I don’t find forgiveness a very easy concept to deal with after the murder of my son. My 24-year-old son Peter was kicked to death by bouncers in Atlantic City, NJ, in July 2001 during a bachelor party. For reasons that remain unclear, one bouncer took Peter out of the club about 4:00 AM, roughed him up on the hood of a Honda, left him there.
When Peter tried to go back into the club, five men streamed out the door, knocked him to the ground, and continued to kick him even after he lost consciousness. Then they went back into the club, leaving Peter’s friend to begin CPR and to hail down a passing patrol car. My son was declared dead at the hospital within the hour. I will never understand this savagery of a group of bar employees.
We had our day in court. We faced the first of the perpetrators, the one charged with homicide for kicking Peter in the head and thereby causing his death. For three weeks, we listened to testimony about our son’s death. Then the judge called a mistrial. It took two and a half more years before the first defendant was sentenced to seven years, another year before the other four pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. Hardly justice, in our eyes, yet that’s the way the system works. In the words of the prosecutor, “It’s a rotten system, but it’s better than any other.”
Of course, my church preaches forgiveness. It’s good for me, good for the other person. I know that. But to me, forgiveness is more than words, more than a gesture. I feel there needs to be some remorse before forgiveness means anything to victims of a crime.
In our case, the key perpetrator accused of kicking Peter in the head and thereby causing his death, never gave any explanation or acknowledged any guilt. Even during my victim-witness impact statement at sentencing―when I held up a picture of our family of five and said to his face, “This is what you took from us. Here’s the hole in my family.” ―he whimpered and mumbled, “I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it.” How a plea agreement had been reached, I’ll never understand.
Recently, I was asked to speak to the upper-school student body at the private school our kids attended, at an event sponsored by SADD which is now Students Against Destructive Decisions. In talking in advance with the deans and student leaders of SADD, it became clear to me that I was supposed to present my son as a poster child for destructive decisions. That made me uncomfortable. Only after long conversations with my husband, my daughters and a couple good friends could I begin to frame some remarks.
I said this to those high school students:
I do not blame Peter for his death. We cannot play Blame the Victim in homicide, any more than we can blame a young woman for how she was dressed or who she was talking to in cases of rape. I blame the bouncers for Peter’s death.
Still, now, after nine years, I can acknowledge there were a series of disastrous decisions that night that made all the difference for Peter, the difference in his life. Those young men should never have gone to Atlantic City. They shouldn’t have gone to that club. Peter should have gone back to his hotel when most of the other guys did. His friends should have gotten him back to the hotel. Peter shouldn’t have stayed so late, drunk so much, or talked to the bouncer. Certainly, after he was expelled from the club, he should not have tried to go back in.
It’s the not knowing that grates. We will never know the words exchanged in the first place which provoked the bouncer to take Peter out of the club. We will never understand why the club didn’t just lock the door to prevent a patron from trying to re-enter.
But mystery is part of life, and even if the defendants would answer all my questions, I wouldn’t believe them. And I concede I probably wouldn’t have been happy with any sentencing, any punishment. Even though it hurt at the time to hear them, I can concede now that there is truth in the judge’s words at the sentencing: “It was a tragedy that began with alcohol, continued with anger, and ended in death.”
Forgiveness to me means more than giving a pass to the five men who kicked the life out of my son. I have had to forgive Peter for being himself, a normal, imperfect 24-year-old man out partying with his friends, drinking too much, making disastrous decisions. Still, it’s not blame exactly ― no matter how much he had drunk and no matter what he might have said to the bouncer, he didn’t deserve to die. A couple of bad decisions that fateful night do not justify his murder. In spite of his bad decisions, he remains a son we love.
And, even though I wasn’t there, I have managed in my grief to implicate myself. I am Peter’s mother; I was responsible for teaching him right from wrong; perhaps I failed my son. Rationally, however, I know that’s not so. With time and patience, I have come to forgive myself for not being a perfect mother, for being disappointed with the justice system, for being disappointed by friends or family who couldn’t deal with our grieving. Alas, no one is perfect.
Forgiveness to me is an ongoing process with which I’ll be dealing for a long time. It is a continuing realization of how much, really, is beyond my control. My son’s death that night in Atlantic City was beyond my realm of control. His murder was a vicious act of five men against one.
It is not my business to forgive the five men involved. It was their deed; forgiveness is their business. But my enduring love for my son inspires an open loving attitude of compassion toward him, those five men, and everyone else in this world. I am compelled to make something meaningful come from the atrocity. I owe this to my son.
Perhaps I will, one day, summon total forgiveness, but now now. Meanwhile, I will remain open to the possibility. For me, right now, it is enough that I am no longer preoccupied, indeed, consumed by anger and remorse over the death of my son. We choose to focus now on his life, not his death. Instead of hatred for the perpetrators, I feel love and gratitude for the 24 years of my son’s life. I am a survivor, not a victim.
With love and compassion for others, I remain open to forgiveness. In a few weeks, I’ll be one of a group of survivors of homicide going to go to a local prison to meet with perpetrators of violence in a program of “restorative justice.” I will listen closely, dig deep for compassion, and strive to understand. And we will see what happens.
Mary Westra 2011