Our common fate, Longfellow once wrote, is that "into each life some rain must fall." But some people have to weather heavier deluges than others, and being a celebrity is no guarantee against that. In a recent Vanity Fair interview, Kelsey Grammer of Cheers and Frasier fame spoke recently about a history of more family tragedy than anyone should have to bear, and how forgiveness – for himself and others – has enabled him to cope.
The grandfather who raised him died of cancer when Grammer was 11. Two years later his estranged father was murdered. His two half-brothers died in a scuba-diving accident. Most disturbingly, his sister Karen was 18 years old when she was abducted, raped repeatedly, and brutally murdered in Colorado by thrill killer Freddie Glenn and accomplices in 1975.
When Glenn was finally eligible for parole in 2009, Grammer wrote a powerful letter to the parole board (part of which he struggled to read aloud to Oprah Winfrey in an emotional 2012 interview) describing Glenn as a butcher and a monster, and eulogizing Karen, whose loss had devastated the surviving Grammers. “I was her big brother,” he wrote. “I was supposed to protect her—I could not. I’ve never gotten over it. I was supposed to save her. I could not. It very nearly destroyed me.”
He went on in the letter to describe how Glenn had further victimized not just those he killed but their families as well. Then he concluded with his deeply considered reflections on forgiveness:
I am a man of faith and my faith teaches me that I must forgive. And so I do. I forgive this man for what he has done. Forgiveness allows me to live my life. It allows me to love my children and my wife and enjoy the days I have left with them. But I can never escape the horror of what happened to my sister. I can never accept the notion that he can pay for that nightmare with anything less than his life. We all make choices. He made his.
Glenn’s release was denied.
The Vanity Fair interviewer pointed out that there was no way Kelsey could have been expected to protect his sister, who lived in another state at the time. “It’s not rational,” the actor answered. “But it happens anyway. I know a lot of people who’ve lost their siblings and blame themselves.” At the height of his success, Grammer said, when he wrestled with alcohol and cocaine addiction, “That was the time when I could not forgive myself for my sister’s death.” It was many years before he could begin to rid himself of that burden.
Last year Grammer again successfully opposed another appeal from Glenn, although he was convinced for the first time of the killer’s sincere contrition. “I accept that you actually live with remorse every day of your life, but I live with tragedy every day of mine,” Grammer told him via video during the hearing. “I accept your apology. I forgive you. However, I cannot give your release my endorsement. To give that a blessing would be a betrayal of my sister’s life.”
Grammer does see his own life as obviously blessed in other ways, and he has “learned to soldier on” despite the staggering personal losses. “Every one of us is going to experience some terrible loss,” he concluded in the Vanity Fair interview. “I just got a big dose. For every story you hear that’s tragic, there’s another that’s equally tragic or more so. I think you come to look at it as part of life.”
As all of us who have wrestled with it know, forgiveness is no easy process, especially when the trespasses against us are as traumatic as the murder of a loved one; it is a wrenching evolution that can sometimes feel more painful than the wound we suffered, as the spiritual writer Marianne Williamson says. Forgiving oneself is often the most difficult step of all. Kelsey Grammer is living proof of the demands it places on one’s body and soul to commit to that evolution. But the alternative is a living death.
Now 60, Grammer is happily married to a woman named Kayte Walsh, with whom he has two children (he has six in all). “This lovely young woman,” he says, “lit up my world and changed my heart, which was a bit calloused and hardened against a lot of things. And we are good, and I feel young and alive.” I think he has earned that.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/20/15)