Marietta Jaeger Lane knows what it is to be consumed by rage and to want revenge.
In the summer of 1973, her youngest of five children, Susie, was kidnapped on a family camping trip in Three Forks, Mont.
"I was just ravaged with hatred and a desire for revenge," she says. "I was seething."
Looking back, she remembers feeling as though she could have killed the man who had taken away her 7-year-old "with my bare hands and a smile on my face."
A Commitment to Forgive
Then Marietta made a decision.
"I knew that hatred wasn't healthy, that it would obsess and consume me," she says. "Were I to give in to that kind of mindset, it would be my undoing. It's not to say that it was an easy realization, because I felt absolutely justified. I had every right to feel how I did."
But as a woman who was raised a Roman Catholic, Marietta says, "I was called to forgive my enemies — not to kill them. So I made the commitment to work toward an attitude of forgiveness. I promised to cooperate with God in whatever he needed to do to help move my heart from fury to forgiveness."
The resolution she made was more than a demonstration of faith and a means to preserve her mental health.
Marietta also hoped that letting go of her rage would benefit her little girl. "If he had Susie, I wanted him to be good to her," she says. "I tried to think positive thoughts for him. And they were simple unsophisticated things: Let the weather be good for whatever he's doing today. If he's traveling, may he not have car trouble."
One Year Later
Exactly one year to the minute after he had taken Susie from the Jaeger's tent, the kidnapper called. Marietta spoke to him with compassion and patience.
"You know I've been praying for you ever since you took her," she told the man on the phone. She asked him how they might help him and what they could do — both for him and also to be able to see their little girl again.
"When he called, I genuinely wanted to reach him," Marietta says. "I don't think he was expecting that. And I really meant it with all my heart."
Her concern and compassion kept the kidnapper on the phone for more than an hour, and though the police trace had failed, the long conversation provided them with ample clues to track him down.
But investigators could not link the man, David Meirhoffer, to the crime. They asked Marietta to go to Montana to confront him.
"We were totally convinced that the only thing that would crack him would be a strong female confronting him with the crime that he committed," says Patrick Mullany, a psychologist who was called on the case.
So Marietta met Meirhoffer face to face. She says she knew he was the man who had taken Susie.
She was right. Meirhoffer confessed and described kidnapping, molesting and choking Susie to death. He also admitted that he had committed three other murders. After his confession, Meirhoffer was taken back to his cell by police. There, he hanged himself.
Having stared him in the eyes, Marietta forgave her daughter's murderer. She also reached out to Meirhoffer's mother. In the years since, each has accompanied the other to their child's grave.
"Together we were able to grieve as mothers who had lost their children," says Marietta. "I hoped that it would help her to know that I had forgiven him."
Turning Pain Into Activism
Twenty-seven years later, Marietta works with family members of murder victims and lectures at universities, schools and churches on forgiveness and reconciliation. "Those victims who will not relinquish a vindictive mindset end up giving the offender another victim — themselves," she says.
Marietta is also an advocate against the death penalty. "I'm an advocate of nonviolence — in the streets, in the home or in the death chambers," she says. "We need to find a better way to solve our problems. We need to aspire to a higher moral principle."
Bringing her activism close to home, she says, "I would not honor the goodness and sweetness and beauty of my little girl's life by killing someone in her name. She's worthy of a more honorable memorial than a cold-blooded, state-sanctioned killing of a defenseless person — however deserving of death that person may be."