There is only so much you can say about clemency, and much more to discover about the underpinnings of mass murder.
I realized about midway through Forgiven that I’m probably not the right audience for this book. Terri Roberts’ story about the compassion of her Amish neighbors doesn’t seem to care about the reasons behind her son’s heinous act. Me, I care about the reasons. Don’t get me wrong: Forgiveness is important, too. However, there is only so much you can say about clemency, and much more to discover about the psychological and societal underpinnings of mass murder.
On October 2, 2006, Roberts’ son Charles brought an arsenal of weapons—including a handgun, shotgun, and rifle, along with 600 rounds of ammunition—into the one-room Nickel Mines Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. He released the male students, holding the female teacher and students hostage. Roberts shot 10 girls, killing 5, before killing himself. He left behind four notes, one for his wife and each of his children, justifying his actions. I’m a scholar of such writings, as they often provide unparalleled insight into the mental makeup and motivations of mass killers. There is much to be learned. And, as Forgiven illustrates, much to be ignored.
Roberts doesn’t peel back many layers on her son’s mental state, prior observations of his behavior, or signs she may have missed. Instead, she focuses only on the forgiveness of the Amish community.
This in itself is a beautiful story. Rather than hold her family in revulsion, the neighboring families recognized the pain Charles’s parents, wife, children, and brothers were feeling. After all, they were victims, too: They had also lost a loved one. Before the day is out, families of the murdered girls begin arriving at the Roberts home with food and condolences.
You’ve probably heard the story about the gunman’s funeral. As expected, paparazzi showed up at the cemetery, threatening to intrude upon the ceremony. Suddenly, the mass of journalists parted and a row of Amish men formed, protecting the Roberts family from the invasion. A more stunning image of forgiveness there never was.
Roberts gets to know each of the Amish families, previously people she regarded as a group rather than familiar individuals. They make frequent trips to her home, and she returns the favor, acknowledging their grief and sharing their sorrow. She invites the Amish women and daughters over for an annual tea. A lovely gesture, right?
And yet, it seems as if Roberts too often toots her own horn. The Amish appear to enjoy and appreciate these gatherings, but it appears Roberts is the one making the grand gesture, rather than approaching the neighborhood gathering as an equal.
Out of this tragedy—and the resultant forgiveness—Roberts gains a career as a public speaker. She travels to conferences, meetings, and private engagements, telling the story of Amish forgiveness. Note the structure of that sentence: It’s the Amish’s forgiveness, not her own. And yet, she is the one building a name out of the tale.
The Amish, we learn, do not give public speeches or presentations, so they would never take this story to the community and the country. By extension, were it not for Roberts telling their story, we would never learn about the depths of their forgiveness. And yes, their companionship and mercy are inspiring, uplifting, beautiful, something to which we all should aspire. But should the mother of the gunman gain from their loss?
The book makes no mention of where the profits go, which I also found discouraging. I wanted to know that my purchase would go to help those in need: the victims of these afflicted families, people desperate for psychological help, individuals and groups spearheading gun control efforts. Instead, I’m left wondering if I just put another tank of gas into Roberts’ car. | Laura Hamlett