Lorenn Walker (Hawaii)

“We can use suffering to find more meaningful lives.”

Photography by Timothy Pinault

Lorenn Walker JD, MPH, is a Hawai’i-based health educator with extensive legal and social service experience. In 1976 she was brutally attacked while on holiday in Waikiki Hawai’i.  The trauma of the attack began a lifelong path of healing. You can find further information at lorennwalker.com.

I was visiting my sister for a short break when an evening that started out with expectations of fun and dancing, left me seriously injured after an attempted rape and murder. I had just turned 24 and was the single parent of my sweet five-year-old daughter, who I had when I was 18 wanting someone to love who wouldn’t leave me.

While waiting for my friend to finish bartending before we went dancing, I drank some beers, and became intoxicated. I mistakenly went out the back door of the hotel bar onto a dark deserted Waikiki street.

A man spotted me and his friendliness quickly turned violent. “Shut up or I’ll kill you,” he warned, throwing me to the ground, his fist smashing my face. Knocked unconscious, I woke up standing with his ten fingers wrapped tightly around my throat. I couldn’t breathe. As my life flashed through my mind, my final thought was of my child.  “I have a baby,” I gasped. At this, he instantly let me go, and I ran for my life.

“Too bad we can’t take his prints off these,” a policeman said examining the ten fingerprinted bruises around my neck. Those, along with my swollen black and blue face, bloody eyeball, and facial numbness were ugly reminders of what had happened.

The surgeon cut open my cheek to save my eye. I was young and vain at the time and the months of physical healing included anxiety that I would be permanently scarred. Worse still, I had to stay out of the ocean, and could not work for months. I became deeply depressed.

My shame and guilt were overwhelming. I felt like the attack was my fault. By drinking and putting myself in a dangerous situation, I had not only risked my life, but risked my daughter’s security. I constantly asked myself, “What would she have done without you? Why are you so awful that a stranger wanted to kill you? What’s wrong with you?” The thoughts echoed from my childhood living with a mentally ill parent in an abusive household, which I left to go on my own at age 14.

One day after sending my daughter off to kindergarten, I contemplated suicide, but instead of killing myself, I found a therapist.

I am forever grateful to Harold Hall, Ph.D.  He helped me feel worthy and altered my life course by insisting that I enroll at Kaua’i Community College. Having only completed the ninth grade of school with terrible grades, I didn’t believe I was college material, and was convinced I’d drop out before I even started. But days after starting college, I discovered I loved school, and somehow stumbled onto a bright new path.

I went straight through college, then law school in Boston. Seven years after the attack, I took the attorney licensing examination at the same Waikiki Hotel, where the police and ambulance had found me.

Forgiving my attacker was easy. He let me live, and my life was hugely improved by becoming a student and finding self-confidence and hope.  But forgiving myself for what happened took me 25 years. Somehow, I felt more ashamed and afraid that his compassion, not my strength, saved me.

As the years passed both prosecution and defense work left me disillusioned with the legal profession – I couldn’t see it helping people.  So I discovered public health, which led me to restorative justice. I learnt that healing can be part of a justice system, and I found self-forgiveness.

Both the innocents and those who intentionally hurt others, who I’ve met through my work, have helped me learn how to forgive myself. They taught me that everyone needs love; that seeing our mistakes and poor decisions as indicators of unworthiness leads to self-absorption and more pain. We can find wisdom from our errors. We can use suffering to find more meaningful lives.

Letting go of resentment for ourselves, and others, frees us to love deeper, and allows us more focus to be mindful of the present moment. It is being present with others and holding their pain and suffering together that helps us all heal.