there are a tremendous number of people out there who feel that in some way - in some shape or form - they had less than the - far less than the ideal experience, growing up and having a parent.

MARTIN: There are a number of trends in our society right now, that are coming into play here. One is that the population is aging; there are fewer younger people to support more older people. And are you at all, you know, concerned that, you know - look, the precept of honor thy father and mother is kind of a core shared value; that in some ways, that that's being frayed? And are you ever, you know - forgive me; I just feel I have to ask - that some people are unwilling to forgive behavior that's not truly toxic, but just perhaps ill-informed or misguided because they're selfish; they just don't want to be bothered dealing with older people? Does that concern you?

FRIEDMAN: Doubtless, both are true and in some ways - some people say, well, we've become a culture of whiners; and people have a lower and lower threshold for defining what is personally upsetting or a problem, on the one hand. And yet on the other, you know, as Emily wrote about and we have had this experience, there's no question there's also a fair number of people who've had very bad experiences with toxic parents. The question we don't really know the answer to is, how prevalent it really is in the population. And to have a sense of that, you'd have to really do a population-based study. I mean, these are anecdotes; and people who are the most aggrieved and have had the worst experiences are often the - you know, most vocal about it. It doesn't necessarily mean we're facing an epidemic.

MARTIN: Emily, finally, this whole area of what is owed to parents is a matter of policy, as well as a matter of personal relationships. I mean, we are sort of in a time when the whole question of financial support, and things like that - entitlement programs - all that's being sorted out. That really does, in part, speak to this question. For example, in some jurisdictions, there are moves afoot to require adult children to be financially responsible for parents, and they're questioned - in the same way that they are required to be financially responsible for children, whether they want to or not, whether they see them or not. Is there something you think policymakers should keep in mind as they are - kind of entering this area?

YOFFE: Yes. I think policymakers need to keep in mind, when they go back and tell a 60-something person you owe whatever to your 80-something parents, not knowing anything about the circumstances - I think that's really problematic. I mean, it's really good we have a safety net that covers everyone; it may not be fabulously. But when you're elderly, we are supposed to put something underneath you so you're not dependent on children who you may have a terrible relationship with.

MARTIN: Emily Yoffe writes the Dear Prudence advice column for She wrote the recent Slate story "The Debt: What Do Grown Children Owe Their Terrible,Abusive Parents?" She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. Dr. Richard Friedman is a psychiatrist; he's professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. He also wrote a piece for The New York Times, called "When Parents Are Too Toxic to Tolerate." And he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

YOFFE: Great to be here.

FRIEDMAN: Great to be here. Thank you.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.