A Catalogue of Apologies, Appropriate or Otherwise

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap] walked away from Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate, now playing at CTG’s Mark Taper Forum, repeating a certain line in my head, the way you’d hum a song on the way out of a musical. To remember a single line from an epic three-act play chock full of witticisms, thoughtful-isms, and supremely verbal characters — some with page-long monologues — is a bit like exiting the Louvre and zeroing in on a single 8×10 portrait. But some things just stand out.

Here’s the line:

“‘I’m sorry’ is one of the oldest rituals we have. Did you know the root of ‘sorry’ is actually ‘sore?’”

Appropriate follows three grown siblings and their families as they return to their deceased father’s Arkansas plantation home to clear out the junk and sell the thing off. The emotional junk also needs clearing out: the grievances, secrets, and epiphanies of this Dysfunctional-with-a-capital-D family compose most of the clutter. By the end, so much blame has been cast that we lose track of who caused the most hurt, and who hurts the most.

The line above belongs to River, the twenty-something New Age fiancée of Frank, the youngest, troubled-est brother who has been AWOL from the family for years and who has come back to apologize. From the beginning, River is comic relief. The audience takes her lightly. The characters write her off. She spouts so much pseudo-wisdom that you’re floored when she drops the psuedo- and spouts the wisdom. (Jacobs-Jenkins pulls off this effect several times — this Kids-Say-the-Darndest-Things phenomenon, where someone you don’t expect to make sense forces you to reckon with the world’s senselessness.)

I do believe in apologies. I believe in the ritual, as River says. I think they sort of work magic — because how could an unoriginal pair of words change the world over and over again? It’s still crazy every time they do. It sucks when they don’t.

The youth pastor at my religious summer camp spoke about apology and forgiveness one day, when I was thirteenish, in that void between breakfast and lunch when counselors didn’t know what to do with us. I wasn’t particularly religious then, and neither was Father Steven’s lesson. He said forgiveness is a process, and there are steps, and when you skip the steps, it isn’t complete. First, the wronged party has to “bleed.” You have to say exactly what hurt you and how it felt, without sparing the truth for the sake of the apologizer’s comfort (that’s the part I remember best). Then the apologizer has to say sorry, having faced the other person’s wounds. And finally, the other person has to forgive, which is more of a commitment to forgive than an organic desire to forgive. Forgiveness doesn’t require forgetting, but it puts the period at the end of the sentence. The ritual ends.

Zarah Mahler, Robert Beitzel and Melora Hardin in "Appropriate." Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Zarah Mahler, Robert Beitzel and Melora Hardin in “Appropriate.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

I think about this every time I apologize. In fact, I think about apologies a lot. I’m interested in their semantics, and what makes them work, and, if we describe them in terms of working, is that gross and manipulative? Is an effective apology a selfish one, or is an apology an apology regardless of results? If someone apologizes, and no one forgives, did the tree even fall at all?

Until the 18th century, “apology” meant a “speech in one’s own defense,” according to etymonline.com. (I know — dictionary definitions in essays are groan-worthy —but Jacob-Jenkins opened the gates with River’s line about the etymology of “sorry.”) In modern terms, that’s the opposite of what we want from an apology, because today we define apology as a “frank expression of regret for wrong done” and we leave defense at the door. Isn’t that wild? That the original definition of the word is the precise thing you’d get in trouble for if you capitalized on it now?

A CTRL+F search of the Appropriate script reveals 41 occurrences of the word “sorry,” 23 of some form of “apologize,” and 13 of some version of “forgiveness.” The characters who crave apologies go hungry. The ones who apologize don’t find forgiveness on the other side. The siblings struggle with guilt on behalf of their dead father, who might have been (spoiler alert) a member of the KKK. And then there’s the fact that the whole story takes place on a plantation, in the American South, where the sins of a nation loom loud and unresolved like the sound of the cicadas just outside the screen door.

Amidst all this wreckage, River has the audacity to campaign for something as simple as the word “sorry.” Here’s the monologue that contains her line. She’s referring to her fiancée-with-a-past, and she’s speaking to Toni, her future sister-in-law, who’s presently withholding apologies from several other characters:

“…sometimes, the only way to move forward is with a little ritual. Even if you have to sort of cobble it together for yourself. We can’t go back and change the past—we can’t un-hurt each other, we can’t un-feel feelings—but we can ease the pain of the present by enacting the eternal rites. And sometimes those rites can be as big as seeing your childhood home go or as small as an apology. “I’m sorry” is one of the oldest rituals we have. Did you know the root of “sorry” is actually “sore?” When you’re saying “I’m sorry,” you’re literally saying “I sore.” We acknowledge the reality of each other’s suffering and, by the extension, the universality of suffering. We give our suffering up to the collective and we move on. Isn’t that beautiful?”

Is River right about apologies? I went searching, on the Internet and in my own little world of experience. Here’s a chaotic list of what I know (with unashamed commentary):

1.) In France, when you bump into someone on the train, you say, “Pardonnez-moi” — pardon me — instead of “Je suis désolée” — I’m sorry. There is different apology language for different levels of offense.

2.) According to Wikipedia, “my bad” arose from street basketball courts in the 1980s.

3.) The Twitter hashtag #sorry means, distinctly, the opposite of sorry.

4.) A neighbor opened a gate in front of me, blocking my path, and like a trained monkey triggered by the fact of a mistake and not the fault of a mistake, I said, “Sorry!” He was supposed to say sorry. We messed up the order.

5.) The other morning, my best friend told me she was upset I didn’t wake her up when she fell asleep on the couch because we had just watched a scary movie and agreed we wouldn’t sleep alone. I felt truly bad and apologized. She accepted it in this incomplete way that was more of a “let’s move on” than an “I forgive you,” and it sent me spiraling. I continued to apologize all morning, and then I began to confess my tiny sin so many times it got weird.

6.) Alcoholics Anonymous literature says: “We needn’t wallow in excessive remorse before those we have harmed.” Saying sorry over and over again doesn’t purge you of guilt, and neither does forgiveness. Maybe guilt has to be forgotten.

7.) National Sorry Day occurs annually in Australia to remember the abuse of the nation’s indigenous population. In this case, sorry is for remembering. Not forgetting.

8.) “I’m Sorry” laws refer to medical malpractice suits and hold that a medical professional’s apology or expression of sympathy to a patient can’t be used against her in court. Here, quite literally, an apology is not an admission of fault.

9.) One time I apologized to my boyfriend, and he asked me: “If you could do it differently now, would you?” I couldn’t honestly say I should have behaved differently, because I felt I had acted with good intentions, and how could I regret something I believed was good? Can you apologize for consequences, but not for the deed itself? This, he believed, was not an apology. (If I were to guess how he felt, it was probably like we were standing in the rain and I was refusing to open our umbrella until I explained to him how umbrellas worked.)

10.) My friend Ian says, “Sometimes you say sorry even if you don’t think what you did was wrong.”

11.) In his first term in office, President Barack Obama gave a series of speeches in foreign countries, earning criticism from his opponents who dubbed his trip an “Apology Tour.” A politifact.com article surveys experts about whether or not his speeches actually contain apologies, because we’re not all in agreement about what an apology is.

12.) Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney published a book shortly after called “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness,” implying that apologies are not always virtuous.

12.5.) Mitt Romney’s real first name is Willard.

13.) There’s a human out there named Lauren Bloom who authored a book called “Art of the Apology” — and beyond that, her job (for which she gets paid) is to advise people (and companies) on how to apologize. She says “the words ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘we’re sorry’ always have to be there.”

14.) The 110th Congress (2007/2008) passed a bill titled “An Apology for the Enslavement and Racial Segregation of African Americans.” It reads: “Resolved, That the House of Representatives… apologizes to African Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow.”

I could go on, but we’ve all got lives to live and people to forgive, so I’ll bring it home. In Appropriate, the biggest apology belongs to the youngest brother, Frank. He’s a recovering alcoholic. We watch him as he performs the Alcoholics Anonymous Steps 8 and 9, which call for making “direct amends” to persons harmed. The word “apologize” isn’t found in the AA principles, but Frank adds it anyway: “I am also here to apologize and forgive.” The audience waits to see if… well… if it works.

Missy Yager and Melora Hardin. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Missy Yager and Melora Hardin. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Brother Bo forgives him, but sister Toni snaps: “That apology isn’t yours!” Feeling as though she’s sacrificed the most and received the least from her family, Toni resents an apology that doesn’t take into account the extent of her specific suffering. Then Toni, having refused to apologize to her sister-in-law, Rachael, for a verbal tirade just moments before Frank’s apology, adds, in deadpan bitterness: “You know, maybe you can give my apology to Bo to give to Rachael, since she is apparently looking for one?”

Apologies don’t make much sense, after all. Sometimes they’re offensive. Sometimes their absence is offensive. Semantics are critical — the language of your apology matters — but sometimes an apology is nothing BUT semantics, and action is required. Saying I’m sorry is excruciatingly hard. And, saying I’m sorry is, in the scheme of things, so very easy.

Last week, my friend Ian (featured above in number 10) told me something else about apologies. He said that we all experience our own suffering so singularly and alone-ly that sometimes we just need a loved one to act as an “ambassador from the rest of the universe.” And when you love someone, you say sorry “on behalf of the whole world for how things are.” I like that line. I’ll remember that one.

Hayley Huntley

Hayley Huntley

Hayley Huntley is a writer and actor working in Los Angeles. She holds a master's degree in creative writing from the University of Southern California and has written for @ This Stage since its inaugural summer. She plays recurring characters on Comedy Central's "Review with Forrest MacNeil" and TVLand's "Lopez."