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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Violent Fantasies and Forgiving

For the past 1.5 years I've been studying people who are victims of gun violence.  After meeting them at the University of Pennsylvania's outpatient trauma clinic, I follow them around to learn about the many challenges that people face while trying to rebuild their lives.

Time and time again, I've come across individuals whose lives are disrupted in ways that exceed what most folks can even imagine.  In addition to the psychological scars that remain long after a person leaves hospital care, people often live with chronic injuries that make even the most routine activities (e.g. sleeping, brushing teeth, laughing) tricky and often quite painful.

For instance, "David" is a 25-year old African American man who was in the peak of his physical life when he was nearly gunned down.  One evening while walking home from a friend's house, he passed by a large group gathering inside of a high school's parking lot.  As he ventured closer to see what was happening, he realized that two women were fighting each other.  As he started walking away from the scene, someone in the crowd pulled out a 9mm and started firing shots into the crowd.  David got hit twice: one bullet hit his leg, the other hit him just beneath his shoulder blade.  The first bullet entered and exited his body cleanly.  The second bullet, however, broke through the surface of a thick wall of muscle, zig-zagged around in his back for a bit, and then settled into a tuft of soft tissue just beneath his shoulder blade.  In addition to making most physical activity requiring upper body strength painful, David fears yawning and laughing--two activities that cause the retained bullet to irritate the tissue in his back.   

David's story is fairly common.  Most gunshot victims live with a range of injuries that will never really go away.  In this context, it's not hard to see why many victims (and their loved ones) have trouble forgiving those who were responsible for their injuries.  In fact, during "life after the shooting"  victims and their loved ones often fantasize about exacting revenge on the person who shot them.  These fantasies range from Rambo-esque stories of victims going on a rampage guns-a-blazing, to more cold and calculated plans of staging a special ops-like ambush that ends with the shooter dying a slow and painful death in front of them.

From what I can tell, victims feel empowered by these kinds of violent fantasies.  Also, it seems that victims don't really have any real intentions of following through on these revenge scenarios.  Some of the victims who have the most elaborate revenge fantasies that would make John Woo or Quentin Tarantino proud, have done very little to actually carry out some of these scenarios.

On the other side of the coin, I have also stumbled across stories in which victims say that the only way to truly move past being a victim is to forgive the person responsible for your pain and suffering.  For instance, I remember a story of a Rwandan woman who forgave the man responsible for killing her entire family with a machete.  Now, she has him over for dinner from time to time. I also recently stumbled across an NPR story of a victims mother who has forgiven her son's killer.  In addition to informally adopting him as her new surrogate son, the mother now lives next door to her son's killer, and says that she hopes her son's killer will graduate from college and get married--two events that she never got to experience with her biological son.

What do you all think?  Is healing only possible when one forgives?  Or, do violent fantasies--particularly those that leave us feeling empowered--have a role in healing as well?


  1. i'm wondering... is this kind of choice about forgiveness always part of people's narratives about getting shot? i could imagine some people thinking it doesn't much matter if they forgive or not.

    if somebody cuts in line at the grocery store, those behind the cutter wouldn't be likely to think about forgiveness.... though i guess violent/aggressive fantasies might be played with. if the cutter was to apologize and provide a sufficient account for cutting we might be ready to forgive. its the apology that makes forgiveness relevant, otherwise he's just an asshole and we move on.

    in shooting victims it seems that forgiveness can be as much a fantasy as violent fantasies. unless they seek out the shooter to announce their forgiveness (and have them over for dinner), maybe it's just another fictional story aimed at coping. could it be that it doesn't much matter which is told? interesting questions glad you're blogging!

  2. Well getting angry about someone cutting in line doesn’t affect you as deeply as watching a loved one permanently disappear or chronically suffer. You'll be annoyed as hell, but the incident won't being devastating. Loved ones who suffer of a deep loss hold emotions that fluctuate in intensity through an extended period of time: anxiety, grief, loneliness, numbness, and anger. They cope by pursuing a feeling of control through fantasizing or forgiving. Forgiveness is only a means of coping at the beginning and negative feelings are let go in the long run. It’s a means of closure or acceptance while violent fantasies serve as a temporary coping mechanism to the grief that never ends.

  3. Interesting commentary on this post... @Mike, I think forgiving can be a fantasy that helps people move on or cope, but I also think that there is something very real about coming to terms with a trauma and moving on. Maybe forgiving isn't the right word, but there are some folks in my study who are very clearly stuck in a cycle of anger and fear; while there are others who may still experience these emotions, but have found ways to move on and accept their fate. Religion and spirituality play a big part in this process.

    Also, @Jessica, I agree that certain transgressions are harder to overcome. In theory, I've always known that losing a loved one to murder is a terrible thing. However, I didn't realize how much this impacts people until I started following a family that lost their youngest son. While the killers were convicted to life sentences, the family has no respite from their pain. It's as you say, "grief that never ends."