All I Ever Had, Redemption Songs

by J.D. Rhoades

 James Nichols, a native of Moncure, North Carolina, was more than a little surprised when a Sheriff’s deputy came to his house and arrested him–for going to church. Nichols, unfortunately, is a convicted sex offender who was convicted of indecent liberties with a teenage girl and attempted second-degree rape. When he got done with his six year stint in prison, he started attending church, because, he said, ” It helps me keep my mind on track. It helps me be a better person, not just to myself but to someone else.” But North Carolina law provides that convicted sex offenders can’t go within 300 feet   of a school, playground, or day care. And these days, you’d be hard pressed to find a church that doesn’t have a playground or child care center. The ACLU is looking into filing a challenge to the law.

On August 13, 2009, NFL quarterback Michael Vick signed a contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. He played his first game shortly afterwards. Many football fans and animal rights activists were outraged that Vick was allowed to return to the NFL after serving a Federal sentence on dogfighting and racketeering charges. “As long as Michael Vick is playing football,” once fan wrote, “I will be at every game humanly possible to protest.”

Mathias Sendegeya lives in a tiny hamlet in Rwanda that’s known as  “Redemption Village.” He served 10 years for his part in the genocide of the Tutsi people in Rwanda back in 1994. He and the other “genocidaires,” as they are called, were freed “to seek peace with the orphans and widows of people they killed.”

These stories all hit my consciousness about the same time, and I think they had the effect that they did because redemption is a concept   I think a lot about. It’s a theme that runs through the book I just finished writing (although my protagonist hasn’t done anything as bad as molest children, engage in dogfighting or particpate in genocide) and the book I’m thinking about next (in which a major character has done some pretty awful things).

Literature abounds with stories of people who have committed serious wrongs, or who suffer under a crushing weight of guilt, and who yet manage to win some form of redemption. Conrad’s Lord Jim struggles for years to redeem himself after an act of cowardice, as does Amir in Khaled Hosseini’s THE KITE RUNNER. One of my favorite movie characters, William Munny in UNFORGIVEN, is described as once having been a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition. Whether he redeems his former life by his actions in the movie…well, that’s another discussion.

In real life, though, it seems that people are not so eager to believe in the possibility that people who have done wrong can somehow rise to be better or to redeem themselves. Even Bible-belt North Carolina seems to have rejected the idea of the church providing a path to righteousness for people like James Nichols. Despite the fact that Michael Vick paid for his serious crimes with a chunk of his life and of his pro career, not to mention millions of dollars (some of which went to care for the animals he’d injured), there are some people who will never believe his debt to society has been paid. Even the writer of Mathias Sendegaya’s story admits he “blanched” as the former “genocidaire” reached out to invite him into the village dance.

I still believe in redemption. I belIeve people can turn aside from evil. Not only that, I think it makes for an interesting story. Maybe it’s the remnants of my Methodist upbringing. Or it may have something to do with my day job. After all, if I didn’t believe people were redeemable, I’d have to spend a lot of time standing in front of judges shrugging my shoulders and going “Ah, what the hell, lock him up and throw away the key.’ When I’m tempted to do that, though, I think of people like Danny, whose story I told in more detail here. I think about the young man I represented with the horrible record who was looking at a long prison sentence for theft, but who was diverted into a two year drug rehab program, which he’s well on the way to completing; in fact, he wants to work for the program and try to get other addicts off drugs. I think of  parents I’ve seen who lost their kids to DSS, straightened up, stumbled, straightened up again, and eventually got their kids back and became decent parents. It doesn’t happen every time. Frankly, it doesn’t even  happen a majority of the time. But it happens enough to keep me believing that even bad people can be better.  

What are your favorite stories of redemption, either on the page or in real life? If you know up front that a character has done awful things in the past, what does it take before you can forgive him? What’s the deal-breaker in that situation, the thing you could not forgive a character for having done? Finally, in real life, is wickedness, as Joyce Carol Oates asked recently, “soluble in good deeds”?

17 thoughts on “All I Ever Had, Redemption Songs

  1. Jake Nantz

    I’m a Christian (Presbyterian and then Methodist upbringing here), so obviously my favorite story of redemption is pretty widely known. I’m also a firm believer that good works are not what "earns" THAT kind of redemption…only grace.

    But as far as what I’ve seen personally, I get kids every day who run afoul of their parents, the school system, and (most importantly) the law. And then I see them back in the classroom a year or two later, remorseful, more mature, and still fighting to get that diploma and move forward to a better life for themselves. So I understand a little bit what you’re saying, though mine aren’t usually as far down when I see them as yours are. It’s still a great feeling to be a part of someone pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and walking the right path.

    I think the reason people (myself included) have such a problem with Vick is that he has always been so good at putting on a good face for the press conferences and interviews, and his blowups were always on the field or in the news. So a press conference where he says, "I now realize what a horrible thing I did" just comes across rather weak. He may be sincere, but it’s too difficult to tell at this point, so I think some of us are just giving it time.

  2. Debby J

    Boo Radley in TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD. Don’t know if he counts as a redemptive character or not since he wasn’t really a bad guy to begin with–we’re just led to believe he is. But he does a great job of saving Scout and Jem and all of us who’ve read the book and need saving.

  3. Jessica Scott

    One of the issues I’m exploring in my current WIP is exactly this issue. I’ve asked the question can my protagonist’s wife forgive him for murdering people in combat. At the outset of the story, he doesn’t even recognize the difference between a legitimate kill in combat to what he did, which was give over to the rage and kill prisoners who’d surrendered. The key aspect for me, as a soldier, is what my fellow brothers and sister in arms do during combat, how those decisions impact them once they return to a normal life away from the combat zone and the morality of those choices. Ultimately, the story is about redemption, except that I’m not quite sure how it’s going to turn out just yet.

  4. Karen in Ohio

    The idea that fans will attend every game to protest sounds like a pretty weak protest to me. Supporting the team with attendance so you can "protest"? Who wins there?

  5. Dana King

    My personal favorite character is Joe Trona, from T. Jefferson Parker’s SILENT JOE. A great book, and a great character, trying to atone for previous acts, at least in his own eyes.

    I hesitate to get political for my real life example, but Ted kennedy qualifies. What he did on Chappaquiddick Island was reprehensible, and his fame and wealth got him a pass when you or I would have done time. Still, he eventually diminished his drinking and became a truly great senator. When the amount of good he did is stacked against the bad, the balance comes out in his favor.

    As for the JCO comment, our acts are all we have to be evaluated on.Some acts may be so wicked there is no equivalent counterbalance; genocide comes to mind. As for final redemption, let’s hope acts count for something. A lot of evil has been done by men with God’s name on their lips.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I love this topic. Redemption is a major motif running through Boulevard as well as its sequel. Tied to its sister concept, Forgiveness. I’m fascinated not only by what it takes for a character to find redemption, but also by what it takes for a character to be forgiven, and, deeper still, to forgive himself. It’s interesting that you reference Unforgiven, one of my all-time favorite films. Films like Unforgiven and Tightrope are models for the stories I write.

  7. Gayle Carline

    Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. In fact, the juxtaposition of his redemption against the holier-than-thou Inspector Javert, with the completely unredeemable Thenardiers thrown in the mix, makes the story worth reading – and you gotta WANT to read that book.

    As far as real life, I do think it happens. I’ve heard thieves talk about their former life and why they don’t want to be that person anymore. Perhaps not as dramatic are the reformed alcoholics, drug abusers, etc who are doing their 12-steps and finding a better way to live. I admit, I’m hesitant to say that child molesters can be "cured" – statistics say no, they always want what they want. I’m all for giving people a second chance, if they’ve owned their mistake. It’s the third and fourth chance that I have a hard time giving.


  8. toni mcgee causey

    Interesting question, Dusty. I’m not entirely sure that those who commit the more serious, premeditated crimes can truly be redeemed. I think they can seek redemption, that they may even have changed, but I don’t know that there is true redemption. (Because it begs the question, "Redemption in whose view? The victims? The innocent bystanders? Society?)

    The (separate and other) aspect of the question is the sort of cultural phenomenon where someone commits some atrocious crime, wants to repent of it in public, and then wants their former life back with all of the perks. Repenting of it, however heartfelt, is not actual redemption.

    One of the characters who’ve stuck with me is Lymond of Dorothy Dunnett’s The Lymond Chronicles. He’s notoriously vicious to his own family, extraordinarily duplicitous and cruel to friends and foes alike, and I completely believed that about the character. There was no winking at the audience here. But the impact of why he was doing what he was doing was all the more resonate once discovered [by the reader] and he paid dearly; the fine details of those books have stayed with me well over fifteen years.

  9. JD Rhoades

    Supporting the team with attendance so you can "protest"? Who wins there?

    I know, right?

    And Mary Magdalen gets my vote for redemption.

    Hmm…what did she do that was so bad, though?

    I’m hesitant to say that child molesters can be "cured" – statistics say no, they always want what they want.

    When brings up one of my favorite conundrums (conundra?) How just is it to apply "statistics" to the fate of individuals? As I said above, if I looked at just sheer percentages, I’d have given up long ago and thought "nobody makes it." But some do. So when you’re looking at one person standing in front of you, can you really say, "statistically, this one probably won’t make it, to hell (literally) with him."

  10. Allison Davis

    No heroes become such unscathed. The beauty of redemption (for some reason Eminem’s 8 Mile comes to mind) is that it can be heroic in itself. But on the other hand, is it never a sure thing, even when "redeemed" there is always the "fall back" or fall down (maybe it’s fall off, as in wagon). The issue of trust (aha) arises always — so, do you trust the flawed hero? Is the villain who has done the unmentionable ever the hero and can you trust that person? Of course, many romance novels have the villain become the hero..False heroes, false villains (Johnny Depp in Pirates)?

    But forgiveness is another story entirely. There are those who forgive easily, and those who never forgive and the vengence seekers. Once you forgive, do you trust again? Unlikely. This topic is rich and thick.

    Favorites? Barry Goldwater? Robert McNamara? George Wallace?

    Then there is the thief/burglar turned good guy (pretty easy): Tony Broadbent’s Jethro for example.

    But the terrorist turned diplomat? IRA or Israeli or Palenstinians…harder How about the Lockerbee terrorist?

    Great topic!

    So then, forgiveness is one thing, but once you forgive — can you trust again? That brings the two concepts together. I think it’s fairly impossible to trust, even if forgiven.

  11. Cornelia Read

    I can’t think of any specific redemption stories off the top of my head (maybe Tolstoy’s RESURRECTION–or was that Dostoevsky?) but the minute I saw your subject line today Dusty I remembered driving along Grizzly Peak above Berkeley on September 12, 2001, playing "Redemption Song" over and over again on my car’s CD player and weeping. Still makes me tear up whenever I hear it.

  12. Fran

    I loved Allison’s point about the difference between redemption and forgiveness. Two separate beasts altogether.

    I had a student whose brothers were exceptional students and successful after college, so my kid went out of his way to be awful, because, I think, he believed he could never live up to his brothers, especially the memory of the one who died.

    But he graduated from high school, shook his heroin habit and the last time I saw him, he was holding down a great job and cooing over his brand new baby girl and beautiful wife. I don’t know if that’s redemption, but it’s certainly a story of hope.


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