Forgiving the unforgivable

Twenty years after genocide, can a survivor truly learn to forgive? Associate professor of counseling psychology David B. Feldman and Lee Daniel Kravetz M.A. ’13 examine what’s at stake. This article first appeared on June 12, 2014, in Psychology Today.

In April, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Council tasked Clemantine Wamariya and other delegates to attend the 20th anniversary commemoration of Rwanda’s genocide.

Clemantine was 6 years old when she and her sister fled her home in Kigali in the dark of night as genocidal conflict erupted around them, ending the lives of more than 800,000 people. After spending six years bouncing among U.N. refugee camps, Clemantine and her sister, clinging to one another and seemingly alone in the world, made their way to the United States.

Clemantine is now 26 and a graduate of Yale. She has done humanitarian work that regularly locates her alongside Oprah Winfrey at the superstar’s Leadership Academy for Girls and Elie Wiesel at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She has been recognized for her efforts by President Barack Obama and has spoken for the United Nations more than once.

This year, when she traveled to Kigali’s main stadium, she realized the full weight of her actions. She was participating in a flame-lighting ceremony among thousands of survivors for whom the pain and injustice of genocide had hardly subsided.

“Twenty years means nothing to we survivors,” says Clemantine. “It might as well have happened 20 days ago.”

As recently reported by The Washington Post, organizations such as the Genocide Fugitive Tracking Unit have spent the past two decades trying to bring the perpetrators to justice. Clemantine herself communicates both a message of justice and of forgiveness. For survivors of genocide, and other unthinkable atrocities, justice and forgiveness are two sides of one coin, and neither comes easily, she says.

She suggests an intriguing experiment. “It occurred to me that memorials shouldn’t be grand. If you really want to honor the memory of a tragedy, you shouldn’t create areas of calm reflection. You should make people uncomfortable. Put them in the shoes of those who perpetrated and those who suffered. Then ask, ‘Would you be able to forgive?” in these situations.”

We might expect trauma to happen to people living in troubled parts of the world—war-torn nations and poverty-stricken regions, like the area Clemantine and her family are from. But trauma also happens to an enormous number of people in the developed world. In 1990, Harvard Medical School professor of health care policy Ronald Kessler, along with the U.S. government and a large team of investigators, undertook the National Comorbidity Survey, the first large-scale field study of mental health in the nation’s history. According to the results, a whopping 61 percent of men and 51 percent of women had experienced a traumatic event sometime in their lives. And these numbers are lower than some estimates because the researchers didn’t count such things as severe medical illness or the loss of loved ones as traumas.

The sad thing is that many of these traumas are man-made, as Clemantine experienced. Although it’s difficult to estimate, because of variance between regions, exactly what percentage of trauma worldwide is man-made, it’s clear that it’s large. In the National Comorbidity Survey, for instance, if you add up the percentages of traumas involving rape; molestation; physical attack; combat; and threat with a weapon, neglect, or physical abuse, the total comes to 45 percent in men and 43 percent in women. The figure for natural disasters is only about a third of that.

Such person-on-person instances of victimization—sometimes called interpersonal traumas—are the most traumatizing of all. To make matters worse, the very people we love and are close to are often the ones who perpetrate crimes and injustices against us. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that about one in six women in the United States is raped during her lifetime. Contrary to popular belief, most women know the perpetrators. According to the National Violence Against Women Survey, a study of 8,000 women across the United States published by the National Institute of Justice in 2000, only about 17 percent of adult female victims were raped by strangers.

Given these depressing statistics, it’s tempting to become angry and resentful, to view other people as threats and little more. That’s what some victims of interpersonal trauma end up doing, of course. They may hold grudges, harbor lifelong resentment, and even seek retribution. Who could blame them?

A long review of history reveals no shortage of such violent examples—whether we’re talking about the generations of Jews and Muslims in the Middle East or classic conflicts among Serbs and Croats, Protestant and Catholic Northern Irish, or northern and southern Sudanese. Violence often begets more violence.

From a safe distance, it’s easy to see that grudges aren’t healthy on a societal scale. But what about on an individual level? Technically, psychologists refer to grudge-holding and revenge-seeking as “unforgiveness.” It seems obvious that unforgiveness is bad for mental health—it’s highly unpleasant to harbor anger, hostility, and hurt for prolonged periods of time. But science is beginning to show that unforgiveness also may contribute to poor physical health. Several years ago, researchers asked nearly 10,000 U.S. residents, “Would you say this is true or false? I’ve held grudges against people for years.” Slightly more than 6,500 people responded to the question. Writing in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology in 2010, researchers Erick Messias, Anil Saini, Philip Sinato, and Stephen Welch state that those who said they tended to hold grudges reported higher rates of heart disease and cardiac arrest, elevated blood pressure, stomach ulcers, arthritis, back problems, headaches, and chronic pain than those who didn’t share this tendency. Though most scientists note that much more research is needed on the subject, this isn’t the only study linking unforgiveness to health problems.

Unforgiveness certainly appears to be unhealthy. But aren’t some truly horrible things simply unforgivable? Indeed, life as refugees was nearly unbearable for Clemantine and her sister. After fleeing their home, they relocated to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When war erupted there, they fled to Tanzania, then to refugee camps in Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, and finally Zambia. The locations changed, but the same horror seemed to follow them. Most experts on the topic of forgiveness agree that nobody should (or even can) be forced to forgive. To apply such force further wrongs the victim. Victims do not owe their victimizer forgiveness. In fact, the perpetrator doesn’t even necessarily have to know when someone has practiced forgiveness. Ultimately, to forgive is something highly personal that people do when and only if they are ready. However, science seems to show that for people who naturally come to the point where they are ready to move beyond unforgiveness, to forgive is generally a healthy decision for them.

Today, Clemantine says that, somehow, she has forgiven. She believes that acknowledging and grieving her own trauma and the losses she suffered was an important step along this road. Though forgiveness researchers often differ in their conceptualization of how exactly forgiveness occurs, most of them observe that victims must pass through a stage of acknowledging the suffering that the wrongdoing has caused them, admitting that it may have forever changed their lives, and owning their feelings of sorrow, loss, resentment, and sometimes rage.

“This can be an emotionally painful time,” write psychologist Robert Enright and psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons in their book Helping Clients Forgive. “Yet, if the client or patient concludes that he or she is suffering emotionally because of another’s injustice, this can serve as a motivator to change. The emotional pain can be a motivator to think about and to try to forgive.” It was through this process, which Clemantine calls “mourning,” that she realized she’d already lost enough valuable time and energy to the trauma and decided she needed to find a way to move beyond the hurt.

A second commonality among many researchers’ conceptualizations of the forgiveness process is the idea that it is useful to understand why the perpetrators did what they did, taking their perspective. “We ask a series of questions to challenge the person’s view of the offender,” write Enright and Fitzgibbons. “The point of all questions is to help the patient see a person who is, in fact, a human being and not evil incarnate.” As distasteful as this may sound, this harks back to an idea we stated earlier: Trauma often begets cycles of unforgiveness and revenge. Many perpetrators were once victims themselves. Understanding their pain—or at least their motivations—may help victims move forward.

This is exactly what Clemantine naturally found herself doing. “I’m not just a girl who survived genocide and war,” she explains. “I have learned to love others, even the people who did the killing. Before, I saw people as either friendly or dangerous. I now see that we are all bound by a universal desire to live. Every human being strives for this. They would kill each other to live. Who was my persecutor? I have no idea. They killed, but most murderers, they knew that killing is wrong. But there was a campaign of fear and misinformation everywhere.

“I can’t be a part of that anymore,” Clemantine continues. “That wouldn’t have brought my parents back. Forgiveness allowed me to wash my burdened past away.” She came to a simple yet freeing conclusion: She could not change the past. Rather, she found herself asking the hopeful and forward-looking question, “What now?”

In Rwanda, at the memorial ceremony, Clemantine saw in the eyes of the gathering crowd of survivors that they were asking the very same question.

David B. Feldman, associate professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University, and Lee Daniel Kravetz M.A. ’13 are the authors of Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success (HarperCollins/HarperWave), which tells Clemantine Wamariya’s story as well as many other stories of survival. For more information, visit or

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