For women, resentment can be a radical act
Last week, I found out that a man who did some pretty awful shit to me in college had died.* We hadn’t spoken in 25 years, though he tried to get in touch after my last book was published—leaving a handful of unsettling voicemails with my agent. Despite the decades passed, my fear felt fresh enough that I had my husband listen to the messages. I was afraid of falling apart if I heard his voice.
From what I could gather, he struggled with addiction and mental health issues, and lived a difficult life. And so my immediate reaction when I found out that he had passed away wasn’t relief, but sadness for his parents. And for him. Which, to be honest, infuriated me.
I’m glad that I’m empathetic. I want to be a good person. But all of my life, I’ve felt bad for the men who’ve hurt me—making excuses for their behavior, pitying their terrible childhoods, or ruminating on how fraught their internal lives must be to have done what they did.
For so long, I’ve done what women have been raised to do: Put bad men’s humanity above my own. And while I respect those who believe forgiveness is key to your own healing or growth, I’m fucking over it.
Last week, a young man who admitted to raping and sexually assaulting four girls—one of whom he told to “stop being such a baby” because she cried during the attack—was given probation. The judge, who said he prayed over the decision, decided that jail time wasn’t “appropriate.” A few days later, multiple men accused of sexual abuses (including Marilyn Manson and Louis CK) were nominated for Grammys.
There is a theme to who gets forgiven and who is expected to forgive.
When men hurt women, there is barely a pause before we start asking when they will be given a second chance. Never mind that those we are scolded to absolve often do nothing to earn their redemption, or that thought is rarely given to the women’s lives and careers they’ve upended or destroyed. When it comes to powerful white men, we skip straight to absolution.
We’re told that forgiveness is for our benefit. That we’ll never move forward without it; that our compassion and empathy is necessary to heal wounds.
I’ve come to a different conclusion: Forgiveness is a racket. A uniquely feminized scam to ensure the oppressed and mistreated redirect their anger inward instead of at those who have wronged them. (When it comes to harms like discrimination or sexual violence, it’s also a clever way to make a systemic issue an individual problem.)
In a world that tells women we’re overreacting—or gaslights us into doubting our own experiences—resentment can be a radical act. Refusing to forgive acknowledges just how deep your hurt really is: When the people around you want you to just move on or let it go, your fury honors what really happened. Sometimes that feeling is the only “proof” we have.
So yes, I do feel badly for the family of the man who caused me so much pain all those years ago. I even have some compassion for him, a person who obviously struggled. But my rage remains, and it always will. You can have empathy and still decline to forgive. You can be a good person and hold onto a grudge.
For some women, forgiveness may do what it’s said to do—free them from anger in a way that helps rather than diminishes. I’m happy for them.
There are advantages to the high ground. But the air is too thin up there for me—and I’m tired of suffocating.
*I don’t want to rehash the details here, but I wrote about it in Sex Object if you’re interested.