Those who hurt others have long been categorized into three distinct types — the sad, the mad and the outright bad. Where would Phillip Garrido — rapist, abductor, pedophile and possible murderer — fit into this rogues gallery of perpetrators? His father’s verdict that a motorbike accident and heavy LSD use turned him ‘crazy’ seems to excuse, while to find any hint of sadness in this diabolic history comes close to an apology. Even outright bad is hardly a superlative towering enough to describe a man for whom the words ‘evil’, ‘animal’ or ‘monster’ would appear far more fitting.
Broadly speaking the ‘bad’ can be categorized as those who knowingly inflict unspeakable acts of violence on others and feel no remorse — either because they do not understand the consequences of their actions or because they do not care. What do we do with people like these who take pleasure in tormenting others? Certainly justice means that once caught and convicted they must be locked away — but are they deserving of compassion too? Are these so-called ‘animals’ and ‘evil monsters’ candidates for redemption? If they are simply a manifestation of an external evil force separate from the rest of us then the answer has to be no. But perhaps bad in this sense means that something has gone badly wrong — that their brain has been wired defectively (whether a fault at birth or a trauma in childhood) giving such individuals a limited capacity for remorse, no emotional awareness and no ability to distinguish right from wrong.
Remorse in this sense is simply a muscle that has never been exercised and therefore has no function or power.
It is so much easier to talk of evil than empathy but I would prefer to confine that unflinching moral absolute to the rubbish heap because it serves no purpose, signalling the end of conversation before it has even started. A distinction must be made between evil acts and evil people and, hard as it is to acknowledge, somewhere amidst the tangle of Garrido’s depraved thinking lies a flicker of humanity.
As the founder and director of the UK based organisation The Forgiveness Project I have worked with many victims of atrocity and crime who have embarked on a path towards understanding and even forgiveness. Some have had their lives ripped apart by ‘monsters’ comparable to Garrdio.
If they can talk about understanding or empathy in this context, it is because they have arrived at a place that sees perpetrators as victims too, and views depraved thinking as a hideous prison from which there is no escape.
Compassion doesn’t mean feeling sorry for someone or having pity, it simply means having the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, no matter how soiled and sordid those shoes may be.
Rebecca de Mauro’s story is one that resonates in this context. For several years de Mauro was consumed by despair, bitterness and rage towards the man who raped and murdered her young daughter. ‘I even gave him a nickname “Spawn of Satan” and prayed to God that he was being raped and tortured in prison,” she says.
Anyone hearing her story might imagine feeling the same, but then de Mauro very poignantly describes the moment when this way of thinking no longer worked for her. It happened one morning when she was watching Katie Couric on NBC and the story of Gary Ridgway, ‘the Green River killer,’ was broadcast. Ridgway had just been sentenced for the murders of 48 women making him the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history. De Mauro watched with great interest as the victims’ families lined up to give their victim impact statements, recognizing her own pain in statements like, “I hope you rot in hell, you son of a bitch.” De Mauro explains how Ridgway sat impassive and hard, eyes squinted seemingly full of hate, and how it wasn’t until Bob Rule, father of 16-year-old Linda Rule, stood and faced the killer that something inside of her — and Gary Ridgway broke. Bob Rule — a committed Christian — looked straight at the Green River killer and said that while the killer had tested his faith in God, nevertheless he had forgiven Gary Ridgway.
De Mauro describes what she then saw on her TV screen:
Ridgway’s face softened and his lips began to tremble. Then he began to cry. At that precise moment, I realized that the only way I would be able to go on living was to stop hating. I had to do what Bob Rule had done and let it go, let it quit killing me. I knew that if something didn’t change I would be in the graveyard, dead from a broken heart, next to my little daughter. It was then that I felt sorry for the other crime victims in the Ridgway case. I remembered seething with hate as I looked at my daughter’s killer in court. I’d wanted to scream profanities at him too.
It was recognizing in these other victims her own all-consuming despair and rage that transformed de Mauro’s pain and made her into the strong, resourceful, and deeply empathetic woman she is today. Perhaps also it was that tiny glimpse of humanity she spotted in Gary Ridgway — when the tear ran down his face — that shifted her worldview. And, who knows, perhaps it was only when Bob Rule showed Gary Ridgway compassion, that the serial killer seemed able to comprehend — possibly for the first time in his life- – the impact of the harm he had wreaked over the lives of his many victims and the ripple effect of his crimes which will doubtless be felt for generations to come.