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Review of "Before Forgiving"

By Sharon Lamb and Jeffrie G. Murphy (editors)
Oxford University Press, 2002
Review by Nancy Potter, Ph.D. on Dec 1st 2002
Before Forgiving

In Wally Lamb's novel I Know This Much is True (1998), Dominick recounts his memories of a turbulent family life of violence and mental illness. Yet at the end, he is able to say:

I am not a smart man, particularly, but one day, at long last, I stumbled from the dark woods of my own, and my family's, and my country's past, holding in my hands these truths: that love grows from the rich loam of forgiveness; that mongrels make good dogs; that the evidence of God exists in the roundness of things. (897)

By the time Dominick reaches this state of clarity and peace, readers welcome the relief it brings him. But novelists (and the rest of us) also sometimes question the rightness of treating forgiveness as a universal moral imperative. In Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (1991), sisters Rose and Ginny are portrayed as having made moral improvements in their characters by refusing to forgive their abusive father his wrongs. Rose, reflecting on her life as she lays dying of cancer, says “All I have is the knowledge that I saw! That I saw without being afraid and without turning away, and that I didn’t forgive the unforgivable. Forgiveness is a reflex for when you can’t stand what you know. I resisted that reflex. That’s my sole, solitary, lonely accomplishment” (355).  Whether or not forgiveness is a moral demand--and whether or not refusing to forgive is ever morally praiseworthy--intersects with concerns about mental health: injury, especially grievous or repeated ones, damages us in ways that may be healed by forgiveness. But when is that the case? And is forgiveness the only route to healing from the wounds of being wronged? These are some of the questions under consideration in the anthology Before Forgiving: Cautionary Views of Forgiveness in Psychotherapy.

This is a strong anthology that should appeal to clinicians and philosophers alike. It is interdisciplinary in that its authors come from the fields of psychology, philosophy, research science, education or the ministry, and many writers have training or experience in more than one field. The philosophical analyses nicely complement discussions of clinical practice, and the collection of articles is well-balanced in critique and defense of what is referred to as "forgiveness therapy." It is also set up well with an introduction by Sharon Lamb that situates the anthology in the context of current therapeutic and philosophical debates in a clear and concise manner.

Many of the standard philosophical questions are taken up (Are there certain conditions that must be met in order for the forgiveness to be appropriate? How important is self-forgiveness compared to the importance of forgiving others? and so on), so readers who are unfamiliar with this terrain will be quickly caught up. Philosophical articles are, for the most part, relatively accessible and clear. But what is unique about this anthology is the application of these questions to mental distress and healing. In addition to advancing our conceptual clarity and practical knowledge on the subject, this book illustrates the wisdom of philosophers and clinicians working and thinking together: each discipline is mutually enriched by such dialogue.

A majority of the authors refer to writings of Robert Enright, some to endorse and others to repudiate. Enright is an advocate of forgiveness therapy and clearly has been deeply influential in clinical literature. Expanding on Enright's work, Margaret Holmgren argues that forgiveness is always good and desirable as long as the clinician observes certain constraints, and the constraints she discusses seem reasonable. (They do leave one wondering, though, what the force of the obligation is; Holmgren draws on Kantian ethics, but moral imperatives, according to Kant, must not be conditional.)  Norvin Richards, also drawing on Enright, offers a fair and balanced discussion of forgiveness therapy and uses numerous examples to illustrate his points. Jeffrie Murphy, although not so balanced, gives a compelling argument against Enright. Readers familiar with Murphie's work will know that he does not think we have an obligation to forgive others and that sometimes we may even have an obligation to ourselves not to forgive others. Here, Murphie considers not only persons as moral agents but as persons whose mental distress might be due to the wrongs we have suffered; still, he argues, it may sometimes be therapeutically bad for us to forgive. I take his point, but as a philosopher of peace as well as of psychiatry, I cringe at the suggestion that perpetrators of evil should be "brought to self-hatred" (49). I am persuaded by the argument by psychiatrist James Gilligan (1996) that shame and self-loathing are at the heart of violence.

The question of how to live with ourselves when we are the wrongdoer is crucial to address, both for moral integrity and for mental health. Janet Landman's analysis of Katherine Ann Power's efforts to earn the forgiveness of a family whose father she was complicit in murdering is a wonderful contribution to the book. Landman makes clear that the process of earning forgiveness from others is painfully slow and demanding of ourselves.

Landman draws on the work of Joanna North, who sees the process of earning forgiveness as involving nine stages. The idea that forgiveness is a process that has steps is a thread throughout the book.  While I see the merits of viewing forgiveness as a process, I'm less enamoured of the idea of identifying stages. Yet when I read Landman's article, I appreciated the theory and analysis as it applied to Powers.

A stage theory of forgiveness is called into question in the important article by Janice Haaken. By focusing on internal representations, not just interpersonal relations, Haaken suggests that much of the thinking about forgiveness as therapeutic is too simplistic. Her work is also important in that it pays attention to issues of power and cultural difference. Also arguing for the importance of considering culture and context are Joshua Thomas and Andrew Garrod, who present empirical studies from Bosnians after the war. They offer several important criticisms of the forgiveness model when applied to Bosnians or other victims of war trauma, and their article is fascinating and rich. This article and two other ones in the collection directly raise the question of whether there are not additional appropriate paths to healing other than forgiveness. Lamb, for example, focuses on gender differences and argues that women bear a greater burden to forgive than do men. It might be more appropriate, Lamb suggests, for therapists and clients to focus on apology rather than forgiveness when the client has been a victim of abuse.

Throughout this book, the critics of forgiviness therapy imply that clinicians may be wrongly advocating forgiveness to their clients. The concern appears to be that clinicians not only believe forgiveness would help heal their clients, but that many of them press their clients into forgiving either too quickly or under conditions when being forgiving may do further damage to the client.  It's not clear whether this concern is warranted, though. The article "Forgiveness in Practice" by Varda Konstam, Fern Marx, Jennifer Schurer, Nancy Emerson Lombardo, and Anne Harrington, is an important contribution, because it presents research findings on the degree to which clinicians really do push their clients towards forgiveness. Their empirical data shows that, although the clinicians studied believe forgiveness is an important aspect of many people's therapy, relatively few of them were initiating it as a topic. The authors propose that clinicians need to be trained in this area.

Regardless of whether forgiveness is always, or only sometimes, good and right to do, we need both theoretical and practical knowledge about forgiveness as well as other ways to deal with the wrongs we do one another. This book is a necessary step towards that end as it applies to mental health and distress. There are a few weaknesses, though. One of the tasks of this book is to identify the goals and purposes of therapy and to critically examine the role of clinician as moral or spiritual guide. Although these questions were alluded to, they were not developed sufficiently or rigorously enough. Readers may also wish there were more defense of the assumption in many of the articles that resentment is debilitating and that peace of mind is a great good. Lamb is right to suggest that forgiveness advocates seem to be afraid of strong feeling.  Feelings should sometimes be strong; it is part of being human. As Aristotle says, the good person is one who not only does the right things but has the right feelings in the context of a given situation.  And this brings me to my final comment about the anthology. A number of the authors call forgiveness a virtue, but not one of them actually employs virtue theory to fill out the idea. Given questions about whether we can "hate the sin, love the sinner" (Holmgren) or whether our characters are constitutionally given (Norman Care), and claims about the need to contextualize and particularize the moral appropriateness of forgiving, one would think virtue theory would be a natural avenue to pursue.  (For readers who want to see what a virtue theory of forgiveness would look like, see my article "Is Refusing to Forgive a Vice?")  Nevertheless, these shortcomings do not outweigh the significant contribution to the interdisciplinary fields of philosophy and mental health.



Gilligan, James, M.D.  1996. Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. New York: Random House.

Lamb, Wally. 1998. I Know This Much is True. New York: Harper Collins.

Potter, Nancy. 2001."Is Refusing to Forgive a Vice?" in Feminists Doing Ethics, ed. Peggy DesAutels and Joanne Waugh, Rowman-Littlefield Press, 135-150.

Smiley, Jane. 1991. A Thousand Acres. New York: Knopf.



© 2002 Nancy Potter


Nancy Potter, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Louisville. Her research interests include philosophy and mental illness, philosophies of peace, and ethics. Her book How Can I Be Trusted? A Virtue Theory of Trustworthiness, published by Rowman-Littlefield, is due in the bookstores December 2002.