Thursday, April 7, 2011

Victims of crime and their recovery

Heaven's Rain

For this post I decided to focus not on criminal choices but on the choice of victims during their recovery. I recently attended a small premier for a movie based on a true story, titled “Heaven’s Rain”. A synopsis of the film can be found here.

For the survivors of violent crime, the greatest damage is psychological rather than physical. The film tells of siblings Brooks and Leslie Douglass, who were left for dead after their parents were murdered during a home robbery. The official site notes that Brooks “struggled through high school and college, repeatedly failing out, drinking heavily, and given to bouts of rage”. Leslie, “once a beauty queen with a beautiful voice, fought to put her life together as she dealt with recurring nightmares and struggled in relationships.”

How the victim responds to this suffering can determine whether happiness in their life will be possible, or whether they will remain consumed by grief, anger, and undeserved guilt. Brooks went to law school and became a Senator in Oklahoma. At the start of the film he is shown sponsoring a bill for victim’s rights. However in his private life he remains obsessed and miserable. The movie, influenced strongly by the Christian background of its creator Brooks Douglass himself, proposes forgiveness as the answer.

Letting go

The meaning and impact of forgiveness in the film, however, is not completely clear. In the climactic scene, Brooks forgives one of his two attackers during a visit to the prison. This follows a tense exchange in which he admits he is incapable of granting forgiveness, even knowing that his father would have done so in his place. He is visibly angry and grief-stricken, at one point giving the prisoner the keys to his handcuffs, as if daring him to start a physical confrontation. The scene culminates when he stands and announces that the anger and suffering need to end, suggesting that the decision to forgive was prompted less by the credo that one should “love the sinner” than by the need to heal.

Since we had the pleasure of a Q&A with Mr. Douglass at the premier, I did receive some elaboration. One audience member had asked what effect the death penalty has on crime victims. He said that with the execution of one of the attackers, Steven Hatch, he felt deep relief that he would never be brought again to relive the events of his parents’ death in court. It gave him final resolution. He also related a sense of betrayal when the shooter, Glen Ake, received a retrial and was sentenced to life imprisonment. My personal takeaway from these comments is that “forgiveness” used here does not relieve the criminal of culpability, but helps the victim to move past his suffering to live again.

His success in getting over the pain of his past gave Brooks Douglass a new life and inspired his sister’s own recovery. He not only started the movie project but acted in it as his own father, pursuing an old dream to make movies while finally telling his story and serving his passion for justice and victims’ rights.

Further thoughts

Although I started this post noting that my focus would be on victims during recovery, it also provides interesting food for thought on the behavior of criminals. Many criminals were at some point victims of violent crime or abuse by their own parents. And it would be grossly unfair to expect anyone, especially as vulnerable as a child or adolescent, to suffer violence without wanting to lash out in anger and pain.

As I discussed in a previous post, however, criminals do not appear to deal with victimization by attempting to overcome their feelings of anger; instead, this pain is embraced and used to excuse the harm they inflict on others. Real victimization mingles in their mind with imagined conspiracies, Jack Abbott's "hostile world". Child victimization alone is not a reliable predictor of crime in adulthood. However, perhaps how a child deals with trauma could be an indicator of that potential.

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