Scott Jones on Forgiveness

Ten years ago, choral conductor Scott Jones was stabbed outside a bar in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, and left paralyzed. His story received extensive media attention when he publicly forgave his attacker, and was featured in the 2018 documentary Love, Scott. Opening next week at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, the play I Forgive You, which he wrote in collaboration with Robert Chafe and the theatrical production company Artistic Fraud, revisits this experience and includes Jones conducting a children’s choir live on stage. Akimbo spoke to him about the genesis of the work and its impact on audiences as well as himself.

In various ways, I’ll continue telling stories rooted in my attack, maybe not as a directly rooted, but by abstraction. The motivation here is a huge amount of grief, a huge amount of trauma and pain, a huge iceberg of residual PTSD experiences that I need to sift through. We’re nearing the ten-year anniversary of what happened and I’m still very much in need of that.

The play I Forgive You has been a four-year process leading up to the premiere in Saint John’s in August 2022 at the Arts and Culture Center there. After the attack, it started out as this thing to express and help with healing. We sang in the cafeteria of the Nova Scotia Rehab Center and it was beautiful. Then it turned into a choir and became bigger than just one person. I was approached by people from Artistic Fraud, and they were interested in telling the story. I was also conceptualizing a play and we kind of met in the middle and combined ideas. It’s very much rooted in my life and my story. Then it grew into something bigger than that.

I’m having a hard time with the word “truthful” lately in my life. What is truth? Even the most objective truths are false sometimes. But this way of telling my story feels the most truthful. That’s a line in the play, actually. “It’s subjective and also truthful.” Those two things can co-exist, even though for so long we’ve thought otherwise. I Forgive You is verbatim theater like The Laramie Project. We did interviews. Robert Chase the co-writer and I talked at length about all these different topics, and then distilled it down into a narrative. We didn’t really know what it was going to be about. We knew it was going to be about toxic masculinity, then the material lead us to the realization this is about forgiveness.

The documentary Love, Scott was very much about the initial years, and I Forgive You is a story with a more nuanced view because I’ve lived my life longer with the ramifications of what happened that night. It’s very much theater and, as such, it’s ephemeral and that’s what makes it so powerful. It’s ephemeral but it’s alive. That’s the nature of ephemeral things: they’re alive and then they die. The energy in the room changes every night. The severity and the gravity and the dark and light and the traumatic and sometimes horrific nature of the material is juxtaposed with the youth in the choir. We want this play to affect change so that their lives are better. Those things put together makes it probably the most powerful artistic experience I’ve ever had in my life.

The world is not built for disabled folks, so we always hear about the stories that are tragic. After the attack, I acquired many disabilities, not just paralysis, but chronic pain and mental health issues. We’re starting to recognize struggles with mental health as a disability and rightfully so. It’s a daily struggle in my life. You can’t move on from the loss of a child, can you? You can’t move on from grief this size. These are very different griefs, but similar in their profundity. The loss of a child is up there with acquired disability of this nature. There’s no moving on. There’s just moving through and there may never be another side of through before you die. I’m starting to accept that.

Where do you send that anger and frustration? For me, it was first of all forgiveness. That’s the start of the journey, but it’s not something that can be reduced to a single moment. It’s a commitment, and I didn’t necessarily know that. I thought it was just a one-time thing. The first five months after the attack I found a spot to target my rage and my anger. Why did this happen? I could point my finger at my attacker and say, “You did it.” But why did he do it? It’s not like he was born with that urge.

While I was at rehab I’d see folks reject the wheelchair with such potency, not realizing that it’s actually the thing that will help them experience the world more and combat the barriers that are faced by disabled folks. It allows you to experience as much of life outside your bed as possible. Some people, very few, would end up walking out of rehab. They would have a spinal cord injury and be paralyzed and then do hard work and get to the point where they could walk and that’s amazing. That’s really hard to witness. There was a time when I spent hours every day trying to send a signal to my toes. Then I just realized: it’s not defeat to surrender to your circumstance and accept. But also still believe that miracles can happen.

There’s a line in the play: “You’re going to begin to understand the difference between hope and naive optimism.” I believe I am a hopeful person and I believe in hope. Using a wheelchair, for me, was a moment of getting on with my life. Along with directing my rage at society, I eventually split that rage up into disability advocacy. I realized I’m also fucking angry that the majority gets to decide how the world is built and it’s usually a decision that excludes me. That didn’t dawn of me right away. For me at the time, those first two, three years, I was just in shock and surviving, and focused on one thing: I started an anti-homophobia and transphobia campaign, and started a choir and did all these things to use the rage. That’s the beginning of me working through my own grief to create positive change in society.

People know about me from what’s online. It’s published in stories and news reports, and that was reduced from what was already a reduced view of things from my end. With time, you realize the repercussions and how they vibrate through your life and your family. And that’s really what this is all touching on. That notion that it’s not a moving on kind of thing, it’s a moving through and it’s a commitment to move through.

[This article was distilled from an interview with the artist.]