John Ramsey on surviving JonBenet tragedy & finding faith

Family photo of JonBenet Ramsey and her father, courtesy of John Ramsey.In Part 1 of our coverage of John Ramsey’s new memoir, The Other Side of Suffering, we explain why this book is valuable for individuals, small groups and congregations. TODAY, in Part 2, we welcome John Ramsey for an interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.


DAVID: You survived a tidal wave of media that tried to convict you and your wife Patsy. Now, years later, there is no question: The suspicions of you were tragically misguided. But does everyone know this news? Do you still feel you’re living under a cloud?

JOHN: There’s still a bit of a cloud that I don’t think will ever go away—even if the killer is caught and convicted and imprisoned. There always will be an element of people who believe we’re guilty. The Bible talks about dealing with people like that who are fools and says we should just steer clear of them. That’s what I try to do. But it’s there sometimes. Just the other day, I remember looking into the face of a stranger I encountered and thinking: What does this person think of me? Are they coming with suspicion? I remember from marketing, years ago, that companies can do product surveys even on great products and they will get down to where maybe 3 percent of respondents still say that product is junk. The truth is: That’s as good as it gets. The haters are always out there.

DAVID: In your book, you say that you discovered your faith was “immature.” From all the external evidence, you looked like a guy who was active in the church. But you discovered, in the crisis, that your faith was inadequate. Tell us about that realization.

Beth, John and Patsy Ramsey at a Kappa Alpha Theta Parents Weekend for Beth in 1988, courtesy John Ramsey.JOHN: I was a Christian like I was a Nebraskan, just because I was born in Nebraska. I was born in a Christian family and I assumed that’s what I was. I never really challenged it or gave it much thought. I went to church on Sundays just like you’re supposed to mow your yard once a week. I was a cultural Christian.

I would meet people who had a different kind of Christian experience. They might say: “On July 3, 1998, a bolt of lightning hit and I was a Christian at that moment.” But, that had never happened to me.

The first major crisis in my faith was the death of Beth in that car accident and I found myself saying: This isn’t supposed to happen! There is no God! Beth was a beautiful child! But, over time, this challenged me to ask: So, who is God? As a result of that and our other experiences, I eventually spent years really studying the Bible. A good friend taught me how to study the Bible and I study it to this day.

I still have never had a lightning bolt moment. I do know that I have challenged the potential of my faith and my faith has held up. My faith grew. Patsy helped me. Friends helped me. I read tons of books and all of this went from my head to my heart. I reached a point where I didn’t feel I had to prove or disprove anything, anymore. No lightning bolt, but I do find myself appreciating C.S. Lewis’s experience. He kept growing and, at some point, realized that he had crossed the line into a genuine faith. That’s how it happened to me.


CLICK the book cover to jump to the Amazon page.DAVID: One reason I urge people to read your book is the process you just summarized. You found yourself caught in the hellish experience of losing a child, when Beth died in that crash. You railed against God. You raged against the injustice of the tragedy. In fact, lots of people pass through those experiences every year, sad to say. I know this because we publish the Rev. Rodger Murchison’s Guide for Grief. Rodger is a top scholar in this field and it’s very helpful to read his wise advice about such cases. But, it’s also helpful to read your first-person memoir. So, please, tell us a little more about this journey. You write about the importance of C.S. Lewis in your book. How did you start with Lewis?

JOHN: One of the first books I read was Mere Christianity, because it appealed to my logical mind. Lewis went through his explanation of why he believes that God is real and Jesus is who he said he was. That had a big impact on me. I realized that Lewis obviously is a very smart guy, and he helped me to deal with the logical side of my brain in understanding the complexity of these questions.

DAVID: You share a number of experiences with Lewis. Perhaps the most haunting is that your wife and Lewis’s wife Joy both had life-threatening cancer, followed by some years of remission, then eventually a terminal resurgence of the cancer. You’ve found help in Lewis’s A Grief Observed, his reflections on losing Joy. In a way, your book is your own Grief Observed, a wonderful tribute to Beth, to JonBenet, to Patsy—and a way to help other suffering people.

JOHN: Yes, I read Lewis’ book on grief, because he asks the questions we all ask: Why? Why did this happen? There is no answer of course. Nobody has gotten a final answer on this, but there is a lot of wisdom in A Grief Observed about how to survive these experiences. One that I found to be true myself and that I mention in my book is: It’s important to have people around you in your grief, but we do wish that people wouldn’t talk so much. Lewis found that to be true. I did, too. If you are visiting or ministering to someone in grief, you should understand this. You don’t need to say wise and consoling things. You just need to be around the person.

DAVID: We published an interview with Ed Dobson, who is dying of ALS and using his final energies to counsel people about these issues. Ed has this terrific line about visiting people in times of crisis: “Show up—and shut up.” Ed says that, if you listen more than you talk, you’ll soon learn what you really can do to help the person. But, most of us walk through the door trying to spill out all the wisdom we can summon. It’s a natural instinct.

JOHN: That Ed Dobson line is good! I like that: Show up—and shut up. The other problem with feeling you have to say something wise is that most of us can’t think of anything good to say. Even before I was on the receiving end of people’s compassion, I remember hearing that friends were struggling or had experienced a death in the family. I felt that I should go and say something, but I didn’t know what to say so I would try to avoid it. What you can do is go and be with the person. You don’t have to say anything.


DAVID: I know from our readership that Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift of the Sea remains a popular classic for many people. She is quoted in your book as well. You must have thought about the Lindberghs a lot through the years.

JOHN: Yes, that’s true. The Lindberghs did find themselves under such an intense public eye! He tried to excuse himself from it and to stay away as best he could, but they couldn’t escape it. One difference in our experiences is that the investigators in the Lindbergh case took advantage of outside resources. That stood in stark contrast with what we experienced from the Boulder police. They refused help from outside and that became one of the problems in our case.

DAVID: I was also thinking about Anne Morrow Lindbergh because of her spiritual strength in their marriage. In your book, you describe Patsy as the initial source of the strongest faith in your household. In reading your book, I actually had an advantage, because I’m also serving as the overall editor working with Suzy Farbman on her new memoir. Suzy is a longtime journalist and Godsigns is her book about surviving cancer with faith and friends. One of the most compassionate friends in Suzy’s recovery was Patsy. So, when I opened your book, John, I already knew that Patsy was an amazing woman of faith. Am I describing Patsy accurately for readers?

JOHN: Yes, that is true. This wasn’t apparent to me when we first dated and got married, but she had been further along in her journey of faith than I was. I didn’t think much about these things until everything was derailed in our lives after Beth’s death. In my mind, I had always been a member of God’s club and that standing membership was supposed to cover me from difficulties like this. Then, suddenly, through our suffering, my eyes were opened to all the people who are suffering in this world. And, in searching for faith, yes, Patsy was a really compassionate person and was further along in her journey than I was. I didn’t have her compassion. That all changed partly through Patsy and partly through all of the people who came around us who showed us both such great compassion. I came a long way.

DAVID: One thing you write about in the new book is the importance of turning to Psalms. That’s the most popular Bible resource for millions of Americans every day.

JOHN: The Psalms are just amazing. They are usually the first place I go when I want to prepare for prayer. The Psalms meant a lot to Patsy during her cancer. She took a lot of comfort from them.


DAVID: Later in your book, you write about the Amish response after the Nickel Mines shootings. These were parents who lost their children to a deranged killer, yet they caught the world’s attention for the grace in their response. I think this is one of the most moving sections of your book—your journey with Patsy to the point, eventually, where you could call for what many would describe as forgiveness. You decided to forego a parent’s natural rage and desire for vengeance. Can you give us a brief summary of this?

JOHN: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about forgiveness and trying to understand what that really means. I went through probably three steps of forgiveness and it took me years. When I heard that the Amish forgave within days, I thought: How can they do that? Are they just saying this because they have to? What do they feel in their hearts? Frankly, I went through a good period of time where, if you’d put the killer in the same room with me, I would have killed him with no remorse at all. I felt that kind of rage. So, I was skeptical of the Amish at first. Do they really forgive or is this just a rote response they must give in public?

DAVID: In the book, you describe the radio interview that surprised you when Patsy said she would not want the killer, if found and convicted, to be executed.

JOHN: We talked about that a lot. First of all, we had seen first hand how flawed our justice system can be. It has the capacity to make mistakes, as we knew so well. From a logical standpoint, we came to see the death penalty as unwise because our system is so flawed. As I’ve just said, I wasn’t against the idea of killing the real killer. For a while, I had so much anger inside me that I would have taken care of it myself.

Then, another step in my journey toward grace and forgiveness was a period of intense grief. I thought: God, just take me home. The daily pain for me was too much. So, there’s another aspect of the death penalty. Perhaps the ultimate penalty for such a killer is to have to look at himself in the mirror each day and know that he can’t just end it all.

Throughout the whole process, though, Patsy had such compassion for everyone. I cannot recall ever hearing Patsy say anything negative or disparaging about anyone else. That is so amazing.

Here’s a classic example: One day our kids were out riding their bikes and they were running across a neighbor’s yard. This older woman lived with a son who was in his 50s and he came out and yelled at the kids. They came running home. Now, my response would have been to go yell back at this guy. Patsy said: “Let’s make some signs that say ‘Keep Off the Grass’ and go put them along the curb to help remind people not to cross their lawn.” Then, along with the signs, they went over and apologized to this woman. As a result, this woman apologized for her son’s over-reaction. I thought: What a difference in how things turned out because of how Patsy handled that!

DAVID: You wrote one earlier book, still in the midst of the whole controversy, essentially laying out your side of the case. This new book feels like a capstone. Will there be another book by John Ramsey?

JOHN: No, you’re right. This is a capstone. The first book was to address all the distortions out there in the media. Then, this book is really more of our spiritual testimony. It took me a long time to write. I’d work on it, then put it away, then work on it some more. Finally, we got it finished. Beyond this, I don’t have anything else to say to the world. What I really hope, now, is that this book will be an encouragement to other people who are suffering. In the worst of it, I thought that God was gone. Then, I realized that God wasn’t gone. God was with us. We just couldn’t recognize God, at first. Now, looking back over everything in those years, I want other people who are suffering to know: Yes, God is with us, even when we may be hurting too much to recognize God beside us.

READ our review of John Ramsey’s The Other Side of Suffering in Part 1 of our coverage.

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