Too Close, Too Loud, Too There

My first year of college, I began to wake up in the nights screaming. It was hard on my roommate, being woken up like that. But then she started carving up her wrists and went home, while I started seeing a therapist. So I guess it worked out okay.

I still remember those nightmares. They were of things that looked like this:

Violin. Click image to follow link.
Violin. Click image to follow link.

Everything too close, too loud, too there.

People talk about feeling a thousand miles away when they hear of the sudden news of an accident or a death. They describe incest from the perspective of being up on the ceiling, out of their bodies. A thousand miles away.

Some of us deal with trauma by checking out. Some of us check in.

I checked in. I checked out too. But mostly I checked in. Not unnaturally far away, but unnaturally present.

What I remember about many things is being in a calm, flat, almost meditative emotional space in which I focused intently on what needed to be done, the acts that needed to be performed, the body parts involved, the reactions that needed to be elicited.

Like a sex act mattered as much as defusing a bomb. Because to me, it did.

Every trick was a test I had to pass.

Failure meant risking hypothermia, strangulation, loss of consciousness, death. It meant risking brain damage and a life-time of dependency. No wonder I never gamble. I’ve had to gamble too much.

Because I knew what I was risking. I knew perhaps a little too much.

I knew I could not stop breathing for four minutes. I’d seen the first-aid films at school. I knew I had to hope my dad’s watch kept good time. I knew I had to trust him not to let me be dead too long.

And how do you trust a psychopath?

I needed to focus. I needed to be there. I needed to make sure things went right. The consequences of failure were immense. My nightmares were about that need to focus. And the fact that whether or not I could was a matter of life or death.

I was very good at what I did.


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.

For all of you who…

Most people who have experienced abuse struggle with low self-esteem and feelings of lack of worth.

I do too.

But that’s not my worst problem. My worst problem is a struggle with a sense that none of us are worth anything. We are all equally wretched and useless. The world is a terrible place and I don’t want to be here. Thanks, anyway. Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll just be on my on my way…

That’s what happens when you are raised by a psychopathic whose main aim in life is to prove that the rest of humanity is as depraved as he is, that we all lack courage, we are all manipulative liars and self-absorbed takers. Whatever we say about ourselves, we can be used. We will use others for the right incentive. None of us are what we say we are, and none of us are any better than he is.

It’s a mindset I’d like to take off my head and smash into a million pieces.

So to all of those of you who give up your seats when you see an elderly person board the bus or enter the room, for all of you who hug your kids when they cry, for all of you who tell your employees well done when have indeed done well, for all of you who fight wars without intentionally killing civilians, for peace officers who arrest offenders without beating them, for all of you who rescue homeless dogs and cats and children, and for those who try to help in any way: Thanks. You make the world a place worth living in.

Without you, I couldn’t do it.

People Care

Those who are victimized by deeply pathological individuals usually feel alone, isolated, and worthless in the aftermath of the trauma. No one came to their aid, and the take-away for the victim is often that no one did so because they did not deserve it.

I attribute some of this to what I described in an earlier entry of that title: The Psychopathic Lens.

Psychopaths and others with strong narcissistic tendencies see themselves as outside of the rules of society. At  the same time, they are perpetually surprised at the lack of omniscience on the part of others.

It is my belief that their grandiosity makes them falsely convinced they are omniscient themselves. Evidence to the contrary is considered irrelevant, false, or a deliberate attempt at deception. It either enrages them or is of no interest to them.

That being said, I suspect harming others is often a way of a perpetrator thumbing his nose at the rules of society. He may couch it in terms of his interest in harming the victim, but people who lack conscience lie. They lie about everything, including their own motives and feelings. They lie for no reason, to gain something, and just because it is fun.

I don’t ever read the accounts of psychopaths although their minds interest me. Their accounts are fiction, and not always very believable fictions.

So, even when perpetrators claim to be motivated purely by a desire to harm a particular victim, I don’t believe that. I believe they are looking to harm society. Specifically, they are motivated at least in part by a desire to assault the rules that make society function.

Secondly, and returning to their assumption of their own conviction of omniscience, and their surprise at the rest of us ordinary mortals who don’t seem to have it, the victim is usually not rescued by others because of a lack of ability to do so on the part of the larger society or because of a lack of knowledge regarding the victimization.

The perpetrator may say to the victim, “Look, no one will help you. No one cares. They say they care, but they don’t.” And yet, when it comes down to it, ordinary people usually do care about the suffering of others.

To put it in terms of particular situations, there are many of us who care very much about the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib and the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center. We want Gitmo shut down.

They have happened not because we don’t care, but for other reasons. First, we didn’t know. It was inconceivable that American forces should be involved in such evil acts, and the press and other informants were not granted access to facilities for a long time. Then, those who did have power to make changes refused to make them.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t those who believe Guantanamo serves its purpose, or that don’t attempt to justify torture. It does say to me that it isn’t that no one cares. But many people do care. I care.

When anyone is victimized, someone does care or would care if they knew, and often that someone cares enough to want to rescue the victim. They don’t intervene because they don’t know that they need to or because they can’t.

When I think about my own victimization, I am saddened not just at my own powerlessness, but the powerlessness of the larger society to help me. I understand that the harm individuals commit against children and others harms society. I know that it is deeply distressing to everyone to be so powerless to protect our own and to be unable to find constructive and effective ways of combating the evil that lives in our midst.

The Psychopathic Lens

When I was a kid, carnivals always used to have these funhouses where you could look at yourself in different kinds of distorting mirrors. In one of them, you’d be as wide as a house, in another one, a beanstalk. I guess they still have those.

Growing up with a psychopathic parent is like wearing glasses like that—everything is distorted.

Now, I know I’m probably not talking directly to a huge number of readers out there who have similar experiences. Psychopaths do have kids, just like everyone else does, but I don’t imagine they are always so great at sticking around. But anyone with strong narcissistic traits—borderlines, narcissists, and others with Axis II disorders—will do something similar to their kids.

But even if you can’t relate to what I’m saying at all, let me tell you about it. I’ll feel better and you might learn something.

It seems to me, having sat with a few psychopaths in my time, that they come in one of two types: either they assume they assume they are unique in the world, or they assume everyone else is exactly like them, but less successfully.

In other words, psychopaths sometimes see that we care for one another and that we feel empathy and remorse, and they are unique and special for not having it. Or, they think we are all fundamentally self-centered and uncaring and it’s just that we have these little lapses they are spared. I may be wrong about that, but it seems that way.

It’s hard, I have to admit, to say exactly what it is psychopaths really believe or feel because they lie. They appear to be telling the truth when they are lying. Because they don’t feel guilt or fear about lying, there is no way to distinguish. But sometimes you can piece things together, if you are stuck in the same room with them long enough.

At any rate, what that means for a child growing up under the influence of a psychopath is that she will hear repeatedly either that people are stupid for caring, or that they are using caring manipulatively in the same way that the psychopath does.

He will also often hear that everyone is exactly like the psychopath, or at least should be. There is, in fact, no hope of escape to a kinder, more connected world. The psychopath’s world is the only world that exists.

We tend to think of this only from the perspective of the child who wants to be cared for and isn’t. But what the psychopath engenders is a sense that no one cares, and if they do care, they shouldn’t. And in “no one,” the child is included.

It’s natural to grow up in this environment thinking that you don’t care, and if you do care, you shouldn’t. That you can’t form connections. None are available and you lack the capacity. There is no one worth connecting to and you aren’t worth connecting to either.

It is a bleak world for a child to grow up in, a lonely world, and one that really isn’t worth being in. The psychopathic lens is one that robs life of meaning and purpose, because the psychopath lacks meaning or purpose.

I’ve got to get some new glasses. I hate the old ones.


Care is very important to me. It separates the evil I was raised amidst from the rest of the world.

I have mentioned I feel at a baseline an intense degree of despair. It isn’t my only feeling, but it is something I continue to return to. My despair is about the world I live in, a world that includes such evil.

And it seems to me clear that there are two worlds, one distorted and evil, and another, ordinary world. But they brush against each other, they overlap. You cannot simply flee from one to another. Evil always exists in our everyday worlds.

What the despair turns on for me is the memory of evil when I looked it in the face, when I could smell its breath, when I touched it. The despair is closely linked to a horror at what lay there–a psychological wasteland.

Because fundamentally what I was dealing with were empty people, some of them sociopaths, and what they lacked was the ability to care or to feel deeply, or to connect to others. The horror I remember is a look at the inside of their heads.

It is a terrible place to be.

What was done to me was terrible. Being myself was terrible–as a suffering, feeling person, wounded by the betrayal of people I depended on. Being in their heads was worse.

I hate that I understand them or that, while others are puzzled when news of atrocity hits the headlines, I understand. I am not like them, but I know what it’s like to be them. I have felt their emptiness. It is awful, like a blinding snowstorm it is easy to become lost in, to freeze to death it is so cold in there

It is one thing I wish I could forget.