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StoryCorps confession ignites debate over atonement, forgiveness

by Austin Cross and Alex Cohen | Take Two®

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Nearly 90 years ago, Joseph Linsk did something that he would come to regret for the rest of his life. He stole two dollars intended for his parent's cleaning lady, Pearl. At the time, Linsk was eight years old.

Linsk said that he needed the money to settle a schoolyard dispute, but his decision had much bigger consequences: Pearl was fired when she asked for the missing money. Deemed dishonest, she was subsequently blacklisted in the Atlantic City, New Jersey community, plunging her life and the life of her children into uncertainty.

Now 94 and "Doctor Linsk," his confession was recently featured in a StoryCorps recording that aired Friday on NPR's Morning Edition.

Hear the story here.

The three-minute account received a flurry of responses online: some chided Linsk for taking so long to attempt to right his wrong. Others praised the nonagenarian's decision to come forward. Many were quick to point out the story's underlying racial narrative: Linsk was white, Pearl was black and harmed by his actions.

These revelations raise the question: Is a confession 86 years later sufficient?

Why confess?

"My initial gut said to me that this is a gentleman who has carried this burden for a long time," says Rev. Najuma Smith-Pollard at USC's Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement. "It's possible that whatever he saw or experienced at eight was significant enough that it stayed with him all of these years."

Smith-Pollard says that running from consequences is common for eight-year-olds, similar to how confessions like Linsk's are common among the aging. She says that, as a minister, she often encounters people looking for closure in their final years.

"There is a human tendency to want to clear the air with some things," she says. "This was a man who carried the burden for a long time, and he was at a place now where he felt like he needed to clear this up."

Smith-Pollard says it's impossible to know what led Linsk to break his silence now, but she does have a theory as to why his tale struck such a chord with listeners:

"All of us have been wronged by somebody," Smith-Pollard says. "And at the end of the day, it's our human nature: we just want an apology and not one that came 80 years later."

Issues of race

Several commenters were quick to point out the racial themes present in Linsk's story.

Smith-Pollard says it's likely that race was a factor in Pearl's dismissal, but it probably wasn't on his mind at age eight.

"She didn't get her day in court, she didn't get justice, and so it was an act of racism the way it played out," Smith-Pollard says.

But, she adds, it's likely that wasn't on Linsk's mind at the time. "Was that his intention as an eight-year-old? It doesn't sound like it," she says.

She concedes, however, that it's hard to know why he didn't come forward sooner.

Atonement

Confessing his transgression may have helped take the burden off of Joseph Linsk, but the acknowledgment and apology are unlikely to undo the damage caused, Smith-Pollard says.

"Atonement is about forgiveness, but it's also about reparations," Smith Pollard says. "If you want to do something, then yes, this is a good time to find an organization, find a family, find a non-profit, find a church that — maybe in Pearl's honor — you do something that can be a benefit or a blessing to a family or a child. How about to a single African American woman trying to raise her children, because that's who was affected by his actions at eight..."

To listen to the full interview, click on the blue media player above.

(Answers have been edited for clarity.)

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