A few days before Christmas 2012, I decided that I’d give the gift of forgiveness to another man who’d hurt me: Bruce.
I Googled his name like I’d done before to try to find him. I knew he’d been sent to prison for holding a woman captive several years previously, and thought he might still be there. My plan was to go see him in person and tell him “I forgive you.” I needed to let go of the painful burden of hate and fully get my life back, and perhaps he needed it, too. Not that he was my top priority, but I believed in good energy and karma after so many years of reading Wayne Dyer’s books and getting my recent dose of divine love from John of God.
What I found shocked me: His obituary. And the date of his death was even more shocking—it was the day before I’d left for Brazil to see John of God in May.
My feelings were mixed. Along with being shocked, I was relieved and sad. There was a photo with his obituary, and I sat quietly for a moment and stared at it. He was wearing his Navy uniform and cap, with the American flag hanging on the wall behind him. The photo must have been taken right around the time he assaulted me because he looked the same, like a boy . . . a harmless, scared little boy.
On the one hand, I felt an overwhelming fear lifted off me, like I was truly safe and didn’t have to look over my shoulder for the rest of my life, worried that he was following me and trying to finish the job on me. My father would have loved to have killed Bruce with his own hands. When I told him the next day that he’d died, Dad laughed—he was the happiest man alive. “Good,” he said. “The son of a bitch deserved to die.”
I told him how I’d wanted to forgive Bruce, but Dad was having none of that. “I don’t have to forgive him, Dana Leigh, and I don’t.”
I could understand my father’s happiness, but it also made me sad. I felt sad for Bruce’s own parents, and I started crying for them. I couldn’t be happy that this kid was dead because someone had now lost their child. I couldn’t be happy about this death, even though I’d once dreamed of how I’d torture Bruce and leave him as good as dead.
I Googled his parents’ names and got their phone number. I stared at it for half an hour before finally making the most difficult phone call of my life.
His mom answered the phone. I could barely speak.
“I-I knew your son. I’m s-s-sorry for your loss,” I stuttered. She thanked me, and wanted to know how I knew him. Her voice was warm and loving.
“I was in the Navy with him. I’m the one he threw off Sunset Cliffs in 1990.”
She paused, then took a deep breath and whispered: “We never knew what happened that night. I don’t understand. Why would he throw you off the cliff?”
“Well, ma’am, he raped me first. Then he choked me. And the best I can tell you is he thought I was dead and got scared and tried to cover his tracks, so he threw me off.”
“Why didn’t you press charges?”
“Because what happened was swept under the rug by the military, and I was forced to take my right to remain silent. That sort of thing is kept quiet: ‘It doesn’t happen in our military.’ I was given the choice to take it to court and lose, or take my right to remain silent and be taken care of for the rest of my life.”
“Taken care of?”
“Ma’am, I’m a quadriplegic. At the time they gave me the choice, I had only just began breathing on my own.”
“He raped you.” “Yes, ma’am.”
She didn’t even try to deny it; she knew I was telling the truth. I had tried to be strong up to that point, but now we both began to cry. “What I really want you to know, and it’s the reason that I’m calling, is that I forgave your son,” I said through my tears. “And I’m sorry he died.”
“He found God before he died.”
I told her I’d heard about that, but didn’t mention the newspaper clipping I’d read years before about him holding a woman hostage and reading Bible verses to her. I asked her how Bruce had died, and she said it was during surgery.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” she asked. “What can I do for you to help?”
“Ma’am . . . just forgive yourself, because I know how parents blame themselves for what their children do. Again, I’m sorry you lost your son. No parent should lose their child. And know that I’m truly okay, and I live a good life.”
People always say there is a correlation between forgiveness and healing, and I found there to be truth in that. Soon after I talked to Bruce’s mother, I went to San Diego in January 2013 for a two-month intensive session with a new trainer. We did three hours of hard-core exercising five days a week, with a focus on gait training.
Six weeks later, I put my new skills to good use. I attended a two-day I Can Do It! seminar in Denver in April, for which my new friend Wayne Dyer was the keynote speaker. For the occasion, I wore all purple to go with his/my purple hat and sat at the back of the room so I could be near the bathroom. On the first day, before he went onstage, he and I had a few moments together by my seat, and I showed him how much my walking had improved. I got up and walked for a few steps without a cane, without a walker, without braces—just me. I’d never seen a smile so big on Wayne’s face.
During his keynote, he spoke about many things: love, forgiveness, manifesting, and the great teachers of this world. I’d listened to his books so many times that I felt like I’d absorbed his thoughts and words. Suddenly, though, everything began to sound more familiar than usual.
“There’s someone in the audience . . . she was in the United States Navy . . . she got herself involved in an encounter one evening . . . she was raped and thrown off a cliff . . . she was put into a wheelchair . . . on the last cruise, I gave her the purple hat I was wearing. She said she’d give it back to me when she got out of that chair. I’d like you all to meet her, she’s sitting at the back . . .”
Everyone stood up and started clapping and looking back at me, as Wayne began to sing “The Impossible Dream.” What else could I do? I stood up and made my way toward him with my walker until I got to his arms, to the cheers of everyone in the room. Wayne gave me a big hug, and then urged me to “tell them what you just did.” He was talking about my forgiving Bruce and his mother. I hadn’t told him, but he’d heard the story through his assistant, Maya. Through tears, I told the story to a ballroom full of people and thousands more on a live stream.
“Now she’s walking, and she’s one of my heroes,” Wayne said, hugging me. “I’m going to take my hat back when you run your first marathon. Deal?”
That day, one hero taught another about the difference one person can make. After the night was over, many people approached me to talk, but one in particular stays in my mind: a young woman who told me that she’d been raped at age 17, “and I was choked, thrown in a Dumpster, and left to die behind a 7-Eleven.”
The woman’s family, who were Jehovah’s Witnesses, blamed her for the rape. She’d changed her first name because she felt such shame about what happened to her. Now she said, “I want to thank you, because though I haven’t been paralyzed physically, I’ve been paralyzed emotionally for 20 years until today. Now I’m going to change my name back to my real birth name. You helped me.”
My injury wasn’t about me, I decided that day; it was about the story that millions of women have. I’m only one of so many who have suffered and have the strength to say,
“You’re a son of a bitch, but I forgive you. And you don’t get to win. I win, because I forgive myself and I forgive you.”
I spent the next year talking to more women, working on healing and forgiveness, and trying to figure out how I could help others. In January 2014, I reached a long-awaited pinnacle in my own healing. I went to the “Healing Power of Forgiveness” seminar in Maui, helmed by Wayne, who was presenting three wonderful speakers: Immaculée Illibigaza, author of Left to Tell; Anita Moorjani, author of Dying to Be Me; and Scarlett Lewis, author of Nurturing Healing Love.
At the seminar, Immaculée spoke about forgiving the killers who’d murdered her family during the Rwandan genocide, and Scarlett spoke about forgiving the young man who’d murdered her little boy and dozens of others during the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. They know not what they do, both women realized, and I felt it was the same with the military—they as a collective did not know the damage they did to both men and women, to both victim and assailant, when they perpetuate the rape culture.
For me to fully heal, not only did I have to forgive Bruce, which I’d already done, I had to forgive the military, too.
And, I had to face, in detail, what had happened that night.
If Immaculée could stand to hear how her beloved brother’s body had been chopped up with a machete in the street by people he called friends, and if Scarlett could bear to hold her son’s little hand for so long at his wake (she felt it get warm again), I could find the strength to face what had happened on the cliff that night. It was something I had deftly avoided for more than 24 years.
Wayne set up a session for me with his craniosacral therapist, Kate Mackinnon, to help unlock energy blocks in my body and raise my potential for more healing. I didn’t really know what to expect, if anything at all—I’d had a few craniosacral sessions before, and they were nice and cuddly, with energy and happy thoughts flowing.
Kate came up to my hotel room, and we dimmed the lights. I lay in bed, as she assessed my body and what to do. She gently rested her hands on my body, above and below my diaphragm, and I could suddenly feel the tension I was holding in that area begin to bubble to the surface.
Slowly, the shoved-down memories and emotions I’d kept from myself for so long came to the surface. It was like an image I’d had in Ireland of the god Poseidon, rising up above my head and overtaking me.
I remembered being so cocky at the beginning of that night with Bruce, thinking that nothing could happen to me. And then being so shocked and in disbelief when this skinny kid overtook me—I’m so strong! Why can’t I fight you off?
I started crying. “You’re safe now,” Kate told me. “Remember that you already survived this, and I’m right here.”
Even though her words and presence were reassuring, it still felt like it was all happening again, here and now. I began to relive each moment on the cliff, step by step, in horrific detail. At each step, Kate moved me through the emotions until I was through it and calm.
When Bruce started choking me, it felt like someone was standing on my chest. I cried deeper than I’ve ever cried in my life, asking Why? Why?!
“What’s happening now?” Kate asked. “He’s choking me.”
“Feel your body on this bed, Dana, and where my hands are. Feel how this energy is now able to move out of your body.”
I started shaking and shivering so violently that my teeth chattered. “I’m cold,” I said. “I’m looking up at the sky, and I can see the top of the cliff . . . Just breathe, just breathe, I’m telling myself. I’m so cold. But I’m fighting so hard to live.”
“The shaking is your body releasing the energy that got locked up in it,” Kate replied, soothingly, as she softly placed her hands on my throat. “You are doing an amazing job being present to these intense sensations.”
Then came a weird calming. I remembered hearing the sound of a helicopter, and I knew someone was coming to get me and I could let go and slip into a coma.
When it was all over—the entire session took nearly two hours— I was exhausted and light-headed and hungry. I had no idea how much trauma could be locked in the body and buried so deep.
“Be gentle with yourself tonight,” Kate said, giving me a hug. “We did a lot and you did good.”
“Had I known it was going to be like that, I wouldn’t have done it!” I told her. “But I’m glad I did.” You have to wade through the muck and mud in your life to get to the meadow on the other side.
That night, I had the best sleep I’d had in months. When I woke up the next morning at 5:30, I felt like a heavy weight had been lifted. I took a shower and got dressed, grabbed my crutches over my shoulder, and went outside. I was so excited, I didn’t even want to stop and eat breakfast first. There was something important that I had to do.
A hundred feet away from the ocean, as the golden sunrise hit the mountainside ahead, I reached a specific spot that I’d scoped out the night before.
I tied my shoes, put my iPhone in my pocket, and set out to do what I intended from the moment I first arrived in Maui—walk through the sand all the way to the edge of the ocean, all alone. I wanted to know that I could have a walk on the beach on my own.
For a moment, the sound of the waves crashing onto the shore made my heart jump in fear. But I reminded myself of my new mantra from Kate: You are safe, you are safe . . .
I took my first step on the soft, shifting sand, and then a second. I looked up ahead of me and saw whales breaching and lunging in the ocean. Any fear I might have felt moments before washed away, and strength took over. I stepped again, and again. Strangely, no one asked if they could help me—something that would have normally happened several times by now. This was something I wanted to do completely on my own, so the universe was apparently in agreement. I took another step, and another.
I walked to the edge of the ocean and stopped about a foot from the water, and I took a deep breath of the morning air. About 20 feet away, two little sisters ran up and down the sand, laughing and giggling when they got their toes wet. They reminded me of my sister Chrissy and myself as kids, and my heart filled with joy.
I looked out to the ocean, watched the whales and sunrise, and took another deep breath. This is absolute freedom, I thought.
I was hungry. I turned around to go back, and saw my footprints in the sand. They were unique: line, foot, line, foot. The line was my right foot dragging along.
When I turned around, I also saw a man standing by my chair, lingering. He’d been keeping an eye on me, making sure I was safe, but never said a word. He watched me until he felt I was going to be okay, and then with a half-smile and nod, he turned and left. I sent out a message to the stranger:
I’m going to be okay. I just walked on the beach for the first time in 23 years with my crutches, totally by myself, and I wasn’t afraid of falling down.
I was absolutely going to be okay.
When I got home, I was so tired—but good tired—that I slept for most of two days.
On day three, I woke up and went to my computer to write this letter:
If you were alive right now, this is what I would say to you…
First, I want you to know that I forgive you for raping me and then trying to kill me by throwing me from a 75-foot cliff. I was in a coma for 18 hours. I had a severe head injury, a broken neck from cervical 1 to cervical 5. My lungs collapsed, and I had lacerations on my liver and spleen. I woke up terrified and knowing that I was paralyzed from the neck down. My family was told I’d be lucky to live through the night . . . and that if I did live, I’d be on a ventilator and be a vegetable the rest of my life.
Maybe your intent was to kill me. But you only made me stronger. For years I wished I could put you in a wheelchair and make you a quadriplegic for life. I fantasized about how I’d hire people to beat you to a pulp and break your neck and give you the slight chance of living that you gave me.
And then I went to see John of God, where I found the ability through a spiritual healing to forgive you. I went to Brazil the day after you died. I found that out when I Googled you; I was ready to find you and tell you that I forgive you and move on with my life.
I saw your obit instead and I was shocked. I called your parents’ home and talked to your mother. She had a warm, loving voice. I told her I was the one you threw off a cliff in 1990. She didn’t understand, so I explained all the details. I told her I’d forgiven you, and that was why I was calling. And that she should absolve herself of any blame she might be feeling, because parents do that sometimes—blame themselves for their children’s mistakes.
We cried together, your mother and me. Can you imagine that?
Bruce, you are no longer in the body that hurt women. You can no longer hurt me.
I am strong and walking.
And forgiving you was the most liberating thing I have ever done. So now, I thank you for this journey of healing my mind, body, and soul.
You gave me the gift of forgiveness. God rest your soul. I AM HEALED!
Engineman Dana Liesegang
I hit “save” on the file and closed my laptop.
It was a beautiful, crisp winter morning with my dog Jack in Grand Junction—our home and happy place together—and I wanted to get out there with him and take him for a brisk walk to our favorite coffee shop. I put a leash on his collar next to his John of God necklace, packed a few doggy treats into the pocket of my chair, slung my crutches over my neck, and we took the back-door lift down to street level.
Jack and I, we had a lot of walking to do.
Dana Liesegang is an expert in spinal cord injury recovery, and a 2014 recipient of the Hero of Forgiveness Award given by the Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance. When she’s not traveling the world as a motivational speaker, she’s taking university classes and hanging out with friends and the love of her life, Jack (a yellow Lab), in a quaint little town in Colorado. She enjoys every minute of the life she has created in the now. Please visit: www.danaliesegangbook.com
Natasha Stoynoff is a New York Times best-selling author. She lives in New York City, where she writes books and screenplays, inter- views the occasional celebrity, and eats too much chocolate.