Could you forgive your rapist, your father for murdering your mother or a drunk driver for killing your husband These brave women did…Empathising with hardened criminals, let alone forgiving rapists and murderers, is something most of us would dismiss out of hand. But here FRANCES CHILDS speaks to four women whose forgiveness is an inspiration
Joanne Nodding, 39, lives in Boston, Lincolnshire, with her husband Michael, a teacher. In 2004 she was brutally raped.
Forgiveness: Joanne says she was calm when she met the man who had brutally raped her
The night my life changed for ever, I was alone in a public building, catching up with paperwork. When I heard the door open, I glanced up and saw a man I knew standing in the doorway. For a moment, I assumed Sean was going to ask me a question, but instead he lunged at me.
I felt abject humiliation and fear as he viciously assaulted and raped me on the floor. He was a big, powerfully-built man and I honestly believed he was going to kill me. Afterwards, I staggered to a lavatory and locked myself in, then I called the police.
My husband Michael was told I’d been attacked. He thought I’d been mugged, and was utterly traumatised when the police told him the full story. Even though Sean was quickly arrested, I still felt horribly vulnerable. I had been robbed of all my self-confidence, and for a long time my life was governed by fear. If someone walked behind me in the street, I had to cross over.
The effect on my family was almost as devastating. My parents didn’t know how to comfort me: I was their little girl, and I’d been sickeningly violated. Michael was in emotional turmoil. He felt irrationally guilty that he hadn’t been able to protect me. For weeks after the attack, the bruises were still visible. Every time I looked at myself I was reminded of the rape.
Sean pleaded guilty and was given a life sentence. The trial, six months after I was attacked, was humiliating and traumatic, but I was relieved that he wouldn’t be able to harm anyone else. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the only way to stop my life being defined by this rape was to confront Sean. Through the Restorative Justice programme — a scheme that enables victims and perpetrators to meet each other — I came face to face with him in early 2010.
Meeting the man who had brutally raped me, I was calm. When I told Sean that I had thought he was going to murder me, he sobbed. I hadn’t expected that. Nor had I expected him to say that he was sorry, but he did. I needed to tell him in my own words how I felt, and I wanted him to understand the enormity of his crime, but I also wanted him to move on from the rape — as I had begun to do.
After we spoke, I no longer felt any anger towards him — all of that had been worked through in preparation for the meeting. I didn’t want him to carry the burden of guilt for ever. As I left, I turned to him and said: ‘A lot of people won’t understand this, but I forgive you.’ He simply stared at me, his eyes full of tears.
I hadn’t planned to forgive Sean right then, but on the spur of the moment I did, and it came from my heart. I feel liberated by forgiving him, but it’s not unconditional. If my mother had been attacked instead of me, there would have been no forgiveness. Sean won’t die in prison and I wouldn’t want him to. Enough of his life has been wasted. I was chosen at random; simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. But forgiving Sean has helped to heal me. I am no longer a victim, I am a survivor.
Margaret Foxley, 53, is a teacher. She lives with her husband Paul, 54, an architect, in Lancashire. In 2008 Margaret was burgled.
Being burgled was devastating. I had always thought of myself as strong, but having my house broken into left me feeling incredibly vulnerable: the large, detached home where I had felt so happy and safe no longer seemed secure. For weeks afterwards, I was terrified the thief would return. Everywhere I looked, I imagined his presence.
While he had caused little damage, bar smashing the front door open, he took some of our most treasured possessions, like the jewellery I’d had custom-made for my daughter Jessica’s 18th birthday. But more than that, the thief stole my peace of mind. My husband Paul and son Oliver, 22, shared my sense of outrage, but Jessica was more circumspect. She may have lost her gorgeous jewellery, but she seemed strangely forgiving.
Moving on: Margaret Foxley (left) and Natalia Aggiano (right)
When, on Christmas Eve, we got the welcome news that the burglar had been arrested and would go to prison for several years, Jessica wouldn’t condemn him. I was perplexed by her attitude. ‘Poor thing — he’ll have a horrible Christmas,’ she reflected.We all told her she was mad. Fancy feeling sorry for the toerag who’d burgled our home. But Jess quietly insisted that for someone to sink so low, terrible things must have happened to them. Seven months later, our beloved daughter died in a car crash. Losing Jessica was a hammer blow to the heart.
When, just a few days after her funeral, a police Family Liaison Officer approached me and asked whether I’d take part in a Restorative Justice scheme — meeting the man who’d burgled us — it felt almost like Fate. I knew Jessica would have said yes. I could almost hear my daughter’s voice urging: ‘Go on, Mum, you can do it.’
To my surprise, meeting Peter was therapeutic. He wasn’t at all as I’d imagined. He was a middle-aged father, deeply ashamed of the downward spiral his life had taken. A prolific burglar, stealing to support his drug habit, there was none of the cockiness or arrogance I’d expected. I told him about my beautiful daughter, a girl whose funeral brought together everyone, from the checkout workers at Asda where she shopped to the man who sold her a paper every morning. ‘She lit up people’s lives. She saw the good in everyone — even you,’ I told him.
Ninety-four per cent of us want to see more forgiveness, a recent survey found
Peter told me that he’d grown up in care, without love or guidance. He had never known normal, happy family life. When I told him that Jessica, the one person in our family who had been prepared to forgive him, had died, he was shattered. Learning he’d stolen a laptop that contained irreplaceable photos of Jess devastated him. He begged for forgiveness, and I found I wanted to give it to him.
My husband and son have never met Peter, but I see him every few months and they support that. Peter is a transformed man. Newly released, he’s got a job, and is drug-free. Most importantly, he is in contact with his family. He has the chance to be a good father, and that means the world to me.
Natalia Aggiano, 33, works in personnel at Heathrow Airport. She is one of four children and lives alone in Middlesex. In 1997, when she was 19, her father Bruno, 55, murdered her mother Elva, 47.
As a child, I hated my father. He was a domineering bully who wouldn’t let my mother out of his sight.
Dad insisted that Mum and I wear clothes that he approved of: long skirts and blouses buttoned up to the neck. He had a phobia of strangers and was obsessed with the idea they meant to harm or interfere with us. Consequently, we weren’t allowed to have friends. Poor Mum was a prisoner in her own home.
Once a week, she would nip out to meet her mother at our local cafe in Scunthorpe. Dad, a factory worker, would follow her to make sure she wasn’t talking to anyone else. In fact, Dad was a schizophrenic, but he wasn’t diagnosed until it was too late. He beat me if I disobeyed him. He didn’t physically abuse my mother, but he terrorised her emotionally. When I was 17, I left home and moved to Mansfield. I begged Mum to come with me, but she felt obliged to keep the family together.
But two years later, in 1997, she turned up on my doorstep with my youngest brother, Daniel, then just nine years old. She’d finally plucked up the courage to leave. The next few weeks were the happiest in my life. Away from Dad’s intimidating presence, Mum blossomed. Poking round the shops, having long chats, we began the mother-daughter relationship I’d always imagined.
Then, one evening, Mum said Dad had phoned and asked her to collect some mail. I felt a shiver of fear and so did she. She was afraid Dad would kill her and I begged her not to go, but decent, honourable Mum decided Dad had a right to see Daniel. The next morning, she left before I woke up. I never saw her again. Dad sent my brother off for fish and chips then stabbed her to death. When the police told me, I insisted on seeing my father immediately. I needed to hear him admit his guilt. The first thing I said to him was: ‘I’ll stand by you if you tell me the truth. If you lie to me, you’ll never see me again.’
He was a sobbing, broken man, so different to the tyrant of my childhood. Dad admitted that he had killed my mother, believing that in this way, he was saving her soul. Even then, I could see clearly that he was very ill and should have been diagnosed years earlier. To begin with, I didn’t think about forgiveness. But I did feel a strange loyalty to the pitiable creature my father had become.
He was sent to Rampton Secure Hospital. I visited him often and he would tell me stories about Mum, happy memories about our early family life. In a strange way, he kept her alive for me. Of course, I was torn — sometimes I hated him for what he’d done. But then, looking at this helpless man who loathed himself more than I ever could, I felt a surge of pity. After a few years I realised I had truly forgiven Dad.
Daniel had moved in with my older sister. She brought him up as Mum would have done. For the first five years I was Dad’s only visitor. Later on, my older brother softened, but my sister never did. Daniel did see our father from time to time, and on Dad’s death bed, Daniel told him that he forgave him. That was very important to Dad. When Dad died of cancer in 2006, I was devastated. I had learnt to love him by then.
It might be hard for others to understand — my neighbours even spat at me in the street — but I had to forgive my father because I couldn’t live a life consumed by hatred. Shortly before she died, Mum had said: ‘I love him for what he is, not for what he has done.’ I tried to follow her example. I have written a book, Unconditional Love, which commemorates Mum’s attitude.
Kathleen Key, 52, is a foster carer. She is a widow with four children and lives in Margate. In 2006, Kathleen’s husband of 28 years, Darryl, was killed by a drunk driver.
Devastated: Kathleen”s husband was killed by a drunk driver
The day I was widowed started off like any other. Darryl was a staff sergeant in the Army and he went to work while I pottered around at home with our three-year-old daughter Charlie.
When the bell went five hours later and I opened the door to a police officer, I didn’t instantly feel uneasy. Being a foster carer to teenagers, I knew they could get into mischief. But my initial breeziness was quickly punctured. Gently, the officer told me that my husband was dead.
His motorbike had been hit by a car doing an illegal U-turn on a dual carriageway. The driver had been drunk and was arrested at the scene. Darryl had died almost instantly. Initially, I felt utter disbelief — I literally couldn’t take it in. It was only once I’d identified Darryl’s body at the hospital that the truth hit me. Then I was filled with the most terrible despair.
Overwhelmed with grief, I collapsed at the hospital. I wanted to die, but I couldn’t end it all — I had children who needed their mum. Later, I attended the trial and saw Robert, the driver, a pensioner in his 60s, jailed for 15 months. The leniency of the sentence angered my three sons, but even if he’d served a hundred years, Darryl would still be dead.
A year later, I decided that I wanted to meet the driver. My young daughter would need answers about her father’s death and I wanted Robert to give them to me. The Restorative Justice programme approached Robert and, to my surprise, he agreed to meet me.
I had eight months preparation for the meeting and my first words to Robert were: ‘If you think I’m going to forgive you, you can rot in hell.’ But facing this man who had wreaked such havoc in my life, I couldn’t stay angry. He looked so crumpled and pathetic, a shadow of a man. I demanded to know what had brought him to this point, where he’d binge drink and then get into his car. He told me his wife had died shortly before and he’d been drinking alone, into the early hours, to drown his sorrows. Shame personified, he couldn’t meet my eyes.
If he’d been in a pub boozing with his pals, I couldn’t have forgiven him, but I empathised with his pain. Because he hadn’t dealt with his grief over his wife, he had caused this terrible sorrow in my life. Hating him wouldn’t bring Darryl back.
‘I want you to enjoy your family. I want you to have pleasure in your grandchildren. Darryl didn’t get that chance. Don’t squander the life you have left in self-pity and remorse,’ I said gently.
I will never stop grieving for Darryl. But grief is the price we pay for love, and Darryl was the love of my life.
Some names have been changed. For more information, visit theforgivenessproject.org.uk, founded by Marina Cantacuzino, and restorativejustice.org.uk. Unconditional Love, by Natalia Aggiano, is available at amazon.co.uk.