A Moral Decision That Does Not Make Life Easier

Plumbing the Bottomless Depths of Forgiveness

Mockingbird / 9.7.23

This essay appears in Issue 23 of The Mockingbird, now available to purchase.

The two should have never reconciled. Paula Cooper was a poor Black girl from an abusive family on the other side of town. At fifteen, she murdered Ruth Pelke, beloved grandmother of Bill Pelke, with a kitchen knife while burglarizing her house. Bill hadn’t given a second thought to Paula’s death sentence since the day it was handed down. The steel mill worker and Vietnam War veteran was too busy parenting kids with multiple women while managing a drinking problem and recovering from bankruptcy. His grandmother was one of the only family members who had shown him love as he struggled to live a decent life after the war. Even if Paula was one of the first youth in America to be handed the death penalty, Bill agreed that the brutality of her knife stabs merited it. Separated by race and class, by law and trespass, it was too much to expect these two would ever connect, much less reconcile.

That all changed when Bill, working the night shift on the mill crane, had a vision from God of his grandmother. This vision would transform not only the lives of Bill and Paula, but also thousands of similarly grieving hearts, to say nothing about the entire American legal landscape. Because of this vision, Paula would soon receive the first of hundreds of corresponding letters from Bill, which offered the teenage offender forgiveness, prayer, and advocacy. Thirty-five years later, the ripples of their reconciliation can still be felt in the legal, theological, and cultural conflicts of our time.

You can’t blame Alex Mar for stopping to document this true-to-life miracle. After an initial phone call with Bill Pelke, the writer devoted the next five years of her life to the story of this unlikely friendship and its far-reaching consequences. In the process, she recorded first-hand accounts of the freeing and offensive nature of mercy, as well as the complex way that faith and forgiveness mingle in the contexts of the courtroom and the prison cell. The result is Seventy Times Seven: A True Story of Murder and Mercy, a non-fiction portrait of the transformative power of forgiveness that doesn’t offer trite answers. Instead, Mar invites her readers to join her in witnessing a marvel and a miracle, as one unexpected act of forgiveness opens a deep well of possibility and hope to everyone who’s ever been trespassed against.

Mar is also the author of the widely lauded Witches of America and the director of the feature-length documentary American Mystic. Her writing has appeared in New York, Wired, The New York Times Book Review, and The Guardian, as well as The Best American Magazine Writing. She has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award in Feature Writing. It was a unique pleasure and joy to discuss her experience writing Seventy Times Seven and to learn from someone who has plumbed the depths of forgiveness and has yet to find its bottom.

— Bryan Jarrell, interviewer


Mockingbird: When we got in touch on Twitter, one of the first things I told you was, “I’m halfway through your book and I had to put it down because I was crying on the train.” I hope that wasn’t too much. They were cathartic tears; they weren’t sad tears.

Alex Mar: Oh, well, I’m glad. It’s interesting because even though I’ve published different kinds of work over the years, this is the first time I’ve had multiple people write me notes that the story had made them cry. I’ve done a couple of events where someone in the audience was in tears. I’m not saying that’s because of what an impressive writer I am — this is just a true story that is extremely moving. That’s how I felt and why I ended up work- ing on it for so many years.

M: In other projects, like Witches of America and American Mystic, you focused on other religions and spiritualities, like Paganism, Indigenous People’s spirituality, and satanism. Do you think Seventy Times Seven fits in with those projects, documenting an unusual form of spirituality or religion?

AM: My whole life I’ve been fascinated with organized religion, and more generally, belief systems. What are the deeply held beliefs that guide our lives, especially when we end up in an extreme situation? What do we turn to for guidance?

Sometimes it’s the faith we were born into and raised in. It could be the faith we converted into as an adult — a surprising discovery that resonated for you. For some people, it’s the letter of the law. Honestly, sometimes it could be as simple as something your mother said to you when you were a child that just remains in your mind.

To be less abstract, I’m especially interested in scenarios where people make what they feel is a moral decision that does not make their lives easier. It’s a decision that immediately sets them apart from friends, maybe even from their family, from the community. It doesn’t come with any kind of fringe benefits. It doesn’t make them an instant hero. Where does that kind of conviction come from?

Someone like Bill Pelke, when he made the decision to forgive the girl who killed his grandmother — he was very much alone. He was treated like a pariah. In the book, you see different people in his life wrestle with his decision for a long time. It was even related to the end of his marriage. A lot of the people who knew him were not comfortable with his life of activism.

That was as much a challenge to me as an individual, as I hope it is for readers.

M: This act of forgiveness is just so unpopular for so many people, and from so many angles, yet he wholeheartedly commits to it.

AM: That was riveting to explore. And honestly, when I first just stumbled upon Paula Cooper, I was researching a lot of violent crimes committed specifically by women. I was interested in understanding those patterns more. But when I stumbled upon her case — the forgiveness aspect of it — it really put its hooks into me.

One of the first things I did was track down Bill’s number. I gave him a call just to see if he’d be willing to talk a little bit more about that decision that he made decades earlier. And he was so open and willing to explore that topic with me in a personal way. That’s when I knew I needed to dive in.

I think forgiveness is an interesting theme throughout. Monica Foster, who’s one of the appellate attorneys for Paula, describes herself as a flaming atheist. She was raised Catholic in the Northeast, but when she was an adult, she rejected the faith of her childhood. And so I asked her point blank: “What is it then that motivates you to fight on behalf of so many convicted, absolutely guilty individuals? You’re fighting for mercy. What motivates that?” And she said, I don’t know. I just believe in mercy, and if I’m not fighting for them, who’s going to? That was simple for her, versus Bill, who’s fighting for mercy on Paula’s behalf, in great part driven by his interpretation of Christianity. And then you have someone like the prosecutor, Jack Crawford, who was raised Catholic, and went to Mass every Sunday, with his wife and his family. And despite the views of the Catholic Church on the death penalty, he had no problem going for death twenty-two times as a prosecutor. He did not see a significant contradiction there.

And Foster said to me at one point, I knew a lot of Catholics in my social circle who, if someone committed a heinous crime, wanted a tough approach — they wanted someone to go for the ultimate penalty. They weren’t letting their faith dictate their views of what constitutes justice. And that’s something we wrestle with today in this country, right? How do we design justice? And what values do we want to go into that equation? What will shape that conversation?

M: One of my favorite things about the book was how you were able to profile different sects of the Christian faith and how they view this situation in profoundly different ways. Have you received a lot of feedback from American Christians about the book? Any affirmations or pushback?

AM: On the book tour there were numerous people who, either during the Q&A session or afterwards, would approach me and identify themselves as Christian, or as the pastor of a local congregation, and say, “Here’s what is interesting about this topic of forgiveness. Here’s what I found so challenging about this story.” That was a new experience for me. I thought it was exciting, you know?

I was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for an event. A man during the Q&A identified himself as a pastor of a local Black congregation. And he said, “Even as a pastor, I don’t know if I’d be able to do what Bill Pelke did in this situation. I think this is a tremendous moral challenge to Christians in this country. In terms of this bigger question of: ‘Can you walk the walk or is it really just talk?’” That was his phrasing. I was moved that it inspired him to share in that way.

I haven’t heard any pushback. I’m aware that there are people in favor of capital punishment. And there are some people who may be in favor of capital punishment who are using their Christian faith to support that view.

I do want to say, too, that I really went out of my way to write this book in a literary style that is very readable. But also there’s a journalistic part, in the sense that I didn’t want to be perceived as taking sides or imposing a personal worldview or my own politics on the reader. I’m open to the idea that there maybe some readers who sided with the prosecutor after reading this. That’s a possibility.

M: I think forgiveness is an act of God — a bit of a miracle. In my mind, this was one of the things the book was about — the power and the miracle of forgiveness. And like you said, you’re not trying to compel readers to go one way or another. But when something like this happens, it’s so beautiful and powerful and fascinating.

AM: I completely agree. I’ve certainly thought a lot about forgiveness in family relationships, and I think that’s probably one of the more common contexts in which people are grappling with the question of “Are you capable of forgiving?”

Getting to know Paula Cooper’s sister, Rhonda, took years … I mean, it took about three years of working on the book before she was prepared to sit down and talk with me. She hadn’t talked to anyone about her sister and the crime and her experiences since appearing in court back in the 80s. And for good reason — it was a very traumatizing event for her as well. She also was made a pariah through an association with her sister, through her choice to stand by her. She was seen as almost an accomplice by the community, which was incredibly unfair. But the reason I bring this up is, you know, Bill had also attempted over the years to have a relationship with her, as an extension of his relationship with Paula, and Rhonda was extremely hesitant and suspicious of his intention. She didn’t feel comfortable. At a certain point, she felt like, “What is this forgiveness on his part? What does it really mean? He doesn’t know.” And I thought, there’s something valid there.

I brought this up to Bill, and there’s a mention of it in the book where he acknowledged to me: “You know what? I had never in my life spent a moment thinking about the life of a young Black girl living twenty minutes away in the same town. I never spent a moment imagining what the life of a kid in that neighborhood might be like.” It took this horrific tragedy to force him to ultimately think about what Paula’s child- hood had been like and various other factors.

For me, one of the most powerful things about working on this book was the sense that, when anyone in the community introduces something destructive, it’s a danger to all of us. We’re all vulnerable. There’s this idea that we all live carefully isolated lives in our own homes, and it’s all about your own family and maybe a few neighbors you know and feel comfortable with. But if there are people in your community suffering from abuse, from addiction, from whatever it is, there’s always a chance that you are going to feel some of that pain someday, right?

And so, you have this young girl — why does she snap on that spring afternoon in 1985? And Bill over the years ended up reflecting a lot on the living circumstances of other people in the community. Is there an opportunity to prevent the creation of another Paula Cooper?

All of these people with such disparate backgrounds were thrown together by this one act of violence — and also by Bill’s choice to forgive, which really changed how people viewed the case. That made a point of connection between multiple people whose lives otherwise would never have collided.

And there’s Father Vito, the Franciscan friar, who is sent from Rome to a death row in Indianapolis and then ends up teaming up with the appellate attorneys. And against all odds, despite just being kind of a regular, keep your head down, nine-to-five steel worker, Bill finds himself marching in the streets in rallies.

It made me think a lot about the potential that we all have to make a bold choice and to act in a way that might surprise ourselves. We have the potential to change course and impact the lives of others.

Eric Stefanski, Mercy For The Sinners, 2023. Acrylic on cotton bedsheet, 60 × 48 in.

M: If we loved our neighbor, how much of the hardship of the world would go away?

AM: [Laughs] That’s it! Thank you for simplifying it.

M: It’s funny, right? Jesus is like, “Love your neighbor,” and then one guy raises his hand out there, and he’s like, “Who exactly is my neighbor that I have to love?”

At the end of the book, you start off the acknowledgements by saying, “Bill Pelke was my friend and I miss him.” That was so touching that you had this time to develop a deep and meaningful friendship with him. Could you share some insight about that friendship?

AM: Oh absolutely. At the heart of this story, there were a handful of people whose experience I was trying to understand. I don’t even know how much time I spent traveling with Bill around Indiana, Texas, DC. And there were so many phone calls, so many drives with the tape recorder going. It took place over the course of five years.

Through the process of him sharing with me some of the toughest and lowest moments in his life, whether it was this terrible murder of his grandmother who he loved so dearly, or it was the dissolution of a marriage that had meant so much to him, or the challenge of going to visit a friend on death row, we were just spending time together and, you know, he would sing country songs in the car and we would stay up late with some of his colleagues in a pub. And they would tell stories of so many trips that they took [as a support group for murder victims family members], organizing trips together, where they had stood on the steps of the Supreme Court and been arrested together, and so on. He and his closest band of friends and colleagues had a great sense of humor about the challenges of that kind of work. Because I think you need to develop that in order to keep up that energy and that heart to keep going, right?

M: And to stay sane.

AM: And to stay sane! And it was totally infectious. We really came to see each other as friends, and I really treasure that experience.

Monica Foster was someone else I got to know well and had such incredible talks with. She was only a handful of years older than Paula herself when she was assigned to the case. But you know, very early on it became much more than business for her. Her heart went out to this teenage girl on death row. It was a revelation for me because I had never in my life given thought to the toll that capital cases have on the attorneys involved. They develop a relationship with their client, who could be executed at the end of the day. There’s this persistent feeling that there’s something you neglected to do on their behalf…and to sustain that kind of work for decades. I have enormous respect for that. It made my job working on a difficult book seem a lot easier — if she could handle that, I could sit down at my laptop and hammer it out.

M: I figure I owe you a quick explanation. The part of the book that I wept about was maybe not the part that other people would weep at: It was the scene where Bill has his vision.

Maybe I’m off on this, but I’d love to hear your feedback. He could easily see his grandmother forgiving Paula Cooper, so by extension, if she could forgive Paula Cooper, maybe she could forgive him and his sort of black sheep lifestyle? That’s the part of the book that made me weep, because I recognized myself and many of my peers in that moment. This call and clarity about forgiveness and absolution.

I wonder if you think there’s a link between people experiencing forgiveness and their willingness to forgive others. I wonder if there’s something about that connection where Bill sort of sees himself as forgiven so he can extend that to other people? And whether that’s a pattern that you’ve noticed in your own life, or just in researching the book?

AM: That is an interesting question. You know, between Bill and several other murder victims family members who I got to know, I was left with the impression that having forgiven someone who had wronged them so deeply made them far more capable of taking that view in a lot of other extreme cases that came up later. It seemed like once they broke through that barrier for themselves, they were able to take a merciful or compassionate view in response to any number of stories that they encountered.

Your question makes me look back a little differently right now at one of the painful ironies in my research: I don’t know if I ever saw a correlation between being willing to forgive someone who would take the life of your loved ones and having the ability to forgive yourself. There were several people I met who probably are, I think, incredibly tough on themselves in spite of the fact that they were willing to forgive others in an extreme circumstance. There’s something so complex about the human spirit — that you can take that kind of leap and not necessarily be kinder to yourself.

M: I’ve heard you say in other interviews that writing the book made you think about things differently, that you’re still sort of decompressing, that you haven’t really figured out what it means yet. Is that still the case for you?

AM: Working on this project only deepens my sense of how complex the act of forgiveness is, and how powerful, and how different it is for different people in different situations. I don’t want to presume that I could somehow predict my response in the face of a terrible personal tragedy. And I pray that I never have to find that out about myself.

Someone like Bill Pelke and the murder victim’s family members — it took them a lot of time and personal processing to not just forgive in concept, but to release it, to feel it deep inside them. To feel that what they were saying was real. That came up repeatedly, that it was a complex extended process. For that reason, I shy away from making any simple statements.

I do feel, more than ever, that in order for our criminal justice system to get closer to some kind of justice, we need a lot more room. We need to insert a lot more room into the process for people to acknowledge that there is a family on either side, that there are full human beings on either side of the aisle in any courtroom for any case and regardless of what kinds of emotions you may have towards the defendant. They’re not standing there alone, and there’s a much bigger picture that requires us to have empathy.

The idea of being tough on crime has done a lot of damage, because it’s such a winning slogan, and it really works when people campaign for office. But it has really shut down the process of imagining ourselves towards a safer community. A lot of that process, I believe, has to do with focusing on our common humanity.


Corrigendum: The print version of the magazine will refer to Mar’s previous history profiling “fairy Paganism.” This was a homophonic error by the interviewer in reference to the specific Feri tradition within Paganism. In consultation with the author, we have changed the reference to ‘Paganism’ in the digital version of the article to better describe Mar’s work. 

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2 responses to “A Moral Decision That Does Not Make Life Easier”

  1. Jason Thompson says:

    This part…

    “Working on this project only deepens my sense of how complex the act of forgiveness is, and how powerful, and how different it is for different people in different situations. I don’t want to presume that I could somehow predict my response in the face of a terrible personal tragedy. And I pray that I never have to find that out about myself.
    Someone like Bill Pelke and the Murder Victim’s Family Members — it took them a lot of time and personal processing to not just forgive in concept, but to release it, to feel it deep inside them. To feel that what they were saying was real. That came up repeatedly, that it was a complex extended process. For that reason, I shy away from making any simple statements.”

  2. Elena says:

    Thank you for the article!! I would love to translate this article into russian and share it on a social network. I am sure this will help lots of russian speaking people.

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