Earlier this year, Tara Muldoon was at a work event when she saw the man who had raped her. It had been six years since the assault and Muldoon was now thriving professionally and personally. And for Muldoon, the encounter had an extra layer of meaning. “It was like, okay, how did we come full-circle and what does it mean? Now everything that I’d ever talked about was really in my face.”
While still reeling with the aftermath of her rape, Muldoon had founded F-You: The Forgiveness Project, which is funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the City of Toronto. The group helps young men and women have honest conversations about trauma and work toward the possibility of forgiveness. This includes work with inmates, who can choose to participate in weekly sessions hosted by the group.
Muldoon says the idea came to her after she attended an art show at the University of Toronto that explored that subject. “But even just hearing the word, I was like, what does that mean ... I was trying to find justice in a world where the justice system didn’t show it to me.”
Although seeing her rapist that night was distressing for Muldoon, she said it forced her to re-evaluate whether she was practising what she was teaching.
“He had become this productive member of society … [but] because I didn’t see him, he didn’t exist. He was living in hell and then suddenly he was in front of me and he was happy,” Muldoon says. “That’s not how this is supposed to go. That’s not part of this story. So that was a really interesting wake-up call for me about what forgiveness meant.”
The project, Muldoon explains, isn't based on the notion that “you have to forgive to be a good person. We encourage the conversation, but we would be really cautious with someone who isn’t able to sit with that.” Muldoon also suggests writing down what happened or telling someone you trust about it, to help you decide whether you’re ready to forgive. “I think that journey can take a really long time, years for someone to be at peace with it.”
Muldoon says that working with inmates has helped her understand a lot about the complexities of forgiveness. She says she’s found that while some inmates want to apologize for their crimes, others are convinced that they did nothing wrong.
“It’s so interesting how so many people can look at one scenario differently,” she says. “Forgiveness for me is no longer taking on the offence as being a personal act, as personal as it can feel," she says — though the target of an attack inevitably feels it keenly, perpetrators aren't necessarily targeting them because of who they are.
“Something we’ve been saying for a long time at F-You is hurt people hurt people.”
This has been pivotal for Muldoon herself, who found out within a year of her attack that her rapist had been assaulted as a child.
“So then to me, it’s clear it’s a systemic problem,” she says. “Maybe it wasn’t that he wanted to hurt me; maybe it was about power, it was about control. And his own hurt and all of those things. And that has allowed me to create a little distance. Like someone could ask, how could you forgive a rapist? I would say that’s probably how.”
A week after the event where she saw her rapist, Muldoon experienced a flare-up of an existing medical condition. She says it took her a couple of months to feel better, and she spent a lot of that time thinking about what it meant to let go and truly forgive.
“It might be weird to say it, but I hope he’s a productive member of society. I hope that he’s treating women well,” she adds. “I can’t change that he’s not in jail, so I hope that he’s at least not hurting other people.”
Muldoon says that you don’t have to re-establish a relationship with the person who's hurt you in order to truly forgive. It’s okay to move on. She stresses that it’s not easy to forgive but if the F-You Project has helped someone to “work through forgiveness just for that one time, to me that is everything. Everything. Because the agony of sitting in conflict can be torturous.”
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