of Aotearoa New Zealand
Restorative Justice Facilitator
“I just want answers.”
This is what a young woman told me at a recent preconference. We were sitting around her kitchen table and she was telling us about the man that had smashed her car window while she was stopped at a red light late one Friday night. It had all happened in a flash and although she heard the sound of glass shattering, she didn’t realise it was her car until the lights had changed and she was on the other side of the intersection.
She wanted to meet the guy who did it. She wanted to ask him for the money to cover the repairs, but more than that, she wanted to understand why he had done it. She wasn’t scared and she wasn’t really angry anymore, but she couldn’t let it go because she had no idea why it had happened. There are many reasons that victims want to meet the person that has harmed them in some way, but this desire to understand the ‘why’ is nearly always present.
This is where storytelling becomes integral to the restorative justice process. There really is no ‘why’ question that can be answered without first addressing the ‘what’ questions. Giving someone the chance to tell their version of what happened- in the days, weeks and even years leading up to the incident in question – is powerful. It’s empowering for offenders to tell their own story in their own way, and be seen as a person beyond this one event that has defined them to the victim. And it can be so healing for victims to hear that story. Importantly, it often answers those ‘why’ questions that victims have, without them even being asked.
Similarly, it’s difficult for offenders to really engage with the impact that their actions had without hearing the story of the victim. Hearing the minute details of what it was actually like to go through that allows the offender to mentally and emotionally put themselves in the other person’s shoes. Without that time spent on storytelling, talking about impacts can fall flat.
In this particular case, the young woman had told us that she wanted to know why this guy had smashed her window. She had already acknowledged that there was probably no reason he could give her that would satisfy her, but she wanted to ask him anyway. But when we got into the RJ conference and I listened to them talk to each other, I realised that it wasn’t really the ‘why’ that she was after. It was the ‘what’. The whole thing had happened so fast that she didn’t have a good mental picture of it. She had been replaying it over and over in her head since the night that it happened, but there were so many gaps in the story that she couldn’t move on.
So in the conference, we spent the bulk of our time on storytelling. We returned again and again to the story of that night until her understanding of what had happened was complete. She had been left with questions that only he could answer, so piecing together their memories of the night was crucial to helping her move forward. She wanted to know what he had used to smash the window, what colour his shirt had been, who had been driving the car, which way he drove off, why an armrest was left lying on the road afterwards. They were seemingly innocuous details, but with each answer I watched her relax a little more. By the end they were laughing together.
This is something I have grown to appreciate in my work as a facilitator: the power of storytelling as a collaboration. I’ve watched it help both the victim and the offender piece together a fuller story than they could ever have had on their own. And I’ve watched these small details build mutual empathy and bring great healing.