The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Is there life after disgrace? My ex-husband Rob Porter shows that is hard to answer.

Then-White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, center, hands President Trump a confirmation order in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington in January 2017, as then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, right, watches. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Jennie Willoughby is a writer and speaker.

Last week, my ex-husband, former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, emerged from a year of silence to pen an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. It was a seemingly benign and inconspicuous return to a world he was compelled to leave a year ago.

But it was not benign or inconspicuous to me. Rob’s fall from grace began when the media set about reporting on an old blog post I had written about the physical and emotional abuse I suffered during our marriage. Within hours, Colbie Holderness’s account of abuse as Rob’s first wife also came to light. These revelations instantly embroiled Washington and the White House in a scandal of who-knew-what-when, ultimately triggering an investigation into the protocol for awarding top security clearances. Rob denied the accusations.

Rob Porter's ex-wife Jennie Willoughby told The Post in an interview that the White House aide was abusive during their marriage. (Video: Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

I don’t believe Rob should be forever barred from using his considerable professional skills and knowledge to make a contribution to our society. But Rob’s sudden return to the public eye is deeply troubling to me, because he has yet to candidly address the thing that should — that must — come first: his personal conduct during his two marriages. Rob has yet to publicly show regret or contrition for his actions. Giving him a voice before he has done that critical work elevates his opinions above my and Colbie’s dignity.

I know, better than most, that those involved in domestic abuse rarely fit neatly into boxes of “abuser” and “victim.” The cycle of domestic violence is complex and confusing and can leave both parties feeling trapped within it. As my own marriage was recounted in the press, there were times I didn’t recognize myself or Rob in the story. And I don’t claim to have all the answers for what happens now. But the matter-of-fact way Rob has reappeared can’t be right.

With new revelations of abuse occurring almost daily, we would all benefit from taking time for a conversation about how people make amends. Barring legal prosecution, what are the requirements of rehabilitation and redemption? What is the anatomy of a genuine apology, and how can a person earnestly demonstrate doing the work? Is there a place for a person in public service after being involved in scandal and abuse? In short, is there life after disgrace?

These questions are daunting. They are also complicated by how large the spectrum of accusation and offense — from creepy behavior to violent criminal assault — leading to disgrace can be. There may be no one correct way to walk the gantlet. But there is most certainly a different way to approach the road to recovery than we have so far seen.

I know there is a better way. While we cannot see into another’s heart, and we cannot know the depths of their remorse, we do feel the truth when someone openly walks a path toward healing. We see their vulnerability. We recognize their honesty as they reveal their weaknesses. Fertile ground for forgiveness is sown as they humbly and unequivocally acknowledge past behaviors without mincing words. Trust is built as they offer apologies for misunderstandings while refraining from attacks based on minute details or differences.

I also know that not everyone is up to the task. To move forward with humility requires a level of self-awareness and a willingness to face demons that some lack. Those who cause pain to others, knowingly or not, likely have some pain in their pasts they have not addressed, and admitting to abuse and wrongdoing would mean opening up parts of themselves that they don’t like or don’t understand. It might even mean confronting deep-seated pain or trauma in their own story. Yet we know this is the only way toward grace. A new life and a new career can be offered out of respect and compassion for the emotional work one has done.

Ultimately, I don’t have an agenda for my ex-husband’s future career. My goal is to help anyone in an abusive situation, and this includes helping perpetrators of abuse do what they can to seek help for themselves. Seeing someone walk a path of growth and recovery could open a national narrative on what healing looks like — on both sides of an abusive relationship.

After that, there will be time for op-eds on trade policy.

We all crave a redemption story. We want to see people take ownership of their inadequacies and sins because we want to believe we, too, can be redeemed for our own. But true redemption is not a given. It is earned.

Read more:

Jennie Willoughby: I was married to Rob Porter. Here’s what John Kelly doesn’t get about abuse.

Colbie Holderness: Rob Porter is my ex-husband. Here’s what you should know about abuse.