By ELIZABETH BERNSTEIN
Jane Angelich carried the guilt around for more than four decades. Years ago, she had been cruel to someone and had never acknowledged her actions. Often, she thought of the person she had hurt and wondered: Had he ever forgiven her?
Finally, she decided she could carry her burden no longer. So last winter she went online and looked up the person she had mistreated. Then she apologized for telling him to "drop dead" when he called her house back in 1961.
They were both 10 years old at the time.
"When something is nagging at you for 48 years, you need to clear it up," says Ms. Angelich, 58 years old, a pet-products company chief executive in Novato, Calif. "That was the meanest thing I ever did to anyone."
Along with helping people reconnect with old flames, childhood friends and even long-lost relatives, the Internet is giving rise to a newer phenomenon: the decades-late apology. The Web allows us to converse by email, a form of communication that often makes us braver and more impulsive—and occasionally even more thoughtful—about what we say. There are even Web sites, such as ThePublicApology.com and PerfectApology.com, dedicated to facilitating our quest for absolution.
Michelle Joyce holds her brother's old Cub Scout knife. He recently apologized for chasing her with it and pretending to attack her when she was 6 years old.
And among all those people we are finding from our past online, there is bound to be someone we wronged somehow, right?
In reporting this column, I heard tales of people asking forgiveness for everything from failing to return a library book to dating a college roommate's ex-boyfriend. One man apologized to his brother-in-law for telling his sister years before not to marry the man. Another told of contacting a university that had admitted him 13 years earlier and apologizing for never filling out the questionnaire they had sent him asking why he chose not to attend. "I just wanted to set things right," he said.
Not all tardy apologies come through the Web, of course. I heard from one woman who had picked up the phone to say she was sorry to her sister for confronting her about her weight gain, another who had called her mother to apologize for being resentful over being raised without a father, and a former employee who called her ex-bosses to apologize for writing a book trashing the company after being laid off.
Last spring, out of the blue, Michelle Joyce's older brother presented her with his old Cub Scout knife and said he was sorry for chasing her around the kitchen and pretending to attack her with it when she was 6 and he was 10.
What would you like to apologize for, years or decades later?
Mike Gerard, Ms. Joyce's brother, says his apology was inspired by a book that encouraged readers to think about the unresolved events in their lives, no matter how small. "As you get older, you realize that you spend your whole life trying to protect your younger sister, and that was one time I let her—and myself—down," says the 38-year-old former Army Ranger, who lives in Bixby, Okla.
Ms. Joyce, 33, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., and books corporate seminars for a living, says she didn't think the incident warranted an apology and felt bad to learn it had troubled her brother for years. "But I was touched that it meant that much to him to make it right," she says.
All this raises the question: Just because there is someone from our past we could apologize to, should we? After all, how effective is an act of contrition—whether proffered over the Web or otherwise—that comes many, many years late?
Consider my friend, who recently received a lengthy email from a guy she dated in college, apologizing for the way he treated her at a bar one night in 1987. He said he had always regretted his behavior. She says she had no idea what he was talking about.
(At this point I'd just like to say that if you are a man I dated—I won't mention names—and you think you owe me an apology: I promise you I will remember why. So feel free to beg forgiveness.)
Rachel Golden was unmoved when she found herself on the receiving end of a belated apology. After a good friend from high school got married five years ago, she sent a gift to the bridal shower because she couldn't attend. She never received a thank-you note, and she was not invited to the wedding. In fact, she never heard from the friend again.
Flash ahead 3½ years. One day Ms. Golden received a message, via MySpace, from her former friend: "I hope everything is well. Sorry about the shower. Here is my phone number."
Ms. Golden didn't reply to that message—or the next one she received six months later. "It wasn't only the lateness, although it was astronomically late," says the 27-year-old publicist, who lives in New York. "If she had been more sincere, if she had at least told me what had happened, it would have helped."
Ms. Golden's friend, Simone West, says she couldn't afford to invite all her friends to her wedding and that she had so much going on in her life at the time—wedding planning, honeymoon, moving apartments, new job and a new baby—that she didn't get all her thank-you notes written. "I didn't realize Rachel was so upset," says Ms. West, 28, a hairstylist in New York. "If I had, I would have taken the initiative to apologize way before I got in touch on MySpace."
Of course, some apologies—for things like theft or backstabbing a colleague—are serious and really should be made. But we live in a self-help culture, where therapists, 12-step program guides and talk-show hosts are forever reminding us that forgiveness and gratitude are the way to happiness (and sobriety). Many times, a long-overdue apology, much like a confession, does more for the person offering it up than it does for the one receiving it.
When an old high-school rival of Kathy Somes contacted her through Classmates.com last March, Ms. Somes, 46, apologized for her behavior years ago, which included putting gum in the girl's hair, shooting her with a rubber-pellet gun and blowing a trumpet into her ear during band practice.
"I didn't really care if she accepted my apology or not," says Ms. Somes, an investment analyst in Kirtland, Ohio. "I felt better." (And, she says, her classmate did accept her apology.)
Jane Angelich, who told her fifth-grade crush to drop dead in 1961, agrees. She explained in her email to him that she hung up on him because she didn't know how to talk to a boy at the time and was embarrassed that her mother was listening. He replied to her apology, she says, and said he did not remember the incident. "It was good to know, though, that luckily he wasn't scarred for life," she says.
Still, there are times when a little contrition can go a long way (like on a deathbed)—and sometimes it really is never too late to say you're sorry.
Laura Shumaker learned this last year, when a former classmate of her autistic son apologized to her for teasing the boy years earlier, when they were both in middle school. Although the young man, who is in his early 20s, hemmed and hawed, it was the acknowledgment of his behavior that mattered to her.
"I cried all the way home," says Ms. Shumaker, 54, a writer who lives in Lafayette, Calif. "In life you don't know what's behind the surface and why a person behaves a certain way, so you have to be forgiving."
So what do you do if you are overcome with the urge to apologize for something you did ages ago? Here are some tips:
• Make sure you are apologizing for the sake of the other person and not yourself. (The woman I interviewed who apologized to her sister—a year later—for mentioning her weight gain says her sister got upset all over again and accused her of "reminding her that she was fat.") If your motives are selfish, don't bother saying you are sorry.
• Resist sending an apology via a social-networking Web site. It's too flip. Use the phone. Or at least write an email, which demonstrates a little more thoughtfulness.
• Ask how your actions affected the other person. "The best gift you can offer is the willingness to finally hear exactly what the other person felt like as a result of your actions," says Karen Gail Lewis, a marriage and family therapist in Cincinnati.
• Be sincere. Explain why you did what you did, and why you are apologizing now.
• And—at the risk of sounding like your mother—try to apologize in a timelier manner next time. My 21-month-old nephew Zach did it last weekend, after throwing one of his toys at me. If he can do it, you can too.