On October 15th 1990, three members of Judith Toy’s family were brutally murdered in Pennsylvania, USA by Charles Grand. The perpetrator was the boy across the street, a family friend, 19 years old. Five years after, through her newfound practice of daily mindfulness in the Zen Buddhist tradition, Judith spontaneously forgave Charles.
Our family was destroyed by the murders of three people in one night – my sister-in-law Connie and my two nephews Allen and Bobby, 16 and 14 – cut down by the hatchet of a madman. It was obscene, painful, heart shattering. At the time I could never have known this tragedy would be a call to love.
Our murder was the first case involving DNA evidence in that jurisdiction. It was front page, top of the evening news, and our district attorney wanted nineteen-year-old Charles Grand convicted. So did the public. My family, too, wanted him to suffer. We all wanted Charles to be forced to think long and hard every day of his life about what he had done. After stopping the trial by confessing to the crime, he received three consecutive life sentences without parole.
Distraught, I took refuge in Zen. It was only then I got some relief from my grief and confusion – through stopping and calming my breath. The fruits of the practice came slowly. Stilling my body/mind day after day, I inched toward the faith that led to forgiveness.
It was autumn, near the fifth anniversary of my family’s death, when forgiveness came suddenly, in an unbidden way. One day I picked up a pencil, my therapy, and out of Zen’s rich tradition of meaning surrounded in silence, I breathed in with a heavy heart. I began writing a poem about the night of the murders, trying to sort out my feelings. By then I’d become a disciple of the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, who wrote in one of his poems: I am the frog, swimming happily in the clear/ waters of my pond and I am the grass-snake/ who approaching in silence/feeds itself on the frog/I am the child in Uganda/my legs as thin as bamboo sticks/and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly/weapons to Uganda.
It’s not important which words I then used to compose my poem. But what happened next, to my absolute shock and surprise, was that I began to identify with the rage of the boy who was stabbing and bludgeoning Allen and Bobby, killing and raping their mother, dear Connie. Suddenly in the writing I seemed to inhabit his body! I felt blind, out of control, out of my own body and mind. I went numb. I felt only rage, hatred and stabbing, my pounding heart.
That was the day I stopped thinking of Charles as the beast and began thinking of him as a boy in whom something had gone awfully wrong. The pain of resentment vanished! Breathing out, I saw in me the seeds of murder, seeds which have never been watered and so they have withered. Still they are there. I saw within me not only the victims, but also the perpetrator. Sadly, before I was able to tell him so, Charles took a laundry bag and hung himself in a prison cell. I mourned his passing. Twelve years after the murders, his mother and I cried together over our mutual loss.
Most of our own murders, though, are the little “murders” of everyday life. Through the faith I developed I travelled from the macro of murder to the micro of the little murders – the “he-said-she-said” variety of drama and difficulty. I came to Zen angry, confused, demoralised. It taught me to embrace my anger and confusion, no matter how minor.
Sometimes our fear keeps us from reconciling, as it did in the case of the murderer of my family.
Then he hung himself in prison and it was too late to tell him. Had I still perceived him as separate from myself? Is this why I did not say the words, “I forgive you”, via letter or in person? Knowing he was knee-deep in his own grief, this much I was able to do: mentally, I put myself in his cell and took him in my arms every day, held him as if he were my son.. But I didn’t go there in person; I am no Sister Prejean.
I have a brother who doesn’t speak to me; we had a falling out. I have reached out to him many times, but he is intractable. Reconciliation does not always flow, but I have learned to be patient.
(Some names have been changed to protect identities)