Keeping a Broken Promise: Part the Second

Living Powerfully – Part II:
The Landmark Forum

A year ago this August, I completed my own Landmark Forum. I went into it still feeling skeptical, but open to the idea that I might get something good out of it. Thanks to the conversation with my mom, I even had an idea for what I wanted to accomplish. I wanted to get some closure with my dad. I had been stuck for a long time feeling like I never got a chance to say goodbye to him. I had grieved, but I did not truly feel like I had any kind of closure related to his death, even after the man who killed my father had been tried and sentenced.

A Breakdown and a Breakthrough

One of the exercises that we were to complete as homework after the second day of the forum was to write a letter. It could be to anyone (living or dead), but it needed to be powerful and authentic. I figured this was my big chance to finally say some of the things to my father that I hadn’t had the chance to before he died. I got home from the forum around midnight, sat down at my computer and started typing. I had trouble finding the words (just as I had ever since he had been killed.) I figured I just needed some sleep, so I went to bed with the intention of finishing my letter the next morning before I left for the forum.

Have you ever been stuck on a problem, gone to bed thinking about it, and awoken the next morning with a new insight, able to see a solution with remarkable clarity? At some point during the night, my subconscious let the rest of my mind in on a little secret: I hadn’t really ever accepted my father’s death because I was still pissed off at the bastard who took his life, Jonathan Beiderbeck. (The exact circumstances of my father’s death can be found in my blog entries from July, 2003.)

When I woke up, I had a breakthrough: It wasn’t my father that I needed to write to for this assignment, it was my father’s killer. Armed with this new-found clarity, I sat down again at my computer, wiped out my failed attempts of the night before, and started again. Instead of the frustration of not even being able to get started, the words flowed from my fingers onto the screen. It was almost easy the way what I wanted to say poured onto the screen, but at the same time, this was one of the most difficult things I had ever tried to do.

This is the letter I wrote:

Dear Jonathan,

I came to the Landmark Forum to complete my relationship with my father. What I have come to realize is that in order to do that I need to come to terms with how what you did affected me.

I blame you for my father’s death, you are the person that murdered him, but I also blame you for taking him away from me. I blame you for not letting me have the chance to tell him all the things I never told him. The truth is that I had 26 years worth of chances to do that, and I never took them, at least not completely. I left many things unsaid, and that had nothing to do with you. Yes, you killed my father, but I am the one who took him away. I am the one who never gave me the chance to say what I needed to say to him. I thought that I had come to terms with what you did, but that was not enough because I have spent the last 2 and a half years hating you for taking my dad away from me. I have been unable to truly forgive you for that, because it is not you I need to forgive. It is myself.

The possibility I have invented for myself and my life is the possibility of being expressive and honest. Today, I am committed to stop blaming you for my own inability to communicate with my father.

I sobbed as I wrote it, and again as I shared it with my wife before I printed it up and left for the forum. I almost didn’t take it with me because I did not intend to share it with the group of 150 other forum participants. In the end, I’m glad I did, because I got the chance to share it with my mother and stepfather during our lunch break. (They were there to help people register for the 10 week seminar that is included as part of the tuition for the Forum.) As I read it to them, I cried again. As I finished, I looked up at my mom, and she had this odd mixture of love, sadness, and pride on her face.

“How did you know?” I asked, sobbing just a little. “How did you know that this is what I needed to come here for?”

She smiled at me and said, “I’m your mother.” I gave her a hug as she asked “Are you going to share this with the group?”

“I’m not sure. I’m not sure I want to. I’m not sure I can.” But I already knew I WAS going to share my letter, that I NEEDED to share it. Not just with the person sitting next to me, I was going to raise my hand when the forum leader asked if there was anyone who wanted to come up to the microphone to share their letter with the entire forum group.

When the time came, I did raise my hand, and the forum leader called on me along with a few others. When my turn at the microphone came, I was nervous – I babbled a little bit setting up the situation. I said something along the lines of: “The letter I’m reading is not the one I sat down to write at first, but it is what I ended up with.” I then briefly explained how my father died, and how this was a letter to the man that killed him.

I got choked up a bit, but got through my letter without sobbing again. After a bit of coaching from the leader, I added this to the end of my letter:

I am also committed to stop blaming myself for the way things turned out with my father. Our relationship was what it was, and it was not what it was not. In many ways, it was not perfect, but no relationship ever is. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Apparently, my letter spoke to a lot of the people in the room. They were floored that I could stand up and share something like that without totally losing it. (They hadn’t seen me when I’d read it to my wife, or to my mom and step-dad.) Throughout the rest of the weekend, I had people coming up to tell me that they were truly and deeply moved by my letter. A few of them even asked if it would be all right to share my story (or bits of it) with others outside of the Forum. (We had all made an agreement not to talk about the stories people shared outside of the Forum without their permission. It is part of what makes the Forum a safe place to work through some powerful (and in some cases, powerfully disturbing) issues.) I told anyone that asked, that they had my permission to talk about the letter I had written, because I was planning to post it online as part of a series of blog posts.

(Incedently, this is that series of posts. I had originally intended to post these last August, but as I’ve already mentioned, I got stuck as I was writing Part III. You’ll understand why after I post it.)

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Robert Belknap has been writing online sporadically since 2001. See the colophon for more details.

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