Arts and Culture

Learning to forgive

Alumna finds peace, love and a rewarding career after tragedy

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SUMMARY: When Sarah Montana's (’09) brother and mother were murdered during her senior year, the JMU community helped her turn trauma into equanimity.

By Steve Neumann

Sarah (Smith) Montana (’09) and her younger brother, Jim, were best friends. Both were musical theatre majors at JMU, roommates on campus and inseparable. Jim was the Calvin to her Hobbes.

Halfway through winter break of her senior year, Montana’s brother and mother were murdered by a 17-year-old kid from their neighborhood. The murderer had a rap sheet for robbing houses, and had broken into theirs looking for stuff to sell for some quick cash before Christmas. He didn’t expect anyone to be home.

“There is no good age at which your family is murdered,” Montana said. “But just because something like this happens, it doesn’t mean that your life is over. There was also this beautiful, positive side I never would have expected.”

Though most 22-year-olds wouldn’t have been able to go back to school after such a tragedy, the rush of support that Montana received from the JMU community helped her through it. Nearly 2,500 people attended her brother’s funeral, where the a cappella group Exit 245, of which Jim was a member at JMU, performed an arrangement of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” one of Smith’s favorite songs.

“The world definitely wanted to turn me into a victim,” Montana said, “but JMU didn’t. They treated me like I was still Sarah Smith, and I am forever appreciative of that fact.”

Even before Montana returned to campus after the tragedy, JMU was preparing a soft landing for her.

“The community at JMU rallied around me after Mom’s and Jim’s deaths,” she said. “Most people would drop out of school or take a semester off, but JMU was the safest place I could have been.

“Dr. Carrie Stevens, in particular, advocated for me in a way that I’ll be grateful to her for the rest of my life,” Montana said. “She stepped in like a mom.”

Stevens, a professor in the School of Music, not only found a therapist who is a trauma specialist within walking distance of Montana’s apartment, she even booked and paid for her to get a 90-minute massage. Stevens gave Montana a concrete, actionable plan for self-care.

“She really impressed upon me that taking care of myself through this grieving process would not just be a one-dimensional thing,” Montana said. “It would really have to be about caring for myself physically, emotionally and spiritually.

“The really liberating part of that time is that, even though life doesn’t work the way that we want,” Montana said, “it set me up to go on all these adventures and meet all these people I never would have expected.”

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Today, Montana is a screenwriter for The Hallmark Channel. Having grown up in a family that loved music, literature and theater, Montana attended the Manhattan School of Music after graduating from JMU. From there, she started working at a small media firm where she learned the ropes of the entertainment industry by writing TV pitches, ghostwriting books and editing manuscripts.

During that time, she also wrote her first play, a memoir that details her healing and coming of age after her brother and mother were killed. It won a competition for a staged reading at a theater in New York, but after the reading, Montana realized it was too complex for a play.

“But one of the producers I worked with on it told a producer at Hallmark that they should hire me to write movies,” Montana said. “So, I ended up sending the producer 10 pitches and she was like, ‘I would make all of these movies.’ So, we started collaborating together.”

Montana’s first movie for Hallmark, which came out in March 2019, was “Love to the Rescue,” a meet-cute about two single parents whose kids want to adopt the same dog. The second one was a Christmas movie, “Two Turtle Doves,” which premiered in November 2019, and revolves around two people who realize they must help each other with their respective grieving processes in order to achieve happiness.

“I love writing for Hallmark,” Montana said, “and I will be happy to write movies for them for a long time. But I am also working on my own things.”

Ideally, over the next 10 years Montana will publish her memoir, become a showrunner for her TV show and write more feature films—specifically romantic comedies, because her Hallmark Christmas movie, “Two Turtle Doves,” was all about grief.

“Art doesn’t necessarily have to be inspirational or aspirational,” Montana said, “but we’re inundated by content that reinforces trauma. I’d love to just make movies that show people your story isn’t over the second something terrible happens to you.”  

Watch a popular TED Talk of Sarah Montana (’09) explaining “Why forgiveness is worth it.”

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Published: Monday, July 27, 2020

Last Updated: Tuesday, March 2, 2021

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