On forgiving your rapist

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Noah Hermès worships at Christ Church Cathedral in the diocese of Montreal. Photo: Contributed

A Montreal-based Anglican is telling the world about finding forgiveness in the wake of sexual assault—but Noah Hermès’ message doesn’t stop there.

Note: Noah Hermès, the subject of this article, is non-binary, a gender identity that is not exclusively male or female, and uses the pronoun “they” rather than “he” or “she.” At the time of the assault and the writing of the blog post referenced in this story, Hermès used their birth name, “Nina.” They have since changed their name to Noah.

Noah Hermès describes their healing process as “a long, twisted road.”

“With trauma recovery, it’s cyclical…sometimes you do really good, sometimes you swing back and you feel like you just backtracked a lot,” they say.

Hermès was sexually assaulted in 2014, during their first year of university. They wrote about the experience and about the role their Anglican faith played in their healing in a blog post entitled “Why I’m forgiving my rapist.”

They also recounted the story to the French newspaper Le Devoir and in a talk for TEDxMontrealWomen.

The assault was traumatic, but Hermès says it took months for them to admit what had happened—even to themself.

“I think we have this idea in society that assault looks like a guy jumping out at you from the alleyway with a knife,” they say. When there are power dynamics at play, “when it’s someone who you care about, who you trust,” it can be easy to second-guess oneself.

They found themself thinking that they “must have been okay with what happened,” because they didn’t try to violently fight him off. “It took me at least six months to even admit that I wasn’t okay.”

During that time, Hermès says, they began to feel the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Eventually they began to see a therapist. “It was so validating to have someone there to say, ‘You know, you’re not crazy, what happened wasn’t okay.’ ”

They reported what had happened and the person lost his job.

But, as Hermès writes in their blog post, “with the resurgence of #MeToo, these conversations have expanded and continued and been brought to the forefront of many of our minds. But we don’t often speak about what happens after the hashtag, just how do we go on living?”

For Hermès, the answer to this question was forgiveness.

They remember feeling incredibly angry, wondering why this had happened to them. “I remember my therapist saying, ‘You might not get that answer,’ ” they say. “You might not be able to make him understand why what he did to you was wrong.”

They began to channel their anger into helping others, through volunteer work at their campus’s sexual assault centre. Yet, they knew they wanted to get rid of the rage. “I didn’t want to be running around as an angry person, inadvertently hurting people that I love for the rest of my life,” they say. They wanted to forgive their rapist.

Their faith was the driving force in the decision. They say they connected with the image of a God who understands and has experienced pain.

“Jesus went through suffering, died on the cross so that he can understand exactly what it is we’re going through, and even after going through all of that pain, he still forgave the people who crucified him. That really was such a comforting model for me going through this whole thing…we have this God who understands what it is to suffer in this way.”

Though they say they knew that true forgiveness would take a long time, the “little shred” of willingness they felt to do so was “all that I needed to slowly move towards love,” they say.

They began forcing themself to pray for him every night as a conscious part of their prayer practice, an idea drawn from their experiences in addiction recovery.

“Initially in the beginning, I was just praying, ‘God, can you help him just, like, not hurt other people?’ That’s where I was starting. ‘Can I not be consumed with rage today?’ ”

While these prayers weren’t always sincere, they slowly sparked a change within. The resentment ebbed away; they felt free.

When they tell people that they have forgiven their rapist, they say, the reaction is generally one of confusion. They realized that forgiveness is not often presented as an “option” for recovery from this type of trauma, which prompted them to write about the experience.

They also saw the positive effects that forgiveness brought into their life. “I feel so free and [have] so much comfort and peace from going through this journey.”

Still, they caution, “I don’t want to make it seem like it was easy. Like I just woke up one day and was like, ‘All right, I forgive you, yay!’ It was years of work, and therapy and helping others—all of that collectively helped me move towards this.”

One night, after not having spoken to him in years, they felt an urge to reach out to the man who had hurt them. “I really just felt in my heart this sense of, let him know [I’ve] forgiven him.”

They wrote him a message. He wrote back, thanking them and apologizing.

“The thing was, it almost didn’t matter what he was going to say to me…just knowing in my heart that I’ve forgiven him, and that I don’t need to hold on to that rage anymore, was enough for me.”

Hermès is sensitive to the ways forgiveness has been used in the past, particularly in religious communities, to cause greater harm for women with similar experiences. “I don’t forgive him for him,” they clarify. “I’m forgiving him for me.”

Forgiveness is not a justification, they say. “It’s acknowledging that what he did was deeply horrible and that it did change me forever…but also recognizing that I want to move forward with my life.”

The key difference, they say, is between anger and resentment. While anger is a natural—even healthy—reaction to hurt, holding onto that anger can turn sour.

“Think about the example of Jesus flipping tables in the temple—we have this example of some pretty righteous anger. But if I’m holding onto that anger and carrying it with me everywhere, towards a person, to the point where it takes over my life, then I have to stop and ask, ‘Is this really [beneficial?]’”

Productive anger is that which is focused on a system that allows this kind of hurt to happen, they say. “Holding anger towards individual people, it’s not going to bring about the result that I want.”

Rather, their anger is directed at “the culture we live in that fosters and creates environments” for assault. “I’m not forgiving society. Absolutely not—I’m going to go flip some tables.”

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Joelle Kidd
Joelle Kidd joined the Anglican Journal in 2017 as staff writer. She has worked as an editor and writer for the Winnipeg-based Fanfare Magazine Group and as freelance copy editor for Naida Communications.

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