30th September 2020

Stephanie Cassatly on rage and the gift of remorse

Marina Cantacuzino talks to Stephanie Cassatly, a writer, teacher, mother and wife from Florida. When Stephanie was 18, her mother was shot and killed in a convenience store robbery in New Orleans, changing every preconceived notion she had about the world and what it meant to feel safe.

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Show Notes

Stephanie Cassatly’s award-winning memoir, Notice of Release: A Daughter’s Journey to Forgive Her Mother’s Killer, was published in 2017. In addition to other writing and speaking engagements, she now facilitates reading and writing workshops for homeless, but sheltered, people re-entering society after prison.

Read Stephanie’s story


Marina: Welcome to the F Word Podcast – a podcast series which examines, excavates, unpicks and reframes Forgiveness through the lives of others. I am Marina Cantacuzino, a journalist from London, Founder of The Forgiveness Project Charity and I’ve built my career investigating how those who face the most complex and devastating things in life find a way through. I will be talking fortnightly to a guest who has experienced something very difficult or traumatic in their life but who rather than respond with hate or bitterness has embraced or at the very least considered forgiveness as a response to pain.

Today I have great pleasure in talking to Stephanie Cassatly who is here from America visiting London and has come into The Forgiveness Project Offices to talk to me. So, welcome, Stephanie.

Stephanie: Thank you, Marina, hello.

Marina: Hello, and I think it was five years ago that we met in London and It was the first time I met you then.

Stephanie: Absolutely.

Marina: And you had approached me and offered your story to The Forgiveness Project to have alongside many other stories and at that point I think you were about to release your excellent book called “Notice of Release” and sub-titled “A Daughter’s Journey to forgive her Mother’s Killer”. So, going back can you just speak a little bit about actually what happened and the years that followed your mother’s murder? How did that all come to be? You were eighteen.

Stephanie: I was eighteen when she was shot and killed in a convenience stall hold-up on the outskirts of New Orleans – a random act by a drug crazed addict. For me it was like being blind-folded and dropped off a train in the middle of nowhere, with no map or ticket to get home because my mother was everything to me.

My parents had divorced. I was a bit estranged from my father. She was my true north on my compass and when she died so suddenly I didn’t know where home was. I didn’t know where I belonged. I was in a world that I did not have a clue about how to navigate and live and so it was very destabilising. You know you say eighteen is an adult but I didn’t feel very much like an adult at that point so I was lost for quite a few years.

Marina: So I am just going to jump in here because I went on to ask Stephanie if she had thought at all about the killer who, by the way, she never named for a long, long time. She couldn’t say his name and in the book she finally came to call him Nathan Wolfe, which wasn’t his real name at all. She told me it had taken two years for him to come to justice and when the sentence was passed it really wasn’t what she wanted at all.

Stephanie: I had wanted the death penalty at the time. I was a very strong proponent of the death penalty but he got off on manslaughter which is one step away from murder because he was out of his mind on drugs.

Marina: So he got a sentence where life meant life.

Stephanie: Life meant life – especially in Louisiana. There is no option for parole in Louisiana unless the governor pardons you. He had tried a couple of times to get a pardon but he had not secured that.

Marina: What were your feelings towards him during those years?

Stephanie: The interesting thing for me was I didn’t even know his name because I was scared of the trial and so strangely, I have had people asking me about this – how could you sort of erase this person’s name – and it was actually pretty easy because I sort of blocked it out of my mind and in my mind he was just a demon or a monster. He was the man who had taken everything from me and my family and so not giving him a name, or even being curious about his name, really sort of helped me to continue to demonise him.

So, it wasn’t until 20 years later when I read newspaper articles, that I had sort of locked away, that I actually found out his real name. I had a prison warden say to me once to which I thought was quite interesting. She felt that in some respects not going to the trial delayed my healing because I had never really confronted the situation. I was able to just sort of try to block it out.

Marina: It was all on hold really, waiting to come out in some way. It could have gone either way I think. It could have gone the really self-destructive path or a path that ultimately led to healing. So, how did that happen?

Stephanie: I actually did both! There was a self-destructive path early on and then I had to admit I tailored this carefully in the book so as not to reveal too much to family but there were a few years where I do think I became slightly unhinged.

I, myself, interestingly, turned to drugs and things that probably could have turned me the other way but what really changed the tide for me was this twenty-year mark which I didn’t realise that was a significant number. But I found out later from one of the prison wardens where he had spent the rest of his life that for some reason the twenty year mark seems to be a point where many victims somehow come to terms with things or at least face things.

So it was about the twenty year mark after I had already got married and had children, sort of tried to get on with my life that I overheard a talk about forgiveness. It was a school where I was trying to get my children into and it was a faith based school.

The speaker was talking about his work in prison ministry and it really, kind of like blindsided, hit me completely out of nowhere that this topic of forgiveness could even be a consideration and to be honest with you, initially it was a really negative response. I was not open to it. I resented him speaking about it. I was angry. I thought he was foolish. In my book I call him “a holy roller” because he was espousing things which were never going to happen but what did happen was that he changed the dial on my radio and everything that I listened to after that talk and that sort of meltdown that I had somehow circled back to forgiveness.

Marina: It is very interesting. Just explain a bit more. Did you come out of there feeling really angry and a bit resentful of him? And was it like the next morning that something changed and you already were feeling things were dropping into your head and your heart in a way or did it take much longer?

Stephanie: Much longer. I stayed angry for another year or two.

Marina: Oh right. It was just a seed.

Stephanie: It was a seed. But a seed, interspersed with all that anger. Every once in a while I would consider what would it look like if I forgave. At the time that I actually heard the talk, the speaker saw that I was upset because I was sitting in the back of the room and he could see that I was red in the face and tears were flowing down my cheeks so he came up to me afterward and asked what happened and I am sorry did I say something.

At that point I didn’t really know what was happening so I just said I don’t know what is happening. You obviously tapped a deep vein. I don’t know. He said to me why don’t you come back and speak to someone here at some point if you want to further understand what is going on. So I did. I went home and that afternoon I went home with my husband and he didn’t know what to say to me. My heart rate was up. I was just upset.

About two weeks later I came back to the same place and spoke to a female minister there and told her what I was feeling and she started with the definition of forgiveness and said what you think forgiveness means? I said I had no idea but it feels like it means I am letting him off the hook that everything is OK and that just feels wrong to me.

So she twisted it around and said how about talking about what it doesn’t mean? The working definition she sort of gave me it doesn’t mean that we should seek lesser justice, it doesn’t mean that he is off the hook, it doesn’t mean that anything he did was OK and it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a right to all your pain.

So, all those things you know it wasn’t forgiveness but in the end what we sort of came to was that all it means essentially is no longer carrying ill-will and hatred and vengeance towards this person which I still didn’t know how to do but it felt a little bit more comfortable.

Marina: Made sense.

Stephanie: Made sense and it did. I started to think OK maybe it’s OK if he just stays in prison and he isn’t executed. It was a very slow progress but then over the course of two more years because I am a writer, my recent background, I had this manila folder where I would just start putting pieces of paper in it, like conversations I would have, articles that I had read, The Forgiveness Project was one of those pieces of paper that I had heard somewhere and I just wrote the number down.

But it was all too near the end of this idea and then I just started creating a research file on what forgiveness was about. Little by little I started to come to this notion that maybe I could be comfortable with, not so much necessarily forgiveness, but maybe just acceptance or some peace.

The other thing that this lovely minister said to me. She said you need to stop talking and start listening. Because I was so sad and so verbal about so many things, including the death penalty, that I was just doing a lot of talking, raging and she said stop talking, start listening and it was in the listening and the reading and in the silence of contemplating that things started, like you said, started to peel back all the way.

Marina: In fact Stephanie’s hidden journey had started way before that right in the midst of all that seething hate and rage. I really like what she writes in her book.

She says, I am quoting here “It took me seven years to understand the first commandment of grief, the more you avoid it the more it plagues you. As a therapist would soon show me the only way out of the room is through the room”.

When I read that it actually really reminded me of what one of our other storytellers or story-healers, as I sometimes call them, said to me once. Madeline Black spent years recovering from the pain inflicted on being raped in her teenage years and she told me and again I am quoting here “The way in really was my way out. I had to face everything that was done to me”.

So, going back to Stephanie’s story I then asked about how she reached out to Nathan Wolfe.

How did it come that you actually made some contact with your mum’s killer?

Stephanie: It came after these two years it happened with me just picking up the phone one day and calling the prison and randomly getting a prison chaplain on the phone and he and I started a conversation and he agreed to be my intermediary with Nathan Wolfe. He didn’t say to Nathan, he didn’t say there is someone who wants to forgive you. What he said was the daughter of the woman that you killed is trying to find a way to forgive you.

Marina: That was more accurate.

Stephanie: Yes. He said what exactly do you want me to say and I wasn’t going to say I forgive you. I wanted a conversation

Marina: You hadn’t at that stage. You had lined yourself up to it, you were considering it but it hadn’t happened. You really didn’t know what that meant at that point.

Stephanie: Right. I was still exploring. I hadn’t come to any big conclusions and it was through a series of conversations back and forth with this chaplain that I learned that the man who killed my mother was terminally ill and I would be lying if I didn’t say that that played a roll.

Marina: It made it easier.

Stephanie: Made it easier that I knew he was never going to leave that prison, that he was dying. I realised that it was an opportunity for something to happen and the chaplain himself was pretty amazed at the timing of the call because he said likely in three months he will be dead and six months ago he might not have been remorseful and he was remorseful which was another gift.

Marina: Someone once said that remorse leads to easy forgiveness which may be an insulting way of putting it but on the other hand someone shows genuine remorse and apologises it has got to make your heart open a little bit.

Stephanie: Absolutely. In the years following I have met many, many people who have gone through traumatic losses who did not get, did not receive any remorse and to be honest with you I – you know there is lots of wonderful language from Desmond Tutu and other people who say – you know – you can forgive no matter what, but I don’t know how I would do that. I am not an expert on forgiveness and I don’t pretend to think that I could done what I did if he had not been remorseful and dying.

Marina: Yes. Did you ever get to meet him or did you try to?

Stephanie: Well, I was too afraid to meet him to be honest with you. I think in retrospect if I had known then what I know now, I would have made an effort to meet him before he died but the whole sort of residual villain sort of monster, the man who killed her, you know coming face to face with him, to me felt very daunting and frightening. I wish I had but I think at the time I wasn’t strong enough so it was all done through conversation with an intermediary.

Marina: And how did you find out when he had eventually died?

Stephanie: Well, I received a letter which led me to the name of my book because I had been named the victim, I get the victim representative they call it.

Marina: Yes.

Stephanie: The top of it said “Notice of Release” which alarmed me at first because I thought, what, you know. This is after we had already gone through this process and I thought they were releasing him alive but what followed was that Nathan Wolfe expired on such and such a date and so essentially he had been released from prison and his body. It was a sort of poetic way of saying that he had been released and in receiving that letter – I remember the moment I actually received it – after already having forgiven him – holding the letter and realising that I, too, had been released. Not just from his death but also from the act of forgiving.

Marina: Was there a moment where you thought actually I have now let this go and had some compassion and empathy for this man who did something terrible to my mother?

Stephanie: Well, through this minister and through the conversation in his remorse and knowing that he was terminally ill and knowing that he was never going to be released, that he was going to die in prison, I did feel tremendous compassion and it was also my first recognition that he had a much, much worse life than I had had, prior to the act of killing and beyond the act of killing. He didn’t kill her because he was a healthy, functioning human being. He had had a really tumultuous early life, probably some mental illness mixed in with the drugs and I had compassion that I had never had before and then, after he died, it was the sort of the final piece. It was just the final punctuation.

Marina: Was the final punctuation maybe meeting his mother or corresponding with his mother.

Stephanie: Absolutely. His mother was the final piece of the puzzle who helped me sort of put him and his life into prospective. Initially when I spoke to her I upset her. She was really upset that I had reached out to her.

Marina: Because you had called out of the blue? You found her name in a ….

Stephanie: I found her name and sent her a letter which she received but did not respond to it even though I had asked her to respond to it. And then I wouldn’t let that lie so I called her and she was angry at first. She told me that when she received the letter she thought it was a prank, that she was upset, that she didn’t have anything to do with his killing my mother.

Then, strangely, in the initial conversation with her I was very apologetic, almost like and I then thought why am I apologising to her? But, I remembered something that my mother had said to me many, many years ago and she always said to me I may not like what you do but I will always love you. And that was where she was coming from. She didn’t like what he had done but he was always hers and she loved him. And I think most mothers love their children regardless of what they did. And I could relate to that.

I have never been in a situation where my child had done anything nearly that bad but I can imagine that I would still love my child and so on that level I connected with her and she said to me at the very, very end of the conversation after she had been talking. She said, I am sorry for your loss and I said to her I am sorry for your loss because we had both lost a loved one. And, interestingly for her, not only had she lost this particular son who was a killer, she had lost another son to brain cancer who was a policeman and then her husband. She had lost pretty much her whole family. So she was a victim too.

Originally, when I wrote the book I had intended to use pictures and names, everything was going to be the truth, but when I met his mother out of courtesy to her I asked if I could use his name and she declined. She said, please do not and at first I thought what do I care if she wants me to use it or not I am going to tell the truth but the more I thought about it and the more I realised that the purpose of the book was not to hurt. The purpose of the book was to heal and if it meant that much to her to protect the identity of her son and herself, I guess, it would be nothing for me to change his name. So I did.

Marina: And indeed she was as much a victim as anyone else.

Stephanie. Which never occurred to me until I spoke to her that there were other victims other than my family.

Marina: So, since that time and he has died so there is nothing really that is going to trigger you and take you back to that place of hate or am I completely wrong? Because I always think that forgiveness is too easy to think that it is this magical place where everything is OK and suddenly you have arrived at it. You can actually move back into places of resentment and hatred if something comes up in your life and reminds you of that time or do you think it is settled?

Stephanie: What has settled for me is my personal story. I am very settled with that and whereas I used to avoid the topic of my mother’s death because it was so uncomfortable I couldn’t bring it up, I now don’t bring it up because I am really in a place of peace about her story.

But where I am not settled and where I am deeply disturbed and also deeply triggered is this system, especially in the United States, where we have done nothing about gun control where people like Nathan and many others can obtain a gun and do tremendous harm and that is what really triggers me. So I am at this sort of broader anger now and don’t know where that is going to take me in the future.

Marina: I know you have done quite a lot of thinking about forgiveness, what it is, what it isn’t. Obviously, I have for different reasons done exactly the same and I think we share some views and opinions about how forgiveness is articulated in the word form and if it is prescribed it becomes a kind of tyranny and if it is presented as some cure all, fix it process, it is not very helpful and it is very misunderstood, as you said yourself you were convinced it was about letting people off the hook and about condoning.

But, do you have a way of describing it to people because I think it can really open people’s eyes, actually? I have found that a few people have said that it is not this prescriptive thing and there are many different definitions and it is a very fluid concept that is more a verb than a noun. All these things that open people’s eyes as they see it sort of linear in a way.

Stephanie: Well, just to comment on what you said before I think if we approach it from a prescriptive sort of black and white way I think it can actually do more harm than good. It is almost like giving up a kidney and then regretting it. So, I don’t think it is something that should be handled lightly or loosely and I think that everybody’s journey is different. I think for me, at least, the closest thing I have been able to come to was this beautiful sort of diagram that I saw, and it is in my book actually, where it is six steps and I did actually go through those six stages.

Marina: So through all Stephanie’s reading and studying and from her own lived experience she has boiled it down to these six stages of forgiveness or steps as she calls them in her book.

The first step is defining forgiveness and for Stephanie this essentially meant abandoning her right to pay back.

Landing on this definition enabled her to take the next step which is exploring the story. In this case both her own story and the story of Nathan Wolfe.

The third step is recognising a shared, imperfect humanity because on some level we are all victims and all perpetrators, that we are all interconnected like strands of a finely woven fabric.

The fourth step is discovering compassion both for yourself and for the person who has hurt you.

The fifth step is offering forgiveness. This isn’t about forgiving the action but about releasing the emotion attached to the action.

The sixth step is re-establishing or releasing the relationship. In other words, that you can forgive and release a painful relationship or you can forgive and renew it.

And, finally the seventh step, remorse. This is about conditional or unconditional forgiveness. So, conditional forgiveness means that the person who has been hurt requires remorse in order to forgive. Forgiveness therefore becomes a kind of contractual relationship between the harmed and the harmer. But for others remorse isn’t necessary so unconditional forgiveness is an act of essentially self-healing which requires nothing from the wrongdoer.

I want to just pick up on something you said earlier about remorse because I am always interested in what the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida said. He said he felt that the only wrongdoing that really calls for forgiveness is that which is unforgiveable. In other words, I think he meant deeds or wrongs which were so appalling that they could never be repaired through apology, restitution or reconciliation. So, in other words, only the unforgiveable calls for forgiveness because everything else can be repaired in some way. I thought it was interesting. It goes back to what you were saying about how remorse made it possible for you. Who knows how you would have reacted if that had been thrown back in your face.

Stephanie: Absolutely.

Marina: I just think sometimes that forgiveness is like a survival line you know. I have heard many people describe to me it’s about their last chance in a way.

Stephanie: That’s beautiful that you say that because that is exactly how I felt. People say why did you forgive. I didn’t forgive because I had any noble, beautiful intentions or models. I forgave because I was tired of being in pain. Nothing else was working.

Marina: Do you have that sense of relief and release and lightness? Physically, how does it feel?

Stephanie: Completely. Strangely before I forgave Nathan Wolfe I had so many physical illnesses. I had like three or four surgeries at a pretty young age. I was whacked up. I had jaw pain. I had stomach pain and I have to say I am healthier now than I was in all those years before forgiving him.

Marina: That is very interesting. That really ties in with a lot of research into forgiveness that you do have better health outcomes. I suppose it makes perfect sense. It is like stress and anxiety, if you are going to hold on to that it is like a knot in your body. It can’t do you much good.

Stephanie: It affected everything from my digestion to my headaches. Everything. So that is my physical proof that something tremendous was gained from the act of forgiving.

Marina: You can see why people might become sort of evangelical about forgiveness but then again I am kind of glad that you are not because I find that approach, even though I founded The Forgiveness Project, I don’t find it helpful because it puts because it puts more people off than it attracts people.

Stephanie: Absolutely. We had this big shooting in South Carolina a few years ago and three days later the family members were forgiving the killer. I am not saying it’s not genuine but that was inconceivable to me.

Marina: And then there was Charlestown when Dylann Roof killed a lot of parishioners at a black church there and I do remember afterwards family, some family members did talk about forgiveness very soon after and then it created this whole big debate on line about does black forgiveness condone white hatred and it actually just exasperated the whole problem. So, it is complicated isn’t it?

Stephanie: Very. I like one of the things I think you said in your book about using the colour grey. You used the colour grey as the colour of forgiveness. Between black and white you said that there are five hundred shades of grey. I can remember that. It is so beautiful.

Marina: It is about compromise and conciliation. Right in the middle is black. Black and white is so polarised. There is so much of it in the world today. Forgiveness is a sort of grey and a bit messy.

Stephanie: And it is murky and it is different for everyone but I do think the outcome in general is pretty uniform for everyone. There is a greater peace if you can find a way.

Marina: Oh, it definitely is and that is exactly why I am trying to collect these stories and share these stories because I think they have lessons whether you want to forgive or don’t or whether it is relevant or isn’t. I think there are lessons for all of us.

Stephanie: Even in just telling the story even in itself is therapeutic because I think we purge. When you hold something in and you don’t speak of it, I think it takes on a life bigger than maybe it should and so when we tell our stories that is the first step in some respects towards forgiveness or towards some acceptance.

Marina: But the reason why I focus on what I call restorative narratives which are stories that even the stories humanise as I actually think they do a great service to the listener or the person who comes across the stories much as the person who is sharing it. They have a roll. An ability to kind of heal broken relationships and broken people.

Stephanie: I think the other gift that you bring people is that people realise that they are not alone. I thought I was all alone until I started reading other people’s stories. When I started reading all the stories in The Forgiveness Project I was overwhelmed at how I was not alone and there is not a sense that we want to define ourselves by these horrible tragic losses but it is not so isolating.

And then I also think it is really important, not only to know our own stories but to know the full story and maybe possibly the offender’s story is a way to learn it because I think once we start listening to stories which is what your Project is all about telling the stories, both sides of the story, there is this small sort of possibility for a little bit of compassion and when we have a little bit of compassion for the other side’s story it opens the door to the possibility if not for forgiveness at least for some level of peace. It defuses the hatred.

Marina: Yes, I think that is why I always think that forgiveness is a little bit more than letting go and acceptance because it needs that tiny degree of compassion.

Stephanie: Exactly. So, for me it is about taking ourselves out of ourselves and understanding how somebody might have come to that place and ultimately realising that there are many sides to the story and that by carrying only my side of the story, not really allowing the possibility of forgiveness.

Marina: So, Stephanie Cassatly thank you so much for coming and talking to me. I just want to give one more shout out for your wonderful book. It is called “Notice of Release – A daughter’s journey to forgive her mother’s killer” and you can read Stephanie’s story on our website theforgivenessproject.com. You can buy the book through various channels – I am sure on Amazon – and I really recommend it highly. It’s an incredibly moving and important story for our time. Thank you, Stephanie.

Stephanie: Thank you Marina and for all the work that you do and for being a big piece of helping me to tell my story.

Marina: Thank you for listening to the F Word Podcast. To dig a bit deeper around some of the themes we have talked about do check out the show notes by going to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast. From there you can also explore The Forgiveness Project website which over the years has collected and shared many more stories of how people have transformed the darkest situations.

I also want to invite you to join The F Word Podcast Facebook Group especially if you have more to discuss or share. Again, to find the link go to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast and finally, all of these podcasts have grown out of years of trying to shift the narrative of our time away from one of hatred and division towards empathy and understanding.

So, if you have enjoyed this podcast please do consider donating even just the smallest amount to help us to continue our work. All details of how to do this again are on the show notes page of our website.

But, most of all, I hope you will join me again when the next time on the F Word Podcast I will be talking to Bjørn Ihler. A survivor of the 2011 terror attack on Utøya Island in Norway.

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