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Our field aspires to promote restorative justice and healing when  one person has wronged another.  This can truly happen only when the person committing the wrong takes responsibility, typically reflected in an acknowledgment of having done the wrong and an apology.  Forgiveness can help people restore themselves as morally acceptable members of society as seen by themselves and others.

In recent months, there have been numerous reports of a wide range of sexual misconduct by prominent men and a wide range of their responses.  Some men vociferously denied the charges, while others have given more or less satisfactory apologies.  I have written a number of posts about apologies (and non-apologies) for various wrongful actions.  Recently, I wrote about Mr. Louis C.K.’s apology, and people differed about whether it was satisfactory.

This recent article in the New York Times describes a case illustrating the restorative healing potential of apologies and forgiveness.  It involves Dan Harmon, the showrunner of a tv series, who repeatedly propositioned Megan Ganz, a young writer on the show, who rebuffed his advances.  In response, he treated her like “garbage.”

These events took place about six years ago and Mr. Harmon recently apologized, partially in public.  On December 31, he tweeted a general acknowledgment of his wrongdoing, which prompted an exchange with Ms. Ganz, partially on twitter and partially in private emails.

In an email interview, Ms. Ganz said, “He knew that I didn’t welcome his advances.  He did it anyway.  He treated me differently than he treated the male writers.  And when people confronted him about it, he lied.”

In a tweet, Mr. Harmon asked Ms. Ganz if there was a way to fix what he had done and she responded, “I wish there was a way to fix it.  It took me years to believe in my talents again, to trust a boss when he complimented me and not cringe when he asked for my number.  I was afraid to be enthusiastic, knowing it might be turned against me later.”

In the NYT interview, she said that his actions after she rejected his advances “made me feel powerless and traumatized.”  She explained why she didn’t complain at the time.  “If I had spoken out then, people would have accused me of trying to make a name for myself.  Or worse, they would have assumed I only got that job because my boss wanted to sleep with me.  My career would have ended before it began.”

After Mr. Harmon’s general acknowledgment of wrongdoing, Ms. Ganz asked if he would like to be specific.  In a seven-minute segment of his podcast, he described what he did and why he did it.  He sounded sincerely troubled that he acted as he did.  In a remarkable illustration of male privilege, he said that he didn’t think about it.  Essentially, he took for granted that powerful male bosses have the right to expect sexual gratification from their employees and to retaliate if the employees refuse.

It’s sort of hard to believe – except not really – that, decades after the enactment of civil rights laws prohibiting sexual harassment (including retaliation for complaining), Mr. Harmon and so many other powerful men have felt free to ignore with impunity or not even think about it.  Unfortunately, that’s the reality faced by Ms. Ganz and way too many other women.

Their harassers may hold a key to potential redemption for some who have been victimized.  Ms. Ganz “said that there were parts of their history that only he could confirm her perception of, and that she had doubted herself until he gave her a sense of relief.  ‘The irony is, Dan was the only person who could wipe those doubts from my head.’”

After the podcast, Ms. Ganz tweeted, “Please listen to it.  It’s only seven minutes long, but it is a masterclass in How to Apologize.  He’s not rationalizing or justifying or making excuses.  He doesn’t just vaguely acknowledge some general wrongdoing in the past. He gives a full account.  Yes, I only listened because I expected an apology.  But what I didn’t expect was the relief I’d feel just hearing him say these things actually happened.  I didn’t dream it.  I’m not crazy.  Ironic that the only person who could give me that comfort is the one person I’d never ask.”

Asked how she now views Mr. Harmon, she responded that she “think[s] of Dan as a work in progress. That’s how I think of myself too.  It’s dangerous to think of yourself as a hero and someone else as a villain.  It gets in the way of empathy.  We should be tearing down walls, not putting them up.”

In a twitter response to Mr. Harmon, she wrote, “It’s good to recognize power dynamics, but it’s also good to recognize you’re no different from those you employ.  You’re not a king on a hilltop, nor a beast in a labyrinth.  Isolation isn’t always best.  Connection breeds empathy.  Empathy allows growth.”

The day after the podcast, Ms. Ganz “sent Dan a text to thank him and forgive him without reservation. Then I wrote what I wrote on Twitter, because it felt strange to do the confrontation in the light, but the forgiveness in the dark.  People should see the good that can happen when you aren’t afraid to accept responsibility for your mistakes.  He gave me relief, and I hope I was able to give him some in return.”

From reading the article and listening to the podcast, it seems as if she feels a lot more closure than he does.  Obviously, this exchange doesn’t erase the events or Ms. Ganz’s memories or feelings about them.  But she seems pretty much ready to let go and move on, relieved of much of the emotional burden that she’s been carrying for years.

By contrast, it sounds as if Mr. Harmon still is struggling.  Presumably, his apology and Ms. Ganz’s forgiveness did provide him some relief.  But he has focused on this for a fairly short time and is still coming to terms with his actions and his realization of the kind of person he was to have done them.

You might want to listen to his podcast to get a sense of what he has been going through.  His rambling account starts at about minute 23, in the middle of a two-hour episode entitled, “Don’t Let Him Wipe or Flush.”  (Yes, that’s a weird juxtaposition.)

Ms. Ganz displayed an admirable attitude, separating Mr. Harmon from his actions.  She recognizes that people shouldn’t be completely defined by their bad actions (or, presumably, their experiences of victimization).  This exchange and Ms. Ganz’s approach may help Mr. Harmon as he tries to restore a positive self-identity and act with integrity in the future.

 

John Lande is the Isidor Loeb Professor Emeritus and former director of the LLM Program in Dispute Resolution, at the University of Missouri, School of Law. He received his J.D. from Hastings College of Law and Ph.D in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also an avid writer and contributor to Indisputably.org