Should we forgive Stephen Collins for child abuse?

After actor Stephen Collins released a statement to People last week about his past molestation of three underage girls, Rosie O’Donnell, once his friend, responded with a poem eviscerating the former 7th Heaven star and describing her own experiences of abuse. In the poem, she wrote, “in case u wonder / what ur man sized penis – / ur abuse of power / ur lack of impulse control did to that kid / i will tell u a bit about me / sex is not fun / not now / not ever / it is married to a lingering terror.”

Others take an entirely different view of Collins’ confession. Writing in Psychology Today, Deborah King responds:

https://www.dailydot.com/entertainment/stephen-collins-twitter-dm/When someone is this sincere in his efforts to address his shortcomings, and has twenty years of clean personal behavior behind him, shouldn’t we support him…and forgive him? He has been in personal hell for decades over this; there is no need for further punishment. He has handled everything in the right way, including not apologizing directly to two of his victims, which could reopen old wounds for them. Clearly, 20 years of restraint and no repetition of his inappropriate sexual behavior shows that he is holding himself accountable.

In a number of ways, the Stephen Collins‘ case is different from most other cases of famous men harassing, assaulting, or abusing women. First of all, it came to light not because Collins was caught or accused by someone else, but because he admitted it—at least, initially. Second, unlike many sex offenders, Collins has not been denying any wrongdoing, but rather working to address the roots of his behavior in therapy. Third, Collins then shared his own story of being victimized by an adult as a child. While it’s not uncommon for abusers to have been abused themselves, few of them speak out about it—perhaps because they do not realize that they were abused and, therefore, do not understand that their own actions constitute abuse as well.

In discussing the woman who repeatedly exposed herself to him, Collins shows a high degree of self-knowledge. He states that he’s not “blaming” the woman or using her as an “excuse,” but rather attempting to show how his attitudes and beliefs developed in such a way that led him to perpetuate sexual abuse against others. In an interview this past Friday, Collins said:

That [experience] distorted my perception in such a way that some part of me felt—I never felt like I was molested. That word never crossed my mind as a 10 to 15-year-old boy. It was a very intense experience—I think somewhere in my brain I got the equation that, ‘Well, this isn’t so terrible. This person who I trust is doing it.’… I think that’s an aspect that went into my own distorted thinking as a young man.

While I understand why people are hearing this as an attempt to excuse away Collins’ behavior, I hear it differently. Explaining why someone has done a bad thing isn’t the same thing as saying that it was OK for them to do, or that it was someone else’s fault that they did it. We do not grow and act in a vacuum, and although it is our responsibility to reevaluate the wrong and sometimes dangerous beliefs we are taught as children, we must also stop such things from being taught to children to begin with. Understanding how someone develops the belief that these actions are not abuse is important if we are to prevent others from developing it in the future, and it’s rare that we get to hear such an insightful and self-aware explanation of how someone comes to abuse others. Perhaps Collins has therapy to thank for that.

However, the question of whether or not some collective “we” ought to “forgive” Collins stands apart from all of this. People often treat celebrity missteps, whether it’s something relatively innocuous like getting caught smoking pot or something serious and potentially very harmful like sexual abuse, as something for which they owe “us” an apology and something for which “we” can potentially forgive them if they show sufficient remorse.

But, aside from feeling like part of my obsessively 7th Heaven-watching childhood has been ruined, I am unharmed by what Collins did. I have the privilege to look at it so objectively, to analyze his words and actions and try to determine whether or not he truly understands what he did wrong and has made sufficient progress toward atoning for it somehow.

It is not for me to forgive Collins, because it is not me that he abused.

As for Collins’ victims, he apologized personally to one, but wisely chose not to approach the other two after learning in therapy that reaching out to people you’ve deeply hurt in order to apologize (and perhaps ask for forgiveness) can be deeply triggering for them.

However, according to TMZ, one of the women to whom he did not apologize argues that this explanation seems “nonsensical.” She asks, “Why isn’t he donating any disposable income, beyond what he needs to survive, to a child abuse charity? Maybe he should at least try apologizing to his victims.”

This is an excellent reminder of the fact that survivors are not a monolith and we shouldn’t treat them as such. Personally, I would have echoed Collins’ therapist’s advice; I find that too many such apologies are more for the apologizer’s benefit than anyone else’s, and that many survivors would rather just move on and never speak to or hear from their abuser again. But this woman, who remains unnamed in the TMZ article, clearly feels differently, and that is legitimate, too.

This survivor clearly does not forgive Collins, at least not yet. What does that mean? The way some people talk about forgiveness seems to imply that if it is not granted, then everything the offending person did to make amends is somehow for nothing, and that person will not be able to keep moving forward and being a better person. In her article, King even implies that withholding forgiveness from Collins would be “further punishment.”

But forgiveness isn’t ever owed to anyone. Forgiveness isn’t just about the perpetrator and their apologies and amends; it is also about the person they hurt and how that person’s life has been impacted. Some survivors of abuse end up forgiving their abusers; others don’t, and that’s okay.

Sexual abuse is not the only form of violence that we are often exhorted to forgive. Describing what she calls the “cult of forgiveness,” blogger Heina Dadabhoy writes:

Personally speaking, when I speak of trauma and pain, I hear that I ought to forgive people rather than any expressions of empathy towards me for having been wronged. I have found that not accepting the penitence of the perpetrator of even the most abhorrent actions is an incredible taboo in society. You’re supposed to demonstrate that you are “the bigger person” by saying that you have forgiven everyone for everything bad that they’ve ever done to you.

Admonitions like King’s can leave abuse survivors feeling like their own experiences and feelings don’t matter. When the ability to forgive just isn’t there, why should they have to fake it?

I don’t know whether or not Collins should be forgiven, and we’ll never have enough information for me to know. Did he mean everything he said, or was he acting? Is it true that he never again molested, abused, or otherwise sexually harmed anyone after those incidents? Is it true that therapy has helped him to enough of an extent that he will never do it again? How does he really feel about it?

I don’t know. Collins is behaving the way a truly remorseful and changed person would, but he is also a professional actor. Collins is behaving the way a truly remorseful and changed person would, but so would an unremorseful and unchanged person who wants to pretend at remorse and change.

That’s why I caution against demanding that “we” forgive Collins, and also against claiming that he and others like him should definitely not be forgiven. That is for individual survivors to decide for themselves, and for us to hear and respect.

Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY S.A.-2.0)

Miri Mogilevsky

Miri Mogilevsky

Miri Mogilevsky is a social work graduate student who writes about feminism and politics. She has a B.A. in psychology and writes a blog called Brute Reason.