The Forgiving Self: The Road from Resentment to Connection (Book Review)

Author:  Karen, Robert
Publisher: New York: Doubleday, 2001
Reviewed By: Spyros D. Orfanos, Spring 2002, pp. 55-56

Forgiveness, if we are to believe journalist and psychoanalytic psychologist Robert Karen, is not just for Buddhists and Christians; it is for all of us. In this wonderful book, Karen has negotiated the space between pop psychology and psychoanalytic study. The divide is usually great, but this work bridges it and does so in an understated, but elegant manner. Karen seems to shy away from showy dramatic displays of simple cookbook narratives and suggestions on how to forgive. Moreover, he connects his material to sophisticated psychoanalytic concepts that allow for depth of study without the need for an oxygen tank. There are no prescriptions in this book and plenty of attention to the complexity of human events. If Aristotle had Karen’s book available when he was writing about moral ethics in the fourth century B.C.E., then he would probably have added forgiveness to his list of virtues.

According to Karen, forgiveness is a facet of the workings of love; it is about “allowing someone back into your heart.” It is not a simple choice because often too many layers of psychology stand in the way. But the same layers that entrap us may hold the potential to liberate us. It is these layers of psychology, in their glorious and degrading dynamism, which the author explores. The topic has not received much attention in psychoanalysis except for implications that can be found in the work of Melanie Klein.

Karen begins his examination of the “forgiving self” with an introduction to the psychology of forgiving and not forgiving. He then divides the book into three parts: loss, resentment and connection. Throughout the text, we are treated to many detailed clinical illustrations of individual, group and couples therapy, literary and cinematic examples, personal disclosures, and commentaries on historical events. Karen does not address acts of evil. His is a more modest aim. The hurts and conflicts to be found in this book “are of a subtler nature and almost all emerge in the context of standing relationships. They arise out of rage, envy, hatred, selfishness, idealization, false hope, misunderstanding, and all the other frailties to which human psychology is prone” (p. 8).

The first part of the book is titled “The Landscape of Loss” and contains five chapters dealing with saints and monsters, the flight from mourning, how we hold out for the heaven of infantile bliss, the failure of protest and repair, and inner drama where, according to Karen, we often get stuck and generate emotional scar tissue. Throughout this section, the author betrays his particular admiration for attachment theories. This is no accident because Karen is also the author of highly praised 1998 trade book Becoming Attached (Oxford University Press).

The second part of the book is titled “The Landscape of Resentment.” Here Karen first explores the way we blame others in order to get further away from ourselves. “The need to blame (ourselves or others) runs so deeply at times that it can feel like a basic necessity. Part of the need arises as a defense against shame. As shame encroaches, fending it off requires that someone else be proven the villain. And it is not enough that we protest what they’re doing, that we have our say. We have to nail them to their crimes, make them confess, make them feel bad and promise to be better. Only then can we finally have the satisfaction of being free of the denunciation we direct at ourselves” (p. 110).

The next chapter in this section on resentment deals with victimization, paranoia, and revenge. Despite the grave nature of these experiences, the author manages to amuse the reader with his humor. For instance, he uses the movie Rambo to illustrate the perverse gratification of being persecuted, screwed, and then turning the tables on the hurtful and bad authorities. Here Karen deals with the noble child who happens to be a misused killing machine by the United States in Vietnam.

“At the movie’s end, after he wipes away all his foes and returns with the POWs he has saved to face his betrayers, Rambo delivers the grief-stricken speech that has inflamed and delighted many a paranoid heart. In his choked-up, husky voice, he declares that all he wants of his country is the same thing those broken-down, forsaken POWs want: “For it to love us as much as we love it!” (Now give me my blankie and my bow and arrow, I’m leaving here forever!)” (p. 151).

The final part of The Forgiving Self is “The Landscape of Connection” and may be my favorite because of the modest hope it offers for us to re-experience love in the face of hurt and loss. Here Karen includes seven chapters about the redeployment of love, the renewal of protest, forgiving our parents, negative passions, letting go and more. He further defines forgiveness, not just as an aspect of the workings of love, but also as staying connected, of reconnecting, of repairing broken pieces of a relationship. For this to happen it means relating to others from an inner place of secure attachment:

I don’t need to revert to an infantile binary state and excommunicate your badness from my life. In this inner configuration, sadness and hurt, anger and hatred, can all exist. One does not feel persecuted and bitterly alone. Enough caring remains to act as a brake against self-loathing, as well as against nursing or misusing one’s anger. (p. 160)

In reading this superb book I often found myself impressed with the masterful writing style and the intricate understanding of complex psychoanalytic concepts. Karen knows how to write and he knows his psychoanalysis. My admiration for him grew as I came to the end of his book. In discussing the two sets of parents that we often deal with -the parent we grew up with, whom we struggle with internally, and the living parent of today, Karen writes about a series of encounters with his difficult and dying father. I found myself quite moved by his story and experienced a shift in my own attitude towards my own father.

Early on in The Forgiving Self Karen states that change in one’s stance towards and practice of forgiveness often requires a therapist and the experience of a relationship that can access repressed and disowned parts of ourselves and offer a fresh perspective on what is possible for us in the realm of love and loss. In this light, his purpose in writing a book on forgiveness is to inspire. He has achieved his purpose.

Reviewer Note

Spyros D. Orfanos is Chair of the Education and Training Committee of Division 39 and President of the Academy of Psychoanalysis of the American Board of Professional Psychology. He is a former President of the Division of Psychoanalysis (39), APA.

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