The holidays can be emotionally taxing for many people, but especially so for Sarah Montana.
It’s been more than a decade since her brother and mother were murdered in her childhood home in Dale City, Va.
“I have all of my mom’s ornaments and decorations, and every year I have to unpack the trauma all over again,” she says.
It was on Dec. 19, 2008, just six days before Christmas, that her mother Jean, 39, and younger brother James, 19, were shot by a 17-year-old neighbor, Xavier Pinckney, who’d broken into their house looking for valuables to steal.
Montana, who was 21 at the time of the murders, says she’s forgiven Pinckney. She hasn’t said it to his face — he’s serving a life sentence in a Virginia prison with no possibility of parole — but she’s sent him a letter.
Not to absolve him of guilt — “I told him what he did wasn’t OK and would never be OK,” Montana says of the letter she mailed three years ago — but to finally set herself free.
“It’s a Sisyphean task to carry the boulder of rage with you for the rest of your life,” says Montana, 32, who lives in Jersey City and works as a playwright and screenwriter. “Maybe some people need the weight, but I needed forgiveness so I could look to the future without that burden.”
For many, it’s hard to imagine following in Montana’s lead. A 2010 survey by the Fetzer Institute found that Americans are less inclined than ever to forgive.
Although 94 percent said our country needs more forgiveness in general, 60 percent believed forgiveness should be conditional — it depended on “the offender apologizing and making changes.” And more than half believe that some situations, like sexual abuse or murder, are completely unforgivable.
One of the most high-profile displays of forgiveness this year was also one of the most controversial.
Brandt Jean, the 18-year-old brother of Botham, who was murdered in his Dallas apartment by Amber Guyger, an off-duty police officer, made a shocking request during his victim-impact statement in October.
After forgiving Guyger, who received a 10-year-sentence for the murder, he asked the judge, “Can I give her a hug, please?”
The judge agreed, and the two embraced in what seemed like a genuine moment of true forgiveness.
But it sparked a backlash online, especially on social media. People were “disgusted and furious,” deriding the hug as “stupid” and “unacceptable.” Brandt Jean was labeled as “the biggest traitor in America,” and one Twitter user summed up the feelings of many in just three words: “Forgiveness? F–k that.”
Forgiveness has never been less fashionable, particularly in this era of social media, when people score points for being nasty to each other.
“Forgiveness often requires proximity,” says Martha Minow, a Harvard law professor and author of the recently released book “When Should Law Forgive?” The lack of eye contact in digital media, along with the disinhibition effect, makes it easier to choose rage over forgiving.
“It takes time and patience to forgive someone,” she says. “You have to actually listen and hear the apology and decide if it’s trustworthy. You can’t do that online.”
“The more you recognize someone as a human being… the harder it is to put a monster mask on them.”
Montana agrees that it’s more difficult to forgive in the culture of fear that’s only encouraged online. “I get on social media and see people calling other people animals,” she says. “We can’t even see people at the Thanksgiving table as humans anymore.”
Even Brandt, before accepting an ethical courage award from a law-enforcement organization earlier this month, seemed to be having second thoughts. As he told CNN, “As much as I want people to be forgiving, I don’t want there to be another brother who has to forgive.” (Brandt Jean did not respond to requests for an interview.)
His mother Allie Jean, who lives in the Caribbean nation of Saint Lucia, says she had no idea that Brandt was planning to forgive, much less hug Guyger.
“We never spoke about it,” she says. ‘When we entered the courtroom, I said to his dad, ‘Just back off. Let Brandt do what he needs to do.’ But we had no idea what he would say.”
Jean says she’s struggled to find peace after her son’s death — meditating, praying and fasting — but she hasn’t yet reached a place of forgiveness.
“Not like Brandt,” she says. “In my heart I forgive Guyger, but I can’t say those words directly to her.”
There’s an abundance of evidence that forgiving is beneficial — not just to the guilty party but the one doing the forgiving. Numerous studies have shown that anger and vengeance inhibit rational thinking and that forgiveness can activate areas in the brain linked to morality, empathy and problem-solving.
But there’s also evidence that not forgiving has its own benefits. A series of studies published in 2017 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that getting revenge on the people who’ve wronged you can lead to increased happiness and positive moods.
Many people likely agree with Reese Witherspoon’s character in the HBO series Big Little Lies, who once remarked, “I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets.”
Forgiveness may feel like a weakness, but it doesn’t have to be. Take Eva Kor, a Holocaust survivor imprisoned at Auschwitz concentration camp when she was just 10. Along with her twin sister, Miriam, she was subjected to unimaginable horrors at the hands of Dr. Josef Mengele.
Kor, who died this summer at the age of 85, famously embraced former Auschwitz guard Oskar Gröning in 2015, an act that spawned both accolades and outrage.
But as she explained in a 2016 interview with The Times of Israel, Kor was not condoning forgiving and forgetting.
“How on earth could anybody forget their whole family was murdered?” she asked. “That’s stupid. People remember, but the way you remember and why you remember should be different.”
Forgiveness, she explained, was not for the perpetrator but the victim. It was a way of reclaiming her personal power and she considered it her “ultimate revenge” against the Nazis.
For Montana, it was difficult to dehumanize Xavier, the kid who murdered her mom and brother, because she knew him personally. He often visited the house to raid the snack cabinet, and her mom showed him kindness because, as she explained to Montana, “He’s going through a hard time. I just want to make sure he knows that I see him.”
She was also friendly with Xavier’s family. “I knew his mom and sister,” she says. “I knew they were good people. They were people that we invited over to our house all the time.” After the murders, she thought of them and how their hearts must be breaking as well.
“The more you recognize someone as a human being, just as prone to suffering as you,” she says, “the harder it is to put a monster mask on them.”
Forgiveness is complicated enough, but it’s especially so when race is a factor.
Brandt Jean’s forgiveness of Amber Guyger wasn’t contentious just because he’d forgiven his brother’s killer. It was because he and his late brother are black and Guyger is white.
“You don’t see all this forgiveness foolishness in white society,” one commenter remarked on YouTube. “I wish black folks would knock it off.”
Bronx pastor Dimas Salaberrios, who’s worked directly with survivors of violence — he produced the new documentary “Emanuel: The Untold Story of the Victims and Survivors of the Charleston Church Shooting” (available on-demand) — says that forgiveness doesn’t mean giving the guilty a free pass, or glossing over a history of racial violence.
“I had to be free of that thing. But not everyone is ready to be free of their anger.”
“In the case of the Emanuel 9 shooting, after the families forgave Dylann Roof, they continued to seek justice for their loved ones,” he says. “Forgiveness was for their spiritual and mental health, and emotional well-being.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Catholic church in Doylestown, Pa., has been the target of multiple acts of vandalism over the last year and a half, from stolen donation boxes to the word “pedophile” spray-painted on a sign near the entrance. But Rev. Robert Ianelli, who preaches at the church, says he and the parishioners have tried to focus on forgiveness rather than vengeance.
“Forgiveness is one of the marks of being a Christian, a follower of Jesus,” he says. “Each time we gather for worship, we pray the Our Father, during which we say ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’” Though they certainly want the offenders caught, “we want to temper our desire for justice with mercy,” Ianelli says.
Religious convictions drive many to forgive even when their hearts want otherwise. “It is not easy to love your enemies,” says Allie Jean. “It is the most brutal thing that you could ever think of. But we have to get to that place if we truly want to get to heaven.”
It’s an ideology that’s easier said than done, even for the most devout believers. In a study released this year by Christian polling firm The Barna Group, 76 percent of practicing Christians claim they’ve offered unconditional forgiveness to someone who’s hurt them. But only 55 percent can remember another person offering the same forgiveness to them.
Forgiving like Brandt Jean or Sarah Montana may seem like more than any of us could deliver, but Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project and author of “Forgive for Good,” thinks we all have the capability to surprise ourselves.
“There’s an old saying that adversity reveals character, it doesn’t develop it,” he says. “Until you’ve been there, you have no idea what qualities could emerge from you.”
One important caveat: Luskin, who has worked with victims of violence in Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, says forgiveness should never be rushed.
“The process of grief can be like putting your brain in a blender,” he says. “You have to be angry, you have to be scared, you have to be vulnerable, you have to be sad. Because those are the normal human responses to loss and danger.”
At the same time, you shouldn’t wait too long to forgive. Getting too comfortable with rage or sadness “will make your brain think those are the only ways to be,” he says. “That’s part of our cultural problem. We haven’t practiced enough alternatives to fear and sadness and anger.”
Montana remembers watching the video of Jean and Guyger’s hug and feeling moved by it. Even though Jean’s willingness to forgive came much, much quicker than it did for her, Montana says she understands the instinct.
“In the beginning, you have this urge to rush the process,” she says. “Just so you can get right to the end of it. If you know the forgiveness is the end, why not just knock that sucker out now?”
Montana knows many people wouldn’t be able to forgive a loved one’s murderer. Her father has repeatedly told Montana that he’ll never be able to forgive Xavier. During a writing retreat several years ago, Montana penned a piece on her path towards forgiveness, and she was confronted by another writer, a 65-year-old father who lost his son to gun violence.
“He told me, ‘Your piece made me so angry with you! My son was murdered at gunpoint, and I can’t even fathom doing what you’re doing! I will never forgive what happened to my son!’ ”
Montana didn’t try to convince him that he was wrong. He may need more time to get there, she says, or he may never get there.
“For me, I had to be free of that thing,” she said. “But not everyone is ready to be free of their anger.”
Last year, she gave a TED talk on the subject of forgiveness. She says absolving her family’s murderer has made her more introspective.
“I approach conflict differently now,” she says. “I’m more likely to pause and wonder, ‘What am I really angry with you about? What is the wound that you’re inflicting on me?’ It’s kind of helped me establish boundaries.”
This Christmas, there’ll still be sadness for Montana. But it won’t be the same. “Now I can look at the Christmas decorations, and it’s less about what Xavier did to us and the violence of it and the trauma and the shock and losing your home and the mental images of this terrible thing that happened to your loved ones,” she says.
“It’s just . . . it’s Christmas again, and I can look at my mom’s ornaments and miss her and feel that loss. But the anger isn’t there anymore.”
Forgiveness didn’t bring Montana’s mother and brother back. But, she says, it did bring her back.