Radical forgiveness | An interview with Linda Biehl

Leslee Goodman
34 min readSep 26, 2020

http://moonmagazine.org/linda-biehl-radical-forgiveness-2013-02-14/

Linda Biehl

In 1993, Amy Biehl, a 26-year-old Stanford University graduate, was a Fulbright scholar in South Africa, researching black South African women’s struggle for equality in the new constitution being negotiated to replace the apartheid government. On August 25, she left her office to drive three colleagues home to Gugulethu, a township outside of Cape Town. En route, she was spotted by a mob marching through the township, shouting ONE SETTLER, ONE BULLET. The crowd stoned Amy’s car, smashing the windshield and windows. Amy, too, was struck in the head and began to bleed heavily. Unable to drive any further, Amy got out of the car and ran towards a garage across the road, pursued by her attackers. Although her colleagues tried to protect her, shouting that Amy was a comrade, the mob continued to stone and stab Amy, who died as a result of her injuries.

Amy’s parents, Linda and Peter Biehl, responded to their daughter’s death by taking up her work to support South Africa’s transition to democracy. Unexpectedly thrust into the international spotlight, and in spite of their own shock and grief, they struggled to say nothing that would jeopardize South Africa’s pending elections — the first multi-party elections since apartheid. Later, they established the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, a nonprofit organization that creates and runs after-school job-training, art, sports, nutrition, and other educational programs in Gugulethu and other townships surrounding Cape Town. When the young men convicted of their daughter’s death applied for amnesty through South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), five years later, the Biehls did not oppose it. Instead, they attended the hearing and met the young men responsible for their daughter’s death. Two of those men, Ntobeko Peni and Mzikhona “Easy” Nofemela, now work for the Amy Biehl Foundation. They have on numerous occasions accompanied Linda Biehl on her various speaking engagements around the world.

Although Peter Biehl died in 2002 at the age of 59, his wife of 38 years, Linda, continues to carry on the work Amy and her husband left behind. A vivacious blonde with large, expressive eyes and a quick smile, Linda’s diminutive stature belies her strength. She spends a good part of every year in South Africa, administering the foundation named after her daughter, which, since 1994 has disbursed more than $8 million in funds. Thousands of children a day participate in Amy Biehl Foundation programs. ­– Leslee Goodman

Goodman: You’ve survived what most parents would describe as their worst nightmare: the violent death of a child. Yet you have turned this nightmare into an inspirational model of forgiveness, demonstrating what life could be like if we each responded to tragedy with an open heart, instead of a heart shut down by pain. Can you walk us through the process you took to get to that place of forgiveness?

Biehl: There wasn’t hatred or bitterness at the beginning, fortunately, because of Amy’s communication with us and because of who she was as a person. She always talked about why she was interested in working in South Africa against the apartheid regime. She kept diaries, and talked with us constantly about her reasons for being in South Africa and doing what she was doing.

From the time she was very young she always talked about issues that were important to her. She could direct the whole family towards an issue, and she had made the struggle against apartheid in South Africa her academic work and life’s passion, short as her life was.

In many ways, she prepared us for what happened to her. She often talked about South African blacks killed during the struggle years and how their deaths were reported as numbers, while whites were named, their lives and family members described, and even their pets mentioned. She subscribed to the South African newspaper and used to circle obituaries and send them to us. She always told us that if anything happened to her, she would rather be a number than a name.

We also knew that Amy was willing to do things that other people, even other activists, feared to do. Although she wasn’t irresponsible — she knew the risks — other people might say she “crossed the line.” Even her colleagues thought that maybe Amy was too much of a risk-taker.

But she had always challenged herself. As a national championship high diver and captain of the Stanford diving team her senior year, she always talked about challenging herself and overcoming pain. In her journals, she often used swim practice as a metaphor: You hit a wall and you’re not sure you can make it, but once you break that pain barrier it’s exhilarating, and you want to do it again and again.

Therefore, when we heard the news, I don’t think we had a choice about our response. If we were going to honor Amy as the human being we loved, we would be expected by Amy herself to understand the situation — that the young people who killed her were oppressed people; that they were freedom fighters; they weren’t killing her personally. Although they were using violent tactics, they were fighting for liberation — for their families, their people, and themselves. They were prepared to sacrifice their lives for their liberation, which Amy had totally explained to us.

Goodman: Yes, but she was your daughter. It seems to me that the emotional pain of that loss would override any intellectual explanation for it.

Biehl: You know, you can look back over twenty-six years and see character evolve. We could all say about Amy that how she died was in keeping with her character and who she was.

My husband also said something very early on when people were asking us this type of question, particularly when we were dealing with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He said, “If you espouse values for others, you have to live them yourself, or you’re morally corrupt.”

I’m not saying it’s not painful. Physically, the pain just grips you. But I don’t believe people can predict their reaction to something like this until it actually happens. And, as time goes on, I do meet more and more incredible people who do react positively to tragedy. In fact, I think it happens more often than people think.

For example, if you lose a child to leukemia, what do you do? You go out and raise money for leukemia research. If you lose a child to a drunk driver, you go out and start MADD. Doing something to help others is a very powerful response to tragedy.

I think it has something to do with psychologically carrying on your child’s legacy.

Plus, it allows you a certain degree of liberation in your own soul.

We did have media and everyone looking at us, saying, “Oh, aren’t you angry? This is awful. South Africa! What are they going to do for you?

We had to stop and ask ourselves who we were going to listen to — other people, or our own hearts? It’s easy to listen to other people, particularly when you’re in pain and you’re dealing with something you’ve never dealt with before.

Fortunately, we had Desmond Tutu as our mentor along the way, particularly when we went to the amnesty hearing in 1997. We told him we wanted to support the TRC process, what should we do? He said to come and listen and tell them about Amy and to speak from the heart.

That’s very simple advice, but at the same time, we had other people telling us, “Aren’t you going to bring lawyers and oppose the process?”

I remember the very first trip we made to South Africa, six weeks after Amy was killed, my husband was particularly abused by so many people saying, “You’re not going to take your family over there, are you? You’ll all be killed!” If we had listened to that, we would have drowned. We would have been mired down in a situation where we could have lost it.

Goodman: You went to South Africa six weeks after Amy’s death?

Biehl: People wanted us to come immediately! We got faxes and phone calls and letters saying “When are you coming?” I’m talking about people from the black community where she was killed. People who were colleagues of Amy’s. They wanted us to come and see the conditions they lived in, the work Amy was doing. They wanted us to know how they — from all levels of South African society — had met each other through Amy. She had been a facilitator, bringing together people from human rights groups, women’s coalition groups, township groups, university groups. They wanted to share with us their experience of her.

So we went to South Africa, and we didn’t go see the fancy white houses in Cape Town or eat in the fancy restaurants, or do all the things that tourists do. We went into black communities where kids went to school in dumpsters. Where families had no running water and no electricity. Seeing that firsthand — the trauma of a violent life — gave us a degree of empathy. And that empathy got us through.

Amy’s death was not personal. She was not killed because she was Amy, but because she had the white face of the oppressor. By the same token, the young men who were arrested and convicted and sentenced could have been any of a hundred thousand oppressed young men who were part of a group that had been trained in military fashion to kill — for a reason. We never saw them guilty as individuals. We saw them as having acted as part of a group, a mob. It wasn’t until the Truth and Reconciliation process that they became individuals to us, which was five years after it happened.

Goodman: You never held the young men convicted of her murder responsible for Amy’s death?

Biehl: I held the white apartheid government responsible for Amy’s death! There’s no doubt about that! Over generations they had created a system of oppression that created monsters. They had taken the land and the country away from people who rightfully belonged there. I liken it a lot to our Native American issues.

We lived in New Mexico for six years, you know. Amy went to junior and senior high school there. She learned what it was like to be in the minority. Our New Mexico experience also helped prepare us to understand what it might be like when you’ve been the rightful owner of land that has been taken away from you and you now live in a system of apartheid, where people are separated. It creates a climate of fear. In fact, I think that’s why so many white people are still so fearful today. They don’t have an opportunity to interact with people of other cultures other than perhaps their domestic workers. People fear what they don’t understand.

Goodman: Do you want to say anything more about the process of how you got from grief to something else?

Biehl: The other main factor was the amazing number of people who entered our lives. South Africans came to our home to sit vigil and sing freedom songs at Amy’s memorial service. We had the media here at every turn of our heads. We had to talk and tell Amy’s story from the very beginning, and I think that made us realize that the story was bigger than we were.

Part of the whole Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa was to give people who’d never had an opportunity to do so a chance to tell their stories. Although that can be painful, in our case it helped us to realize that we had some power in our voice. We weren’t left powerless. There were a lot of things still happening in South Africa as they headed towards their elections, and even people in the U.S. State Department were nervous that what we said might derail the elections, which of course would have been the opposite of all that Amy worked for. But that fact made us realize that we did have power. We could choose to respond in ways that would support Amy’s life and work, or we could have let our grief overwhelm us and say things we’d perhaps regret.

My point is that the process of grief does vary according to each individual’s circumstances. I can’t tell someone else how to get through their grief. I can’t give you ten steps. I can just say what happened in ours.

One other thing I want to add: when my husband was diagnosed with colon cancer and then died within a month, I was by his side, and it was peaceful. It was a totally different sense of loss. We always said that the hardest thing about Amy’s death was that we weren’t there and that we hadn’t seen her for ten months.

Goodman: Was Peter instrumental in how you dealt with Amy’s death?

Biehl: Oh yeah. But see, we always saw things very similarly. We grew up together in the same small town outside of Chicago. We met in Sunday school, went to the same church, our families knew each other. We started dating in high school. We had differences, of course, but we shared a time and a place and a value system that we grew up in. We never really had a problem with not having similar responses, and we were married almost forty years.

The night we heard about Amy, everyone came home. Peter got home from Salem, Oregon, where he’d been working; Amy’s sister Molly got home from D.C., where she’d been working. Kim and Zach were here in Newport Beach, but we all got together and we were all on the same page in terms of our response. Zach was probably the most physically upset, but he was amazing. Although he was only in high school, he’d answer the phone and become the press secretary. But as I said, Amy’s death was bigger than us, and we each had our jobs to do.

Don’t get me wrong: I would never want to go back through those first couple of weeks. When I see other parents having to go through it, I feel so sorry for them. I met Rachel Cory’s parents — she’s the girl who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza — at the University of Washington, where I was speaking. I asked them if they would like to come up and talk about Rachel. And they got right up on the stage and started telling about their daughter. Because telling your story helps.

Goodman: Marshall Rosenberg, who is an advocate for restorative justice, recommends that victims not forgive too readily; nor should the perpetrator merely be required to say “I’m sorry,” without truly empathizing with the pain he has caused another.

Biehl: What, white people should not too readily forgive black people for what they did to win their freedom? I’m surprised that black people forgave white people as readily as they did! But they were fortunate to have their moral leaders — from Nelson Mandela to Desmond Tutu and others — advocating a return to the spirit of ubuntu, which is a spirit of restoring harmony.

See, what I’m saying is that there was really never anything to forgive because we understood the situation. Why would we have to forgive people who were fighting for their own lives and freedom?

Nonetheless, forgiveness IS liberating. It’s liberating for yourself and for the perpetrator. At the amnesty hearing, Easy and Ntobeko originally thought we were all about propaganda for South Africa, until they looked into our eyes and saw that we did not harbor bitterness. That’s when they were liberated.

Amy’s killers didn’t see themselves as murderers. They saw themselves as soldiers. And as soldiers, they could forgive themselves. It was when they tried to return to the civilian world, when they tried to return to their families and their community, that they had to reconcile within themselves what they had done. And that’s when our forgiveness gave them their freedom and the right to go on with their lives.

Goodman: That’s very interesting, because it has such huge implications for returning soldiers, or veterans from any war.

Biehl: Oh, it does! And not all four of the men who killed Amy are doing as well as Easy and Ntobeko — because not all of them have been able to return peacefully to civilian life. Even though they received amnesty, it didn’t change their hearts. Nor were the hearts changed of other members of the mob that killed Amy. They’ve become part of the crime problem in South Africa. They’re back in prison because the only skills they’ve been trained in are violent military skills.

I get hate mail from people who say, “You support crime in South Africa!” No, I don’t. No one was there to return those people properly to their communities. Easy and Ntobeko had the ability in their hearts to meet us. They were very courageous, even though they were called sell-outs for meeting us, coming to work with us, taking a paycheck, getting training. They basically adopted my husband and me, giving us the Xhosa names for grandparents. I’ve become “Makhulu,” grandmother, part of their family, part of their community. I think that may be the most inexplicable part of this whole thing for me — that they have welcomed me into their families, that they want me to be part of their lives.

The only rationale I can come up with goes back to ubuntu, the restoration of harmony, both in the internal and external sense. By welcoming me into their community, by becoming family, they are helping to restore what I lost, and my presence helps to restore their humanity to them.

For me, the key to this whole thing is not so much personal forgiveness; it is the energizing work of a more proactive verb, which is to reconcile. Reconciliation is the work that has given me so much energy and joy. It goes beyond saying, “I forgive you,” and you say “Fine,” and we go our separate ways. Through reconciliation we are actually dealing with the very issues that caused our loss and working together to change them.

People who go to prisons and confront perpetrators, getting them to apologize and the victim to forgive, that work has no appeal to me. Maybe it can help put the past behind you. Maybe it helps you find closure, which I don’t necessarily believe in. But it has no amazing excitement like the ability to work together and see results. Even though it’s not easy — in fact it can be overwhelmingly difficult — the strength of the work is when opponents come together and live to see a better day. It’s like Amy said about breaking through the pain barrier. Reconciliation is the work that will get you there — through the pain and into the exhilaration. For me to be able to be a small part of a bigger picture, like South Africa trying to heal itself, that’s exhilarating. And that’s reconciliation.

Goodman: Say more about ubuntu.

Biehl: Ubuntu is a concept I learned through Desmond Tutu. In the whole negotiating and decision-making process before the elections in South Africa between Mandela’s party and DeKlerk’s party, there had to be a system set up to deal with the aftermath of apartheid, the violent part of it, like the Nuremburg war trials or other tribunals. One possibility was for a blanket amnesty — anyone who had committed politically motivated crimes during the apartheid struggle would be given amnesty and not be held accountable. But instead, the decision was made to set up a process so that amnesty could be applied for on an individual basis.

The Truth and Reconciliation process was set up in South Africa right after the elections by a formal act of Parliament. Desmond Tutu was asked to be the chairman. He took over that position knowing full well it would be extremely painful. He was going through prostate cancer treatment himself, but he said he would do it because the bedrock of the South African indigenous peoples, the tribal peoples, was the spirit of ubuntu.

Goodman: Tribal justice?

Biehl: Actually, justice for everyday living. In their villages, in the early days when there were elders, the whole process was restorative and healing rather than retributive. Our justice is retributive, based on meting out punishment. Restorative justice meant restoring harmony to the community, based on the recognition that a person is a person through other persons. That no man is an island, basically. It didn’t mean there wasn’t vigilantism. It didn’t mean that if someone in the community was, say, raping someone, that they wouldn’t push them out of the community. They might, and they would take justice into their own hands. But it was intended for the greater good of the community; getting rid of the bad apple and restoring the harmony.

The health of the community required that people took accountability for their actions. A simple example would be if Themba took Dumisani’s soccer ball. They lived on the same street, which had street committees. The street committee would get involved with the parents and say ok, we know Themba has Dumisani’s ball, and we will work with the families to retrieve the ball. So Dumisani gets his ball back, but then his parents say yes, we’ve got the ball back, but we’re still hurting, we need some compensation. So, in the old days, and they still do it, they would say ok, we would like a cow in addition to the ball, to show that Themba’s family understands our pain and respects us. So Themba’s family would repay Dumisani’s family with the cow, and basically that wrapped it up. It restored the harmony to the street, and people were free not to harbor hate and bitterness.

After the apartheid regime was ousted, Mandela and Tutu and other South African leaders felt it was important for South Africa to look at their future more collectively, rather than individualistically. Mandela had come out of prison ready to forgive. He had studied world history enough to know that the best thing for South Africa would be the coming together of blacks and whites, not a retributive approach against the whites. Plus, Mandela and Tutu also knew that the South African people, particularly the black oppressed peoples, had that spirit of ubuntu within them. So they, and others, worked to convince those who were more militant that they would be doing a disservice to their people if they destroyed the country’s infrastructure, or went on mass murders of white oppressors. The Truth and Reconciliation process was established as a middle road — a way to allow for reconciliation without a blanket amnesty.

The young men who killed Amy were members of a political party that did not believe in the Truth and Reconciliation process. They felt that, until the African land was restored back to the rightful owners, there could not be harmony. It’s not that they didn’t believe in ubuntu, but that they were still being harmed by not having their land. These are basically very simple kinds of analogies I’m giving, but Tutu and Mandela felt that without recalling the spirit of ubuntu within the black African culture, South Africa would not have been able to deal with the huge scars and wounds left by apartheid.

Goodman: Did white Africans also confess and acknowledge accountability?

Biehl: Some, although most of the top leadership didn’t. But yes, there were white people who came before the TRC and asked for amnesty — over crimes they had committed, or were already in prison for, or might have known that they could be tried for. There is a film called Long Night’s Journey into Day, which follows a few of these amnesty stories, both black and white. The white people who came forward were typically police and military people. Not many civilians came forward.

Although Easy and Ntobeko considered themselves military, everyone else called them students. That’s how the anti-government groups recruited, among students.

At any rate, the amnesty process involved far more blacks than whites. Still, because it was a public process, it helped to inform the white population of the oppression and the suffering that had gone on under apartheid. A lot of whites used to say they didn’t know. Why didn’t they know? Blacks and whites were separated. They didn’t have television until 1976, and it was censored. Whites basically had no curiosity, or were fearful. They knew they had a black cleaning lady, but they didn’t know what was going on in the community where she lived. We, in the West, knew more, because footage was smuggled out and our media wasn’t censored. Could people be that ignorant? I don’t know, I guess we put our blinders on. After Katrina, what did we see people saying about New Orleans? “Oh, I didn’t know.” At any rate, the TRC aired stories every Sunday night. White people had an opportunity to learn what had been going on, and it made them see themselves a little bit differently. They realized there had been great suffering and great pain — and that it was still continuing.

How does this relate to Amy and to where I am at this time? It’s been an amazing journey to be involved with South Africa at the level I’ve been able to. To sit in community councils, to go to traditional events, like weddings or rites of passage, to really have this understanding of how these cultures work. I think Amy gave that as a gift to me. I’ve learned so much about humanity through ubuntu. I know I am who I am today, not only because of Amy, but because of Easy and Ntobeko, and because of all the other people I’ve met along the way. They have become a part of me and I have become a part of them. I think of myself less as an individual now. I don’t feel that it’s “me, me, me,” all the time. I feel part of a whole. If I’d closed myself off and become bitter after Amy’s death, none of that would have been available to me.

Goodman: Don’t you think that, just like the South Africans, we Americans have a stake in “not knowing,” because if we knew that we constitute four percent of the world’s population, for example, but we consume whatever outrageous percentage — I think it’s forty percent — of the world’s resources, and if we knew the suffering that it entailed, we’d have to give up some of our comfort. We’d have to change the way we go about doing just about everything.

Biehl: I have this American middle-class background, and I don’t want to give up everything, and you’re exactly right. I think we pick and choose what we know.

Goodman: I understand that you travel the country speaking about your experience with restorative justice. How would you summarize the message you share with people?

Biehl: I reference what I’ve learned, which has come through my experience of the South African concept of ubuntu: a person is a person through other persons. Ubuntu is a process for restoring harmony in a community, as well as in yourself. When you do that, you’re led to a much more peaceful and productive future, as opposed to when your goal is punishment and vengeance, which leaves rage in you. Restorative justice is about restoring balance.

Goodman: Some people would say that retributive justice is about restoring balance, too. You’ve wronged me, so you’ll have to pay. Are you saying that it’s the anger behind the retributive justice that makes it counter-productive?

Biehl: A lot of people think that restorative justice is about letting people off scot-free, that there’s no accountability in it, but that’s not true. Accountability was a very important part of the TRC work. It’s also a part of our own justice system — for example, with youthful offenders. Is it really going to be best for society to lock that person up and make him into a more hardened criminal? Or is it possible to find ways to work through family systems, community systems, court systems, to hold this person accountable in more constructive ways?

Retributive justice is about maintaining yourself as a victim your whole life. It’s “two wrongs make a right.” But they don’t, really.

Restorative justice is also about dealing with root causes. Root causes should guide our response to a crime. Although restorative justice cannot eliminate systemic wrongs, it can take them into account. In South Africa, apartheid oppressed eighty percent of the population, reduced them to the level of dogs, of animals. Restorative justice seeks to restore their humanity. And it can promote healing on the personal level.

Restorative justice is about hope; retributive justice is about hate. If I fight to see that you’re put in jail or given the death penalty, thinking that will solve the problem, it won’t. It won’t restore anything the victim lost, and it doesn’t address the root cause that created the problem in the first place. Restorative justice takes more of a problem-solving approach. Retributive justice may hope to make the problem go away, but history has shown that it’s not very effective. I think the retributive approach holds you back–as an individual, and as a society.

Goodman: You’ve said that you don’t believe in closure. Why do you say that? What have you experienced instead?

Biehl: Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean poet, playwright, and activist, and my husband and I happened to attend a lecture he gave at the University of Cape Town. After the lecture, my husband asked him, “Mr. Dorfman, can you please tell us ‘What is closure, and is it necessary?’” Because people were always asking us if we had closure.

The first thing Dorfman said, was “Well, is there a body? Do you know what happened to the person you lost?” The TRC dealt with that issue a lot, because a lot of people didn’t know what happened to their loved one. So seeing the body, or knowing what happened, provides a physical closure.

But beyond that, Dorfman said, “Do you want closure? You can never bring that person back, but on the other hand, do you really want to ‘close’” that person — which would mean wiping out their memory and all that they meant to you?” It’s not even possible. A person is a person through other persons…it doesn’t necessarily mean that those other persons are alive.

And then, far from providing closure, Amy’s death opened a lot of doors for me, and others, in ways that didn’t seem possible to me before. I met people and communities, and found out that even people who might have been involved in her death were human beings. Both Easy and Ntobeko consider Amy a comrade in their youth group. Amy’s death involved opening my heart, instead of closing it.

Goodman: Do you think restorative justice can work on a national level in the U.S.?

Biehl: I think it would be very difficult for something like a Truth and Reconciliation Committee to work on a national level here because we’re too large and diverse. But I do think people can take ownership of issues that need reconciling within their own communities. I think restorative justice can work on a national level in areas of the world where people are either open to these ideas, or they can’t stand the pain of the status quo any longer — and it’s often the families who have endured pain and hardship who get the process started. These people should be encouraged to share their stories to get more people thinking along reconciliation lines.

Goodman: When you think about it happening in this country, which issue do you see it being centered around? Native Americans? Immigration? Slavery?

Biehl: All of them, really. There are still black people feeling they haven’t had any resolution of racism, or any reconciliation of the harm it has done them. I personally see it more around the injustices inflicted on the Native American population. I think the key to a lot of the issues that divide us is more dialogue. It would be constructive to set up some kind of institutional process that would allow for dialogue.

In our case with Amy, the Truth and Reconciliation process was an institutional process that led to a personal reconciliation. There are also those who went through the process who have not had any resolution. Tutu always said of the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa that it promoted national healing. It could not perform the national healing itself; that was up to individuals. That’s a key point: it’s up to individuals themselves to do the work of forgiving and reconciling. There’s no magic process that’s going to do it for you.

Goodman: On The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer a few years ago, I saw the mayor of a city in Colorado say, about the immigration issue, “I think we’re going to have to start talking to each other and not at each other.”

Biehl: It’s difficult, because when do people from different social strata really have a chance to talk to each other about the things that matter? It may be that schools and churches and the non-government sector, the civic groups and service organizations, are our best chance of holding these conversations. I’m often asked to speak at Rotary clubs in South Africa. These are groups of people trying to figure out how to help with some of these issues.

People at the grassroots level know what their problems are. They need some facilitation, a certain amount of institutionalized support, to bring people together. But that’s where the conversations can begin. I don’t see our national government being very successful at that. I’m more optimistic about the power of people telling their individual stories. That can be the key to bringing us together. It does take you out of your privacy. It does put you out there in the public eye, so you will get the hate mail, as well as the support mail. But that’s what all just part of the process.

Not too long ago, I got a call from a woman in Long Beach about some local Halloween racial attacks, black guys attacking white girls. The suspects and the victims were all juveniles, and the kids’ parents now all had lawyers, and the lawyers were all saying, “Don’t say anything to anybody.” But this woman who called me from the Long Beach Police Human Services Division said that some of the parents were saying, we’re not getting any results, our kids may be tried and sentenced, but no one’s happy. She asked me, is there something you can do? I told her that it’s very difficult to tell people to start talking to each other, start telling their stories, start listening to each other, while their lawyers are saying something else. That’s why we never got any lawyers involved in our case. But I also suggested that they show a movie like Long Night’s Journey Into Day, or to create some other reason to bring these parents and other people in the community together in a forum. Just a volunteer group of people listening to each other and beginning a dialogue — not discussing any particular incidents or taking any legal positions — could start the process. I said I would happy to come and talk about my experiences, not in a legal sense, but just in a humanitarian sense, and let them draw their own conclusions, which might be of some value. The woman said that this group was perhaps a little too raw for that now but that they could think about it for the future.

Goodman: When you encounter hostility from people, what are they angry about?

Biehl: Race. Most of the hostility I get is people saying, you’re helping black people, and you’re helping terror, and you’re helping people who are criminals. Then there are people who just can’t understand the idea of forgiveness.

Goodman: And it makes them angry that you would be forgiving?

Biehl: Yeah.

Goodman: That’s so bizarre to me.

Biehl: Well, it is bizarre. But I also feel that the media creates a lot of it. Look at the killings of the schoolgirls in the Amish community, and look how quickly that story ended, because there wasn’t anger, there wasn’t bitterness. Forgiveness was part of their life, and they lived it, and I think the media couldn’t deal with that. There was no story there.

I actually think there are elements in our society that just thrive on confrontation, instead of letting people think from their hearts, as Desmond Tutu says. Sometimes we may be angry, but how do we really use our mind and our hearts together, use the human values we say we have, in those instances? Religions share a lot of the same basic tenets — respect people, turn the other cheek, and take the high road. In the long run, it’s beneficial for yourself, as well as the person you’re angry with. After all, you can’t live your life for other people.

Goodman: So when you encounter this hostility what is your response, how do you respond to them?

Biehl: Well, the hostility is often sent in the mail, or over a phone. It’s not usually a direct face-to-face thing, so I don’t respond. We did take the guest book off the website, because it was just becoming a race war, and we don’t deal with that. If people come up to me, and say, “Oh, Mrs. Biehl, I don’t know how you do this,” I’ll say, “Would you like to come to our office and I’ll show you?”

To be absolutely honest with you, one of the things I learned from Desmond Tutu was seeing how he diffuses tension with a sense of humor. I’m not someone who likes to stand up and be controversial, so I will just say, “This is how I feel about it, and we do all have the right to think for ourselves.”

It’s really been kind of interesting because in South Africa, people who lived their whole lives under apartheid look at me with curiosity. When I get invited to a dinner party and they see I’m kind of a normal person, and I chat with them about their life and their kids, it de-sensationalizes me. It takes away that curiosity. We can relate to each other as normal human beings just striving together in this world.

Goodman: What can you tell us about the current situation in South Africa? Are they making progress in healing the scars of their past and building a truly unified country?

Biehl: Conditions in South Africa have changed in a legal sense. There’s a great new constitution, and everyone is now legally equal and free. But are people equal economically? No. Educationally? No. Conditions in the native communities have not changed very much. So the ability to work together to create positive change in these communities is very exciting. It’s definitely what’s motivating me, and has been for the last fifteen years or so.

I do think South Africa’s story is very compelling. I’m still just amazed at the suffering its people have gone through and their resiliency. They’re so familiar with death, and they’ve taught me so much about life.

You know, as Americans, our sense of who we are is very different from a lot of other cultures. I’m struck by how much pain other people routinely bear, and how little pain I’ve had to bear in my life, and how people in other cultures keep going under circumstances that I would find crushing. No housing, no running water, yet you see these women walking out in starched white dresses with dignity and pride. I think South Africa could have been a huge bloodbath, and they avoided that. I marvel at people’s ability to withstand suffering, and the depth of character that comes from that, whereas, we Americans can be so shaken by even minor problems.

Goodman: When did you set up the Amy Biehl Foundation — after the amnesty hearings?

Biehl: No, it was before that. First of all, when Amy died all sorts of people sent flowers — people we didn’t know — and a lot of them wanted to know if there was a memorial, but we didn’t know about these things. Amy’s passion was South Africa, so we opened a bank account, and a lawyer friend offered to set up a nonprofit corporation here in the U.S. People contributed to it and when we went to South Africa, we’d donate the money to worthy projects we’d see over there. At first I figured that’s what we’d do: we’d go to South Africa every so often, see a project, give money, and leave it at that. But then, in 1997, Brian Atwood was the head of US Agency for International Development (US AID) under the Clinton administration. He had been Amy’s boss at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. He offered us an unsolicited US AID grant to go to South Africa and do development work.

It was a blessing in some ways, but it was also very difficult because of the strings attached — what we were supposed to do and how we were supposed to do it — none of which came from us, or from the people in South Africa, but from US AID. But it did lead us to going to Africa and doing a lot of research, and to setting up the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust as a nonprofit in South Africa. That occurred in September 1997, which was right after the amnesty.

When we arrived, the first thing we did was to meet with people in the communities and ask what they needed, what we could do. We sat in on many community groups and met with people from various government departments. Most told us that Amy was killed in a politically violent time and that, despite the anti-apartheid elections, the youth energy was still going into the struggle. There was still a lot of violence against white people and also against each other in their own communities — violence that stemmed from a lack of opportunities. So we decided to develop programs that would help ensure that people in the townships had better education; that they had after-school programs, safe places to go after school, and exposure to opportunities that white kids had; that they had HIV-prevention education; and that there were job opportunities. For a while we had a small business enterprise–Amy’s Bread, the Bread of Hope and Peace. But the delivery driver was killed, and our bakery was burned down, so now we just license the bread to other bakeries and a portion of the proceeds benefits our programs. Still, it has been quite successful, and is now sold at the Pick ‘n Pay Supermarkets, the largest grocery chain in Cape Town, along with Amy’s Milk and Amy’s Rice.

We have tried to work within the existing public infrastructure, from the Department of Education to the Department of Social Services. But we’ve also tried to be a catalyst to get things done in the grassroots arena. So we work in the schools, providing after-school programs that begin at 2:00 p.m. We work with environmental issues. Their school ground areas are a real mess, with trash blowing everywhere, so we’ve worked to create community/school vegetable gardens with indigenous crops. That not only provides food, it provides teaching opportunities about the environment, where food comes from, nutrition, and it enhances the physical environment. We’ve also been trying to get the parents involved with the schools and to turn the schools into a community resource. This goes against the trend of the last fifty years, which discouraged parents from school involvement. In fact there was a law passed in the 1950s that once you got your kid to school, the teacher’s authority took precedence over that of the parents. So we’re trying to create opportunities for parents to participate more in the schools.

We’ve trained thousands of community people in first aid — there’s a huge lack in that. They want first aid kits and basic first aid training in the schools. We do a lot of research though, before we launch a program. We sit in homes with people, talk, and just try to listen to what the needs are. One of the biggest challenges is to identify or train people who can run programs without access to resources, without knowledge of computers, or bookkeeping, etc., without patronizing them, without imposing our solutions from our experience, but taking their knowledge of local issues, and supporting them in producing results.

My other problem is that people say, well she’s a wealthy white American woman, she should be able to fund the programs out of her pocket. I have to say I really have no money now, but if I have it, I’ll share it with you. That’s been a really hard thing. Also, if there’s a problem, people have tended to turn to me to fix it.

But in the last few years, South Africans have been stepping into the leadership and management of the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, and I’m able to step out of it more. I’ve told them that I’m really fine with them even changing the name of the Foundation. Amy herself never wanted to have a foundation; she just wanted to support South Africans. It’s important that South Africans take ownership of the organization and make it something they themselves can sustain.

I’m of the personal belief that a lot of what happened to South Africa was created by missionaries, who put their goals and values on other people, so we have to be extremely careful of what we think other people should do.

Goodman: Is that relevant anywhere else in the world today?

Biehl (smiling): I wonder.

Goodman: Can you be specific? Are we talking about Iraq? Afghanistan?

Biehl: Yes, and in the Middle East. You saw suicide bombers in the Middle East before you saw Iraq. You see the factions.

I’ve been with some Palestinians and Israelis who are working to bridge the gaps that separate them. I went to a restorative justice conference at Marquette University, along with an Israeli woman whose son had been killed by a Palestinian sniper, and a young Palestinian man whose brother had been killed by an Israeli soldier. We were all on this panel. The Israeli and Palestinian were part of a parents’ circle, which, at the grassroots level, is trying really hard to bridge so many of these issues, and build relationships. That’s the kind of work that will bring long-term results.

Goodman: For a lot of people it would be very counterintuitive to embrace people who have killed your daughter, and yet you have obviously gotten a lot out of it. Could you summarize what you’ve gotten, and what you think would have been the outcome if you had taken the road of retributive justice, the road you did not take?

Biehl: Let me give you an example. Easy and Ntobeko both have children now. For Ntobeko’s daughter first birthday, I took him and his wife and daughter shopping at the Waterfront, which is this amazing place to shop in Cape Town. I wanted them to select a birthday gift for her. His wife picked out something, and as we were walking out of the store, I looked up, and out of the corner of my eye saw Ntobeko going up to pay for something with a debit card, a birthday gift for his daughter. And it just hit me: he could have been in prison, he could’ve been dead, like so many others. But he had the courage to look at things differently, to change his attitude, to be open to possibilities, and his life now is radically different than what it had been. And not only is he a part of me, giving me the opportunity to be a part of his life, he’s actually become a very productive member of South African society. Who could be a better example to others than Ntobeko, who was so angry and bitter about his lot in life that he was willing to commit murder, and who now has stepped back from the anger of his past and has created a new life for himself?

It’s little things like that that make me so sure that those possibilities can transfigure people and society.

Easy and Ntobeku amaze me in their own powers of forgiveness too — their ability to deal with what happened, and also to talk about Amy. When they started their first support group in the beginning, they said “Amy is one of the co-founders.” They embraced her in the way they talked about her. When we do speaking engagements together, it’s so funny. People will ask Ntobeko and Easy a question about South African issues, and the two of them will look at me and challenge me to answer it, and I’ll just repeat what they’ve told me. They’ll watch me and nod. Then someone will ask a question about Amy, and Easy or Ntobeko will answer. They’ll say, “I’ve never met Amy, but I think this is how she would think.” It’s amazing, that they can become that comfortable that they’ve become fluent in her life.

Goodman: Was there a time when they acknowledged the extent of your pain, and you acknowledged the extent of their pain?

Biehl: Yes, and this is how Easy put it. In the traditional cultures, the young men have these stick-fighting contests. I don’t know if it’s as prevalent today as it once was, but they would beat each other almost to death. Then, at the end, they would cleanse and heal each other’s wounds. That’s how Easy describes what has happened between his family and my family; between Africans and whites. We’ve harmed each other to these very great depths, but we also have the power to heal each other.

Another thing that I’ve gotten out of taking this path, of reconciling with the people and the country that were responsible for my daughter’s death, is that, out of all pain and hardship, I have really enjoyed the humor that exists in people — from Desmond Tutu to the people in the townships. I’ve learned a lot from how joyful they can be. They can be at a very sad event, but they sing, they dance their way through it. Sometimes Easy and Ntobeko and I find ourselves in funny situations, and we just laugh. They’ve taught me that the power of laughter and fun can communicate with a lot more strength sometimes than the heaviness, the sadness, the tears.

Goodman: Do you think Amy would be proud of you for the strength that you’ve demonstrated in being willing to stand in the spotlight to take a stand on her behalf?

Biehl: Definitely I do. She always talked about the end of apartheid and bringing the races together with open and honest dialogue. If we’ve achieved any part of that, I think she would approve. I feel that we’ve honored her in that way.

Since this interview, which was published in February 2013, Linda Biehl and the Amy Biehl Foundation have begun several reconciliation projects in the U.S., where, for example, they bring students together for deep dialogue. Linda is also proud of the schools that have been named for Amy in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico. For more information, or to make a donation to the Amy Biehl Foundation, visit www.amybiehl.org, or donate to The MOON and designate the Amy Biehl Foundation to receive 20% of your gift.

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Leslee Goodman

I’m the publisher/editor of The MOON magazine (www.moonmagazine.org), a monthly journal of personal and universal reflections. The MOON shines in the dark!