Should We Forgive Stephen Collins?

[Content note: child sexual abuse]

I wrote a piece for the Daily Dot about actor Stephen Collins, who had admitted to sexually abusing three girls several decades ago.

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:

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.

Read the rest here.

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Should We Forgive Stephen Collins?
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10 thoughts on “Should We Forgive Stephen Collins?

  1. 1

    Yeah, it’s a touchy subject. I know most people consider sexual abuse as basically the worst thing ever and if someone ever does it they should be punished their entire lives for it, and it definitely is something that has a lot of negative consequences for victims. On the other hand, I really don’t like the revenge mindset of the judicial system, and certainly it doesn’t always help in interpersonal relations.

    The most important thing is ensuring that the perpetrator doesn’t do it anymore, and if they’ve gotten to a point where they recognize their wrongs and have corrected their way of thinking and behavior, I don’t see why we as every day people can’t let it go.

    Now, that’s totally different from asking the victims to let it go. Heck, I know I would feel highly uncomfortable around my past abusers, so there’s no way I’d want to associate with them, but if they stopped doing it and other people, even knowing of that past, chose to take them as they are, I would understand that and feel it was perfectly reasonable and just.

    1. 1.1

      CN: victim-blaming, victim self-blaming

      I think, too, that this revenge mindset makes everyone (including survivors and abusers) reluctant to label abuse as abuse, which makes us search for excuses to escape that conclusion. Like, “{ABUSER} doesn’t deserve to have their life ruined, therefore I will look to find the 3 tiny reasons that {BAD THING} wasn’t really {BAD THING}”.

      Or, “{VICTIM} is accusing {ABUSER} of {BAD THING}, which will ruin {ABUSER}’s life, therefore {VICTIM} wants to ruin {ABUSER}’s life, therefore {VICTIM} must be lying/exaggerating.”

      Or, perhaps worst of all, “{ABUSER} did {BAD THING} to me, but I don’t want to ruin {ABUSER}’s life, so I should just keep my mouth shut, also I’m probably remembering it wrong, also I’m a bad person for even thinking about ruining {ABUSER}’s life like that.”

      This dread of negative consequences unfortunately has a tendency to push us humans into denial (global warming, anyone?), so I think the revenge mindset enables a similar denial.

      Also, I am not a survivor, but I have to imagine that even when a survivor is taken seriously (all too rarely), this whole “abusers are horrible demon monsters who deserve no human compassion” thing can prevent survivors from being at peace with their experiences. It may coax them into despair, anger, guilt, or pain over the presence of such deranged evil in their past, when otherwise they could maybe achieve some level of–I don’t know what, exactly, recognition of human failing?–and therefore a greater amount of serenity in their lives. (It is absolutely NOT my opinion that any survivor ought to feel like this, just that the rest of us should allow them easier access to that mindset.)

      1. That’s a good point, but I think things are messier than that. I mean, the pattern I remember is of people acting as if forgiveness is impossible right up until the moment that the crime is finally exposed – at which point forgiveness becomes incredibly easy.

        I think you find the key to it in your last paragraph: people imagine wrongdoing as being the domain of monsters, not humans, and resist any implication that a human they like could be a monster. What they need to understand is that humans make mistakes, all kinds of mistakes, and that some of these mistakes are horrifying doesn’t make them not human. And earning redemption is not a matter of their proving that they are human beings by displaying the correct human emotions, but of repudiating the mistakes, rejecting the mindsets that caused them, and setting matters right as best as they are able.

  2. 2

    Michael Brew:

    that’s totally different from asking the victims to let it go


    Exactly so.

    Miri wrote:

    But […] 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.


    Still, there are decisions to be taken not just by the victims, but by the bystanders as well. Consider the questions:

    – Should we (the bystanders) give up the moral anger over what Collins did?
    – Should we (the bystanders) tone down what we are saying about Collins? In particular, should we abstain in this case from expressing our harsh public condemnation?
    – Should we (the bystanders) show emotional support to Collins, appreciating that “he has been in personal hell for decades over this” (a quote from Deborah King)?
    – Should we (the bystanders) “let him move ahead with his life and his career” (Deborah King again)?

    To repeat: in cases like this, there is a bunch of such decisions to be taken by the bystanders, not just by the victims. I understand the reluctance to apply the term “forgiveness” in such a context, as there is indeed the widespread assumption that forgiveness is essentially personal – that only the victim can forgive the wrongdoer. But if so, then it would be useful to have a term which succinctly describes what the bystanders can do. They cannot forgive? Fine; in such a case how are we going to call the whole package which evidently is at their disposal? “Acceptance” perhaps (of a person, not of the deed)? Letting it go? Any other ideas?

    Miri, your OP cautions against “demanding that ‘we’ forgive Collins, and also against claiming that he and others like him should definitely not be forgiven.” You stress that this is “for individual survivors to decide for themselves, and for us to hear and respect.”

    Technically, this is fine: forgiveness – as we use the word – is a prerogative of the victim. However, there is still this package which I called (for the lack of better ideas) “acceptance” or “letting it go”. As a matter of fact, I think that’s what Deborah King’s piece was about. Yes, she used the word “forgiveness”, but what she really asks is whether we – the bystanders – should show our acceptance to Collins as a person, whether we should let him go off the hook of public condemnation. And she answers “yes, we should”.

    Let it not become overshadowed by the technical point about forgiveness.

    1. 2.1

      I agree with you. I am going to say that I didn’t remember before I read Miri’s article that Miri’s point is one which needs to be made. We are not obliged to forgive anyone who wrongs us – not now, not ever. There are things we need to do for our own mental health, but forgiveness is not one of them. We are told that forgiveness is something we need to do – and I find it suspicious that this is what we are told, given how convenient that is to abusers – but we don’t, and it’s important to tell us that we don’t.

      Still, there are decisions to be taken not just by the victims, but by the bystanders as well. Consider the questions:

      – Should we (the bystanders) give up the moral anger over what Collins did?
      – Should we (the bystanders) tone down what we are saying about Collins? In particular, should we abstain in this case from expressing our harsh public condemnation?
      – Should we (the bystanders) show emotional support to Collins, appreciating that “he has been in personal hell for decades over this” (a quote from Deborah King)?
      – Should we (the bystanders) “let him move ahead with his life and his career” (Deborah King again)?

      Thinking about it now:

      – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with moral anger at the universe, or the system, or society as it stands; if I were willing to believe in Stephen Collins’ repentance (like Miri, I don’t know how sincere he is), that would not mean that I had nothing left to be furious at (and about). But I don’t think moral anger at him specifically is wrong either.
      – That he is expressing contrition tells us something about the kinds of condemnations that are not fitting, but I read Rosie O’Donnell’s response (and listened to the Joni Mitchell song). I don’t see anything in her post that is not fair to him. I don’t know that it matters if he ‘deserves’ to be excoriated in some moral sense, because what she said is meaningful and constructive and (as far as I can tell without giving People Magazine money) does not mischaracterize what Collins said. Should we condemn Collins because he went on an “apology tour”? No. Should we condemn Collins for the nature of his apologies? If we see just cause to. Should we condemn the acts Collins himself says he regrets? Of course. They’re wrong.
      – If someone believes that Collins has “been in [a] personal hell for decades over this”, I believe they should feel sympathy for him. Having spent more time than is healthy arguing with misguided trolls on comment threads, I can attest that sympathy and moral anger are not exclusive feelings.
      – I don’t think we should accord him the kind of trust that we would accord someone who has not committed this kind of crime. As for his career, a regular on the Slacktivist comment threads (Isabel C) posted a link a while ago to “How to be a fan of problematic things” and pointed out that it seems to be good advice regarding people as well as things.

      Miri’s point is not a technical one, but I do like your questions (and hope that I have not blundered too badly trying to figure out how to answer them).

      1. Packbat:

        I agree that Miri’s point is not merely technical. I called it ‘technical’ thinking about it just in terms of the peculiar traits of the usage of the word “forgiveness”. This was incorrect: as you stressed in your first paragraph, it involves far more than that.

        I liked your answers; I think my own would be quite similar.

        1. I see what you mean.

          I think what makes it hard to articulate is that calling someone’s point “technical” carries an implication that you consider it nitpicking, hair-splitting, pettifogging pseudo-analysis – which isn’t the case here. Miri’s technical point is an important philosophical point, and she makes it clearly, precisely, and cogently: the idea of forgiveness is so bound up in the prototypical you-hurt-me-but-I-need-no-further-recompense case that it makes a butchery of the concept to call the actions of a bystander by the same name.

          You know, it’s a bit like criminal offenses in a way. If I am the target of assault and battery, I may or may not forgive my assailant, but my decision on that score does not determine the prosecutor’s decision to bring charges, or the judge’s decision of sentence if the charges are upheld, or in any of the parole board decisions while the perpetrator is imprisoned. In the Stephen Collins case, I am not involved by any action he took that harmed me, but by actions he took that harmed my society – by his participation in an ongoing problem that our society has – and my reaction to him has to be based on what I want for my society. If I am to grant him once again a position of honor in our world, I would have to do so believing that my accepting him does not and cannot serve to support anyone else who might do what he did.

          Which, putting it that way, I do not yet believe. The thing is, I don’t remember being surprised by anything he said. I don’t remember him saying something that I would not have thought of that expresses the truth about what he did. Three weeks ago Slacktivist linked to stories about Russell Moore – a representative of the Southern Baptist Convention of all places – reacting eloquently to the non-indictment of the killer of Eric Garner, and one of the things that Dr. Moore said to the Washington Post struck me especially:

          I had an African American pastor talk to me about working though his son’s applications to college. And that he was praying over some of those applications, that his son would not be accepted into those schools, because of where they were located and he was afraid that it would not be safe for his son. That was one of the most impressive conversations I’ve ever had, because I realized that I will never be in a situation where I’m praying that about my children.

          This is something that he said, apparently spontaneously, in a question about his conversations with African American pastors about Eric Garner. I can’t imagine Moore making the connection between Garner and the college applications of that pastor’s son unless he really understood what he was talking about. That connection can only be made by someone who understands that the police brutality in the Garner case is not an isolated incident involving a bad apple, but a manifestation of a miasma of racism pervading the entire society of the United States – one which is more concentrated in some places than others, but ubiquitous.

          I don’t remember hearing any utterance from Collins about how he hurt his victims. I don’t mean about the fact that he hurt is victims – I mean the nature of the hurt. He doesn’t talk about the relationship between what he caused and the kinds of post-traumatic stress that are more popularly discussed, he doesn’t talk about the way that victims are led to blame themselves, he doesn’t talk about anything specific in how his actions damaged their lives. I don’t even get the sense that he tells us how to see someone like the predator he was coming – what he did that allowed him get away with those crimes for decades, methods that others are probably using right now to do the same. Regret is not the same as rehabilitation, and what he said doesn’t show me that he knows what it is that he should be regretting.

  3. 3

    I think it’s often moot.
    What does my “forgiveness” exactly mean? Watch any new shows by him? Watch re-runs of old shows?I probably wouldn’t, I probably wouldn’t loudly tell so and demand that others do so as well or judge them for watching them.
    Because yeah, it’s different.
    But I will not demand that the victims forgive or support him in any way shape or manner

  4. 4

    Not our place to forgive, but I think that if he really has made progress, then our as a society, we shouldn’t hold it over him indefinitely in all situations.

    If nothing else, it’s good to reward genuine efforts to change, so that others can see that it’s possible to “come back” from it.

    I feel like there has to be something to be gained, since “being a decent human being” clearly wasn’t enough incentive the first time around.

    “Forgiving” him, insofar as we can (not being involved, and all), may help prevent future assaults by other people.

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