A bumper sticker on Lois Einhorn’s office door challenges readers “To comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
While Einhorn, a professor of English, is hardly shy about challenging her students, she wasn’t always open to discussing sensitive issues within the classroom. This contradiction was resolved through a 10-year healing process chronicled in her newest book, Forgiveness and Child Abuse: Would YOU Forgive? It’s a brutally honest portrayal of the abuse she endured at the hands of her own parents.
The book recalls how Einhorn’s parents used Nazi-style techniques in physically and sexually abusing her and her sister. “As a child my sister and I were forced to torture and destroy animals,” she said. “As an adult I was feeling antagonizing anguish because I participated.”
Years after her parents’ deaths, Einhorn realized that she needed closure and wanted to know if the time had come to forgive. She shared her story with hundreds of people, asking them: “What would you do?”
“Do you forgive your parents and how do you forgive yourself?” she asked.
The result — 53 contributors from all walks of life with inherently contradictory viewpoints on forgiveness. Writers include actor Edward Asner, singer and activist Pete Seeger and death-row inmate Billy Ray Riggs.
Colleague and contributor Susan Thornton has known Einhorn for more than 20 years. “This book is an amazing document because it brings so many perspectives together,” Thornton said. “Each time I read it I take away some new knowledge. It is like being part of a conversation among people I would not ordinarily meet. In reading this book one is in the company of Arun Gandhi, the grandson of the Mahatma, ‘Hurricane’ Carter, Dr. Bernard Siegel and other well-known figures, as well as in the company of members of the therapeutic community and other individuals like Lois who are survivors of ritual abuse. It’s an extraordinary document.”
The responses are often surprising. While contributors do not agree on whether and how Einhorn can forgive, they seem to agree on the multiplicity of meanings the term forgiveness can carry.
“There are many more points of view about forgiveness than I ever imagined,” said Eric Loeb, the psychologist who helped Einhorn uncover the abuse and a contributor to the book. “Forgiveness is a side effect of healing, and is more of a gift to the forgiver than to the forgiven.”
Einhorn agrees. “You don’t think there are that many takes on forgiveness,” she said. “After reading them all, forgiveness went from being an F-word to being a reality. To me it’s not a goal, it’s a byproduct of healing and healing is an ongoing process.”
This healing experience has proved beneficial to Einhorn not only in her personal life but professionally as well. “What I teach now is very different,” she said. “I designed three courses that clearly are a result of my healing, Communication Ethics and Social Action, Compassionate Nonviolent Communication and Communication and Film.”
Her classroom and teaching style promote an open dialogue where students feel free to disagree on issues such as racism, stereotyping and censorship. “All my courses now deal with sensitive topics with students expressing their ideas and feelings openly, honestly and authentically,” she said. These courses are designed to challenge students and take them outside their comfort zones. “As a society, we’re not taught how to deal with intense pain. Part of what I teach is the need to feel.”
This English professor’s graphic, unflinching account has generated correspondences from fellow abuse victims worldwide. Readers from as far away as Australia, the Netherlands and Norway have reached out to Einhorn to share their own stories of abuse, to thank her for helping them to reach forgiveness and to look at forgiveness in a different light.
In response to the book, Einhorn was honored as the 2004 Heroine of Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Peace by the World Forgiveness Alliance. Past recipients include Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
In the afterword to Forgiveness Einhorn writes: “I don’t know if we can create a better world using only compassionate, nonviolent communication, but I do know we can create a better world if we become more compassionate and less violent in our communication with others and ourselves.”