NOTE: Given that both men and women are victims and perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence, I will be using third person pronouns in alternate order. This is a little awkward, but there is no graceful alternative in the English language
Imagine a person raped or beaten. Sadly, what arises for all too many is not imagination, but memory. Now, imagine, no, remember her behavior. She is crying, he is screaming, she is numb, she is enraged, he is hysterical, she is psychotic, he is catatonic, she is cheerfully conversing as the blood runs in rivulets down her temple and pools in the hollow of her collar bone, he is huddled and trembling, his pant legs ripped, the flesh of his legs studded with gravel, and on and on and on and on and on.
Is there a crisis? Yes, there is. But whose? All too simplistically, we focus on the victim’s. But I intend to talk here about ours. One of the perpetrator’s most elegant tactics is to split those trying to help. One of the victim’s most elegant, but also self-injurious, defenses is also to split those trying to help.
Splitting is a term with several intertwined aspects. First of all, it indicates that a number of people can see the same situation – even the same individual – in very different ways, and this is something that can be manipulated by both the perpetrator and victim. Perpetrators, in particular, can use a ‘divide and obscure’ strategy, resulting in disputes among those involved in both prosecution and treatment. This destroys both cases, and professional relationships.
Splitting is also a psychological state, in which an individual, with no conscious intention, presents different ‘faces’ to different people. Unlike the deliberate playacting of the sociopath, true splitting is an un-calculated process – the person templates herself to others to minimize stressful confrontation, to ingratiate herself, to ally herself with the powerful people in her life who each have different goals for her, or to oppose, either actively or passively, those whose influence they find frightening or unmanageable.
Vulnerable people, those with a weak sense of identity, are most prone to splitting – hence we should expect it from victims of violence. Even though they may have no malevolent intent, the result of their ‘internal splitting’ is the same as that of “manipulative splitting.” The prosecutor sees one person, where the therapist sees another and the police see a third. For example, the first might see a woman reluctant to fight for herself, equivocating over what to do, yet blaming the prosecutor at the same time; the second sees a woman victimized twice, first by the rapist, and now by the ‘system’; and the third see an angry, belligerent woman, full of fury.
None of these ‘faces’ are real – they are simply adaptive responses to either get along or resist the influence of the powerful people in her life. The result is the same, whether intended by a perpetrator, or unconsciously enacted by a victim – dissent, disagreement, disrespect and mistrust among those trying to help the victim. Unless one expects splitting, and works actively to respectfully discuss the different perspectives engendered by either perpetrator or victim, cases will be destroyed, perpetrators will go free, and victims will return to the arms of those who abused them.
Oh, by the way, I’ve been saying the “victim,” haven’t I? Or should I say – must I say – “survivor?” And here is another crisis – language. Problems with language can occur when simply communicating from one professional to another. We all too often take things as self-evident, supposing we know what a word means without asking for details. Cases can be lost when the right questions are not asked, and answers, which might not be willingly volunteered by the victim, go unrevealed until just the wrong moment in the courtroom. Sometimes, they are never are revealed at all.
This is just as much a problem in psychotherapy, where feelings and fantasy, although vastly important, cannot take the place of “what really happened.” Feelings and imaginal work are best worked through when they are considered in light of the truth – at least if the therapeutic task is to help someone truly recover from violation. I am not only referring to the victim’s feelings, but the therapist’s as well – and if the discussion of what happened remains vague or unrealistic, the therapist will not have firm ground on which to stand to assist his or her patient.
I recall a case regarding a woman who was alleged to be a victim of domestic violence. She, a loud, dramatic, drug-addicted woman, claimed her husband used to hang her by the neck in the bedroom. Some people were horrified, but others rolled their eyes in disbelief. She had no marks, she was walking around, and her voice was hoarse from too many cigarettes, perhaps, but not ligature wounds. No one thought to ask her what she meant – they just assumed – and thus, were either fierce advocates or bored with what they perceived as her histrionic lies. When I finally met her and simply asked for the details, she described him grabbing her by the throat and pinning her against the wall. No gallows, no rope, but a crime, nonetheless. And now, everyone could pay attention.
Sometimes, however, the problem of language is far subtler than a question of accurately describing what happened. That someone is raped or beaten is a fact. But we define the nature of victims’ psychological and physical injuries through the use of our own beliefs and expectations, and we impress this definition upon the victim with whatever words we use. In part or in total, the victim will either comply with or resist our narrative. I am not dictating what the right words are. I have had victims outraged at being called survivors, and survivors outraged at being once again victimized, and still others become survivors when someone finally has the courage to call them a victim and others begin to survive when someone finally has the courage to stop calling them a victim. The true crisis of language is its manifestation in ideology – how our words create both our and the victim’s reality. Have we a polemic that we offer the person in crisis that defines their role in a way that fits our definitions, our insecurities, our expectations or our desires? If we do, we have stopped listening. And if we have stopped listening, we will not find out how they define themselves. And if we do not know this definition, we will be no help, whatsoever.
How we stand is not merely a physical act. It is an attitude. It displays who each of us is as an individual, and also who each of us is as part of a relationship. Other than the type of stance we must take in the heat of combat, there is only one stance that we should assume when in relationship with someone in crisis. This is a calm, strong, receptivity. In establishing this stance, we prove to the other person that we have enough integrity to truly ‘stand’ them as they are. And as far as they are concerned, they may see themselves as damaged, corrupted, cowardly or terrified. This mindful stance, similar to that of a cat walking along a fence, is not adrenaline intoxication, nor is it to be ‘blissed-out’ in mellow comfort and spurious empathy. A true empathic stance does not mean that one rescues the victim in heroic anger, nor does it mean that one claims to understand how the other feels. It certainly does not mean that we have become ‘one’ with the other person, as some clinicians have claimed – this, as much as any attitude, is the root of misinterpreted data and false accusations of abuse, because this is merely the saccharine narcissism of one in power mistaking a vulnerable person’s compliance with a transcendent state. A true empathic stance means, “I can stand in your presence.”
Perhaps the universal experience of all victims is that of shame. Shame does not mean to be embarrassed. It is the experience of being exposed, without the possibility of escape. Shame is inextricably intertwined with vulnerability – not merely the fact that we could be harmed or even die, because that is the lot of all humanity. One remains a victim as long as one experiences oneself in a world without privacy, without any psychological space where one is free from the eyes of others – not only one’s attacker, but also all those who look upon one with pity, curiosity, or any other emotion, be it benign, malevolent or neutral.
The eyes, and I mean by this phrase, vision in all its metaphoric possibilities, violate in two ways. Many perpetrators block out the humanity of the other – and turn them into an instrument or fantasy of their own. The victim experiences a dreadful sense of being extinguished – seen as an object, or as someone they are not. Such acts are inhuman because the perpetrator does not truly see a human being in front of himself or herself, and this the victim knows.
Other perpetrators see very well – but they execute a sadistic examination with the purpose of considering how to hurt the other more effectively. They see the victim’s humanity, but all the victim sees is the perpetrator’s eyes. Such hatred is a kind of intimacy, in which the perpetrator knows very well the humanity of the other, and makes a conscious attempt to know him even further in order to damage him at his core.
How does this relate to us? Simply this: if we see the victim of violence based on our own assumptions and fantasies of what it must mean to her, we have brutalized her yet again. And if we adopt an instrumental model where we see the victim as a means to an end, and strive to get to know him primarily to arrest the perpetrator or to get the him to testify, then we, too, have become cold and sadistic in the pursuit of ostensibly righteous aims. And the result, all too often, will be a failure to achieve the ends we desire – the escape and/or healing of the victim, and the prosecution and punishment of the perpetrator.
To establish a righteous intimacy with the victim of violation, we must be courageous enough to really see him, to really listen to him, and to resist the temptation to fit him into whatever ideological frame that we are most comfortable with.
There is a particular kind of courage necessary to become a survivor – or better yet, a person of integrity. Courage is a word the roots of which lie in the French word coeur – heart. A failure of courage is a failure of heart, and this occurs when one allows violence to corrupt oneself by passing the violence onwards. This happens when a weak person identifies strength with violence, because that is the only powerful existence that they can imagine. There is thus a danger when, in trying to help, all we appear to the victim is ‘strong.”’The victim abdicates responsibility to us, or gives up, unable to conceive of herself as ‘strong,’ or she embraces the image of the only strength she knows, that of a perpetrator. She then becomes a perpetrator herself. In the latter case, she no longer defines herself as a victim because she no longer feels weak. Such individuals become vampires – feeding off other people’s pain so as not to feel their own vulnerability. This is compounded when perpetrators of violence are not held up to moral responsibility because their own victimization may well be the part of the root cause of their violence. As true as this explanation may be, no one will ever recover and break the chain of violence without moral accountability.
One is also corrupted by violence if one embraces a victim’s role, and assumes a sense of entitlement because of what one suffered. Such individuals make a career out of being victims, often aided and abetted by well-meaning individuals within the social service system, who instead of encouraging self-reliance, excuse selfish behavior because of what the victim suffered. The loved ones of the victim suffer under her passive-aggressive tyranny – any confrontation is neutralized by reference to what she endured. It is no help whatsoever when our social supports assist people in living lives without integrity or courage. It is, in fact, yet another violation, a syrupy intrusion that appeals to the victim’s weakest and most regressed aspects, not their core sense of integrity.
Corruption is equally dangerous for us. We are corrupt when we strive to fight our own demons embodied in the person of the victim before us. We must be courageous enough to not indulge in trying to heal ourselves through them. Without the ‘courage to not heal,’ our irritation, outrage, enabling actions or frustration at their lack of action in the direction that we desire will send them right back into the arms of their abuser, or perhaps a new abusive or dangerous situation.
Related to this is so-called ‘tertiary trauma.’ Hearing the vile experiences that people have gone through sometimes creates a vicarious, ‘pseudo-trauma’ within us. I think this often comes from a kind of naiveté, which is yet another form of corruption. There is, in most of us, a subtle illusion that we fight death in doing the work we do. In fact, as we so often forget, we are all going to die – the good, the bad and the ugly: all of us. I believe that tertiary trauma comes, in some part, from the childish belief that we will ‘make it all better.’ And this belief founders on the reality – that we will never stop the violence of this world, we will never encompass the violence of even a city block. Many of the victims will go back to be hurt yet again, and perps will hunt down their prey yet again – and sometimes when they are supposed to be under our protection. These ugly truths break our hearts. The only solution, if we choose to continue to do this righteous work and do it well, is a sense of proportion. We are responsible only as far as we can reach.
When we fail, out of laziness, inattention, or stupidity, we do not have the right to call ourselves traumatized. That is an escape from what is really going on – guilt – an emotion we merit so that, because of its noxiousness, we will not repeat the mistake that engendered it. Guilt’s sting is an insurance that the victims will more likely be safe in our care – because the guilt reminds us to take care. If, when guilty, we indulge in an unearned claim of tertiary trauma, we will focus on our own pain and its meaning to us. Guilt, on the other hand is an incitement towards action.
If we experience trauma because other’s pain reminds us of our own, then we should feel profoundly guilty that we are indulging in our own feelings instead of dealing, as a professional, with theirs. This guilt should be so unpleasant that it finally goads us to finally face things we should have attended to long ago. Otherwise, we will, once again, use the other person for our own needs, and whatever our motives, we are then just another kind of perp.
But the truth of the matter is that we can only stand so much – and here, tertiary trauma is simply evidence that we no longer have the resilience to do this particular work – at least for a while. We are biologically built to wander in small gatherer-hunter bands, an intimate group of 12 to 40 individuals whom we will know lifelong. In such a life, in which all of our distant ancestors lived, there was joy, fear, grief and anger, but there was not a constant, incessant standing on the river bank, day after day, netting the damaged and torn from the waters of violence. There can be a limit to how much we can tolerate, in what is, essentially, a ‘biologically inhuman’ way of life. So if we no longer can take satisfaction and paradoxically a kind of peace in confining our fight to the compass of our arms’ reach, then it is truly time to leave the work.
Anger is another danger, because no matter what the cause, anger may be a fearful thing for the victim in crisis, even if you are angry on their behalf. There is an important distinction between righteous outrage and anger. The former is mindful – it is an honorable, aware expression of outrage on another’s behalf – or on our own behalf. Anger is not mindful. Anger sweeps over us and colors the world in it’s own shade. Not only that, anger and any one of the other ‘mindless’ emotions, create a relationship with the other in which they are alone with their experience as we narcissistically indulge in ours. And if we do this, they will be silent.
It is when we have the courage to refuse to indulge in the ‘comfort of the emotions we feel most comfortable’ that we can offer help to a person in crisis. In particular for law enforcement and for prosecutors, it is this courage that sets up the conditions in which then crime victim is willing to speak the truth.
All of this has been rather abstract; so let me offer an example of work I believe to be done well:
Bobbie Lesh was a four-year-old child, placed in dependency with the state. The primary reasons were that he was not cared for, in particular, was not getting fed. On one occasion, he had been taken to the hospital, retching, without anything to throw up. He was underweight, and manifesting both encopresis and enuresis. No physiological reason for the latter was ever determined.
He was an extremely impulsive child. When angry, he would run for the road to dart into traffic. He somehow got on a bus and rode miles, from south Seattle to north, and his parents didn’t know he was missing for eight hours.
Bonding was an issue of considerable concern. Visits had recently been suspended by court order, as Bobbie acted out much more both before and after visitation with his parents.
Bobbie’s impulsive aggression was of particular concern. He had threatened to kill his newborn sister. He ripped up a school worker’s car and hit her with a seat belt buckle. When asked why, Bobbie said, “I just wanted to beat her.” His impulsiveness and aggression were so extreme that there has been some question that he might be neurologically damaged.
Bobbie had one very peculiar behavior. Whenever he would find a small hole – in the ground, in a tree trunk or a wall – he would almost compulsively shove something into it. He was also chronically constipated.
Mr. Lesh, his father, had quit drinking. Ms. Estes, Bobbie’s mother, seemed to display an extremely dependent relationship in regards to Mr. Lesh – interviewers stated that they have asked her direct questions, and she typically looked at Mr. Lesh before answering.
Mr. Lesh was described as presenting two ‘faces’ to those in the system, either “sugary sweet and ingratiating” or cold, acting “as if he doesn’t know you are there.” He also displayed outbursts of extreme anger, kicking doors and yelling. He was described as controlling, particularly in his relationship with Ms. Estes. The social worker asked if they intended to marry, and as Ms. Estes said “Yes,” he said “No.” He amplified that he wouldn’t marry her so that he could leave when he wanted.
Both parents adamantly denied that Bobbie had ever been physically punished, and in my interview with Mr. Lesh, he sincerely and very believably maintained this. His eye contact never varied, whether talking about baseball or in repeating his denials of abuse. Bobbie, in four months of interviews by a variety of people, did not disclose physical or sexual abuse of any kind.
I was asked to assess Mr. Lesh’s suitability as a parent, and in the process, to ascertain if I could come up with any new strategies to offer for this enormously troubled child. At this time, he was in a foster home with a loving elderly woman, Mrs. Benitez, whom Bobbie referred to as his “cooking mom.”
When I first arrived at the Benetez home, Bobbie was happily eating ice cream. His foster mother suggested that he take the ice cream into the other room and watch television, while we talked first. This didn’t work very well. He wanted to stay in the kitchen with us, and chattered away, eating a spoon of ice cream, then got up to dart around the kitchen. He told me that his leg was broken and when his foster mother asked, “How will you walk then?” he hopped around the room on one leg. He pulled up his pants leg to show me a bruise on his shin and we compared a few scars.
At any rate, after he wandered in and out of the room, I asked Bobbie if he would like to speak with me first. He said he would and took me back to his room. He told me to sit down, and I said, “YES SIR!” He looked delighted, but said nothing. What follows is the verbatim dialogue between us – what must be understood to envision the scene, however, is that we would only talk in 15 -30 second bursts – he would suddenly jump up, climb on the couch, and balance on one of the arms, or dive over the back behind the couch, (Ms. Benitez wisely has it padded with pillows) or “Watch this” and balance on his head – or “I’m blind:” and walk with his eyes closed around the little room.
We also spent about fifteen minutes at the end of the interview with two paper airplanes, throwing them and trying to make them collide in mid-air – we succeeded once.
Finally, the disjointed nature of the dialogue is just the way it was – as his foster mother says, Bobbie “starts in the middle.” I had two objectives – to allow him to feel control (hence my “Yes Sir!” which he got a big kick out of – I’m 6’6”, shaven headed and big, and he loved my salute), and to create the circumstances that he would say whatever he chose to say to me. I had no expectation that he would say anything new to me, and I was both stunned and heartbroken for him when he revealed what he had been hiding:
Bobbie – “You know what they been feeding me? Mac with cereal, mac with waffles, mac with salad. I didn’t like it. You want to know a secret? Bobbie leans close and whispers in my ear “My real mom and dad had a baby. And when I was a baby, I had a real big train track; I used to put it in my mouth. When I was a baby, my real mom and dad used to give me apple sauce with ketchup.”
He then spun out into a period of play and “look at me!!!”
Bobbie – “I wish I could go back to my real mom and dad.”
Amdur – “Do you know why you don’t live with them?”
Bobbie – (Bright tone of voice)“They just took me away.”
Amdur – “Did you want to get taken away?”
Bobbie – “I was sad when I got took away.”
Bobbie begins whirling like a dervish.
Bobbie – “Look, I can jump over toys when I’m spinning. I got my new pants. See. . . . My real mom and dad hit me!”
Amdur – “With what?”
Bobbie – (voice is frantic, “cheerful” in a high lilting pitch) “With their hand, they whupped me. With a hard metal whupping spoon!” Bobbie points to his right floating ribs.
Amdur – “Do you mean your butt?”
Bobbie – “No! Right here. But one time here! (Bobbie points to his right elbow as he holds it in a protective crouch over his ribs. Then his voice takes on a cheerful astonishment, which rang absolutely false) It didn’t even hurt. (leans close and in a confiding tone, he says to me) It didn’t hurt. (tapping his ribs) Inside here is metal. It didn’t even hurt! They also hit me with a fake wooden spoon!”
Amdur – “A fake wooden spoon. What was it made of?
Bobbie – “Plastic. (he jumps around the room) But it broke.”
Amdur – “Who hit you the most?”
Bobbie – “My dad hit the most.”
Amdur – “Have you ever been hit here, in this house?” I asked this question with some trepidation, but I wanted to know if Bobbie was confabulating, making up stories to tell me what he thought I might want to hear.
Bobbie – (with a disgusted tone, as if only an idiot could ask such a question) “No. Not here. My real mom and dad.”
Amdur – “Were you scared.”
Bobbie – “Yes, I was scared. They hit me with a metal metal metal metal metal spoon. (his voice gets higher and higher, almost hysterical. I sat relaxed, said nothing)
Bobbie began talking about the spiders in the house. Killing spiders, how they blow up.
Bobbie – “Me and Michael saw a tarantula.”
A long discussion about spiders and other beasts
Amdur – “So you said that you want to go home? Aren’t you scared of being hit again?”
Bobbie – “No. They don’t do that anymore.”
Amdur – “Why not?”
Bobbie – “Because they feel sorry for me.” A long silence – for Bobbie, at least – of nearly half a minute) “You know what the funnest thing here is – to play outside! My real mom and dad, we went camping. Can you write that down too?”
Amdur – “YES SIR!”
Bobbie – (with a delighted tone of voice) “You sound like a sergeant.”
Amdur – “YES SIR!” (mutual giggles)
Bobbie – “My real mom and dad used to go camping. we went fishing at night. I saw a fish with white eyes, it went under the sand.” (“Look at this, look at this!!” as he spun around the room, jumped off the couch. We took about a five minute break from talking, he showing me toys and stunts, then) “They used to feed me bad stuff and good stuff.”
This next portion was full of physical activity – I admired his stunts and otherwise waited – this only reads like it was sequential.
Amdur – “What was the good stuff?”
Bobbie – “Vegetables, and that’s all!”
Amdur – “And what was the bad stuff?”
Bobbie – “Peas and carrots! And that’s all!”
Amdur – (silence)
Bobbie – “And they used to be good to me and bad to me.”
Amdur – “What was the good stuff?”
Bobbie – “They used to let me go camping and fishing.”
Amdur – (Silence)
Bobbie – “And now the bad part. No fishing. Ground in my room for a long time. That’s enough.” (However, Bobbie continued to stand there, looking at me expectantly) “Now write that down.”
Amdur – That’s enough?”
Bobbie – (leaning close and whispering) “They used to whup me and whup me and whup me everyday, and that’s the end and now I’m done!”
Amdur – “YES SIR! and as I got up to go to the other room,
Bobbie – “And they used to feed me macaroni salad with ketchup Blech.”
I went out and spoke with Ms. Benitez for about fifteen minutes, and then Bobbie came out and said, “It’s time for more talk.” “YES SIR!!” I said. Back we went to his room.
Bobbie – “Can we go to the next level?”
Amdur – “Sure.” Bobbie throws himself over the back of the couch, pops up and whispers in my ear.
Bobbie – “They used to be nice to me, but not any more. Because they don’t feed me good stuff.” Bobbie threw his paper airplane and accidentally hit me. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m finished talking now. Can we play now?”
And so we did – colliding airplanes for fifteen minutes. When it was time for me to go, Bobbie shook my hand, went out with me, went over to his foster mom and said, “I love you, mom.
After our interview, Bobbie began defecating in his pants. I had wondered if Bobbie, with his fascination with stuffing things in holes, was trying to put things in, or keep things from getting out. The answer is clear – he desperately needed to keep his secrets in. I believe very strongly that his ‘impacted bowels’ and encopresis was, in part at least, the physical expression of a child terror-stricken lest the truth get out.
His foster mother has reported that the next day, he found a dead mouse in the road, and repeatedly stomped on it – he then went inside and told her in great detail how the eyes bugged out. He also said to her, “Maybe I shouldn’t have told Ellis – my dad is going to be mad at me.”
I told her to tell him that Ellis called and thinks that he is the bravest boy he knows, and that his father is not allowed to go to his foster home. I also clearly stated to the foster mother that if Mr. Lesh came to the house (she stated that he got her address off an insurance form), she should immediately call 911.
One thing that should be apparent – we see, in this terrorized and brutalized child, one, whom if not found and rescued, will become profoundly dangerous. In only a short time, Bobbie would have succeeded in stuffing all the holes so well that no truth would again emerge from his mouth, and once he turned himself to metal, he would no longer experience pain. But forced exiles do not live well – often they seethe with rage for the rest of their lives. How much more so for a child exiled from love, from speech, from a home of safety within his own flesh. The little boys who save themselves by turning their bones to metal all too often pass on the pain they can no longer feel. Someone has to feel it – and because these boys’ screams can no longer be hear or even expressed, someone else has to scream for him.
Yet sometimes, just sometimes, there is, within the circumstances, a ‘happy ending.’ Mr. Lesh received a copy of my report, called his lawyer and gave up his attempts to regain custody. Maybe he thought he’d lose the fight; maybe he saw the evil he had done. Bobbie is doing – not well – he may never be that – but much better in a loving foster home.
I am sure that as I set the scene for this story, with a little boy ‘acting out’ by stuffing each little hole he could find, many of you had the same ideas that I had about what must have happened to Bobbie. Others did too at the time, but they were looking for what wasn’t there. It was clear to Bobbie that they thought he experienced something he knew he hadn’t, and therefore that, to them, he was someone that he was not. And that is why he was silent for four months.
I wish to be very clear that the helper should not assume a passive open stance, in which one says nothing, or nothing of substance so as not to ‘get in the way’ of the victim. That kind of communication is inhuman. Who ever talks to us in that manner? The victim of a violation desperately needs to be informed that another can truly see them. Without that experience, we feel we do not even exist. The experience of our own soul is only established through relationships with individuals strong enough to face us as we truly are. And victimized, terrorized, damaged and wounded as a person may be, all victims still have within themselves all that is needed to live a life of integrity. The soul, that aspect of the person that lives for something greater than her, can survive anything – but best survives when directly spoken to. True empathy occurs when we do not distract or confuse the victim by twining our fate around theirs. And this is accomplished not through becoming one with the other in some enmeshed fantasy, or pushing them into an agenda of our own, but becoming truly two – separate – face-to-face.
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