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”?