The Crime I Didn’t Commit

September 14, 2009

7 min read


Change for the New Year starts here.

Circuit Court Judge Alice Gilbert had an innovative idea. She required every person convicted in her courtroom ? for crimes ranging from manslaughter to passing bad checks ? to write a 2,000-word essay answering four questions:

  1. How did my crime affect me?
  2. How did my crime affect my family?
  3. How did my crime affect the community?
  4. What can be done to prevent such crimes in the future?

On a recent visit to Michigan, I stayed with Judge Gilbert (who happens to be my cousin). I was intrigued by her brilliant idea of requiring convicts to confront the consequences of their actions, which surely had reduced recidivism in her district. Judge Gilbert, after 28 years on the bench, is now retired, but she keeps two boxes of the compulsory essays (with names deleted) in her basement. Always interested in the process of changing human behavior, I asked to read some of the essays.

I picked out the most severe crimes: a drunken driver who had killed a teenage girl; a high school student who had given birth to a baby, stuffed him into her closet and went off to school; a guy who had robbed a gas station and killed a hapless customer. With great anticipation, I sat down to read these dramatic confrontations of human beings with their shadow selves, these epiphanies of the damage they had caused to themselves and their loved ones, and the flood of contrition surely unleashed by such honest soul-searching.

No go! What I read instead was essay after essay explaining why the writer was not really guilty of the crime. Totally ignoring the four questions, each convict wrote at length ? some far exceeding 2,000 words ? of how events had conspired to produce the horrific outcome and that it was absolutely, positively not the fault of the writer.

Why is it so hard for people to admit they did wrong?

The drunk driver, whom I’ll call Frank, started by complaining that although it was sad that “this young girl, who should be alive, isn’t,” (he could not even own up to the word “dead,”) that was no reason that her friends and relatives should be harassing him with telephone calls and notes, both at home and at work. Frank went on to describe what had really happened that dark night when he was driving the pick-up truck. It was the fault of the weather; the rain made for low - in fact, no ? visibility. It was the fault of the girl herself and the man who was with her; they had hit a dog (proving no visibility!) and she was sitting in the middle of the road trying to help the dog, while the man was doing a lousy job of redirecting traffic around her. It was the fault of the police, who failed to test Frank’s breath, which would have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the two glasses of wine he had drunk could not have inebriated a man of his weight.

(And why, pray tell, did the police not test Frank’s breath? Because both Frank and his companion Doris claimed that Doris was driving the pick-up. So the police tested Doris’s breath. Only later investigation revealed that Frank was indeed the driver.) Frank was adamant that the incompetent police should have figured out at the scene of the accident that he was driving (despite his own lies) and they should have given him a breath test immediately.

As for the high school girl and the dead baby, she didn’t realize she was pregnant until the baby started coming out, and she did everything she could to save the baby’s life, and ...

Why is it so hard for people to admit they did wrong? The first step in the process of teshuvah, of changing one’s behavior, is to admit, “I did it!” A Jew confesses transgressions not to a priest or any other human being, but to God. Trying to change without admitting wrong-doing is like trying to ski without snow.

The Shrek Fallacy

Three major obstacles keep us humans from that simple act of admitting wrong-doing. The first is a sense of “I’m as rotten as my sins.” The human ego is too wobbly a table to load it up with a couple hundred pounds of wrong-doings. If I admit that I cheated on my exams, then I’m a despicable, dishonest cheat. If I admit that my outbursts of anger traumatize my children/employees/friends, then I’m an out-of-control, savage ogre. My wrong actions are not simply the garments that clothe my essential self; they become my image of who I really am.

This misconception derives from the “Shrek fallacy.” As Shrek famously declared, “Ogres are like onions. They have layers,” meaning that they are complex beings with multiple layers of personality components. Since human beings, too, have layers, the faulty syllogism is that human beings are like onions. This is a lethal analogy because, if you take an onion apart, layer by layer, in the end you will find... nothing.

This fear, that we are nothing but the sum total of our personality traits and actions with nothing inside, leads to the existential angst that fuels justification and rationalization at the expense of truly admitting our faults. Justification and rationalization are splintery boards to bolster up the wobbly table.

The soul is like a candle flame. It cannot be tarnished, soiled, or stained in any way.

Judaism counters the Shrek fallacy with the assertion that a human being is essentially a Divine soul. If you take off the layers of personality and actions, you will find shining within a perfect, pure, immutable Divine soul.

The soul is like a candle flame. It cannot be tarnished, soiled, or stained in any way. Transgressions are like curtains strung around the flame. Many layers of thick curtains, especially room-darkener curtains, can shroud the flame so that its light is totally invisible, but the flame is unaffected.

The more a person, through the spiritual practices enjoined by the Torah, identifies with this inner core of spirituality, with this perfect, immutable Divine soul, the more courage the person will have to admit wrongdoing. The person realizes that sin adheres to the essential self as little as dirt adheres to fire ? not at all. Thus teshuvah is predicated on establishing a sense of oneself as a soul, on connecting to one’s inner core of good. From that bulwark, confession of wrongdoing proceeds not as a paralyzing, guilt-inducing exercise, but as the first step in taking down the curtains that veil the soul.

The “I Can’t Change” Fallacy

My daughter and I are planning a trip to Hawaii. I spent more than three mind-boggling hours yesterday on the internet, comparing flight prices, researching vacation packages, reading descriptions about various hotels, exploring the possibilities for kosher food, and investigating tours of Maui. I never would have invested so much time and energy if I didn’t believe that my daughter and I would eventually get to Hawaii. If I were toying with travel to an impossible destination ? impossible because the place, like Shangri-la, is a fantasy that does not exist or because the place, like North Korea, is off limits to American citizens ? I would not have invested myself in planning the journey.

To admit your wrongdoings in order to plunge into the journey called teshuvah requires belief that you can actually arrive at the destination: real change. This conviction is undermined by the fallacy that your actions are determined by heredity and environment, and therefore you cannot change. If teshuvah is your Shangri-la or North Korea, you’ll never embark on the journey.

Judaism insists that human beings have free will in the moral sphere. Yes, everything is determined by God except your choices between right and wrong. You can choose not to cheat on your exams, not to yell at your children, not to gossip, not to carry a grudge, etc. Free choice is, in fact, what distinguishes humans from the animal kingdom.

People can change. Don’t we all know someone who smoked for decades and then, after a heart attack, never picked up another cigarette?

The “I Can’t Change” fallacy is fueled by your past failures at reaching your desired destination. Mark Twain quipped, “Quit smoking? It’s easy! I’ve done it dozens of times.” If you have tried to stop smoking (or yelling or cheating or gossiping) many times, and each time you succumbed to the habit, then you are easy prey for the “I Can’t Change” fallacy.

But don’t we all know someone who smoked for decades and then, after a heart attack, went cold turkey and never picked up another cigarette? Don’t we all know a recovering alcoholic who, through persevering in a 12-step program, stopped drinking? I personally know people who, through the Jewish method of Mussar, changed themselves from screaming banshees who yelled at their kids several times a day to parents who almost never yell at their kids.

The travel brochure for the destination called “Teshuvah“ promises that it’s a long and arduous journey, but you can get there. And when you do, you’ll realize it was worth the trip.

The “God Is Too Small” Fallacy

The third obstacle to honestly admitting our transgressions is our hopelessness that the mess we made can ever be cleaned up. The life-altering process of teshuvah changes who we are so fundamentally that God erases our past. The result of our teshuvah is that God performs the miracle of expunging our sin. It's as if it never happened. If we do the requisite steps of confession, regret, and making a concrete plan to change (and, when another person was involved, asking forgiveness and making restitution), then God cleans up the mess.

Unfortunately, many of us believe that God can clean up a little marinara sauce spilled on the kitchen floor, but not six tons of oil spilled in the ocean. We have to remind ourselves that God is God, which by definition means that God can do anything.

Years ago a woman whom I’ll call Beth came to Jerusalem bearing a deep dark secret. Beth enrolled in one of the programs that teaches Judaism to adults with minimal Jewish background. When the month of Elul (the month preceding Rosh Hashana) rolled around and Beth started learning about teshuva, she recoiled. She had committed a sin so grievous that she was sure that teshuvah was impossible. When Beth was 19 years old, she had had an affair with one of her college professors.

You think God is too small to forgive big sins.”

This professor was married, with children. For young Beth, the affair was an escapade, but it turned out that the professor was serious about their relationship. He divorced his wife, who proceeded to have a nervous breakdown. Beth, however, had no intention of getting married at that age. She ditched the professor, but he did not return to his family. As the years passed, Beth was haunted by what she had done. When she eventually learned about teshuvah, she was sure that there was no way to cleanse from her soul the stain of destroying an entire family.

One of Beth’s teachers took her to a prominent rabbi. He told her, “Your problem is that you think God is too small to forgive big sins.” He explained that her sin was indeed big, but she had to realize that God is bigger. Beth protested that she could not possibly fix the damage she had caused. The rabbi advised her to learn the laws of lashon hara (proper speech). When other women would see that Beth never gossiped or divulged secrets, they would come to her to confide their conflicts. Eventually a woman who was grappling with the same temptation would confide in her, and Beth would be able to guide the woman away from committing that sin. That would be her expiation.

With an infinite God, teshuvah is always possible. Once we realize that our sins do not define us, that we can indeed change, and that God can absolve us for even the worst misdeeds, we can be brave enough to admit that we did wrong. That’s the beginning of teshuvah.

Next Steps