Detective Landry of the Sheriff’s Office was gentle as he spoke those terrible words to me: “I’m sorry, but your daughter, Catherine, is dead. Your daughter was murdered, stabbed to death.” That was September 1980.
My heart broke. My brain couldn’t think. None of this day was real. Surely I would wake up to find the nightmare over. But deep inside, I knew it was real. I couldn’t let anyone hug me, for fear I would break down. I couldn’t cry. Someone might hear me. I took a shower. With the water running full blast, I screamed and screamed and screamed.
My time of darkness lasted eight years. I had no support during this time and no faith. To survive, I stayed calm and avoided causing problems. I thought I had to be strong to help everyone else. I didn’t want to burden my family. I thought they had enough to do to put aside their own pain. For awhile, I couldn’t drive my car alone, because when I was alone I would cry and couldn’t see the road.
If you knew me at that time, you may not have seen the dark cloud I carried. You would have thought I was getting along fine. Yet, I found myself isolated. A deep, dark rage began to boil. All I thought about was revenge for the death of my beloved child.
Douglas Mickey was arrested, tried, convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1982 for killing Catherine. People told me that once this villain was executed, I would be healed of my pain and all would be well again. Not knowing any better, I thought this was true. So, I waited, and I hated. After eight long years, I began my first step toward healing. I took a course in meditation. I was able to sit quietly, to be quiet in my head, and to be present in the moment.
I was blessed to be able to live with and care for my ailing mother. I looked for ways to help her enjoy the highest quality of life possible. One way was to take her to church. I found a beautiful little church not far from our home. There, I found not just myself, but the image of God in me. I started reading my way through the church’s bookstore. I came to the awareness that I am a beloved child of God and that God is a loving God.
I saw a video at the church in which I got my first glimpse of the healing power of forgiveness. They interviewed a Jewish holocaust survivor. He was able to forgive not only the German people, but also the actual guards in the camps who had killed every member of his family. Something in me became clear when I heard his testimony of forgiveness. After many hours of study, prayer and discussions with others, I thought that perhaps I could forgive the man who murdered Catherine. One evening I mentioned it in class, and a church classmate suggested that I should let the murderer know of my intent. I was outraged! There was no way I wanted to communicate with him. This was between God and me.
I was still feeling out of sorts after class. But as I drove home, I heard a voice within me say, “You must forgive him, and you must let him know!” The voice was so loud and so convincing that I didn’t sleep that night. At four in the morning, I found myself typing a letter to the man who murdered Catherine.
Here is my letter, as I wrote it that night:
Dear Mr. Mickey,
Twelve years ago, I had a beautiful daughter named Catherine. She was a young woman of unusual talents and intelligence. She was slender and her skin glowed with health and vitality. She had long naturally wavy hair that framed her sparkling eyes and a warm bright smile. She radiated love and joy. She was raising two milk goats, her German shepherd with a new litter of ten puppies, and an Arabian mare.
Two months after her 19th birthday, Catherine left her earthly body. I know that Catherine is in a better place than we can ever know here on earth. I did not know that when Catherine died. I knew that I had been robbed of my precious child and that she had been robbed of growing into womanhood and achieving all of her potential. The violent way she left this earth was impossible for me to understand. I was saddened beyond belief and felt that I would never be completely happy again.
And indeed my loss of Catherine became the point of reference for my entire family. All family history was prefaced as happening either before or after Catherine’s death. I was very angry with you and wanted to see you punished to the limit of the law. You had done irreparable damage to my family and my dreams for the future.
Four years ago, I started my journey of life. I met wonderful teachers and slowly began to learn about my God-Self. In the midst of this, I was surprised to find that I could forgive you. This does not mean that I think you are innocent or that you are blameless for what happened.
What I learned is this: You are a divine child of God. You carry the Holy Spirit within you. You are surrounded by God’s love even as you sit in your cell. There is only the goodness of God.
Do not look to me to be a political or social advocate in your behalf. The law of the land will determine your fate. Do not waste your last days on earth with remorse and fear. Death as we know it is really a new beginning.
I hope that this letter will help you face your future. There is only love and good in the world regardless of how things may appear to you now. I am willing to write to you or visit you if you wish. I send blessings to you and to your children. The Christ in me sends blessings to the Christ in you.
(Signed) Gayle, Mother of Catherine
I can still feel the shivers going up and down my spine as I heard the little click that the hinge of the mailbox made as I dropped in this letter. With that sound, all the anger, all the rage, all the lust for revenge simply vanished.
In its place, I was filled with the most wonderful feeling of joy and peace. I knew in that holy instant, I did not need to have anyone executed for me to be healed.
It would not matter if Douglas Mickey responded to my letter. I had received a more profound answer. I had been healed by the simple act of offering forgiveness. However, I did get a letter back.
I was amazed at the gentleness and kindness of the writer. Douglas wrote words of gratitude. He expressed sorrow for the crime, adding that he understood how empty such words might sound. He had obviously spent years searching for answers himself. He went on to say, “Gayle, your letter meant more to me than I can ever tell you. The knowledge that I had inflicted such terrible pain on you was a burden my heart and soul could not bear. Your letter of forgiveness released me of that pain. Knowing you were able to deal with Catherine’s death and find new sources of love and wisdom gave me exquisite pleasure and released my soul’s agony. I would gladly give my life, this instant, if it would in any way change that terrible night.” I realized that the night Catherine lost her life, Douglas also lost his future.
Aba Gayle did visit San Quentin Prison, her first time inside a jail or prison. She was surprised to discover that the men awaiting execution were ordinary looking me, not monsters. Douglas greeted her; “The spirit of Christ in me most gratefully accepts and return blessings of divine Wisdom, Love and charity to the spirit of Christ in you.” After many visits, Aba Gayle began a mini prison ministry visiting with Douglas and other men and women sentenced to die for their crimes. She became a political and social advocate for these prisoners. Douglas has been counseling other prisoners on forgiveness.
Reporters ask her if any of the people on Death Row have committed such awful crimes that she cannot treat them with compassion. She says, “I don’t deal with their crime. I deal with the God spirit within them. That is the truth of their being. It is the truth for every one of us. I believe deeply that love and forgiveness is the way to make our world a kinder, safer place.”
- Why did Aba Gayle not cry or ask others for help when Catherine was killed?
- Did Aba Gayle have to know the person who killed her daughter before she forgave him?
- What happened after Aba Gayle and Douglas got to know one another?
- Does forgiveness help the forgiver or the forgiven more?
- When exactly did complete forgiveness happen between Aba Gayle and Douglas? What was going on then?
- Tell about a time when you were able to forgive someone who did something to you. How did you feel? What made it possible for you to forgive?
- Tell about a time when someone forgave you. How did you feel?
- Would you be able to forgive as Aba Gayle did?
- The first meeting between Aba Gayle and Douglas grew into an ongoing friendship. How do you feel about this?
- How did Aba Gayle’s forgiveness change Douglas’s life? What did he do to help other prisoners?
- PREAMBLE of the Universal Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations): Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and unalienable right of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations). All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
- The above human rights document does not address forgiveness directly. Yet we see great violence in the world news daily. Often the violence results from hatred brought down through generations of violence and retaliation. People on both sides are deprived of many of the rights described in the PREAMBLE and Articles. How do you think forgiveness might transform these inhuman histories and replace them with a mutual ‘spirit of brotherhood’? How might people of all religions and ethnic backgrounds learn forgiveness?
- Is forgiveness necessary in order for people to stop many wars of national or ethnic hatred?
- Are more stories of forgiveness projects needed, such as those from Africa?