Scenes from The Reader have been replaying in my mind over the last few weeks. The young man, a law student, is sitting in on a trial with classmates when he stumbles upon a woman he loved, the one he hadn’t heard from since she vanished from their town years ago. The trial is hers, and she’s being convicted for her role in multiple murders. Suddenly, the line between right and wrong he’s been trained to identify is hidden behind thick fog.
The dialogue I can’t shake takes place years later, when the woman’s prison sentence is nearly up, and he comes to facilitate her return to society. She is elderly, withered and worn, but hopeful. And in their first exchange since he was young, he asks, “Have you spent a lot of time thinking about the past? What do you feel now?” At this point we’ve witnessed her punishment and evidence of her integrity, and it’s clear his prodding is beating a dead horse “I wasn’t sure what you’d learned” he says.
But I get it. A few years ago I wanted reassurance, too, that I could trust a loved one’s character. He lied to my face, and of course that sprouted other lies—a bed of wild, thriving weeds—until they became such a tangled mess of choked roots that I discovered the truth. Once my shock subsided, all I wanted was the trust we’d had before. So I looked for reasons I could keep confidence in our relationship.
I thought it was a gracious, hopeful approach, but collecting evidence to make a case for his trustworthiness required a magnifying glass and a level of scrutiny that revealed, yes, reassurance of his character—but also more doubt. He was honest enough to ask for my help but too proud to own his mistakes; generous enough to share his resources but too greedy to do so quietly. It was a close-up of what I had already observed: good and bad inhabiting the same body. And I didn’t want to believe that his goodness could saddle right up next to his evil.
“It doesn't matter what I feel. It doesn't matter what I think. The dead are still dead.”
It is out of this confliction that the man in The Reader questions the woman, but after having years in prison to contemplate her wrongdoing, she is surprised and disappointed to receive such a condemning question from him, of all people: “It doesn't matter what I feel. It doesn't matter what I think. The dead are still dead.” Sure, she had probably spent some of her sentence wallowing in guilt, but she had also come to understand the haziness of morality. I think she realized her crime didn’t exist in isolation but in the context of life as a single woman, the need for employment, the honor of a promotion, and social norms to respect superiors, as well as manipulation, ignorance, and so much more.
She makes me wonder if I’ve been too baffled by good people’s capacity to do evil things—too focused on the polarity of the right and wrong. I’ve always pictured the relationship between the two like that of oil and water when I’m baking: clear, clean, set. But in the kitchen, I add eggs and flour to the bowl, and the oil and water become not only integrated but undetectable, forming a different state of matter. If it’s at all the same, has my perception of people been incomplete, too?
The man in The Reader made the mistake of assuming his love saw her crime through the same black and white framework he did. If she could just express authentic repentance, then he could resurrect his regard for her. But to his surprise, prison allowed her to paint a detailed picture of her whole self, which did not elicit the simple regret he wanted to hear.
Sometimes I feel guilty about severing my relationship with the man who lied to me. My perspective of right and wrong has evolved since then, and I know Paul insists I’ve been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18). But the truth is, I’m not sure I could trust him again. All I know is that when I think of him today I remember all of who he is. His plans, childhood trauma, his resources, how he commanded a room, his inheritance, desire to provide, insecurity, his friendliness. I want to ask Paul if acknowledging all of this man and his contradictions counts.
At the end of The Reader, the man takes his daughter to the woman’s grave site and begins to explain who she was. And even though the audience knows what shame her story includes, his choice to honor her in fullness is undoubtedly loving. It would have been easy for him to memorialize her as a murderer who broke his heart, but he commits to truth, as complex as it is, and I admire that. I don’t know if it’s what Paul had in mind, but I know the peace that sits with me when I preserve my offender’s personhood in memory and story.