My Conversation With Sandy Hook Mom Scarlett Lewis About Her Lawsuit Against Alex Jones, Forgiveness, Compassion-In-Action, Choosing Love, Justice, Accountability & Standing Up To Bullies

On December 14, 2012, my friend Scarlett Lewis’s 6-year-old son Jesse was among the children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary. In the past years, I have followed the news of Scarlett’s lawsuit against Alex Jones, the InfoWars conspiracy theorist whose lies about some fake Sandy Hook shooting led people who believed him to stalk, torment, and try to physically harm Jesse’s heartbroken and grieving parents.

It is unthinkable to me to imagine that anyone would make up such lies and not only unapologetically promote them, but profit from them to the tune of millions of dollars. It is equally unthinkable to me that someone gullible or full of hate would believe those lies and then, accusing her of making up the death of her son, try to hurt my friend, who deserves nothing but our compassion.

I have known Scarlett since we met in Byron Bay, Australia in December of 2014. I was with her on December 14, 2014, the two-year anniversary of the day her 6 year old son Jesse was gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary. Scarlett was a grieving mother, looking out for her surviving son, Jesse’s brother JT. Scarlett and I had been invited to keynote at the same conference, and she was speaking about the act of forgiving the 20-year-old man who murdered her son. I remember wondering if I’d be able to do the same, praying I never had to go through the horrors Scarlett and her family have survived in order to figure out if I could.

At the time, I had been wrestling with trying to extend unconditional love to people who didn’t treat me very well, and it caused me to tolerate a lot of bullying, abuse, and emotional and sometimes physical violence, rather than standing up for myself or holding my abusers accountable for what was sometimes criminally abusive behavior. My tendency in 2014 was to forgive people who lacked remorse, weren’t sorry for their abusive behavior, and kept abusing me more after I forgave and forgave. Because the virtue of premature forgiveness was so ingrained in me from my mother’s interpretation of fundamentalist Christianity, I had spiritualized my so-called ability to “unconditionally love” the people who just kept hurting me, without realizing that my “unconditional love” was really just conflict avoidance in holy drag.

It took me years to wake up to the damage caused by my spiritual bypassing tendency to extend premature forgiveness in the name of unconditional love and start initiating healthy confrontation, standing up for myself and holding abusers accountable for their abusive behavior.

Scarlett and I have stayed in touch since we met and we just had Thai food in Connecticut a couple months ago, where we celebrated my book launch for Sacred Medicine and her astonishing accomplishments in the field of social and emotional learning in school systems through her non-profit The Choose Love Movement, which is based on the foundation of the three words Jesse had scrawled on a chalkboard the day he left the planet- nurturing, healing, love. Scarlett’s Choose Love work seeks to prevent the traumatic conditions that must have underpinned Jesse’s shooter’s massacre.

Justice Is Served

Now, after Alex Jones said that Sandy Hook didn’t happen, that the “Deep State” staged the whole shebang with actors to try to get gun rights taken away, and after his fans tried to run Scarlett off the road and required her to hire a bodyguard, a judge and jury have decided Alex Jones is guilty.  Sadly for Scarlett, there is a $750,000 cap on punitive damages in the state of Texas, so she will likely never see most of the $49 million Alex Jones now owes her. She did win a $4 million settlement that’s not related to punitive damages, so she will likely get that. But there’s some strange justice in thinking that, whatever money Scarlett actually gets, Alex Jones will have unwittingly funded her non-profit Choose Love work, which she has been doing on a shoestring for a decade.

Scarlett and I have been texting through this lawsuit and her stunning capacity to both hold Alex Jones accountable for his abusive and dishonest behavior but also to keep her heart open and extend forgiveness to her abusers has been awe inspiring. Her son Jesse had been a courageous hero, standing up to the bully who shot up Sandy Hook and saving the lives of nine of his classmates by sacrificing his own. Scarlett stood up to the bully too- and Goliath fell.

I asked how she felt after the judgment came in, and Scarlett texted, “I am strong, using everything I know to stay present and remind myself I’m safe. This is an important trial. Truth fosters trust. We need to trust one another in order to have a civil society. Jones breeds distrust and fear. I’m attempting to spread Love. His perpetuating the lie about Sandy Hook is not conducive to keeping our kids safe! Truth is important and I hope it ushers in a new era of compassion and love. The utter lack of caring and concern from Alex and his team was shocking. I do think this is the beginning of him realizing there are consequences to his actions. Love wins. One of the reporters asked me about the connection between truth and love. I said truth is required for trust. We need trust to have a civil society. We must have some amount of trust for each other in order for human connection. Connection is love.”

Holding Bullies Accountable Without Hate

It is no small thing to stand up to bullies and hold them accountable for their behavior without dehumanizing them or casting them out of the wholeness of humanity as monsters undeserving of dignity or regard. To hold the paradox of forgiving our abusers while also having the courage to hold them to account and take away some of their power to hurt the next victim is a brave, bold action. Certainly, I have no problem with those who say they should never have to forgive their abusers. Fine. Don’t forgive them if you want. But hate only harms the hater, and Scarlett has always been an advocate for forgiving our abusers as an act of self care.

In See No Stranger, Valarie Kaur writes, “No one should be asked to feel empathy or compassion for their oppressors. I have learned that we do not need to feel anything for our opponents at all in order to practice love. Love is labor that returns us to wonder- it is seeing another person’s humanity, even if they deny our own. We just have to choose to wonder about them…I do not owe my opponents my affection, warmth, or regard. But I do owe myself a chance to live in this world without the burden of hate. ‘I shall permit no man, no matter what his color might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him,’ said Booker T. Washington…I refuse to let anyone belittle my soul, or diminish my own expansive sense of self. The more I listen, the less I hate. The less I hate, the more I am free to choose actions that are controlled not by animosity but by wisdom. Laboring to love my opponents is how I love myself. This is not the stuff of saintliness. This is our birthright. Listening is also a strategic choice. The more I listen, the more I understand. I am persuaded that there is no such thing as monsters in this world, only human beings who are wounded. I start to gain critical information about how we can respond to their greed, insecurity, anxiety, and blindness in ways that hold them accountable and fight the institutions that empower them. Listening enables us to fight in smarter ways for justice- not only to remove bad actors from power but to change the cultures that radicalize them. Listening is how we succeed.”

Truth Creates Trust; Lies Erode Trust

Thank God there are people like Scarlett setting precedent with a case like this, showing the lying bullies and conspiracy theorists (and those who believe those lies) that there are consequences to spreading lies, profiting from propaganda, and for those influenced by conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, harming innocent people because you believe those lies. Lies like the ones Alex Jones spread- and lies spread by wellness influencers, disinformation-spouting doctors, and Covid conspiracy theorists- hurt people and lead to unnecessary disease, death, and disability. There is blood on the hands of the people spreading and believing lies these days, and it’s not okay to hurt innocent people who have done nothing to earn such viciousness. I hope other victims of these conspiracy theorists follow Scarlett’s lead and show lying influencers that there are consequences to their lies.

As I write this and Scarlett and I are texting about whether it’s okay for me to share our private texts (Scarlett said yes), Scarlett is preparing slides for a lecture in a California school today. She is giving a lecture about trust and truth, and how trust requires an agreed upon truth- one that is not subjective but factual.

Scarlett just asked me to add this. “I found my personal power in facing Alex Jones through having compassion for him. When I looked into his eyes, I saw only someone who lacked love. No one came to testify on his behalf. His wife was there despite protest. Greed belies an attempt to fill a vast void that can only be quenched by love. Lies are evidence of not even loving oneself. The truth (reality) is a choice that we make every day.”

What About Abusers Who Aren’t Sorry?

I texted, “When the abusing bully lacks all remorse, the rules are different in my morality. Some abusers lack any capacity to love and do not deserve our forgiveness. They deserve not to be dehumanized or cast out of the wholeness of humanity, but they don’t deserve our forgiveness. We have to just hold them accountable for their abuse and stop them so they don’t victimize the next person. Then, if they’re ever remorseful, the doorway to real forgiveness can open. At least that’s how I see it. You might see it differently, after all you’ve been through. Sure, we can have compassion for the abuser without giving our power away. We can keep our hearts open and understand that hurt people hurt people in a trauma-informed way. But we still need to let the legal system hold those people to account and show them that, at least in a sane culture, there are consequences to abusive, dishonest, lying, harming behaviors.”

Scarlett responded with “I said from the beginning that I forgive Adam Lanza [her son’s murderer.] I think he was beyond understanding the consequences of his behavior but I forgave not for him, but for myself. Forgiveness to me is cutting the cord that attaches me to pain. The practice of forgiveness has so many researched benefits including around 70% less anger. We know living with prolonged anger negatively impacts us physically, mentally and emotionally. I think compassion is on the other side of forgiveness, that’s why it’s the last character value in our formula for choosing love. Forgiveness starts with a choice and then becomes a process, and one that you might have to do every day, eventually enabling you to understand that hurt people hurt people and actually feel compassion for your abuser. That’s when you take your personal power back. That’s been my experience with Alex Jones and it’s taking me a few days to be able to put this in words. Compassion-in-action enables you to take your personal power back and gain control of the situation, circumstance, or interaction. Now you’re in control, not your abuser.”

When We Don’t Hold Abusers Accountable, We Enable The Abuser & Disable Ourselves

I had to type those last two sentences out for myself- to anchor them in. “Compassion-in-action enables you to take your personal power back and gain control of the situation, circumstance, or interaction. Now you’re in control, not your abuser.” Compassion not just for your abuser, but for yourself. From an IFS perspective, this is how we stand up for our parts- by having compassion for the parts of us that get abused and standing in Self to be the strong parent to those hurt parts, the way an adult might intervene between a bully and his prey in a schoolyard. The way I see it, Scarlett is standing in Self, taking compassion-in-action on behalf of her parts. And as I often feel in my friendship with Scarlett, I am in awe.

Scarlett texted, “I don’t think you need a physical trial to do that. I think you can have a trial in your mind. Find the abuser guilty of causing you pain, physically, mentally, or emotionally. The damages are dependent on how you choose to process the pain. Right Now. You want to award yourself a huge sum of love, forgiveness, personal power… Freedom! Freedom from pain. I’m speaking about an experience that happened to me as an adult. I know it’s incredibly more difficult coming from a painful childhood that impacts a forming brain.”

“What about justice?” I asked. Don’t we need the physical trial to keep someone from perpetrating more harm?

Scarlett said, “Absolutely bring them to justice. Adam Lanza, Jesse‘s murderer, killed himself. That was justice served. But I could have allowed him to continue to ruin my life by remaining a victim. Even if he was dead. I believed that it was my responsibility to hold Alex Jones accountable. At one point, with level four security and having had a car run off the road, I asked myself if it was worth my life. And I determined that it was indeed. In court, I spoke to the jury about forgiveness. I gave the example of rape. I said you can forgive your rapist, but you must hold them accountable, or they will go on to rape someone else. That is also self-love, and love for one another.”

I told Scarlett I hope she writes this as her next book. But for now, she’s preaching this at a school in my neck of the woods, while I’m on the East Coast in her neck of the woods. And hopefully one day, the settlement will make it through his InfoWars bankruptcy courts and Alex Jones will be funding her mission to teach kids how to choose love.

Regarding the Alex Jones situation, Scarlett concluded, “I related it back to the formula for choosing love: The courage to stand up and face the abuse and abuser, gratitude for the opportunity to do so, forgiveness for yourself, and compassion-in-action to take your personal power and control back. This is how we choose love.”

Letting Our Anger Restore Our Boundaries

I told Scarlett I wanted to share our text thread because I suspected we weren’t the only two people trying to wrestle with issues of forgiveness, compassion, justice, accountability, and standing up for ourselves without closing our hearts, looping blind rage, or fostering hate.  Karla McLaren says anger is the emotion that protects our boundaries, and that if we respond in a healthy way to that anger, the anger subsides and the next emotion flows in.

I think it’s okay to be outraged at a lot of what’s happening right now. But we don’t want to get paralyzed by anger, spun into a frenzy by it, or tempted to dehumanize those we are angry at. The minute we dehumanize anyone, we violate their boundaries and are out of integrity with ourselves.  Once we’ve dehumanized anyone, we can justify all number of horrific, illegal, immoral, and violent behaviors. But if we channel that anger, DO something to restore our boundaries, hold those who violate our boundaries to account, and do what we can to keep our hearts open as we do so, maybe…maybe…just maybe, we can all begin to heal.

Let us all keep Scarlett and her family in our thoughts and prayers. They have been through enough. So many have endured unthinkable tragedies. May we all be a little kinder than is necessary right now to those who have been harmed. And may we muster up the moxie to be a little fiercer than we might feel comfortable being when it comes to stopping the bullies and abusers.