Between Revenge and Blind Forgiveness

The faster the counseling intervention into the Post-Traumatic Stress that develops from sexual abductions, the better the outcome. I hope the girls' families will be open to the girls receiving "best practices" treatment, both within and outside of the community. — Julie Melrose, former worker in a child protective agency

Like many people, I have been watching the news and discovering the horrifying details of how Stephen Howells Jr. and his girlfriend, Nicole Vaisey allegedly kidnapped and abused the two Amish girls who were missing from their home for twenty-four hours in upstate New York.

I have read many comments from readers online that vent hatred towards the two perpetrators.

I have also read about the father saying that he feels sorry for the perpetrators because they have ruined their whole lives.

These are two extremes. And they reflect how differently the people in an Amish community think compared to people in the mainstream culture.

In the mainstream culture we tend to wallow in feelings of vengeance. We wish the worst on those who have committed such evil. And we might even compete for who can think up the most horrible names to call them or the ills we wish on them.

What the father said is a very Amish thing to say. I question how he can truly feel empathy for the two people who stole his daughters’ innocence? What about his daughters’ lives having been ruined? How would I feel about my father saying such a thing to the world, only days after something so horrific happened to me? When someone has wronged us to this degree, it is impossible to simultaneously feel our own hurt and feel empathy for those who violated us.

This is called forgiving too soon and it short-circuits the healing process.

Even in the twenty-three years that I lived in the Amish community I was raised in, I did not like when people would say things like that. I felt it wasn’t honest. I would think to myself, “He is just saying that because he thinks he should. I don’t think he really means it.”

The typical Amish way to deal with hardship is to put it behind them and move on with their lives. I can only imagine that if these girls try that, the memories of what happened will be haunting them for a long time. I agree with the comment that Julie Melrose left on my blog several days ago: “The faster the counseling intervention into the Post-Traumatic Stress that develops from sexual abductions, the better the outcome. I hope the girls' families will be open to the girls receiving ‘best practices’ treatment, both within and outside of the community.”

I certainly hope so, too.

But this is not a given. In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the survivors of the school shooting received counseling. But there is a world of difference between these two communities.

Normally the Heuvelton community would not even consider counseling.

I am heartened to hear that the relations between the Amish and the “English” in upstate New York has strengthened through this ordeal. It is ironic that the parents would need to turn to the outside culture for help, should they seek counseling for their daughters, when it was people from the outside who committed these evil deeds. But until the Amish allow their children an education beyond the eighth grade, there likely will be no trained counselors within the community to deal with something like this.

And as far as the perpetrators go: I think it is important that Howells and Vaisey are being brought to justice. Because I know that, I can let go of wishing the worst on them. They were very likely victims of abuse themselves in their childhood. As Julie Melrose wrote:

The vast majority of those who commit child sexual abuse—and child abuse in general, whether physical or emotional—were themselves victims of that abuse in childhood, did not receive proper treatment, and are repeating what they were taught…. They may well be worthy of some measure of radical compassion (a very different concept from blind forgiveness) in terms of the continuing cycles of violence that occur in the absence of appropriate recognition and intervention. All the more reason why the girls should have counseling!

Let us not forget, the two Amish girls were not the only victims. It is important to remember that the other victims deserve our empathy as much as the Amish ones. Let’s hope they, too, will receive counseling and a chance to heal. All of them need to keep hearing, “This was not your fault.”

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24 thoughts on “Between Revenge and Blind Forgiveness”

    1. I agree, Katie. Some are so resistant. I think there are more Amish people seeking counseling than there were when I was there. The idea is to foster a healthy culture by having healthy people in it.

  1. This blog really got me thinking. On the subject of “radical compassion”, I think that what that would have to amount to would be to say that there is no such thing as Free Will. One is not “free” to make the choice between Good and Evil if one is acting out in a sort of “childhood hypnosis” induced by one’s own abusive past. The couple who abused these children planned their acts in advance.They did not just fall into evil because a situation suddenly produced itself and they reacted in an unconscious knee-jerk manner.So either Free Will does not exist and the perpetrators are innocent victims too, or we have to admit that there is Free Will,and that they chose Evil over Good and consequently we are free to wish them ill. Also, what does the Amish father’s response say about the value of girls and women in the Amish culture?

    1. Vanessa, I believe anyone with a will or consciousness has the ability to know the difference between right and wrong. Unfortunately people don’t always choose the right thing. And in this case, Stephen Howells and Nicole Vaisey did not choose the right thing.

      People who have been abused have choices too. It so happens that the healing path is a tougher one and not everyone has the courage and resilience to take that road.

      I think if the perpetrators were abused as children, they were innocent victims once upon a time. We can imagine that they needed protection from harm in their childhood, and they likely didn’t get it either. That’s the compassion piece.

      Yes, we are free to wish them ill. That is the easiest thing to do. But if we want to challenge ourselves, perhaps we hope they expereince healing, too. It is only through healing that the cycle of abuse gets broken. But that doesn’t mean that society shouldn’t hold them accountable. I am so glad that this is in the hands of our criminal justice system. I have confidence that Howells and Vaisey will be held accountable. Whether they will be rehabilitated remains to be seen.

  2. I really hope and pray that the father grants his daughters the best treatment possible and that there may be a growth of trust between the Amish and english world.

  3. What, if anything, do you think would make this community in particular (and the very conservative/Swartzentruber communities more generally) allow counseling services? I did a brief internship in northern Indiana with the Amish, and I know that community is a different world entirely. One thing I brought up was that I was interested in learning Pennsylvania Dutch in order to provide counseling services in the first language of the Amish. Generally, the people I spoke to thought it was a good idea and would make people more comfortable, but I always got the strangest looks at first, as though nobody had ever considered that such a thing was possible. Would this be viewed as a help, or as more of an intrusion, in your opinion?

    1. Emily, this is an excellent question, and I don’t know that I am qualified to answer it. What I will do is ask a friend who knows the culture and is a trained counselor what she thinks. May I email you her answer?

  4. One thing I found remarkable was the girls had not lost trust in “English” people after such a horrific 24 hours. Not only did they request help from strangers they also went into their home. Then they got into the stranger’s vehicle and trusted they would be taken home. What sweet lambs.

    Why doesn’t every person that is sexually abused as a child sexually abuse children when they are older? When these two adult perpetrators go to prison the other inmates will abuse them. Very few people take kindly to those that hurt children. Even when it’s children that abuse younger more vulnerable children. The weaker will always receive more sympathy. As it should be.

    I think the good Bishop is caught between a rock and a hard place. He is under no obligation to share with anyone what he is feeling whether it be a truth or a lie. And frankly only a moron would have the audacity to even ask such a stupid question. For god’s sake! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know his guts are probably being ripped to shreds. Not to mention his dear wife.

    1. Fran, I thought about that too, that the girls were willing to knock on someone’s door, and get into their vehicle to go home. And from the latest report, that was not a calm ride home:

      From what I understand about the abused and becoming an abuser is that it is those who identify with their perpetrators who are most likely to also become abusers. There are many people who are abused who do not themselves become perpetrators, but there are few who become perpetrators who were not themselves abused.

      My guess is that the father was not asked a direct question about forgiveness. My guess is that it came up in a conversation. When something like this happens in a given Amish community, people are much more used to deaing with the perpetrators. The victims often become invisible to people. Or worse. The victims are blamed. For more on that subject, here is an article that will make you think:

  5. Good morning Saloma,
    I have spoken with many Amish friends about this abduction and it has had a profound affect on how they deal with “strangers” coming into their businesses. Most Amish I know will treat physical problems, but mental problems seem to be disregarded…if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. These young girls are in my thoughts, but I hold little hope that they will receive the help that they need. There are many victims here. Tom The Backroads Traveller

    1. Tom, I can imagine how this must be affecting other Amish. I think you’re right, that the more conservatiive Amish tend to disregard mental problems, until they cannot any longer. But there are also some Amish who do seek counseling when necessary. (Please read Mark’s comments for more on that).

      I will keep hoping the girls will receive counseling. There is more of a chance because the perpetrators are not Amish. And because of the severity of the abuse. Those girls must be so traumitized!

      And you’re right, there are more victims. I hold them in my thoughts and prayers, too.

  6. You are making some very good points, Saloma. There is no doubt in my mind the girls need counselling, but in the Swartzentruber circles it’s not a given they will get it. Some Swartzentrubers have started taking counselling (here in Holmes Co, OH) at Hoffnung Heim, but it seems it’s still not totally acceptable to some of their people. Hoffnung Heim is run entirely by New & Old Order Amish (the main group) and offers walk-in counselling as well as residential long-term. There are areas HH does very well in, like parent-child relations, spiritual confusion, depression, but the Amish take on forgiveness shows up in their counselling for abuse. Forgiveness and moving on are emphasized.
    The Amish feel maybe more comfortable in such a place and not just because of the PA Dutch, but because the staff there understands the culture from the inside.
    I do believe in the power of forgiveness. Having survived very traumatic experiences as a child (a non-Amish abuser), I know from experience how hard it is to work through. I believe where our Amish counselors fail is in not addressing the anger and betrayal a victim feels. But, those who have not experienced it do not fully grasp what the victim is going through and the victim might feel guilt at not being “able” to forgive. For me, I could not work on forgiveness until I worked through the anger & betrayal of trust. I have had several conversations with Amish & Mennonite counselors on this and I think the thinking is slowly changing. On the other hand, I have talked with non-Amish professionals and I didn’t totally agree with their take on it either.
    As a parent, I would find it hard to feel I could forgive anyone who would harm my children but I would feel obligated to try not to hate them, for in feeling hatred, I’m not harming them, I’m harming myself. None of our children, thank God!, have ever been harmed, but one of our children was exposed to a very bad influence through another person where he worked. In discussing this with our child I tried to keep my own feelings under control hoping my child could benefit from a calm discussion. I remember saying I do feel sorry for so-and-so because he must be a very unhappy and lost soul. I meant that, but I did not say how angry I felt at the risk that person was exposing my child to. I felt if I made a big angry fuss, I could steer my child toward more contact with the person. Maybe I was wrong… I don’t know, but I do know our child broke off all contact and later talked about how he had not realized how bad the situation was.
    I have a lot of respect for Hoffnung Heim, but if I were dealing with an abuse, I’d want professional help. We are blessed to have psychiatrists near here who though they are not Amish or Mennonite, have a good relationship with our community and have been a big help. Ideally a troubled person could benefit from professional help AND “Amish counselling” at a place like HH and work with both.

    1. Thank you, Mark, for your comments. It is always helpful to hear from someone within an Amish community. You’re right, it’s not a given that the girls in that community will receive counseling.

      I am dishearthened to hear that forgiveness and moving on are emphasized in the abuse counseling at HH. Those of us who have been abused may come to that, but it takes time. And healing. Forgiving too soon is not honest, and it doesn’t help anyone. I agree with what you said about the anger and betrayal that one feels after being abused. The way I look at it, we have to go through all the stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. There is no particular order, and we sometimes move back and forth between these stages. Obviously acceptance is the place we all want to reach, but that cannot be rushed. I agree about the feelings of guilt for not being able to forgive. I know for myself, part of what helps a person to heal is to show compassion, and to be reminded that it was not their fault. I think it’s impossible to have compassion for what someone is going through and also be urging them to forgive at the same time.

      Perhaps you are right in saying that people don’t know how to show compassion if they have not expereinced it themselves, but I think sometimes people who have been abused themselves are the quickest to rush the forgiveness. Otherwise, it might bring up issues that they have not yet dealt with. I know that in my own situation that was the case.

      I agree that hating someone does not do any good. In the mainstream culture, it seems to be acceptable to be wallow in feelings of revenge. There has to be a happy medium between these two extremes.

      I’m so glad your son or daughter steered out of the difficult situation. As a parent of two grown sons, I know it isn’t always easy to see them steer down a road that we see as harmful.

      Thank you again for your comments, Mark. It sounds like in your area there are choices for working through issues.

      Though it is not a given that the Miller girls in New York will receive counseling, I will keep hoping and praying they will.

  7. This all brought back the shootings in Penn. a few years back. Everyone was saying how wonderful that the Amish could all be so forgiving so quickly , and not angry.I thought , well, yes, maybe. But that kind forgiveness must come with a heavy price. .It just seems to me that there are some things that happen in life that we should be angry about and this kind of abuse is right up there at the top of the list. The healthy response would be anger ( not talking hate and revenge here) . Someone needs to tell these children and their parents that these feelings are ok.

    1. I agree, Sally. Showing anger was never okay when I was growing up, no matter the reason.

      Interesting that you brought up the shootings in Pennsylvania. I went to the play “The Amish Project” on Sunday, which is based on seven characters surrounding the incident. There was one line in there that really struck me. The actress was playing the part of the wife of the shooter. She was angry at the Amish for being so forgiving, and she said something to the effect of, when they forgive like that they make us carry this burden for them.

      Yes, the play is fictitious, and yes it is based on the playwright’s imagination. But this thought is so true, that it really hit me.

      1. Friends of ours are parents who lost children in the Nickel Mines shooting. I can assure you, they felt anger along with all kinds of other emotions. It might be more hidden, but it is still there. It might not come out in angry words or motions, but in talking about this, that father talked about the struggle to understand what happened, to forgive, and to deal with his anger. We talked about the differences between being angry at what happened and angry at the man who did it. At the same time, he talked of how he wants to forgive, like we ask “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
        I don’t understand what is meant by “when they forgive like that they make us carry the burden for them.” What does that mean?
        I’ve spoken also with the mother of the shooter. Hearing her speak is a powerful experience for anyone.

        1. Hello Mark. Yes, hearing the mother who lost a daughter in the Nickel Mines shooting in the film “The Amish” is very powerful. She was interviewed several years after the incident, and obviously healing had occurred, which makes it all the more powerful.

          I think what that line means is that forgiveness was extended so quickly after the shooting had occurred… even before any of the funerals had taken place. I could only imagine that the parents would have been going through incredible grief, and that anger would have been part of that. However, that was not what the world saw, which made it seem like the anger had gotten bypassed. Some people saw that as godly, but others may have felt like the burden of anger that comes naturally out of such an event was passed on to the people not of their world… like they were carrying the burden of anger for the Amish.

          I wonder, what is wrong with feeling anger toward the man who did this? Isn’t that an appropriate place to direct one’s anger? After all, he committed the horrific crime. Eventually we have to come around to accepting what happened, but that can take a long time. That is when the anger is naturally relinguished.

          To forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors is a Christian thing to do. But whether we are being forgiven, or whether we are forgiving, it all takes time. I don’t think we can rush the process. True forgiveness cannot happen without healing.

          I’ve also heard the mother of the shooter speak. You’re right, it is a powerful experience.

          1. Okay, I see what you mean about it appearing that the “burden of anger” was being passed on, but I looked at it (and this is just me personally) that I hoped other people could also forgive. You make a good point about a quick reaction of forgiveness. I was teaching school myself when the word arrived. (And none of us EVER guessed the news would spread so far.) and for me, again personally, any feeling of anger at what happened did not come until maybe a week after when I saw my pupils react to a tourist’s car that pulled in the school lane to take pictures. It was like, “everything has changed because of what he did.” It just so happened that at that time our school (not that hour, but in general) was practicing a play for a Thanksgiving Program based on the poem “The Unbarred Door.” We had quite a few discussions about whether we were willing to allow one man’s act to control us and that helped work through the anger. I think my personal anger was not so much at the shooter himself as at the loss of innocence for our own children & my scholars, but again this is only my personal opinion. I don’t intend to talk for all Amish in general.

            By talking about the man who did it and what happened I did not mean it was wrong either way, but it was two different issues to work through.

            Do all Amish “rush” to forgive? No. Several years ago a man in our community lost millions of dollars he had invested for other people and some Amish & Mennonite investors lost their savings, retirement funds, farm down-payments and the like. I personally know one Amish man who really struggled with his anger but later found out he lost a sum of less than $5,000 and could likely afford it. Another man lost a huge sum that they had saved to buy a home. Within a week of the news, the second man asked us if we’d care to join them in taking supper down to the man who had invested the money. Two very different reactions, not?

          2. Mark, you make good points. I think some Amish people are more willing to forgive quickly than others. Though from what the public knows, it seems like it is the Amish way to forgive quickly, if not instantly. A good example is the Amish family whose girls were kidnapped is now building a garage for the couple who returned the girls home. I feel like this is something they know how to do, when perhaps the harder thing would be getting the girls (and perhaps the rest of the family) into counseling and finding a way to heal from the trauma they’ve been through.

            I found the Amish in my home community had pretty much a mandate for forgiving and forgetting after someone wronged you, especially if the errant person was making a public confession in church. And if a person dared to bring it up again, that person would be asked to make a public confession. That left no room for all the steps of healing, and certainly not anger. In the case of abuse from my father, his public confessions became part of the cycle of abuse. And being a woman in the church, I was not allowed to disagree with the process.

            I have to say, my reaction to a tourist’s car pulling in the school lane to take pictures would unsettle me, regardless of whether there had been a shooting at another Amish school. How inappropriate, in my opnion.

            I know of the investment scandal you mentioned. I can imagine that people would have very different reactions to that. I never knew how the money got divvied up… sounds like it was not all that evenly distributed. The second man’s reaction is along the lines of what we were taught growing up, with the story of Durk Willems being the prime example of what our ancestors did. Then again, maybe the first man was being more honest about his feelings.


          3. Part of the reason the money was divided unequally is some investors declined to get their portion back so there would be more available for those who really needed it. Some asked for only part of their share back. Obviously some were better-off than others and had “extra” funds.

            Yes, I think an experience like that really shows a person’s feelings. I work with the second man and I’ve always seen him as a very gentle, kind, forgiving man. The first man is one of those people you never have to wonder what he’s thinking. :)

            It was interesting, though sad, to read about how Geauga Co. handles abuse situations and confessions. Depriving you, as the victim, no matter whether male or female, of the opportunity to give your feelings is wrong.

          4. Interesting to hear how the money was divided. I had thought it was going to be up to the courts to decide. I would imagine there were those who may have had “extra” who were not willing to give their portion back, such as the man who let’s people know what he’s thinking. If it’s like the mainstream society, those with the most are sometimes the least willing to share.

            I don’t know if Geauga County has changed the way they deal with abuse from the time I was there, thirty-some years ago or not. I’m hearing there are now some women standing up to their abusive husbands. At the time I was there, it was unheard of for women to speak up in the church, even though they were asked for their vote in members’ meetings.

            Thank you for your compassion, Mark. I wish you many Blessings along the roads you travel.

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