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Forgiving the Dead Man Walking

What would it take for crime survivor Debbie Morris to finally find peace?

The slight blonde woman who greets me warmly at the door of her suburban Cincinnati home this breezy Thursday morning quickly offers me a cup of coffee and a seat at her kitchen table. Her husband, Brad, is taking care of their children, she assures me, so it's a kid-free zone. As we make small talk, Debbie, author of Forgiving the Dead Man Walking (Zondervan), casually mentions how she stashes all her Creative Memories paraphernalia in an upstairs "messy" bedroom. The poignancy of that image—Debbie devotedly documenting happy times in albums for Conner, 4, and Courtney, 1—floors me. After all, Debbie, 35, has spent the last 19 years of her life overcoming some of the most horrific memories imaginable.

At age 16, Debbie (then Cuevas) of Madisonville, Louisiana, and her boyfriend, Mark Brewster, were sitting in a parked car one hot summer night when they were abducted at gunpoint by career criminals Robert Willie and Joe Vaccaro. Several hours into the kidnapping, a gun-whipped Mark was led into deserted woods near the Alabama state line, tortured, shot, slashed, and left for dead. But the ride of terror continued for Debbie, who never knew from moment to moment if she would live or die. For a total of 30 hours, Debbie was repeatedly raped by her captors. Throughout that time, she also picked up some chilling clues that led her to believe they had brutally murdered a young woman several days before—Faith Hathaway.

I tell women who've been raped, "You've done the hard part. You've come through it and survived."

It's the Hathaway murder that provided the backdrop for the 1995 award-winning movie, Dead Man Walking, with actor Sean Penn playing the Robert Willie character and Susan Sarandon as Willie's Death-Row spiritual advisor, Sister Helen Prejean. But unlike the movie victims and the real-life Faith Hathaway, Debbie, miraculously, was released. Her survival enabled authorities to save Mark's life—and her testimony enabled the State of Louisiana to put an end to Robert Willie's.

Unlike Mark, whose wounds were readily visible, Debbie's wounds were less apparent. The strength she'd developed as the child of divorced parents and an alcoholic mother had aided in her survival, but now it masked her fear, depression, and smoldering anger against Robert Willie, her mother, and even the God she'd committed her life to as a teen. "I felt abandoned by God," Debbie admits. "It took me years to realize I'd abandoned him."

That realization—and her journey toward forgiveness—hasn't been without its detours. Debbie recounts the painful process in her book, and has been able to share her story on programs as varied as Leeza, Late Late Show with Tom Snyder, National Public Radio's "Fresh Air," and in the pages of Ladies' Home Journal and Marie Claire. A former public school special education teacher who's on hiatus and a MOPS (Mother of Preschoolers) coordinator for her local church, Debbie articulately tackles questions about God's grace, goodness, and power over evil in this cover interview.

Why do you think so many people are drawn to your story?

The mainstream media's attracted to my story because of the movie Dead Man Walking. That's fine with me, because the movie is a connection to my story. Then they see the word forgiving in my book title. I can't tell you how many times an interviewer has said, "Forgiving? Most people wouldn't even consider that. How could you?" They're intrigued by the concept of forgiveness.

Especially in light of how heinous the crime was …

Yes. People are always surprised to find out what happened to me. They're usually blown away. That's a compliment, because it shows me I've overcome my past. When people see I survived—and have a happy, productive life—they're given hope they, too, will be able to overcome tragedy.

Isn't the world hungry for that?

I think so. Look at some of the unexplained tragedies we've gone through over the last couple years—the Oklahoma City bombing, the school shootings. People try to explain away evil—but sometimes they can't. So where do they go from there?

I've been pleased with some of the opportunities the mainstream media's given me to talk about the source of my ability to forgive and experience peace. Of course, they edit out an awful lot!

All the God stuff, right? Weren't you a Christian before the kidnapping?

I was 14 when I accepted Christ at a church camp in North Carolina. There salvation was explained to me in a way I could finally relate to.

When I was nine, my parents divorced. When I was in junior high, Mom went through her second divorce, and I started attending church with my best friend, Kay, because they had a large, active youth group. There were families there, intact families who'd have the youth group over to their house. I'd walk into their house and say, "Wow, this is what normal is."

I grew to realize my unhappiness in life wasn't because my parents were divorced, my mother was an alcoholic, or the money was tight. It was that I needed Christ. And by asking him into my heart, I could change my life and experience peace regardless of my circumstances. He had a plan for my life! It was the answer to the turmoil I'd felt as a child.

Unfortunately, it's hard for faith to mature without the support of family. Mom was single at the time, and she never went to church or got to know my youth group friends' parents. She felt awkward.

I needed to accept a difficult truth: God loved Robert Willie as much as he loves me.

Was that hard for you?

Actually, it was sort of nice not having a mom who looked over my shoulder every step of the way. I liked bossing my younger brother and sister around, holding things together. It made me feel significant. But even though I didn't realize it, I desperately wanted boundaries. Mom went out on the weekends and didn't know when I came home, so I started to test the limits. That's around the time I started dating Mark.

Then this awful thing happened.


How did this trauma impact your fledgling faith?

People told me it was a miracle I survived. I thought, If God really saved me, why did he let me go through the whole horrible experience in the first place? I felt angry at God; I felt abandoned. I thought God punished me because following him hadn't been the first thing on my mind anymore.

I'd awake at night in a cold sweat from vivid nightmares; I was terrified to go out alone at night. But I didn't voice my concerns to anyone. I even refused to speak to a rape counselor. I felt I had to remain strong. So whenever I was asked how I was doing, I'd immediately answer, "I'm fine."

I tried to be strong for Mark. His condition reminded me of a stroke victim. I felt guilty for the physical suffering he'd endured that I'd escaped. I visited Mark, drove him to his physical therapy, coached him with his speech. Sometimes I wanted to scream, What about me—I'm hurting, too! Then I'd scold myself, What right do you have to feel hurt? Look at how Mark suffered. I started feeling trapped by the expectations Mark and his family placed on me to remain a part of his life. Eventually I told Mark I needed a break, that I couldn't come over anymore. I felt incredibly selfish and guiltier than I ever remembered feeling.

I felt I'd let Mark down, but I was determined that I wasn't going to do the same with the police and prosecutors. Through the next several years of trials (including testifying in front of a mocking, leering Robert Willie), I convinced everyone I was fine. But I wasn't.

Is that the toll rape takes?

It's difficult to explain to someone who's never been raped what rape takes away from you. Not only did it rob me of something sacred that should have been mine to give away, it robbed me of my self-worth, confidence, and security—the very things you depend on to live a normal life.

For 30 hours, I'd lost total control of my body and my life, and I was angry about it. But I didn't want to acknowledge that anger.

Did your fear and anger abate when Robert Willie was executed?

Mostly I felt numb. I had trouble sleeping; the thought of someone dying who hated me so much troubled me. But I realized it might be just as bad for him to die with me hating him. I knew I needed to do something to get rid of my pain, anger, and shame.

The night of his execution, as I lay in bed in the dark, I told God I forgave Robert Willie. It was a selfish, practical, desperate, I-need-to-get-through-this sort of thing. After that prayer, I immediately felt a burden lift. But I didn't realize I still needed to forgive for other reasons and at a deeper level. Forgiveness was an event, I thought, not an ongoing process.

It didn't bring the closure I expected. The thing I thought I'd fixed still wasn't. And that led me to a lot of poor choices.

Such as?

Because of the rape, I felt like damaged goods. I always thought people would look at me and see the faces of Robert Willie and Joseph Vaccaro, think about what they did to me, then instantly be disgusted by me. I wondered if others would ever find me valuable again. I didn't place importance on virginity anymore; that choice had been taken away from me.

I also suffered from depression. I lashed out at family members and started drinking, despite everything I knew about alcoholism, about how it devastates families. My drinking dulled the pain. When I drank, I didn't feel as fearful.

Finally, at age 24, I checked myself into a 30-day treatment program in a Baton Rouge hospital. There I was told I was full of suppressed anger and resentment. After treatment, I discovered it had been easier for me to forgive Robert Willie than to forgive my mother and God.

Why your mom?

I've never doubted my mom loves me. But I'd always had a problem with her sense of priorities. For instance, she wasn't home when I went to my prom. Nothing will stand in my way—I'll be ready with the camera—when my daughter, Courtney, goes to her first prom.

When I was a high-school sophomore, I was inducted into the honor society. My mom went on a date instead of being there that night to see me be recognized as one of the 10 most outstanding sophomores in my school.

Little things like that built up before my kidnapping. I was already angry at my mom for not being the kind of mom I wanted her to be.

The night I was kidnapped, my mom was out on a date. She just assumed I got home safe and was spending the night with my grandparents, who lived next to us. I was angry because she didn't know until the next day I was gone. But she was devastated by what happened to me, so I didn't want to compound her pain by saying, "I feel like you failed me. I feel like if you'd been the mom who stayed at home and didn't go out on dates, it wouldn't have happened."

I harbored that anger for a long time. But I finally realized I needed to accept my mom as she was.

What was the turning point?

When I got treatment for alcohol abuse. I always said I'd never become like that. Then I realized I was like that. When I came to grips with my alcoholism, I knew I could forgive my mom and her obsession with her addictions. God was softening my heart.

Did she ever ask for your forgiveness?

Yes, she did. But when I forgave her, I didn't expect that everything would change. When somebody has a history of doing things that hurt you, she can't just say, "Okay, I'm never going to do that anymore." You're like, Yeah, sure.

There's no trust there.

Right. Trust has to be rebuilt in little ways first, then in bigger ways. Let's say you have a husband who's been unfaithful. You're finally going to divorce him, but then he says, "From this day forward I'm going to be faithful." You're not going to trust him until you've seen that trust re stored in tangible ways. If your husband's still faithful while you're separated, you move back into the house but not into the bedroom. If he's still faithful during that time, eventually you make the big move. You see he's faithful when you go on vacation or visit relatives. Those are all opportunities for him to make compensation. And that's been happening with my mom and me.

How did you make peace with God?

I made a conscious decision to rededicate my life to God about four years ago. My husband, Brad, and I were living in Louisiana at the time, right after Conner was born. During this time, we were dealing with some significant issues—Dead Man Walking was being released, and Brad was commuting. We were having some problems in our marriage—nothing serious, but just things we hadn't faced before.

Whenever we were in church, our Sunday school lesson or the worship service had a message that seemed tailor-made for us. After the service, we'd sit in our car; we couldn't even drive away. The messages spoke directly to what we were dealing with. It was so powerful.

That power made me realize God had not abandoned me. Suddenly I realized that if he's here now and cares about all the things that are going on, chances are he was there all along. That's when I finally put my life completely back in his hands.

And the result?

Since I've totally surrendered to God, I've become much more accepting and loving. I'm still strong-willed. I still say what's on my mind. But I don't attack or force my beliefs on people. People who are angry want to pick fights; I used to be like that in private. If you ask the people on the inside—my sister, my mom, my in-laws, my husband even—they've all seen the difference my faith has made.

I know now God forgave me for my bad choices, and he wipes the slate clean. I don't believe in forgive and forget. I don't think it's possible for me to forget what happened to me even though I've been able to forgive Robert Willie. But while God knows all, he treats us as though he's totally forgotten.

I've learned how big God is and how small I am. And I know that if he can forgive me, then who in the world am I to second-guess him?

What would you say to somebody who's been the victim of sexual assault?

I tell women who've been raped, "You've done the hardest part. You've come through it and survived. So start seeing yourself as a survivor."

Take advantage of the support systems you already have—then take advantage of the support systems you haven't had to call on before, like victim outreach programs, counseling, support groups. Nobody understands rape like someone who's experienced it.

Once you've been raped, it's always a part of your life. But you need to take the steps to enable you to find a peace about it, because peace can come. It can happen.

Do you still struggle with fear?

I had panic attacks for a long time, but it's gotten much better. I've had these 2 nightmares for the last 19 years; now I don't have them as often—maybe a couple times a year.

But my fear of those nightmares is so strong that when Brad is out of town, the last thing I pray before I go to sleep is, God, please don't let me have that nightmare tonight.

I can't sit in a parked car at night, even with Brad in the car. I'm uncomfortable if we come to a red light and the street's deserted and dark. If I'm by myself, I'll just run it. Even in the broad daylight, I've opted not to go into a deserted park with my son. I don't like being in isolated places.

Elevators still scare me sometimes—it's that fear of being closed in, trapped with somebody who's going to hurt me.

So fear's still a part of your life.

Sure. I go on elevators now. I used to take stairs. If I was on the sixth floor, I'd take the stairs rather than get on an elevator by myself. Now I'm not like that. But even though I've been able to forgive and move on, I still have to be in prayer daily to get through the things from my past. It's always going to be a part of my life.

Does a day ever go by when you don't think about what happened to you?


What was it about Brad that made you feel safe with him?

We grew up together and were always friends. Brad is such a down-to-earth kind of person, I felt at ease with him. He was also one of the first people who asked me about what happened. Nobody else wanted to talk about it.

Later, when we met again, I thought I'd go out with him because he's a nice guy, a good person to spend time with. It wasn't long before I realized I'd fallen in love with him.

How difficult was it to write this book?

The scariest part wasn't telling about the crime, because that's public record. It was telling about the mess I made of my life after the crime—because there were lots of people in my life who didn't know anything about that.

Most of the people at my church didn't know I'd experienced depression or serious alcohol abuse. It would have been easier to leave those things in the past, but I couldn't. I couldn't tell my story without telling the bad times. I'd never want anybody to think I came through this with no problems, no hard times—because then somebody else struggling with a really deep hurt couldn't relate to my story.

I talked the book idea over with my family—my husband first, my mom second, then my brother and my sister. They were all extremely supportive. They knew I'd have to talk about some very personal details. It was a family decision.

The only other person I felt I needed to get permission from was Mark Brewster, my boyfriend at the time. If Mark had said no, I wouldn't have written it. I knew God wouldn't lead me to do something that would hurt somebody I cared about.

What's your relationship with Mark now?

I've talked to him about how I got to where I am now. He doesn't feel the same way. Mark doesn't like to talk about the kidnapping. He still can look in the mirror and see the scars. Now when I look in the mirror, I don't see somebody who was raped.

So he hasn't reached that point of forgiveness.

I don't think so. What happened to us changed a lot of people's lives. In the long run, many have seen God's amazing grace in the midst of so much pain and tragedy. But there are lots of people who still can't.

And your relationship with your mom?

I've seen a big change in her over the last few years. Part of that's been my book. She knew I was going to tell this story, but when she read it, she was affected by her role as a mother. And we've talked about that. I feel as though the past has been aired.

My mom's become protective of my children. One day, out of the blue, she called, asking, "Debbie, do you let Conner play outside by himself?" I said, "Sometimes. But he can only play in the backyard where I can see him all the time." My mom said, "So you don't let him play in the front yard by himself?" I knew something was going on.

It turned out that in the town where my mom lives now, a little girl had been abducted from her front yard in broad daylight. It really hit Mom hard. I hope I never go through what my mom and that mother went through—having a missing child. I may have been the victim, but she was the mom at home, helplessly waiting.

Do you stay in touch with your dad?

We see him whenever we go to Louisiana. I think we've got a good relationship, and it's miraculous we do, considering how little time we spent together when I grew up. My dad's a Christian and active in his church. That's something I'm grateful for. He adores the kids.

How will you explain your story to Conner and Courtney?

I'll do that based on questions they ask. Conner already knows I wrote a book; by the time he's in third or fourth grade, he'll be asking questions about it.

I talk to him about what happens if he gets lost, what happens if a stranger asks him to go someplace or do something … all those things. But I know at some point I'm going to have to say, "I know this because of what happened to me. And I don't ever want what happened to me to happen to you." I don't know when that's going to be.

That's something I've put in God's hands. One of my biggest fears is that something will happen to my children. The best thing I can do is give my children back to God every day, every hour if I have to, and know they're his first.

What do you hope they learn from your experience?

I want them to know God's goodness is always the same, that you're never too late or too bad to accept it. I want my children to know they have worth because God says they do.

In what other ways has your life changed?

For one, my perspective on things. For example, even though I'm a Christian, because of my rape, I used to be prochoice. My argument was, if the church was really doing its job, the need for abortion as birth control wouldn't be there, but the women who really needed it—because of rape or incest—would have it.

I didn't see abortion as a right-or-wrong issue. Now I do. That's because I've looked more at how God would have me believe through the words of the Bible. It's easier for me to make decisions simply because that's the way God says to do it.

What about the death penalty?

That's one of those issues where if I could see some clear evidence of what God expected, I'd know on which side to be. But I haven't seen that. Instead, I try to focus on where these people are going to spend eternity. I know that no matter what someone's done, God wants that person to spend eternity with him.

Even a Robert Willie?

Even a Robert Willie.

It must be incredibly hard to say that.

Well, if I say I forgive Robert Willie but don't want to see him in heaven, that's contradictory. If I forgive him the way God expects me to forgive him, I'll want God to win his soul over.

I couldn't have said that when I was 18 or 22. I just wasn't ready. I had to be able to stop looking at it as a victory for Robert Willie and start looking at it as a victory for God. I needed to accept a difficult truth: God loved Robert Willie as much as he loves me.

Which seems impossible to fathom.

It's hard to understand God's grace. Even though the Bible says it has nothing to do with what we deserve, we still tend to think that way.

Jesus' parable about the vineyard workers in Matthew 20 finally put this in perspective for me. I'd heard it many times before. But a few years ago, I applied it to Robert Willie and realized it didn't matter how late in the game he came to Jesus, as long as he came. And if he did, God wanted him every bit as much as he wants me, because he loved him every bit as much.

This has been the final step in my forgiveness. The night he was executed was one step. Then, when I had Conner, I realized Robert Willie, too, was a baby once. Over the years, these things softened my heart little by little so that I was finally able to forgive him for what he did. God knew I wouldn't be able to do that right away, so he took me through the process step by step.

This gives other people hope they can make it through the process.

God doesn't expect us to "be there" over night; he expects us to say, "Okay, I'm willing to start on that journey toward forgiveness."

There was a time I never thought I'd be the type of woman who'd be a mops coordinator. So many women in my church don't have all this junk in their past! But knowing I'm important to God keeps me from focusing on my past; instead, I focus on his presence in my life. I look at the incredible husband God's given me, the home we're committed to making for our two beautiful children. That's his way of saying, You're mine, and you're okay now. I accept that. And to see God using me in others' lives—that's truly a miracle!

For information on Debbie Morris's speaking availability, please contact Dena DiVito at 615-595-0328.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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