forgive and forget?

It was 1979. I was in junior high. I lived in a part of Spokane called the “South Hill,” and the most dangerous thing around was Cedar, the busy street in front of my house.

As little kids, the only time we were allowed to cross Cedar was to go to the school bus stop. Besides, there was this kid in my mom’s scout troop who was a bit of a troublemaker and bully, and she didn’t want us anywhere near his house unsupervised. He lived across Cedar. Of course, his troublemaking was mostly little kid bullying stuff: kicking in snowmen, teasing you to tears, and occassionally breaking something of yours. I know this because he used the same bus stop. But still, that’s standard little kid danger.

Spokane is divided into distinct neighborhoods, and back then, before Five Mile and Nine Mile were developed, the South Hill was the “rich” neighborhood. The higher you went, the wealthier it got, generally. Especially on the western side of the hill. I lived on 13th, and the very wealthy tended to live on the cliff, up by 35th. But we all went to the same Junior High—Sacajawea (or “Sac”), on 33rd.

We’d walk up to Comstock Park on 29th to swim, and we’d often go to Rosauers on 14th (about 8 blocks east of our house) to pick up groceries for mom, sometimes three times in one day. I had a friend who had a paper route, and I’d often walk it with her. Anything east of Cedar was fine, generally speaking. The neighborhood was safe. My immediate neighborhood was a favorite place for teachers to live. Grade school teachers we had, high school teachers who had retired or we would soon have, private school teachers, and college professors. It was a good neighborhood, even if on the lower side of the hill.

But it was 1979, and there was ugly news in the air. By Christmas, no girl in my neighborhood would feel safe outdoors. You see, in late 1979, through 1980, there was an escalating sociopath on the loose, called the “South Hill Rapist.” And to protect us, the police visited Sac (and I imagine the South Hill high schools, LC and Ferris), giving us classes on self-defense and proactive protection. We were never to walk in groups of fewer than three. We were to walk quickly, and looking determined and observant. We were to carry something, like keys, a heavy bag, or (preferably) mace, that we could clobber an assailant with. And we were to wear shoes we could run in. Or, if we were in heels, we were to take them off and use them as weapons before we ran.

And to keep us ever vigilant, the city or somebody painted signs all over the hill, wherever a rape had been reported to have happened. At my bus stop on 16th, I stood on that sign—it read “a woman was raped here” with an arrow and a big, red X. And when the bus dropped us off at Sac, it pulled right up to another sign, which we walked on to exit the bus. Right in front of the school’s doors. At Rosauers. At Comstock. In front of a friend’s house. At the laundromat. Everywhere. A woman was raped here.

We never went to the pool without my older brother, and never walked. I quit going on the paper route with my friend. But that didn’t help, because most of the rapes happened in broad daylight. He’d grab a woman, drag her into the bushes, having stuffed an oven mit into her mouth, and rape her there. And he was getting increasingly violent. Police suspected it was only a matter of time before he started murdering women. Walking to the store for mom was unthinkable. Even visiting friends on the other side of the block was iffy. Better not risk it.

Forty-three women were raped during that time. Forty-three signs on sidewalks in my neighborhood. A local news anchor, “Sunshine Shelly” was violently raped. An elderly woman was raped. A police officer’s wife was raped. A high-schooler was raped. Spokane is a city of runners, and he’d attack anyone jogging alone. We were hostage to his urges.

And then in 1981 the janitor of Sac, a good friend of any student who knew him, caught the South Hill Rapist. And we went through a long ordeal of trials, mistrials, and the insane workings of his mother, Ruth, who hired a hit man to kill the prosecutor and the judge. Kevin Coe was a very hard man to pin down. Because of the use of hypnosis in the therapy of many of his victims, their cases were thrown out. He was tried and retried. And finally, in 1986, we watched the final appeal verdict.

All the TVs at LC were tuned to the local news. Every class had suspended the lesson plan for the day, as we awaited the jury’s verdict. A huge crowd of us gathered in the library, watching the TV screen. “Sunshine” Shelly Monahan, who was to report it was herself a victim whose case had been thrown out. A heavy cloud of anticipation hung over Spokane, especially over us from the south side.

He was found guilty on the one remaining case. Reporting the verdict, Shelly cried. There was a palpable change in the atmosphere at LC. We were a little safer again. And Kevin Coe was sent to prison. Nothing would ever be the same on the South Hill, though. We knew that even here were dangerous psychopaths. We knew that our clean-cut neighbor could be a brutal rapist. And we turned a little more inward.

No woman who lived through that ordeal—whether as an adult or a teenager—ever walked the same way again. We always looked around carefully, walked more quickly, carried keys in a certain way, just in case. We didn’t go for long walks alone, found jogging buddies, and carried mace. Nothing was the same.

Kevin Coe is up again for review. And it has me thinking on what my job is as a Christian. Coe never raped me. But I have vivid images of those signs, and a terrifying memory of having, Christmastime 1980, to walk home, alone, at 11 pm one night from a babysitting job, when they refused to drive me. It was only ten blocks, but I was petrified.

We are called to forgive. But are we called to forget? And what is that, anyway? It is true that when God forgives, scripture says, he throws our sins into a ‘sea of forgetfulness’, tosses them away from himself, ‘as far as east is from west.’ But does he call us to forget that way?

I think, no.

Forgiveness is, for us, choosing to live with the consequences of another’s actions. It isn’t saying that the actions and consequences are okay, or no big deal. It isn’t minimizing the consequences or actions. Things that are okay and no big deal don’t need forgiving.

And forgetting what was done is often abject foolishness.

Make a distinction, if you will, between hurt and harm. When we offend God, we may hurt God, insofar as sin breaks God’s heart, but we cannot ever harm God. God forgives us, and God can forget the sin because there is no future threat. Even if we do the exact same thing again, we’ve done no damage to God.

Now consider a non-harmful action that nonetheless hurts somebody S. S can forgive, can forget, causing no danger to S’s own future self. But in the case of Coe, the actions were terribly harmful. He destroyed many women’s lives. He caused much agony, tore a city apart. Forgive? Yes. We have to accept as a very present reality the consequences of his actions. We have to make peace with their presence in our lives. Accept them. But we do not forget what he did, for that has the potential of endangering a whole new generation of women, wherever he might live.

The problem is deeper, I think, than the easy case of not forgetting what a psychopatic serial rapist has done.

I read once that a certain Holocaust survivor said she had to forgive Hitler before she emigrated to the United States, because she didn’t want to bring him with her into her new life. We need to forgive to release ourselves from the hostage emotional consequences of another’s actions.

But to forget is contrary to forgiveness. You see, to forget the heinous is to declare it ‘no big deal’ or ‘okay,’ that is, to make it something that never needed forgiveness. The problem here is that many, in the name of Christianity, tell us to forgive and forget, to put ourselves in dangerous positions where we never learn from the evils that befall us. Pretending it never happened is minimalizing it, and this only sets us up for future harms.

We forgive the offender, we come to terms with their consequences, consequences with which we already live—we choose to accept that which was foisted upon us beyond our choosing. But we should not forget and thereby put ourselves and/or others in a place where future harm can be thrust upon us.

It says about Jesus that he never entrusted himself to man because he knew what was in a man’s heart. Jesus didn’t forget the evils that surrounded him. We are to be harmless as doves, yes, but wise as serpents. That is, we are to be known by our love, doing all we can to benefit and bless those around us.

But forgetting the repeat abuses of a sociopath or of even that unrepentant manipulative person in your life is not harmless. It’s enabling future harm, which goes against loving your neighbors, against loving yourself—and in fact, against loving the offender. We fail to love our neighbors when we could have prevented harm, yet by our choosing to forget past harm rather enable future harm. We fail to love ourselves when we forget past harm done to us and put ourselves, again and again, in situations where harm befalls us. When we fail to be wise as serpents, we fail to love properly. And when we fail to hold offenders (criminal, everyday) accountable, when we fail to remember what has been done, we risk putting them into a circumstance where they can again harm their own soul.

Santayana wrote that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.

Forgive? Absolutely. Forget? No. For only in remembering can we remember God’s salvific grace, that grace that, for no known reason, set the carillon of St. John’s pealing “God rest ye merry, gentleman” at 11 pm one December evening, to comfort a thirteen-year-old girl as she walked home alone under the shadow of the South Hill Rapist.


3 thoughts on “forgive and forget?

  1. chefhoag

    Wow. I remember the time. Even though I lived on the North Side, the women I knew were just as freaked out. They didn’t know if he’d suddenly decide to switch neighborhoods. Several of my sister’s friends (as well as my sister) were truly afraid during that time.

    The capture and trial happened while I was overseas. I found out about it through letters and phone calls from home. What I never understood was why he was sentenced to anything less than life in prison without possibility of parole.

    And now…he says he’s changed, that he will not re-offend. Any judge that would believe that line of BS doesn’t have two brain cells to rub together. Even though he’s “paid his debt to society”, the ONLY smart move is to remand him to a maximum-security psychiatric ward and leave him there for the rest of his days.

    The State of Washington doesn’t have a death penalty for cases of rape, unless a murder was also committed. Well, in a way, there was a murder…the innocence of the City of Spokane was irrevocably destroyed. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great placce to live, but, you were right…after what he did, nothing was the same.

    And…about the carillon. REALLY?!? There was one word that went through my mind when I read that: “Angel”. Nothing less than a miracle.


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