The Worst Thing

A lot of the abuse I suffered was repetitive–the same horrors again and again. They blend together in my mind as if they were one long event, over years.

But a few things stand out as separate events, as really the worst things that ever happened.

I need to tell you about one of them. I don’t know if I can, but I need to tell you.

It is an event that gave me the most nightmares, made me consider suicide daily for all of the next year, prompted me to start cutting my hands. It was something I almost could not live through.

I’ve mentioned it before on here. But just that–a mention. Like it might not be a big deal. It is a big deal.

My father paid four young men to gang rape me in an empty house while he videotaped it all. Now, it could have been the other way around. They might have paid him. That was more the usual way of things. But I think he paid them. I remember money changing hands, and I should be able to recall who gave money to whom. But I can’t.

Because money changing hands meant terrible things were going to happen, and my terror kept me from paying attention after that..

In the car on the way home, I told my father I wasn’t doing this anymore. He couldn’t make me. He nearly killed me after that.

That was fine with me. There are worse things than being dead.

There are two things that are important about this to me. (The other is a topic for another day.).

One of them is those young men. What happened to them afterwards? Could they live with themselves? What did they do to cope with what they had done? Did they drink or take drugs? Did they self-harm?

Did they pretend it never happened? Did they do it again so that they could pretend that all of it was fine and no one had ever been hurt to begin with? Did they find ways to justify it to themselves?

Because they must have done something.

They were, after all, very young. Mid-teens to late teens. I’m not sure. Maybe 20. Twenty at the most.


And I ache for them. For how a terrible decision they might not have fully have understoond the consequences of could easily have destroyed their entire lives. It nearly destroyed mine.

Now, they might have just been heartless, sadistic individuals. But what I know about boys is that sometimes only one in a group is truly without a conscience. The rest of them are caught up in something they don’t understand the full implications of, although they should. They don’t realize or even stop to think about how it will affect themselves or others later. It just feels so good to be part of the group, to be together, to be inside this intense experience. But it does affect them later. Sometimes in terrible ways.

And I want to grab us all up in that moment on the street outside, before they hurt me so very badly, before they did something unthinkable and unforgivable, and I want to hold us all very tight and keep us safe. And I can’t.

I have to live with what they did that day. And so do they.


Breaking the Mirror: Cult Recovery and Irrational Fears

I’m contemplating a major change in my life these days.

spring cleaningWhat it makes me want to do first is clean the house. You should always clean before starting something new. This is my motto. It has been for the whole of my life.

But cleaning depresses me. So I get a bit stuck.

Cleaning reminds me of the years spent cleaning my parents’ house when I lived there, and the despair at being a slave, a machine, someone who did things but wasn’t supposed to feel things or want things.  Which is why I’m not cleaning. And I’m also not taking any steps toward the change I want.

I am just sitting here. Feeling anxious.

Anxious about cleaning. And also anxious about the nature of the change.

I’m not, as far as I can tell, very anxious about change in general. Change in my life has generally meant good things. Change is a breath of fresh air. Change is escape.

But this change. I’m anxious about this one.

Why? I’ll tell you. Because it’s what I want.

For 2×2 readers, you’ll know what I mean. I am taking my own way. I may even be giving in to the pleasures of the flesh. I am certainly being proud.

I’m being selfish. I have not asked for God’s guidance in this. I haven’t prayed. I have not consulted any higher authority on this. It’s like breaking a mirror before you go out. Bad luck, bad luck, bad luck.

mirrorIf you weren’t raised in a cult, it can be hard to comprehend the strength of the irrational fears that linger. Pyschoanalytic theories seem to think we are most afraid of social disapproval and rejection or the judgment of authority figures. I want to slap my knee. That’s a good one. Ha-ha!

I am afraid of being hit by a car and left paralyzed, unable to work or manage my own life anymore. I am afraid of being killed in a random robbery. I am afraid not of social disapproval, but of God’s disapproval and that he will show it by destroying what is left of my life.

If you’ve ever sat around the table on a Sunday afternoon after meeting, shaking your head over the plight of some poor soul who was “led astray” then you’ll know what I mean. The warnings about what will happen to you if you break the rules are woven into the conversation so skillfully you don’t even notice they are there. Not until you start breaking those rules.

And then you find yourself wondering why you look so carefully before crossing a street, why it’s so hard to sleep, why you feel oddly afraid.

But car accidents were big when I was growing up. As was drug and alcohol use and HIV. Those were the things that might happen if you took your own way, gave in to the pleasures of the flesh, or became proud.

Those are the ways God might take his revenge. Here, on earth, where you can be an example to others.

Fundamental Attribution Error

I’m still thinking about heuristics. It’s a Friday afternoon as I’m writing this, and I got home a bit earlier than usual. So bear with me. This is the kind of thing I think weekends are for.

Specifically, I was thinking about the Fundamental Attribution Error (which shall henceforth be known as the FAE, because that is just way too long to keep typing.)

“The fundamental attribution error is a common type of cognitive bias in social psychology. Essentially, it involves placing a heavy emphasis on internal personality characteristics to explain someone’s behavior in a given situation, rather than thinking about external situational factors.” From WiseGeek.

Essentially, the FAE–which is a terrifically common cognitive error that we make all the time, in all kinds of situations, and has been heavily verified and tested–causes us to think the person who cuts us off driving home from work in traffic is stupid, or selfish, or a bad driver. In other words, it is something innate within that person that causes him to behave that way, and not perhaps having his wife in labor in the back seat.

Dispositional Attribution is the Fundamental Attribution Error
Dispositional Attribution is the Fundamental Attribution Error

What’s interesting to me about this is that, although social psychologists once assumed FAE was universal, people in Western cultures make it more often and Americans make it the most often. (Read more about it in The Weirdest People in the World). It seems to have something to do with living in an individualistic society rather than one slanted towards collectivism.

It turns out that how we see ourselves in relationship to others affects how we see everything. When I was in graduate school, they called this field-dependent and field-independent cultures. For the life of me, I could never figure out how this related to how I was supposed to teach my subject matter. Now I do. (But that’s for another post.)

People with a field dependent orientation see both figure and ground. They might tell you less about a man’s face in a photo, but they might also tell you more about where he is, what the weather is like, and what he is wearing. Someone with a field-independent orientation may be able to tell you what the man looks like in more detail, but remember nothing about the background at all. People from collectivist cultures tend towards a field dependent orientation, while those from individualist cultures tend towards field independence.

What I wonder is if our tendency to focus exclusively on either victims or perpetrators is at least partly related to a cognitive error–if we are seeing only the figures in the picture, and not the ground. And if our over-consideration of the behaviors or innate qualities of the actors in a crime leads us to ignore the surrounding context.

In other words, I wonder if we are missing aspects of a situation we might, in fact, be in a better position to affect than the actions of a few individuals. For example, if a young woman is raped walking home late from a pub at night as a teenager was in Sydney just last month, then there is the tendency to think either about her choice to walk home alone or about how to appropriately punish the perpetrators. (Read the specifics of this case here.)

And, in doing so, we may be missing out on the chance to consider how changes in late-night transportation services, lighting, or policing could make the city safer for young women who–like young men–want to go out and have a good time on their own on a Saturday night. And we also may miss out on the chance to consider how the behavior of witnesses (and how the expected behavior of witness) can make a difference.

I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that people are generally harmed for only one reason: they are more vulnerable than the perpetrator. And it doesn’t take much to do that. You can be smaller, less physically fit-looking, or less well-armed. In fact, all it may take is to be female, because our assumption about women is that they are weak.

Sure, walking confidently can make a difference. Staying in well-traveled areas can help. But all it really takes to make me a victim is a lack of obvious physical power. And someone around who feels like harming me. I have no control over any of those factors..

We can also work on perpetrators. We can make sure that there are severe and swift consequences for seriously harming others so that there is some deterrent. We can keep individuals known to be violent in jail and off the streets for as long as possible. We can even intervene early in the lives of budding juvenile delinquents to help them learn empathy and anger management.

But the reality is that we can’t keep every violent person locked up forever–we can’t even predict who they will be–and many perpetrators see rules as applying to other people. A sociopath typically assumes he will never be caught and punished. He is special, invulnerable, too-smart. He is as surprised by jail time for a crime committed as I would be if I won the lottery–since I didn’t buy a ticket. A focus on perpetrators will only take us so far.

There can and should be more to this business of making our world safer. It needs to involve looking at circumstances that surround crime and it needs to involve changing the behavior of witnesses and bystanders. We need to pay attention to the field.

You may also like this:

We Aren’t the World

The Lion and the Sociopath

I usually talk about father in metaphors if I’m going to. I describe him most often as a lion–a predator. A creature designed to prey on humanity and on what humanity values. He is a predator in my mind, not a person. And I don’t really think he could ever have been anything other than what he is.

6a00d8341c630a53ef015431f79880970c-300wiOf course, lions are majestic creatures in their own right, and they have an important place in their grassland ecosystems. And they mostly harm people by killing cattle–not people’s children. I can’t say the same for my father.

I don’t think his life has any value or meaning at all. I don’t think he has anything substantially worthwhile to offer anyone. In fact, the world would be a better and safer place without him.

I hate him.

And I also feel a terrible sadness for him. Not on his behalf–he isn’t suffering–but because I wish he could be anything other than what he is. I wish there were hope from him, that he could be salvaged or redeemed. He can’t. He is broken in a way that isn’t fixable, like a machine missing its most important parts–empathy and conscience–and the parts are ones that cannot be replaced.

I remember looking at his school photos as a child, puzzling over them, reading his report cards. Was there ever a point when he could have been saved? Was he ever just a little boy that might still grow up to be a man and not a demon? Or was he always like that? Was there always simply no hope?

Heuristics and Human Predators, or Why I Think I Can Just Let Some Things Go

Is forgiveness necessary?

I have asked that question before in Forgiveness. I don’t know the answer, but I can tell you the anger I continue to carry is uncomfortable for me. It is like a burden or a weight, this excess emotion, heavy and tiresome. Because of that, I continue to look for ways to get rid of it every time I notice its presence.

Forgiveness has begun to enter my mind as a possibility. But perhaps it isn’t forgiveness that is so necessary so much as understanding. And it’s hard for me to understand.

Not the atrocity of what was done to me. I understand that. I have spent my whole life around psychopaths and other very damaged, very abusive people. In the end, they haven’t been so difficult to get my head around.

It’s everyone else. Everyone who failed to act, who didn’t see, who turned a blind eye, who failed to intervene, who allowed it, who didn’t stop the abuse or rescue me from it.

And those later who failed to help me, who promised to help me and didn’t—mainly therapists, I suppose, who claimed to have an answer to my suffering but really just wasted my time—and not just one or two for a few sessions here and there. Half a dozen of them. For more than a decade.

I hold the rest of society responsible in a way I find it difficult to do with the perpetrators. Maybe this isn’t always the case, but my own perpetrators seem so lacking in what it takes to be human that it is difficult for me to fault them. Like lions, they seem wired to be predators. And they were very good ones.

If you have lions in your area, and you are a sensible person, you grow a lion-proof corral out of thorny bushes to protect your cattle. You don’t sit just sit around feeling mad at the lions.

So where was the lion-proof corral?

I had an epiphany recently, though, and that may help. I don’t know that it’s the most hopeful epiphany, and it may not be the one that helps you. The understanding that will help you is the one that makes sense to you, based on what you have seen and know of the world. This is the one that makes sense to me.

We’re a kluge. I’ve mentioned that before in Taggart, Near Death Experiences and our Klugey, Klugey Minds, and The Kluginess of the Human Mind. More importantly, we have significant limitations in our ability to process information. These limitations lead to cognitive errors. Cognitive errors are not the same as the cognitive distortions you might work on correcting with cognitive behavior therapy. Distortions are based on your specific history and your specific past. Errors are common to nearly everyone, and while you can try to be conscious of them, there is often not much that can be done to prevent them. They are just part of how our minds work.

Cognitive errors are mostly due to shortcuts we rely on to make information processing more efficient—heuristics. We need shortcuts because there is only so much we can pay attention to, remember, and draw conclusions from. We only have so much time to mull over everything we have ever experienced before we need to locate a pattern and decide what it means. Heuristics work in most situations, but cause errors in a smaller number of others. You can read more about them here or here.

Because of these errors, there are times when we fail to see what we don’t expect to see, even in the face of clear evidence.  I suspect that this played a part in the thinking of those who failed to act or protect me when I was young and most vulnerable.

Those who might have acted to protect me may have failed to see the extent to which I was being harmed because they did not expect it. The kind of abuse I suffered is almost unthinkable. It is not a part of our ordinary experiences, and it is not what we generally expect human beings do to one another. It is certainly not what we expect to see parents do to their own children.

There are things we don’t see because it is too painful to do so. And there are things we don’t see because knowing would require us to act. There are also things we don’t see because it would create an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. And then there are things we don’t see because we just can’t.

Others may not have seen what I was suffering because of all of those factors, or even just because of the last one.

And there may have been similar reasons why those who did act did not act effectively, and why we still don’t have adequate measures in place to protect our most vulnerable members from predatory individuals and groups.

As a culture, we typically have certain assumptions about how people think and behave. Because of our heuristics, we tend to notice evidence that supports those assumptions and ignore evidence that contradicts them. But our assumptions are rarely complete or accurate. They may help us understand most people and navigate most situations, but they leave out situations that are unusual or individuals with minds that are substantially different than average.

So, we may not see that some people lack conscience entirely. We don’t realize some people enjoy harming others for the sake of it. We don’t recognize these problems as being completely unfixable, or that people who lack conscience are often very ordinary-seeming, even charming. And we may not see how vulnerable we are to their manipulations. There is a great deal of evidence, for example, that most of us are extremely poor at detecting lying. And yet hardly any of us will admit to that. Also, we may not accept easily that punishment, reprimand, or counseling will not lead to any long-term change or improvement in individuals who lack conscience or empathy.

And that means we may not notice when someone like that is harming another person or harming a group of people. We may not see when we are being manipulated by someone who lacks conscience. And we may not act effectively to protect those who are unable to protect themselves.

It’s common to assume that people who engage in anti-social behavior are suffering deeply in some way. I have never seen any evidence of this, although I was surrounded by people exactly like that when I was growing up.

They do often express anger and articulate a sense of victimization. But I don’t think this is the same as actually suffering. Anger is a powerful emotion. I find anger unpleasant, but not everyone does and for some people anger can be intoxicating rather than troubling. And believing one is being victimized can satisfy a deep need to feel special.

So I tend to think that assuming harming others is always a cover for deep suffering is nothing more than that—an assumption. One we prefer to believe because it doesn’t challenge our basic ideas about the human mind: namely, that, at heart, we are all basically good people, we are capable of free will, and everyone can be redeemed.

I don’t think any of those things are true. Unlike dogs, some people really are predatory. Our ability to choose freely is limited by our perceptions, needs, and strong desires or feelings. A predator can choose not to harm others, but there is no real reason they ever would. Instead, I think our assumptions about the fundamentals of human nature arise through a heuristic—a shortcut. One that leaves us unable to respond effectively with our species’ outliers—but it was those outliers that I lived with everyday.

And it isn’t really a temporary problem. It’s an ongoing one—one that we may be able to make small inroads on over time, but our limitations are part of our condition as human beings.

We just aren’t that smart.

It’s hard to explain the emotion that comes with this perspective for me, because I’ve written all of this in a way that I think probably sounds very detached and clinical. But I don’t feel detached about it. I feel a terrible sense of sorrow, as if what it means to be human is in itself a matter of tragedy.

It is wonderful to be human. It is an astonishing privilege to be a part of creation in any way at all. But we are flawed in ways that make us vulnerable to harm from others and that cause us to form societies that are flawed in the same ways that we are.

We do the best we can most of the time. There is hope that we can do better, and there is some indication that we are doing better. Although there are now more individuals living in a state of enslavement than ever have before, slavery is at least no longer a legal condition. And although we continue to abuse our children, at least most churches do not actively advocate it any longer.  Despite the ongoing occurrence of genocide and group-based conflicts, at least we have begun to think about how to effectively intervene and prevent them.

And I also feel relieved about it, because I no longer feel compelled to hold anyone responsible. What happened to me was no one’s fault. And I can let go of that burden of anger at last.

What Made Me Who I Am

My childhood sucked. If you’ve been reading, you’ll know that’s an understatement. And if you haven’t, it’s okay. The details aren’t really the point today.

But we have this tendency to go back to those truly terrible events–especially the ones from childhood, it seems–and say “But that’s what made me who I am today.”

There’s a compulsion to find a silver lining in our horror, to think it all has an overall purpose, something redeeming about it. There isn’t a silver lining. You suffer until it is over and until you have more opportunities. When you get the chance, you work very hard to be something like a normal person. And eventually you get to a place where you are more or less as functional and productive a member of society as you might have been if it hadn’t happened. That’s all.

Whatever you think about God, the evil we enact upon other human beings is not part of His plan.

So I was sitting here this evening, petting the cat and watching a few more bodies pile up on Taggart, and I thought none of that matters. None of that made me who I am. It happened, it’s over, I struggle with the wounds. It isn’t an identity, or a personality, or my character. It didn’t make me who I am.

The good stuff made me who I am. The Keegans, who took me in and treated me like their own when I was placed into care. They made me.

That teacher in the 1st grade who drove me across town to daycare when I missed the bus–to a place neither of us even knew the location of with any precision. (“Keep your eyes peeled,” she told me, in the car.) And we did, in fact, find it. Without a whole lot of trouble, as it turned out.

That made me.

The neighbor who held me in the white rocking chair while paramedics trooped in and out when my mother attempted suicide in the bath (and I found her) and then took me home, drew a warm bath for me, put me in clean pajamas.

That made me.

The financial aid officer at my college who simply changed my financial status and extended a scholarship to cover the cost of an increased loan when my parents said they were done paying for my college (4 months in). While I sat in her office and cried, certain I would have to return to those psychopaths.

That made me.

The secretary for the Dean of Students who said, “Sure, come stay with me.” In a one bedroom apartment that she lived in with her daughter. When I was sort of “between places” for four days and had no where else to go.

That made me.

The therapist who didn’t charge me for a consultation when I was really, really broke because I needed all the help I could get. (And I did.)

That made me.

Neglect, suffering, cruelty. None of those things made me who I am today. The good things did. Good people made me.

On Reptiles and Possibility

My first and longest long-term relationship was psychologically abusive. It never escalated to physical violence, but at the point when I left, it seemed it might.

Clouded monitor lizard eating a scorpion.
Clouded monitor lizard eating a scorpion.

I wonder, even now, why I stayed so long and what would have helped me during that time. Because, in fact, no one could help me. I was in therapy during part of this time, but quit when I found myself leaving every session feeling suicidal and utterly without hope.

What set me off was the therapist asking me during these sessions, “What can you do to take care of yourself?” And it seemed to elide the fact that I couldn’t, that there was nothing I could do to either protect myself or recover from the psychological assaults.

Accepting reality is important. And I began to feel hopeful and capable of taking action again when, out of therapy, I could acknowledge that I could not prevent someone I cared about from psychologically wounding me, and that I could do nothing to prevent the extent of the wounding.

Having a heart has its price. And that’s one of them.

But what really kept me with someone who hurt me all the way to the core on nearly a daily basis was my uncertainty about what life had to offer or what could reasonably expected from other people. And I needed to be set straight. I needed to be told clearly, “Not everyone does this to the people they claim to love. Not everyone will do this to you. More is possible for your life–even likely. There is a reason to hope for more.”

I sometimes think of the people who raised me as reptiles. They raised me to live among other reptiles: animals that are not oriented toward caring for one another, that don’t even recognize their young, and that prey upon whatever is the right size and available.

I had seen people before. I had some guesses about what they might act like, but I didn’t know if I was a person or a reptile, and I wasn’t entirely clear on how different the behavior of reptiles and people really is.

There was a lot I just did not know. And I needed to be told. Quite directly. Not in that indirect, therapist kind of way, “What do you think?” Because actually most of my experience and knowledge of the world supported a view that I am a reptile, raised to live among reptiles, and not among human beings and that what I can expect from life is to be preyed upon.

60606-3x2-340x227It grieves me deeply to know now that I escaped the captivity of my childhood only to continue to live for decades in a captivity that lived on in my mind, and that the 9 years I lived with a psychologically abusive spouse was a large part of that ongoing experience of captivity.

The common thinking about battered women is that they are more afraid of loneliness, change, or the unknown than of staying with a spouse who could end up killing them. I was not afraid. I had lived through considerably worse. But I did not know if I wanted to continue to live in this world if life had nothing better to offer than more abuse.

An innate optimism, plus some brushes with life with people, made me think that this simply couldn’t be true. But I needed to be sure. I needed to know.

I needed to know that leaving meant walking out the door of the last prison I might ever need to occupy, and that I wasn’t fleeing one predator only to find myself surrounded by a world of others exactly the same.

I still wish, after all these years, that someone could have simply told me.

Frequently, I have found therapists preoccupied with questions of self-esteem, with ideas about a just world. They think if you feel better about yourself or believe yourself more deserving, you will be better off, that you will demand more from life and that you will do more to assert your rights and your needs.

But I don’t believe in a just world. I’m not sure how anyone who grew up the way I did could. Things happen, good or bad, for often arbitrary and capricious reasons. Bad things didn’t happen to me because I was a bad person. Good things aren’t necessarily going to happen to me because I am good. The world is not just, God is not just, and people are not just. At least not all the time.

What I needed to know was what was possible–and what is possible now. I didn’t need self-esteem to escape. I just needed to know it was possible to escape, and that the trip was likely to be worthwhile.

We need each other so much, even a glance can wound. Barbara Kruger, 1981. All rights reserved.
We need each other so much, even a glance can wound. Barbara Kruger, 1981. All rights reserved.

I really don’t know what it’s like for others who fall into abusive relationships but come from somewhat more average backgrounds. I don’t know what it’s like to have your sense of safety, rights, and worth stripped away from you. I never had those. But I wonder if we really understand their struggles or their experience, or if the way we think about abusive relationships between adults is a misjudgment, just as others misjudged me.

At the very least, I think we need to understand the sense of captivity that comes from being harmed by someone you depend on–as we all depend on our spouses and loved ones. We need to understand the worry that perhaps there really is nothing better on the other side of abuse, that there may be nothing worth fighting for or worth fleeing into, because this is as good as life gets. And I think we need to understand the ongoing sense of powerlessness that comes from being regularly assaulted, and the sense of being beyond the reach of the rest of the world.

Because, in fact, when your spouse is assaulting you, you are powerless. At least in that moment. And the rest of the world almost never steps in to protect you. Perhaps afterward, but never when the fist is raised, never when the hands are outstretched to shove you. No one ever comes when you need them.

And we construct reality from what we see.