Ruth Henderson, Ph.D.
Department of Liberal Studies

Metropolitan College
Boston University

What Others are Saying About Ruth Henderson's
The Mystery of Forgiveness

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “... an impressive study of the mystery of forgiveness...”

Harvard Law Professor Martha Minow:
"... beautiful and original insights about forgiveness and the stories are memorable, moving, and inspiring."

Author Grace Paley:
“An extraordinary book of HOPE...”


Ruth Henderson, Ph.D. teaches at Boston University through the Liberal Studies Department and through the Prison Education Program, where she has taught a seminar on forgiveness to incarcerated men in Massachusetts prisons for three semesters.  The seminar, which is an outgrowth of Dr. Henderson’s research, focuses on forgiveness in the aftermath of trauma.  She is now teaching The Experience of Forgiveness: Psychological, Sociological and Spiritual Perspectives on campus through BU’s Metropolitan College.
In the past six months, Ruth Henderson has twice presented her work in South Africa: in Cape Town, at the Memory, Narrative & Forgiveness conference hosted by the facilitators of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission; and in Johannesburg at the Alternatives to Violence Project’s international conference.  As part of her work in South Africa, Dr. Henderson facilitated a workshop on forgiveness for incarcerated men at Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town. 

Ruth Henderson’s research includes work in Germany and Israel.  Her focus is on members of a Jewish-German dialogue group in which children of holocaust survivors meet with children of Nazis to develop understanding and to find freedom and peace.  In this context, she is working with a former SS soldier, now a practicing Buddhist and peace activist for the past two decades.  
In addition to her work at Boston University, Dr. Henderson teaches creative writing at Endicott College and will be teaching her forgiveness course there for the first time this fall.

Ph.D. Narrative Studies
The Union Institute, 2003
Diss.:  The Mystery of Forgiveness:  Reflections and Stories about Forgiving in the Aftermath of Trauma
M.A. Arts Therapy
Lesley College, 1993
B.A. English
Boston University, 1988


Boston Globe Magazine

The Hardest Word
The Boston Globe Magazine | April 1, 2007

Since 2005, Ruth Henderson has taught a course about forgiveness. Her pupils are no ordinary students - they are convicts whose heinous crimes will never be forgotton. What they learn - and how they learn it - is a study in hope.
view full article online | download magazine pages as pdf file

Students learn to forgive in MET course
Daily Free Press | April 23, 2007
view full article online

Recent Publication

Proteus:  A Journal of Ideas

November 2007 Issue:  Reconciliation, Reparations, and Forgiveness

"Empathy and the Disturbing Paradox of Forgiveness" by Ruth Henderson
photo of Ruth Henderson and fellow Proteus contributor Charles Ogletree
Ruth Henderson with fellow Proteus contributor Charles Ogletree
Shippensburg Pensylvania, Nov 15, 2007

The Field of Narrative Studies

Narrative Studies is an interdisciplinary approach to narrative, focusing on the intersection of psychology and English language arts through story-telling—using both the oral tradition and the written text.  Narrative Studies explores the psychological dimensions of storytelling—how human beings make sense of their lives by telling their stories.  The value of narrative engagement is considered in the context of those employing story for the divergent purposes of history, religion, journalism, truth commissions, psychotherapy, self-help groups, and children’s fairy tales.  The use of narrative is investigated through the contrasting lenses of archetypal psychology (Jungian psychology) and post-modernist scholarship.  Narrative Studies also explores story-making as a mode of inquiry in qualitative research.

Conference Presentations

Abstract for Oral Presentation

Memory, Narrative & Forgiveness:
Reflecting on Ten Years of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Cape Town, South Africa, November 2006

Story Telling As Re-membering:  The Narrative Process
of a Researcher and “David," A Man who Forgave the Murderer of His Daughter

The crucial role that telling one’s story plays in the process of healing from trauma has become well known through the work of psychiatrist Judith Herman and others.  This presentation tells the story of “David,” a man who forgave the murderer of his 19 year old daughter “Ruth.”  After Ruth’s murder, David suffered from depression and sought remedies through counseling, group therapy and medication.  But these efforts did not help.  David’s turning point came by making contact with the man who killed his daughter and then going into prisons to work with other prisoners.  David has been working with incarcerated men ever since through the Quaker-inspired organization Alternatives to Violence Program. 

The presentation will highlight how David and I worked together in our interview process and the writing of his story.  Our work together points to the complexity of constructing a story that is a truthful version, if not the only possible version of the events.  David was, in essence, both “storying” himself and being “storied” by me.  Through our editorial process, the two versions were reconciled to create the final narrative.  Our narrative experience together also underscores the ethical issues involved in the storying process.  In addition, the presentation contains an audiotape component—a tape in which David discusses the challenges and healing epiphanies of his narrative experience with me.  I will then speak about my challenges and subsequent illuminations in interviewing and writing about David.  

David’s story highlights the critical role that the narrative process can play in coming to terms with trauma.  His experience of forgiving the murderer of his daughter points to forgiveness as key to freeing oneself from the cycle of violence and finding peace after traumatization.  The broader implications of David’s story will be explored--particularly, how narrative and forgiveness are inter-related, how these healing processes are being used in a variety of settings, and the impact they can have on a societal level.

In commenting on the implications for my research findings, I will discuss my work at Norfolk prison; specifically, the creation and implementation of an interdisciplinary seminar on forgiveness, which I teach through Boston University’s prison education program.  This seminar encourages inmate-students to engage their hearts and minds and functions as an integration of an academic seminar, a therapy workshop, and an interfaith spiritual community.  The forgiveness course includes guest speakers and David has spoken to the group in this context, helping the students move toward grace and new life.

Alternatives to Violence Project

International Conference Presentation
August, 2006 - Johannesburg, South Africa

Unexpected Bridges:
Former Prisoners Holding the Key to Social Health

  1. Brief Presentations
  • How do we manage recurring cycles of anger and transform them into patterns of forgiveness? We will think about this question in relation to four aspects of social healing: forgiveness, reconciliation, restorative justice, and the meaning of community. (Rodney Petersen, Ph.D.)
  • How does the idea of forgiveness shape my understanding of myself? We will think about this question in relation to ways in which the telling of our stories of our lives enables us to “re-story” them or find them in a larger context of meaning. (Ruth Henderson, Ph.D.)
  • How can society gain a perspective on former prisoners as social healers? And, how can former prisoners see themselves this way? Out of our experiences of being victims and perpetrators of harm we can find the tools for healing not only ourselves, but can be instruments for the healing of society (Raymond Helmick, S.J.,)
  • How can we forgive, even after defamation and false accusation have taken our lives down paths we would not have chosen? It is difficult, but we can forgive even those who have wrongfully accused us. (Dennis Maher)
  1. Panel Discussion with Presenters

Through personal stories and the ways in which we understand them we can find the means toward healing and wholeness in our personal lives. As we draw upon transformative power, we can become the means toward helping to develop transformative social attitudes and policy for our communities and our nation.

            Some of the topics we expect to discuss include the following: .

Do we forgive or forget?

How do I break out of a cycle of anger?

How do we move on when the past weighs upon us?

How does forgiveness relate to reconciliation?

Can I re-write my history?

What do you mean, the key to social health?

A workshop with story, powerpoint and opportunity for mutual reflection

with Dennis Maher via videotape (“After Innocence”); Fr. Raymond Helmick., SJ, Boston College via Video Tape ; Dr. Ruth Henderson (Boston University and Norfolk Prison); and Rev. Dr. Rodney Petersen, Director, Boston Theological Institute (

Research/Field Work

Ruth Henderson with Alternatives to Violence Project Director Jeremy Routledge at Pollsmoor Prison, Cape Town, South Africa.

My Approach to Research

My phenomenological research is a collaborative approach derived from the traditions of humanistic and transpersonal psychology.  Humanistic psychology seeks to recognize, protect, and strengthen the humanity of those people being studied.  Transpersonal psychology includes spirituality in its research and therapeutic approaches.  Since spirituality often plays an essential role in people’s healing and development, it is critical to recognize this fundamental aspect when researching human psychological experience.

The people whose lives I study in my research essentially become research collaborators (or co-researchers) because they make decisions about the process and format of the research.   This is the hallmark of my research approach. 

Both my teaching and my research are interdisciplinary because they draw upon:

  • Narrative and Language Arts (the subject matter of English departments)
  • Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychology (including Jungian psychology and existential-humanistic psychology)
  • Religious and Mythological Studies (Joseph Campbell, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu)


“Knowledge is important.But much more so is the use toward which it is put. This depends on the heart and mind of the one who uses it.”
-The Dalai Lama  

In order to both research and teach about a subject in its fuller dimensions, it is essential to explore a topic using a phenomenological approach.  The subject of forgiveness is a powerful example.  Forgiveness is not merely a theoretical idea and therefore cannot be explored simply as an abstract, philosophical matter. 

Academics in the field of Psychology have embraced the subject of forgiveness as a psychological experience for the past two decades. Forgiveness involves not just the mind, but the heart. In order to get a fuller understanding of forgiveness, it is necessary to include a searching, inner exploration to gain insight into the role emotions play in the process of forgiving.    Yet, it is still necessary to recognize that forgiveness is widely considered to be a spiritual phenomenon.  Indeed, the pioneering academic psychologists studying forgiveness were required to turn to theology (and spiritually oriented texts) when they began searching for studies on the subject.  Finally, the act of forgiving has an effect on others, which can include entire societies as we have seen in South Africa and the Tibetan world.   Thus, forgiveness is a sociological phenomenon as well.

Because forgiveness is many-faceted, it becomes necessary to investigate the subject in an interdisciplinary manner.  My forgiveness seminar The Experience of Forgiveness:  Psychological, Sociological and Spiritual Perspectives was designed from this premise. 

My teaching approach is highly integrated.  Central to my pedagogical philosophy is the value of experiential education.  Students learn best in the context of a supportive environment, engaging in work that is personally meaningful.  Here, the student is freed to explore the subject in an open, inquisitive manner.  In such an educational environment, their learning is deeply internalized, which enables applications of this new learning in both their professional and personal lives.


Currently Taught at Boston University Metropolitan College:

MET IS 423: The Experience of Forgiveness: Psychological, Sociological and Spiritual Perspectives

This seminar explores the psycho/social/spiritual dimensions of the individual’s experience of forgiveness. The forgiveness process is investigated through the theoretical work of psychologists such as Carl Jung and Robert Enright and spiritual/political leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Individual narratives by forgivers are considered and analyzed in relation to the frames provided by these researchers and political activists. Through readings, journals and group presentations, students will explore both the beneficial and problematic aspects of forgiving. Students will develop a warranted, personal position on forgiveness and its limitations in personal and social life.

Weds 6-9pm

For more information, contact 617 353-3000

Additional Courses Taught at Endicott College:

Images of Women

An investigation of the ways in which women are seen in the world today, this course draws its content from literature, speeches, advertising, and other forms of mass communication.  Study of traditional images of women in both eastern and western cultures contributes to an understanding of the origin and basis of gender roles.  Self-imaging and self-empowerment are significant components of this course.

Creative Writing: Fiction

Writing of short stories and one-act plays through which students will come to recognize the elements that combine to create clear, dramatic, specific and truthful works.  Writers will read their own works and the works of others to help find their own voice, theme and style.

Creative Writing: Poetry

A course designed to give students practice in writing poetry.  Its aim is to develop students’ skill and confidence in writing by studying selected examples of good writing. 

Boston University Prison Education Program

MET IS 501 The Nature of Forgiveness

(Prison Education Program)

This seminar explores the psycho/social/spiritual dimensions of the individual’s experience of forgiveness.  This includes a brief historical overview of forgiveness, beginning with the religious roots of the phenomena, followed by an examination of research by social scientists on the subject.  The forgiveness process is investigated through the work of research psychologists Robert Enright, Everett Worthington and archetypal psychologist Carl Jung.  Forgiveness is also considered through the work of the spiritual/political leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  Individual narratives by forgivers are viewed in relation to the frames provided by these activists and researchers.  Throughout the course, students will examine their own life narratives in relation to forgiveness and the experiential nature of this course offers students the opportunity to apply what they are learning.  The seminar culminates in a two part paper:  Part I focuses on the theoretical work of an individual researcher or activist.  Part II consists of a reflective essay that provides personal insights on the experience of forgiveness.

Past Workshops Taught

  • Barnard College, Columbia University: “Intro to Arts Therapy”                                                         
  • Department of Mental Health, Massachusetts Treatment Center,  Bridgewater, MA, "Finding Your Story."
  • Wellesley High School: “Working with Your Story”  Wellesley, Massachusetts
  • Pollsmoor Prison, Cape Town, South Africa:  Forgiveness Workshop



Forgiveness Final Papers From Bay State Correctional Facility

The following students’ papers from my prison forgiveness seminar at the Bay State Correctional Center, are written by students who participated in the course, which Boston Globe reporter Keith O’Brien wrote about in his article The Hardest Word.

The papers were written as the final assignment for the course. The assignment consisted of two parts: Part I consisted of a theoretical discussion of forgiveness that focused on a passage chosen by the student, which came from one of the three texts we studied in the course. Students were able to choose from Martin Luther King’s Strength to Love, Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness, or the Dalai Lama’s Ethics for a New Millennium. Part II of the final assignment consisted of the student’s personal reflections on forgiveness, which grew out of his experience in the course. Specifically, students were asked what they considered to be the moment of deepest learning, their “ah ha” experience that occurred in the course. In this seminar, students chose what personal forgiveness issue they would work on.

The Nature of Forgiveness, Final Paper by Doug
The Nature of Forgiveness, Final Paper by Joe Allen


What Others are Saying

Comments on Ruth Henderson’s

The Mystery of Forgiveness

Reflections and Stories about Forgiving
in the Aftermath of Trauma



Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “This is an impressive study of the mystery of forgiveness after trauma, persuasively argued. Those dealing with trauma victims would do well to read it. It is very insightful.”

Harvard Law Professor Martha Minow: [The Mystery of Forgiveness] “offers an original perspective on the dynamics between self and other in forgiveness… It includes many beautiful and original insights about forgiveness and the stories are memorable, moving, and inspiring." 

Author Grace Paley: “An extraordinary book of HOPE—the only hope we have, actually, after a terrifying century, to find and travel the roads to forgiveness (there’s more than one). Ruth Henderson tells us important stories—how to look that frightening enemy in the eye, how to receive his or her look of fear, guilt, forgiveness.”

Union Institute Professor Carol Barrett: “It is an ambitious work with marked potential to assist in the healing of both individuals and the world’s suffering in the wake of our largest atrocities. It is a searching inquiry likely to yield both individual edification and significant theoretical jostling.”


The Center for Narrative Studies
PO Box 425
Brookline, MA 02446

Recommended Links

Harvard University’s Pluralism Project:

Amnesty International:

Alternatives to Violence Project

American Friends Service Committee:

Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Work:

Narrative Psychology Research Index:

Association For Humanistic Psychology:

Association For Transpersonal Psychology:

Institute for Justice and Reconciliation:

Dalai Lama Professorship at Emory University:

The Carter Center:

The King Center, Atlanta:

The Peace Abbey:

Jung Institute of Boston:

International Expressive Arts Therapy Association:

American Art Therapy Association:

The Frost Place:

National Council For Teachers of English: