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Forgiving the Murderers, Part 2

Leon Bonnat: Jacob Wrestling the Angel, 1876 (Dahesh Museum of Art)

Three weeks ago I had a knockdown dragout fight with God, which naturally God won. Undefeated, that God; see previous post. Undisputed World Champion with the belts and trophies to prove it.

Whew. I feel so much better!

On December 21, 2010, I watched a documentary film on Eva Kor, a Holocaust survivor who lives in Terre Haute, Indiana, where she founded a small museum called CANDLES, Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors – a memorial to twins who were subjected to medical torture by Dr. Josef Mengele. Eva and her twin sister Miriam were two of the kids Mengele infected with deadly bacteria.

No one who wasn’t there in Auschwitz can really know what this experience was like; our brains can barely comprehend the evil – and how much worse it was for children of little understanding, ripped from their parents’ arms. It’s the kind of ongoing trauma that scars a kid for life, like being the victim of pedophilia, child abuse, domestic violence.

Forty, fifty, sixty years later, the child keeps wondering, “Why?” “Why did no one stop him? Why does no one want to hear about it today?”

“Why did I survive? What do I do now?”

Mrs. Kor, who’s now quite elderly, has made the most remarkable response imaginable, in the face of unmitigated evil.

She remembers the abuse; in her museum she tells the story she and her sister and hundreds of other children underwent; she speaks to school groups in high schools and universities; she’s written a couple of books; and finally she came to the realization that to truly survive and thrive, she had to forgive her abuser.

The film “Forgiving Dr. Mengele” is the result.

A film by Bob Hercules and Cheri Pugh.

My mother, brothers and I were/are survivors of domestic violence. My father wasn’t the same as Dr. Mengele, although we have a few things in common with those twins. We didn’t know there was worse evil in the world, though of course there was. Somehow we got through it. And though my life was horribly twisted for many decades by the experience, I did eventually grow wise enough to forgive my parents.

I thought that would be the end of my need to grieve, and to claim my right to exist. But it wasn’t; I had more forgiving to do, which I only found out once I saw Mrs. Kor’s movie.

I had to forgive the homophobes too – the kids who terrorized me in high school, the criminals who tortured Matthew Shepard, the despicable president Reagan who refused to utter the word AIDS until his friend Rock Hudson came down with it years later; the Falwells and Robertsons and other professional hatemongers who drive GLBT kids to suicide.

I had to forgive them all, so in my boxing with God, I was the one who was knocked down and dragged out.

I waited for several days before I wrote about this in my last post. I was exhausted from the fight. I wasn’t sure my brain could properly understand what I went through in those days just before Christmas; I didn’t know if I could communicate clearly to you.

I also had to wait a couple of weeks to tell my spiritual director Marcia about it. When you need to see your therapist it can be hard to wait for your next appointment. But I did wait and she responded wonderfully. I also lent her my copy of the video, which she showed to her friends, and soon we’re all headed to Terre Haute to visit Mrs. Kor. If the timing works out we’ll take my pal Leonardo with us, and if not, I’ll drive him there myself.

In the meantime, have I been healed? It’s early yet, but the preliminary results are quite striking. I have almost no desire to destroy myself with alcohol.

That is a huge advance, because I’ve been fighting booze for decades. Whether I was drunk or sober or cycling between the two, I have always had a constant impulse toward the slow suicide. Alcoholism killed one of my brothers; our mother died of lung cancer from smoking. I never had much desire to jump off a bridge, but the longer I lived the more entrenched the motive became to show “the world” how damaged I was by my childhood traumas.

Of course, the world pays no attention to such scripty messages and will cheerfully let you jump off a bridge or land on Skid Row if you must, but I was caught up with something to prove. Because of this, a simplistic approach like AA never did me any good, though God bless ’em for all the people they do help.

Instead I had to deal with my version of Dr. Mengele – and ultimately walk away from him, stop fighting and accept that This Is What Homo-Haters Do.

“Father, forgive them for they know not.” I’m quoting Jesus here, people.

Besides being joyfully sober, I am eating up a storm these days; I’ve always been one of those people who doesn’t eat when he drinks, which is a guaranteed way to make yourself pathetically, disgustingly sick. I’d go days without a morsel, then I’d pay and pay and pay.

As I write I’m eating a ham and cheese sandwich. I’ve gained ten glorious pounds just since Christmas and am up to 125!

My sleeping schedule is still screwed up; a drunk doesn’t sleep, he passes out. But I’m paying attention to my body now, sleeping when I feel a need no matter what the hour, not regulating myself with drugs. Eventually I’ll get back to a normal schedule as my body rights itself.

I still have an enormous backlog of postponed work to do; my bedroom office is a huge mess of papers I avoided deciding what to do with. The garage has more recycling in storage than Oscar Winski & Co. I have stacks of books I haven’t started, much less finished.

BUT the dog is doing good; my sidewalks and porches are clear of snow; the dining room positively sparkles, and my Daily Office websites have been up to date no matter what; 1.1 million served!

Best of all for my mental health, I’m back to working on my next novel, a ten-year project almost. I have three new chapters since the first of the year. It’s really hard to create something at the same time you’re destroying yourself.

So I have a bit of a personal miracle to live through in this my 60th year. I have been or am being healed, not from my own act or decision but from being visited by a junior-grade angel from Terre Haute.

Eva Kor doesn’t like it when people praise her; she isn’t a hero, she’s just a survivor of evil, a person who learned, over decades, what healing would actually be like and what it takes to get there.

She says it doesn’t have anything to do with religion. So while mine does (I was writhing on the floor in front of a crucifix), hers doesn’t. Fine with me.

She is still a bit of an angel to me because she has the courage to live her life in public, for others, as well as privately for herself and with her family. She has always understood that she and Miriam weren’t the only ones the monster tried to murder. Therefore her remembrances and her working it out have had to be public too.

When Hercules and Pugh wanted to make a movie, she went along with it, in case it would help someone else.

This hasn’t prevented public criticism or repeated anti-Semitic attacks, but she is stronger than her seeming enemies. The funniest scene in the movie recounts her attempts to get a job as a real estate agent. She went to Realtor school, studied hard, graduated easily, then no one in Terre Haute would hire her; they’d hire less qualified people, but not her. And they’d lie about it; they’d give excuses. She has an Eastern European accent, but really it was more that she was damaged goods, a Holocaust survivor and public about it, which broke the rules about how to be Invisibly Jewish in smalltown Indiana. So all the real estate companies threw up roadblocks—which she took one look at and finally knocked down. “I survived Auschwitz,” she tells her interviewer. “They think I can’t sell real estate?”

You could say she has an iron will, but I think her quest has always been more personal than that; how she can survive, and especially how to honor her twin sister Miriam, who died several years ago of the lingering effects of Mengele’s Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments.

How does a victim of pedophilia, child abuse, rape or domestic violence—or organized racism-for-profit—hang onto life, cope, grow and eventually come to terms with it all, so she can become her own true self?

Mrs. Kor’s answer is that she found a way for herself through forgiveness. She doesn’t say everyone has to (and there are plenty of people who utterly refuse), but she does tell the understanding she came to.

I am the one who hears echoes of Jesus in her gospel: “Love thine enemies. Do good to those who persecute you.”

If you still have an old giant hurt in your soul that you cannot escape, ask yourself a simple question: Who else do I have to forgive?

I thought I’d let go of my big trauma, but it turned out I was wrong, I still had big work to do. Three weeks later, without conscious effort on my part, I happily report that I am becoming free.++

On October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts shot and killed all ten girls in an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. The chief mourners at his funeral were his Amish neighbors.