Saturday, September 5, 2009

Forgiveness and Compassion

Flowers in a Vase
Pierre-Auguste Renoir

I think most people struggle with the concept of forgiveness. It doesn't come easily to many of us. It is somehow contrary to human nature. Often our first instinct in retaliation for a wrong against us is to get revenge. "Just you wait...!" Compassion, however, is entrenched in human nature, and most people -- unless they are psychopathic or sociopathic -- feel deep compassion for our fellow human beings or other creatures who are in distress. People will rush to the aid of strangers, and even put themselves into danger to ease someone else's suffering. However, when forgiveness and compassion are two sides of the same coin, it becomes complicated.

Forty years ago, during the infamous "Manson murders", 21 year-old Susan Atkins stabbed 26 year-old Sharon Tate to death, as Tate begged for her life and that of her unborn baby. Susan Atkins told Sharon Tate that she had no compassion for her, and proceeded to stab her 16 times. These were two young women in their 20s, they had never met each other before that night, and the act of violence perpetrated by one young woman on the other is inconceivable to most of us. And now it is Susan Atkins' turn to beg for compassion. Yesterday her plea for compassionate release from prison was denied. She is bed-ridden and dying from terminal brain cancer, and she is not likely to be a threat to the community. But, here is where the concept of forgiveness comes into play. How many people would be able to forgive Susan Atkins for what she did, and thereby show compassion towards her? I have thought about this over the past day or so, and I struggle with it. If I were on that parole board, what would I do? Forgiveness and compassion -- two similar but different concepts -- what would you do?


Land of shimp said...

Susan Atkins told Sharon Tate that she had no compassion for her, and proceeded to stab her 16 times.

This line is the one most frequently quoted when it came to Atkins potential release. In Atikins' own words she admitted, "I told her I didn't have any mercy on her."

People put that forth, and in several discussions I had about it in real-life, I found myself pointing out, "We are supposed to be better than she was in that moment. We are supposed to have mercy."

Yet when I asked myself, "Should she be released?" I struggled and finally thought, "Sadly, no." As much as I want to extend compassion to a dying woman, and to simply be a better person, rise above, and access my best self? I get stuck with a concept from childhood: Actions have consequences.

Admittedly, her dying body is her prison at this point. Is requiring her to serve out her sentence regardless of the state of her well being truly denying compassion? I don't know.

Forgiving an act is not the same thing as condoning it. Intellectually I know that. I read once that the true test of character is not how we treat someone we care about, but how we treat someone we actively dislike.

I can't quite get myself to the point where I think releasing her to die free, in better surroundings is the thing I'd want to do, but I do know that it is the thing I ought to want to do, if that makes any sense.

So that's where I am with it.

Jennifer D said...

Jo, I feel the same as you, I struggle with it.

Jo said...

Alane, "I can't quite get myself to the point where I think releasing her to die free, in better surroundings is the thing I'd want to do, but I do know that it is the thing I ought to want to do, if that makes any sense." That is precisely where I am about it. I know how I should feel, but unfortunately I can't bring myself to feel compassion for her, and that puzzles me.

Jennifer, yes, I think most people struggle with it. It was such a horrendous thing for a young woman to do to another young woman -- a stranger.

DUTA said...

No struggle at all. I have zero compassion for Susan Atkins as well as for the released Lockerbie bomber Al Megrahi from scottish prison.

greenpanda said...

Some things cannot be forgiven, and I agree totally with Land of Shimp.

Sunny said...

I consider myself both forgiving and compassionate, however, for a woman that stabbed a pregnant woman repeatedly, I sadly feel neither forgiveness nor compassion.
She has been in prison so long that it is her home and that is where she should remain.
Not all debts are paid with money.

Jo said...

DUTA, I agree with you on both counts. I wish I could be more compassionate towards both those people, but their actions towards other human beings were horrific.

Stephen, yes, crime and punishment, I guess -- unfortunately. They are paying the consequences of taking other lives.

Sunny, yes, I hardly see the point in releasing her now. She is barely conscious most of the time. A few moments of her time in her youth ruined her whole life.

Paula Slade said...

That is a tough call Jo. I too struggle with the thought of a compassionate release in light of her admitted guilt and lack of remorse. I think I would be more prone to release if either of those issues were different.

Nancy said...

She not only killed Sharon Tate, she killed her unborn child. She was eight months pregnant! Sharon begged her to spare her child.

Susan sealed her fate. May God have mercy on her soul.

ivan said...

This reises powerfully felt emotions, even forty years later.
Sharon Tait's husband was the genius film maker Roman Polanski.
Myself a little bit Polish, why do I want to call him a Polack? Where was he?

robert said...

Hope to be allowed to say that this is the first time that I read about this.
Growing up for more than three decades, only to receive a letter from my father last year, placed me as well to the question, on whether to forgive him, leaving me/us to spend most of our lifes alone or not.
Ever since there's a loose contact with letters.
With regard to the above case, well, I guess that I would allow her to leave the prison and to spend the remaining time somewhere else, allowing her to see, what kind of a life her victim could have had, assuming that it might turn her to ask for forgiveness as well when meeting a higher power than us.

ivan said...


As a divorced father, I feel for you, my friend.

It wasn't till my son wrote a poem and sent it to me, that I risked the pain and complication of revisiting my children.
Title of the poem? My father never comes.

Jo said...

Paula, unfortunately I accidentally stumbled upon the crime scene photos when I "Googled" Sharon Tate, and I was horrified. If after all these years Atkins has no remorse, it's unbelievable!

Nancy, that's the most horrific part, isn't it? How could a person even do something like that!?

Robert, I'm sorry to hear you didn't have a good relationship with your father. And yes, that is an interesting concept, to make her see, too, what kind of life she has missed out on as well, being incarcerated her whole life.

Ivan, Sharon Tate's husband (Polanski) was in France directing a film, and she stayed in California because she could not fly in the last month of her pregnancy. And I'm sorry, too, about your estrangement from your children. Your son sounds like a nice young man, to have written a poem -- and maybe a chip off the old block?

The Bug said...

Ivan - how heart-rending! I'm glad you took the risk...

I would release her - but I'm a person whose desire for vengeance, once it cools, just goes away. She was punished. And now she's suffering in yet another way. I don't think I could leave her in prison to die.

Mariana Soffer said...

The dalai lama says:
It is my belief, for the world in general, that compassion is more important than "religion." The population of our planet is over five billion. Of these, perhaps one billion actively and sincerely follow a formal religion. The remaining over four billion are not believers in the true sense. If we regard the development of compassion and other good qualities as the business only of religion, these over four billion, the majority, will be excluded. As brothers and sisters, members of our great human family, every one of these people has the potential to be inspired by the need for compassion can be developed and nurtured without following or practicing a particular religion.

And I agree with him, but anyway I think that man should be killed

very interesting post Jo

Anonymous said...


I'm not saying what she did is excusable, but maybe her brain cancer was present back in her
20'? Forgiveness is not always humanly possible, but I do believe if you have faith in God...anything is possible.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I struggle with this issue tremendously in general, not necessarily as it relates to Susan Atkins. There is the deep-seated fear that forgiving one who has grievously wronged me is saying in effect that what he did doesn't matter because I was a lesser being. I know intellectually that forgiveness is actually for my own peace of mind so that I won't continue to carry the burden of my pain and anger, but it's hard to translate into action.

About the Manson people, I think that out of respect for the innocents they killed including an unborn child, they should remain in prison. This does not put me on Atkins' level because I have not murdered anyone.

Jo said...

The Bug, I know, it's a difficult decision, isn't it? Talk about requiring the wisdom of Solomon!

Mariana, I made the horrible mistake of stumbling onto the crime scene photos, and I was never so shocked. Talk about "man's inhumanity to man". The person who did those things has no compassion whatsoever, and had shown no remorse. It's difficult to forgive someone like that, isn't it?

Anne-Marie, yes, it is something I struggle with all the time -- forgiveness. And to see how ill that woman is now, it is hard not to feel compassion for her. Maybe this is her Karma.

Hearts, "There is the deep-seated fear that forgiving one who has grievously wronged me is saying in effect that what he did doesn't matter because I was a lesser being." Yes, I think a lot of people struggle with that too. Sometimes it's easier to let go -- for our own sake -- and try to forget, but forgiving is a whole other thing. It's like that saying. "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me."

Nicole said...

Ugh. Being eight months pregnant this makes me want to put my hands over my ears and run the other way.
My father is a truely selfish man and right now while my little family is suffering set back after set back all I hear from him (when I hear from him)is about what he is buying himself and the trips he is taking. Each night I pray and ask God to help me overcome my disappointment and dislike. I ask fornthe strengh to forgive and let it go...or at least to let it go. I don't have to like him, but for my well being, for the strength of my character I need to not have this dragging me down.
How does this relate to Susan Atkins? It comes down to the same thing...being able to let it go for the sake of my well being. BUT it is sooooo difficult to do.
I agree with Land of Shrimp-the true test is how we treat someone we dislike.

Kathy's Klothesline said...

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"....... that's all

Jo said...

Nicole, it is beyond my comprehension that someone could treat their family like that. It takes a very big heart to forgive. What on earth is he thinking!?

Kathy, oh goodness, yes. You have summed it up very well. Yes.

the walking man said...

I would keep her where she is because her illness is terminal and she is receiving the best medical care available for the indigent. If the burden of her medical care could be passed from the state to the private sector I would release her.

Russell said...

I have spent more time than I wish working with criminals. With extremely few exceptions, they are remorseful they got caught -- not for what they did.

Sure, yes, they probably have some regret. But they rationalize their behavior. Often they claim it was because of a bad childhood or bad luck or whatever. In reality, they were selfish, undiscplined, ignorant and/or lazy.

People makes choices and there are consequences. Life is not fair - but that is true for all of us.

Would I vote to let Susan Atkins out of prison? No. I would be thinking of Sharon Tate, her unborn child and her family when I cast my vote. I would also be thinking about society in general.

Forgiveness and compassion are good. But that does not equate to absolution or exoneration for past choices.

Anonymous said...

I've thought about this a lot also. I was in my twenties when the hideous Manson family started slaughtering people and I remember it all so well. I could NEVER EVER forgive any of them. But compassion for Susan this point, I do have some. I would let her out to die.

pranksygang said...

I surely cant forgive her for what she did!!

Jo said...

Mark, you're right. At this point, it is probably the best thing to do. What kind of life would she have at this point?

Russell, "Forgiveness and compassion are good. But that does not equate to absolution or exoneration for past choices." You said it best. It was her choice to commit that horrific murder.

Carla, I think, after having spent 40 years in prison, it may be the only world she knows, and the compassionate thing would be to let her stay in her own world. It's a tough call.

Pranksygang, well, you know, when I accidentally stumbled upon the crime scene photos, I must admit my compassion for Susan Atkins went out the window... sadly.


Is it possible she's getting better and safer care in prison?

We don't know how coherent she is. We don't know how mobile she is. If she's bed-ridden and unable to determine much around her, then it might not matter where she is as she lives out the remaining weeks.

I think compassion to her family (if she has any left), is what I'm thinking of. If she does have parents; brothers or sisters, then allowing them to have better access to her without prison bars, might be better FOR THEM.

Her family didn't commit the crime; they've had to suffer all these years with their child or sibling behind bars; living with the knowledge of her terrible crime.

Now with her tumor, she probably remembers little, but they still recall it all.

I'd release her to a hospital; put a guard service around her to protect her from people who might be hateful, not publicize it, and let the family come and go as they can, so they can at least say their good-byes and hold her hand in her last hours.

Obviously, she's received all legal punishment; now she's receiving her ultimate punishment, but no family should have to deal with this tragedy - it's they who've suffered beyond words, I'm sure.

JeannetteLS said...

I'm just catching up on reading my blogs and I'm reading this after I wrote about forgiveness in my blog... I don't weigh in on the Susan Atkins situation much. I guess I figure it's not my situation to forgive or not forgive her. I am glad that there is a judicial system so that punishment isn't in my hands one way or another. I wonder what difference it makes now where the woman dies, but that's an intellectual exercise. Perhaps only through one act of mercy TO her would allow her the humanity to see where she did NOT offer mercy. I don't know.

But I have had enough struggles in learning what I believe about the nature of forgiveness in my small life, so that I guess I sort of leave Susan Atkins to the family of those whose lives she blew apart, and to the evolution or lack of it in her own psyche. Mostly I hope those who loved Sharon Tate and the others butchered have moved FAR past that atrocity so that, God willing, Atkins' existence or lack of it is nearly moot. That's what matters more to me--that those who were left with the memories of horror have not let those murderers destroy the rest of their own lives, you know?

My thoughts mostly go to them in this, that the opening of the wound isn't too damaging.

Katy said...

There have been people in my life that I have forgiven. Who never asked for forgivness. Who probably don't feel sorry at all for what they did that hurt me. But I forgave them, because I feel like it isn't for me to hold people's mistakes over their head. I have screwed up a lot in my life. I have hurt people that I care about. While I might not ever get the chance to ask for their forgivness. While I might not ever be in a position to make the situataion I made wrong right again, I would hope that I could be forgiven too.

So while I understand that what Susan Atkins did to Sharon Tate was horrible. While I know that her thoughts in that moment were monterous, I can't hold a whole person up against the worst thing they ever did.

From what I have read of Atkins, she is not the person she was in that moment of heartless murder. I would forgive her, I would release her. I would hope the Tate family would be able to do the same.