When Richard Heene, part time pseudo-scientist and full time wingnut, set his balloon adrift above the skies of Colorado and falsely claimed that his six-year old son was inside the thing, he did so with the expectation that he would not get caught. When he eventually did get caught, he made what appeared to be a heartfelt apology when, choking back tears, he said in court, “I want to apologize to all the rescue workers out there and the people who got involved in the community.” A month later he told Larry King, “It wasn’t a hoax.” He then went on to explain to Larry that his courtroom apology had been misinterpreted, and he wasn’t apologizing for trying to dupe the world, but was apologizing for causing people such an inconvenience. I’m not sure if this guy is a narcissist or a sociopath. I’m not a shrink, and there is a lot of wiggle room in diagnosing him. One thing I know for certain is that he is self serving, and his apology didn’t ring true to me, even before he pulled his 180 apology reversal on the Larry King show. Some things a person just knows, I knew that Balloon Man was only sorry that he got caught.

We see this type of public display of contrition with a lot with sports figures who get caught cheating, or public figures who get their hands caught in the cookie jar (or other their body parts caught in…well, you know). Mark McGwire, Eliot Spitzer, Mel Gibson, Lindsay Lohan, Charles Barkley, Ted Haggard, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Swaggart and John Edwards are among a long list of famous people who looked us squarely in the eye and told how sorry they were. Tiger Woods will be added to that list once he speaks to his handlers and public relations firm, who will advise him on how sorry he needs to be. The one thing they have in common is that they weren’t sorry until they got caught doing whatever dastardly thing it was that got them into a pickle in the first place. It is much like the time back when I was in grade five, and I got caught sneaking under Becky Johnson’s desk to get a peek up her skirt and at her unmentionables. Our teacher, Miss Scarborough, forced me to confront Becky and apologize. Sure, I was sorry – sorry that I got caught.

A few months ago, a friend of mine received a letter of apology from out of the blue. It was an amends letter from an old friend who started attending AA. Of course, it didn’t state specifically in the letter that he was now attending AA, but it was apparent by the words and catch phrases that this guy was working his step nine. “I am an alcoholic” and “I have these character flaws” and “I want to make amends” and yadda yadda yadda. It was personalized, but read as though it written from a template, where the recipient’s name and specific sins were plugged into the blanks spaces. It was apparent that my friend was not the only person to receive such a letter.

We talked about how it made her feel to receive such a letter from out of the blue, and I asked her if she forgave her former friend. She said that she had forgiven him, but had done so long before receiving the amends letter. His wrongs toward her had taken place years before, and with time she eventually stopped thinking about him and had mostly forgotten about him. Her feelings toward him had become more indifference than anything else, and on the odd moments that she thought about him, there was no animosity or even any emotion at all. Ironically, it was the amends letter itself that changed that. It is not that the letter stirred up new anger, but it did provoke her into examining his motives to write the letter in the first place. She felt used in a way that AAs working step nine do not consider. In her mind, she felt as though the apology was scripted, and therefore insincere. True contrition is not brought on by public relations handlers, or teachers dragging a student by the ear to apologize, or a moral guide book. The reaction of a person receiving a ninth step apology, essentially a form apology, is not dissimilar to our collective reactions when Balloon Man or John Edwards or Mark McGwire issued their statements of apology. They came across as insincere, and more like my apology to Becky Johnson. True contrition comes from the heart, and is given instinctively, not because a sponsor or a public relations firm tells a person to apologize. It cannot be fabricated, and much like with love, it cannot be described, but we know it when we receive it.

Beyond the perception that a step nine apology might come across as insincere, there is another element to this that I had never considered until I discussed it with my friend. It displaces the guilt onto the victim. There is a sense of entitlement that implies “now that I have this newly found humility, you have an obligation to forgive me”. One common line of instruction sponsors give to AAs working step nine is not to worry about how the recipients of the amends will react, because “we can only apologize, but we cannot dictate the other person’s reaction”. This is true only to a degree. We cannot control someone’s reaction, but we can control whether they react at all. In the case of my friend, she was content not thinking about the past, but was forced to do so simply by receiving her amends letter. It stirred unpleasant emotions and feelings in her that she did not want to revisit. AAs should understand their apologies, even if they are sincere, evoke emotional reactions onto others who would rather be left alone.

I am an alcoholic, and I have done a lot of things over the years for which I am not proud. Looking back, particularly in my earlier drinking days, a lot of things I did were a direct consequence of my addiction. Either it was something I said or did because I was drunk, or a misjudgement I made from being in a constant state of withdrawal. I never got violent or committed any crimes, and though I would guess I have driven drunk literally 10,000 times in my life, I never killed anyone or even got a DUI. That does not make me better than those who have. It just makes me luckier. The harm I caused others was more of chronic nature. Neglect of my family, shortcuts taken at work, thoughtless remarks to others, and the list goes on. I do not doubt that I may have forgotten a thing or two that I have done wrong. Things others will immediately remember when they hear my name. In this way, I am not unlike a lot of other people, even those who have not taken a drink in their lives. Nobody is immune to sin and imperfections in their character. I can appreciate my mistakes now, not because I no longer drink, or because I have had a spiritual awakening, but because I have evolved and matured as a person. Part of that maturity is empathy for others, and an understanding that any harm a person may have done to me, I could have as easily done to somebody else. I think most adults feel this way, and I think most people conduct themselves with an implied contract of forgiveness toward others. We know when it is appropriate to forgive and to ask forgiveness, and we know when that forgiveness is understood. We don’t need an instruction manual to guide us on basic human decency.

Step 9 not just about making amends. It is also about tearing down an individual. It plays off of step 8 (making a list of all people a person has harmed), which is all about guilt induction. AA is not the only group who makes people write down their sins. Moonies do this, so do Scientologists, Mormons and the other usual suspects. Forgiveness and contrition are great things, but they are only great if they come naturally, and from the heart. Forced contrition is not contrition at all, and can do more harm than good. Step away from your shame, and understand that we all make mistakes. Whether you believe in original sin, or just believe that personal shortcomings are part of the human condition, cut yourself some slack. Live by the golden rule. Move on.

-MA