The Power of Forgiveness (Sammy Rangel)

Sammy Rangel giving a talk on forgiveness
Sammy Rangel sharing his story on the power of forgiveness at TEDx Danubia.

Sammy Rangel’s life gave him every reason to be angry, bitter and resentful. And for a long time, that’s exactly what he was. Physically and sexually abused as a child, Rangel ran away from home at age 11 and joined the Maniac Latin Disciples. He spent years engulfed in a life of violent crime, lengthy prison sentences, drug abuse, and promiscuity. Rangel took the first step toward transforming his life with the help of a prison drug rehabilitation program and soon after his release started working for a Safe Streets Outreach Program in Wisconsin. In 2011, he co-founded Life After Hate, a non-profit whose mission is to help people leave hate groups. He is the author of Fourbears: Myths of Forgiveness. According to its description on Amazon, the book is “a graphically illustrated guide from tortured child, to remorseless beast, to healing and change.”

I first heard Rangel’s Ted Talk over a year ago. It was powerful and inspired me to stop making excuses in life. There are a few mottos I like to repeat. One of them is, “If he can do it, I can do it, too.” Other people’s testimonies can sometimes help us recognize that many of our limitations are self-imposed. If Sammy Rangel, who was barely given a puncher’s chance, found the strength to move forward in life, what’s holding you and me back?

Recently, I stumbled across the same video and was surprised to find that there was no transcript or subtitles available. The talk is 22 minutes long and is a lot longer than most content of its kind on this site. That said, I was willing to spend hours transcribing it because I believe it is a message that can help people heal. Resentment, they say, is like drinking a poisoned cup and waiting for the other person to die. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is strength. It makes life better every single time.

Keep reading, and I’m confident you will get something out of Sammy’s testimony.

What I have learned is although the details of our lives may be different. The underlying process of getting stuck or suffering in our parts of life is the same for all of us. We do not have to be victims of our experiences or in the way that we tell our stories. But interestingly enough, stories are the only way out. And it is us who create those stories. We hold the power to change our stories and what they represent. I invite all of you to consider if it would serve you well to create a new story and a new path. And to please remember that the things that held you down will one day hold you up.

Sammy Rangel


Today what I’m going to share with you is a difficult story for me to talk about, and it may be difficult for you to hear. I was 41 years old when I discovered that my mother had killed my brother Renee. I was sitting in my office waiting to see the next patient. I had about 3 minutes before that appointment started. And when I read the article and this news came to me–it said that my mother had beaten my brother with a Tonka truck when he was 20 months old. At that time, that article was dated January 5 of 1969 and my mother would have been about 5 months pregnant with me. The email went on to say that my brother had died at 19 as a result of his injuries. He had permanent brain damage, partial paralysis down the side of his body, and the article said that he was losing consciousness and bleeding out of different places from his body. As I was sitting there, what I imagined myself–what I wanted to do, what I knew I was capable of, was getting up, taking off my suit coat, walking to my car, finding where I knew my mother would be, and taking her life.

At this stage in my life I had obviously overcome a lot of the abuse, a lot of the neglect and torture that she had put me through, but for some reason I was more angry at this than anything I had experienced previously. And it became quite apparent that at some point, my family had conspired to keep this secret from me over 41 years. It was just a twist of fate that I was able to discover this news. So I knew I had about those 3 minutes to pull myself together because I knew then, even though I wanted to, I was not going to get up, I was not going to drive toward where my mother was out, and I was not going to kill her. What I was going to do was pull myself together so that I could meet my responsibility to the next patient coming into my office. But in those 3 minutes I relived quite a bit of what she had done to me.

I was 3 years-old when my mother left me and my sister with her brother. And I can remember him motioning to me to come to him through a mirror that laid or rested on his bedroom doorway. When he was calling me in, I knew I didn’t want to go in there, but I felt powerless. And so I found myself next to the bed. He was naked. He was fat. He was ugly to me. And behind him I saw my sister crying. And even though I shouldn’t have understood what was happening, I did understand what was happening. And he pulled me on to the bed, and at that point my sister tried to defend me. She was just a couple years older than me at that time. And I remember him threatening her, that if she didn’t shut up that he would kill us both. And then he raped me. On the same night that he raped my sister.

Eventually we told my mother what had happened to us at the hands of her brother, and she did worse than nothing about it. She continued to make us show this man affection and respect. We had to spend time with him. We had to sit on his lap. We had to kiss him on the cheek when we greeted him. And this happened over many years. When I got that message, I realized that my mother had picked up with me where she had left off with my brother.

By the time I was 8 years old I had already tried to kill myself for the first time. Oftentimes, I wasn’t allowed to eat. I wasn’t allowed to sleep. I wasn’t allowed to go to the bathroom. And I had other siblings, and quite often the beatings I was taking could be happening right here and my siblings could be watching TV, or playing, or talking as if nothing was going on a few feet from them. The scars you see on my head are not from other men, are not from the streets. These are scars I [have] because as they would cut my head open with objects, as they were hitting me, I didn’t get to go to the hospital to have stitches or to get my broken bones fixed.

A part of the abuse was deep humiliation. A part of her cruelty included not being able to use the bathroom. And I would often have to walk around in my underwear in front of my siblings and family because she didn’t want me to be able to sneak food into my mouth or into the bathroom or into the basement when I went to go do chores. And so there was no hiding the fact that eventually if I needed to go to the bathroom and they wouldn’t let me, I would eventually sh*t and p*ss on myself. And if I did that, she would often make me take my underwear off and put them in my mouth, and then put her hand over my mouth so that I couldn’t throw-up, I couldn’t spit it out. And if I had the nerve to throw up, she would punish me even more.

I reached a turning point at 11, just after my birthday. I remember on this occasion I had snuck out of the room. I used to have to kneel next to her bed, and I remember crawling very quietly on the pattern on the floor that I discovered wouldn’t creek as loud as I snuck out in the middle of the night. And I found myself back in the room standing over her with a knife. And I was debating killing her, but there were 2 reasons that I remember that prevented that. One, I was afraid. I don’t think I was born to kill. And the other is I loved my mother deeply despite all that abuse, and I couldn’t bring myself to do that. And so I made a choice. I made a choice to leave. To run away. And that was a pretty big event because as a result of the abuse, I had no friends. I had no sleep-overs. I had no one in the community that I could go to. I was going into a completely unknown, unfamiliar, isolated space in the world.

And it didn’t take long. Within that first year, I was having sex. I was drinking. I was smoking. I was doing cocaine. I was in a gang. I was violent and aggressive, carrying weapons. I had dropped out of school and right before I turned 12, me and my 11-year old girlfriend buried our first child together. When we went to the hospital while she was in labor, they put me in a room by myself. And eventually a doctor opened the door and he rolled in a table, like a medical table, and on this table was a blue napkin that looked a lot like a tablecloth. And there was something underneath there. And then he left and he closed the door behind him. I had a feeling that I knew what was under there, but your mind can’t quite grasp it just yet. And eventually I got up and I lifted the paper towel and there was my dead son. He had been dead 2 days before she gave birth to him, and so his body was already starting to decompose. He was green and black and other colors that nobody should have to see on a baby. And his head was like a balloon filled water, it was just lop-sided and laying on the table. And there was no one there to talk to me about that or to process that or to make sense for me.

And I walked out of that hospital and I remember feeling less like a runaway and more like a throwaway. I felt that no one would be there to help me process or to understand my life or these experiences. And I remember moving from being scared to being angry. And I expressed that anger through violence. I escalated the type of violence. Before I was fighting but it was more defensive, now I’m choosing to be aggressive. Now I’m choosing to start fights. Initially when I went to the streets I remember there was a situation where a man asked me to participate in a murder. As he was killing someone he asked me to finish. And I couldn’t bring myself to that. But now after this situation, I felt like I wanted to kill, I felt like I wanted to hurt someone. And I remember me and my friend, we picked a homeless person–an innocent victim–and we beat him up and I tried to kill him that day. He had done nothing to us but it was my expression.

Eventually, that led me to going to prison as an adult at the age of 17 years old. And I was sent to prison not for the crime I actually committed but because of how terrible a teenager I was before I became an adult because the crime they sent me to prison for was usually considered a minor crime but technically it was enough to send me away. And I ended up in a maximum-security prison because I was fighting all the time, I was talking crap all the time. I had no problem cussing you out or trying to pick a fight. For the record, I wasn’t a very good fighter, but I was wiling to fight.

This prison that I walked into had a pretty hostile climate. I walked into racial tension between the whites and the blacks. And very soon after arriving there, a race riot kicked off. And it was the white against the blacks, and as a minority I had to side with the blacks if I was going to join the fighting. And we were quite outnumbered. There was about 10 of us willing to fight and about 30 of the men that we were going to be fighting. And we knew it was clear which side you were on. I myself had 2 knives in my hand, and the whites were armed with knives and spears and metal chairs and mop ringers–you name it, anything that could hurt or maim you. And the order was given to start fighting.

As we started fighting and we’re all trying to kill each other at this point, a guard came in much like on a cat-walk [a runway or ramp] like you see up here. And from above he started shooting and when he shot, everyone ran. But unfortunately my position–my escape was between the whites and the door out. And so my back was against the wall. And eventually the guard who came in to start shooting left again, and that signaled another round of fighting. And those white men came to get me–I’m doing my best to fend them off. An acquaintance–if you can call another person in prison such a thing–saw that I was isolated and cut off, and he joined the fight to help protect me and to help me find a way out. And at that point, that guard came back in and another shot rang out.

I looked to the side and I saw my friend who had joined was shot in his side–had a rather large hole. He was laying on the ground, the whites ran back to their cells. And I remember the guard yelling at me that if I were to touch him, he would shoot me too. But at this point, I had no fear, I had no sense of danger. My friend was screaming, and the ironic thing is that I have two knives in my hand, and I’m looking at a group of men who are armed. And yet they shot him because he was black. I grabbed my friend and I dragged him 150 cells to the other side of the building that I was in. And it was immediately apparent that the guards were not going to allow me or him to go to the hospital. No one in, no one out is what they said. And I asked several times and when it was clear that there were going to allow him to die, I started fighting with the guards. And then other people came out to help me, and we eventually took over that cell hall and took the keys from the guards and we forced our way to the hospital that was in the prison. By that time, my friend had already passed away.

I spent the next 28 months in segregation and isolation for that but because of my courage, or my role, in that prison riot. I started to gain more respect and more power through my gang. Almost immediately from the hall 28 months after spending that much time in the hall, I was released to society. I remember going in as a street punk, a kid who was just loud-mouthed and willing to fight to now I’m still loud-mouthed and willing to fight, but now I have power, now I have authority, and now I have embraced hate, not just anger. And when I embraced hate I was willing to kill for any reason. And I’ve always said, I had more animal in me than human at that time.

So it’s no surprise that just a few months later I was on my way back to prison in another state for even more violent crimes. As a gang leader at this point walking into that prison, I was able to take over and take control of prisons rather easily. I was able to have guards beat up or inmates beat up. I had access to resources that others would find hard to get. And eventually that led to me more encounters, and while I was in that prison system I beat up 4 more guards. And I spent approximately 5 years out of the 7 that I stayed there in segregation and I was transferred 17 times.

And what was ironic to me was that on one of these occasions, a man had said he felt he was in danger for his life because of my presence. And so they came and got me in the middle of the night and put me on the bus and were transferring me to another prison. And when I got to that prison and as I’m walking off, the security staff recognized me and then told the bus driver and their staff “This man cannot come here. We’re not equipped to take him here.” It is one thing to be locked up for many years, and it’s another years to be kicked out of the well completely. When a man is rejected even from prison, where is there left go? And so it was a deeply shaming and humiliating experience in many ways.

At some point, I was forced into a treatment. And at this point, I thought I could go into this treatment, outsmart myself, and outsmart the people there who were meant to give me help. I was willing to play the game because I was willing to fight for the carrot on the end of the stick, which was an earlier release than if I didn’t do the prison program. So I said, “I’ll go there, I’ll play this game.”

In the process of treatment, I remember my counselor asking me in front of my peers to talk about my mother. This struck me as very odd, I had not talked about my mother since I ran away from home, and had no desire to. And he pressed me, and when he asked me to do that, almost with the first word came the tears. I described all that abuse, all that neglect, all of the times she made me go to school smelling like urine, all of the times she had pulled patches out of my hair, all of the times she had left wide open gashes and cuts on my body. I had no problem expressing that.

And then he did something very strange. He took a chair, and he put it in front of me. And he told me to imagine that my mother was sitting in that chair. He said “What would you say to her if she was sitting here?” I was like I don’t want to talk to her. And he pressed me, and as I thought about what I would say, I remember saying “How could you do this to me? How could you do this to us? Why did you do these things?” But of course no answer came.

And then he pressed me further. He asked me to sit in the chair. I had no desire to sit in that chair. Did not want to empathize. Did not want to understand her perspective. I wanted to hate her and blame her. And I felt wholeheartedly justified in that stance, in that position, because much of what she had done was unforgivable if you asked me. But I did. I looked back at my chair, and I racked my brain what would she say. The only thing I could come up with was “I’m sorry.” Here I am in my late 20s still trying to see her as a human being underneath all that hate. Then he asked me to go back to my chair, and he asked me how I was feeling. And I expressed all those feelings of being a victim, being abandoned. Being brutalized, being unloved, unseen, invisible to her and to everyone else in the world.

And my turning point came with this next question: “Sammy, have you ever hurt anyone the way your mother has hurt you?” Since then my life has been one long apology. To my victims. To my siblings. To my children who I had abandoned at this point. Including my enemies that I felt had deserved whatever I did to them. And as you can see, getting to this point is still very difficult to talk about. I didn’t want to mess up my final point, so if you bear with me I’d like to read it to you to make sure that it comes across clear. I feel that this is the most important part of this message:

What I have learned is although the details of our lives may be different. The underlying process of getting stuck or suffering in our parts of life is the same for all of us. We do not have to be victims of our experiences or in the way that we tell our stories. But interestingly enough, stories are the only way out. And it is us who create those stories. We hold the power to change our stories and what they represent. I invite all of you to consider if it would serve you well to create a new story and a new path. And to please remember that the things that held you down will one day hold you up. Thank you.


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