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Newsletter for April 2003

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RtP-1-s.jpg (6383 bytes) Forgiving the people on whom we depend

It's often hardest to forgive the people we depend on most in our lives - our parents and parent-figures, sometimes including life partners.  They give us our very sense of who we are.  Sam Mendes' magical movie Road to Perdition has some helpful insights.


  • Who wrote my story for me? - depending on parents, people who have real authority in our lives
  • Fathers and sons: Road to Perdition - a story of forgiveness coming not from authority figures but from a child
  • Two brothers and a father - reverse echoes of the parable of the Prodigal Son
  • The child is father to the man - what empowers the child to discover the authority to forgive?
  • Forgive him for what? - finding out what personal issues forgiving will really face up to

Who wrote my story for me?

ForgivenessNet has regularly emphasised that forgiving is first and foremost a quality of persons, not of actions.  It is not limited by particular wrongs which are 'unforgivable,' but is limited by our own personal power and authority to improve other people's situations and sense of self.

Now this distinction between persons and actions can be oversimplified, as in the naive cliché, "Love the sinner; hate the sin."  Sometimes the people in our lives are not just 'people' with whom we deal emotionally, morally and spiritually.  This month and next I want to consider how hard it is to forgive those people with whom we have a relationship of dependence - the people in our lives who have authority and from whom we derive much of our sense of who we are. 

Forgiving someone requires a degree of personal authority and confidence, and it's even harder to have that towards the people who have, or even whom we feel to have, authority over us.  Real authority - unlike the paper authority of promotion to a position - is about 'taking people with you,' and is related to authorship: people who in some way 'write' us, who give us the script we try to live out.  (For more on this see The Power to initiate forgiveness §2)  Forgiving those on whom we depend is so particularly difficult because we derive much of our sense of who we are from them.  We take whatever they do quite personally, thinking it is somehow 'about us.'   This also means in some cases we spend much negative energy trying to fight against them or against what they have given us. 

Of course it's no doubt reassuring in any organisation to have 'authorities' around, so that we can blame them when things go wrong.  But even though some organisations may conspire to try to generate a culture of dependence, what is most significant about depending is that we don't do this - we 'think it's about us' instead.  The people on whom we most depend in this way are our parents, often our spouses or life partners, and sometimes other members of our family - older brothers and sisters, grandparents, when they have a parental role for us.

ForgivenessNet does include some remarkable personal stories of  people who have managed to forgive parents and partners: see, for example, Stanley Cavell's Forgiving each other, Kate Morrow's Forgiving my father, or Ellen Dahlquist's The void of benign neglect.  In this e-letter we begin by looking at a recent movie - Road to Perdition - which deals with a young boy's ability to forgive his father. 

Fathers and sons : Road to Perdition

Sam Mendes' wonderful movie Road to Perdition (2002), which won the 2003 Oscar for cinematography for Conrad Hall, tells of a kind of redemption for Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), a hit man and trouble-shooter for small town mob tsar John Rooney (Paul Newman) near to Al Capone's 1930s Chicago.  Though a dark and emotional gangster movie, the film belongs more in the tradition of 'finding my father' movies like Field of Dreams than portrayals of the acquisition of power like The Godfather.

Sullivan's older son - also called Michael (Tyler Hoechlin) - is twelve years old.  He discovers that his father's secret work is killing, watching Rooney's son Connor wilfully shoot an employee and his father mow down the bodyguards with a tommygun.  Connor is portrayed as unstable and intensely jealous of his father's affection for Sullivan, his 'adopted' son.  In response to the discovery Connor plots to cover his folly and resolve his jealousy by killing both Michaels, and also Sullivan's wife Annie and younger son Peter.  He does shoot Annie and Peter, leaving both Sullivan and his son to go on a journey of revenge, ostracised by not only the local mob but by the whole of Capone's empire.  Sullivan kills both Rooneys, and is killed himself by a strange, almost inhuman assassin initially hired by Capone's mob to protect the Rooneys.

Lest it seem over-imaginative to call this a story about forgiveness, Mendes' brilliant DVD commentary and deleted scenes shows this was his intention.  When young Michael and Sullivan do start really talking, in the middle of their journey, Mendes comments that Michael "is effectively forgiving his father."  Sullivan's dying words to his son were to have been "Forgive me," and during their journey Sullivan, in a deleted scene, makes a confession to a priest in a wayside church.  Afterwards he tells Michael that the priest forgave him, to which Michael asks, "Did you believe him?"  "I don't know, but it's all the hope I get."  However, for Mendes these moments were "too much on the nose," too direct a statement, so he did not include them in the final cut of the movie.

One of the most startling qualities of the story is that forgiveness does not come from the authority figures - Rooney and Sullivan as parents, Capone and his chief of staff Frank Nitti as mob heads and employers.  (The story is also told against a background of catholic authority and religious dependence, and forgiveness doesn't come from here either.)  When it comes, it comes from a son - the younger Michael's gradual discovery that he can forgive his father, neither by affirming nor ignoring him as a killer but by recognising the older man as a complex mixture of good and bad man together.

The film-makers reinforce this process of discovery by beginning with many distant camera shots, emphasising the boy's exclusion from the adult world his father inhabits so easily, then gradually introducing more close-ups and facial encounters, as the boy becomes a young adult.

Two brothers and a father

There are unsettling, shadowy echoes in reverse of the parable of the Prodigal Son in the first half of the film.  Indeed Connor is described by Mendes as "the one who sets Michael and young Michael on their journey," and we sit back and wonder why no one ever asks, “Why did the prodigal son leave home?”  Was it because his older brother so belittled and antagonised him?  Rooney clasps and hugs his son Connor as if he is forgiving him:

Paul Newman's perspective was that of a father whose loyalties are tested by his surrogate son Michael, and his real son Connor.  "Rooney's son Connor is a bad guy, and his adopted son Michael is kind of a good guy,  Rooney is forced to protect one (Connor) at the expense of the other.  (Production Notes)

But protecting is not the same as forgiving, and this father has not chosen to be forgiving, nor does he find forgiveness; only the certainty which Rooney angrily pronounces, "None of us will see heaven."  Hanks' character responds to these words by saying "Michael can," and he seems to, not just by escaping the life of violence but by seeing the whole picture of the father who was the principal authority in his life.  So his final words, which Michael voice-overs as he drives to the farmhouse, are:

“When people ask me if Michael Sullivan was a good man, or if there was just no good in him at all, I always give the same answer.  I just tell them, ‘He was my father’.”

David Self's sensitive and humane script originally added, "and I loved him," but Mendes came to see the extra words as unnecessary; the last half of the film makes them crystal-clear anyway. 

'The child is father to the man'

What then empowers the boy Michael to become the adult, seeing with eyes much wiser than his years?  (This facial wisdom was a requirement for the child actor when casting, a quality Tyler Hoechlin supplies in full.)  How can a child - or an adult today depending on a hurtful parent or parent-figure - become able to forgive?  There are several key breakthroughs in their relationship. 

In the first scene of his new engagement with his father, shouting at one another in a dark field, there is - there has to be - an element of confrontation, if he is to fight free of dependence. Sullivan tries to be in charge:

"When I say get down you get down … You listen to me from now on." Michael replies, "You never wanted me along anyway. You think it's my fault this happened." "It was not your fault. None of this is your fault. … You have to listen to me now (pause) or both of us are dead. I have to make Capone give up Connor. Are you going to help me?"  "Yes," Michael replies.

Sam Mendes says about this lurch into a cooperative activity, "Sullivan is forced almost against his will into a relationship with his son that he never expected."  They become partners, Sullivan teaching Michael to drive a getaway car for the Robin Hood bank robberies with which he will pressure Capone.  For the first time Sullivan makes a joke.  They laugh; they clumsily embrace.

Sullivan is wounded in an encounter with the hit man seeking him, and the two take refuge in a farmhouse, protected by an elderly couple.  For Mendes,

"This is the place where they gradually become humanised, and for the first time Michael sees his father as suffering.  He sees him as a human being … and briefly he becomes the parent, feeding him soup."  Then gradually the father "seems approachable, and for the first time ever they begin to talk; but it's because it's initiated by Sullivan. He asks his son to the table, and tries (to talk) …"

Forgive him - for what?

It is here that Michael "effectively forgives his father."  What for?  Not for the killings, and not for his strict paternal remoteness, which seems normal for the time. 

No, they start to speak about what was most painful and distancing between them. What he forgives him for is his appearing to like younger brother Peter more than Michael, his "being different" and unaffectionate towards him. He asks Sullivan if he loved Peter more. Sullivan says no, and fumbling for words explains that Peter was uncomplicated, whereas "You were more like me, and I didn't want you to be."  They are both called Michael, we realise.

This halting, beautiful, tender scene calls to mind the words of philosopher Margaret Holmgren in her essay Forgiveness and Self-Respect:

"We can recognise that the offender is a valuable human being who struggles with the same needs, pressures, and confusions that we struggle with.   We will recognise that the incident really may not have been about us in the first place.   Instead it was about the wrongdoer’s misguided attempt to meet his or her own needs.  Regardless of whether they repent and regardless of what they have done or suffered, we will be in a position to forgive them." 

Forgiving those on whom we depend is so particularly difficult because we derive much of our sense of who we are from them.  We take whatever they do quite personally, thinking it is somehow 'about us.'  Sullivan's behaviour was 'different' towards Michael, and that gave Michael the sense that he must be 'different.'  Coming to see that his father's behaviour was just about his father allowed Michael to forgive him and be free to develop a freer relationship with him.

Next month we will look at dependence as an important and often unacknowledged fact of human life which gives the lie to naive or oversimplified views of morality and virtue.

Andrew Knock

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