A Review of
Where The River Bends: Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners.
Reviewed By Paul D. Gregory
In the documentary “What I want my words to do to you,” American playwright and activist Eve Ensler spoke of the metamorphosis in her thinking about incarcerated women in the Bedford Correctional Institution in Bedford Massachusetts. Similar to most of society, Ensler originally viewed these incarcerated women as “mistakes” saying:
“Everyone is here at Bedford because of a mistake. Some of those mistakes occurred within months—some within minutes. Most of the mistakes were dreadful, catastrophic. Now we [society] have frozen you in your mistake. Marked you forever. Held captive. Discarded. Hated for your mistake. You have essentially been forced to become your mistake, the walking daily embodiment of your mistake. Held in the monument constructed to punish mistakes. Before I came here to Bedford, I imagined you the women here—mistakes lying on mistake cots behind steel mistake bars. Mistakes do not have faces or feelings or histories or futures. They are bad. Mistakes. We must forget them—put them away” [ 1 ]
Most of the mistakes we make are forgivable. A young man fails to show up for his weekly coffee date with his best friend. A young woman breaks off her engagement to her significant other. We unthinkingly berate a coworker, causing hurt to her/him. Forgiveness is granted for a large majority of our own mistakes.
Crime, on the other hand, carries a different set of standards. For various reasons, the label of criminal offender (especially those who commit heinous crimes) sticks to these individuals long after their incarceration ends.
Michael McRay’s book Where the River Bends addresses this concept of forgiveness for incarcerated offenders. The reader will gain insight into forgiveness of an offender by society, including his/her victims, as well as the process by which offenders forgive themselves for their own criminal behavior.
The book is broken up into 3 distinct parts. First, the author provides a thorough review of the concept of forgiveness. Next McRay provides a description of the fourteen interviews he conducted with incarcerated individuals in the Tennessee Prison System. Last the author summarizes themes from these interviews as they pertain to forgiveness.
Arguably the greatest benefit of Where the River Bends is the opportunity for the reader to view incarcerated offenders in a new light. Delving into the lives of these 14 incarcerated adults, one will find it difficult to to see these inmates not as hardened evildoers, but human beings who experience successes and failures much like us. Unlike some of us, however, McRay’s interviews depicted most of these individuals as victims of physical, verbal and sexual abuse. Many of these abuses began in early childhood and carried through to adulthood. Reading these stories, one begins to understand (maybe for the first time) the ways in which abuse contributes to criminal behavior of incarcerated men and women.
That said forgiveness is main topic of the book.
The author’s fourteen interviews highlight at least three important points regarding forgiveness. First, “forgiveness does not excuse or condone harms done” (148). Some of us believe that to forgive another for a serious harm somehow “lets them off the hook” for their behavior. However, McRay’s interviews depict forgiveness as a method of naming the harm done and taking full responsibility for it. The author proposes that these fourteen individuals viewed forgiveness not a way to forget the heinous crimes committed; rather, forgiveness was depicted as a way to limit viewing oneself as wholly consumed by this one action.
Second, McRay states that “forgiveness is antithetical to vengeance and retribution whether towards another or ourselves” (148). One of the amazing themes contained in this book were the offenders attempts to forgive themselves for their own horrendous behaviors, as well as, forgive the people in their lives that might have contributed to the dreadful crimes that resulted in their incarceration. True forgiveness should free us from ill will toward ourselves as well as others. Moreover it should push us toward engaging in positive behaviors toward ourselves and others.
Third, true forgiveness can create a new story of our lives. McRay states that “forgiveness…is about believing, hoping, imagining that new life can grow from the damaged and decaying soil of our pain” (148). At a minimum our capacity to forgive (and be forgiven) holds the promise of imagining a new story emerging from the mire of one’s past.
Where the River Bends is a genuine, heart-breaking and powerful sketch of criminal offenders in a Tennessee Prison. It is genuine because McRay was careful to convey the stories of these fourteen inmates as they were told. The stories were not edited or altered to create a different effect; rather they were related to the reader as they were conveyed by the inmates. Furthermore, the book was not written with the goal to have the reader feel sorry for the inmates. Virtually all of the inmates interviewed assumed responsibility for their crimes. And the author never attempted to reinterpret the crimes committed as somehow less serious.
This book was also heart-breaking, as it depicted fourteen heinous crimes committed by individuals whose lives for the most part had been living hells. Again, it did not seem like McRay wanted the reader to feel sorry for these individuals, but merely hoped to create a context in which to better understand the stories of these inmates and what possibilities forgiveness holds.
Last, the stories in Where the River Bends were powerful. A good part of society never considers the life of the inmate. Most of us seem content to merely believe stereotypes we hear about prisoners from television, movies, etc. McRay’s book, however, shatters this view of the criminal offender. Most important, McRay’s book puts forward the vital impact that forgiveness promises to the offender, victim as well as society in general. I would imagine McRay’s hope would be that we would lose sleep over the contents of this book, tossing and turning while we consider the possibilities that exist if we would only consider what it could mean to forgive and/or be forgiven.
[ 1 ] Madeleine Gavin, Judith Katz and Gary Sunshine. (2003). What I Want My Words To Do To You [Documentary]. United States, p. 3.