Don’t Read This

There is a reason cats have been on my mind lately, and it’s not just that my cat has been unwell, or that I’m in that horrible position of knowing I will need to leave and not take her with me. Or even that in the larger picture I know she’s dying–just rather slowly. I’m not sure how slowly.

No, it isn’t only that. And it seems to me it’s time to deal with it.

I know I’ve made little stabs at it here and there. But not enough to make much difference. Not enough to cut this monster off at the neck. Just enough to annoy it.

Because otherwise it is going to affect every portion of my life. You know, the way trauma does.

I killed a kitten when I was about four. My dad told me to strangle it, and so I did. I think that is the worst thing he ever did to me. Except maybe the other time, when I was about eight. Maybe six. And he poked a cat’s eyes out in front of me.  Or maybe I did. I can’t remember it very clearly.

The thing is I know I did the wrong thing in those situations. I did the best I could, but I did the wrong thing.

I was distressed. I think I cried.

The right thing would have been to look and act like I didn’t care. That would have taken the fun out of it for him. He might have stopped then. Or he might have stopped with the first incident, and never gone on to the second.

I was tiny, and I felt all of this responsibility for the welfare of another creature. And that is what has remained with me.


Integration (Oh the Joy of It)

Actually, my cat sleeps on my side. Whenever it becomes firmly established that where I am sleeping is my side, she starts sleeping there. We all know who is boss around here. It isn't me.
Actually, my cat sleeps on my side. Whenever it becomes firmly established that where I am sleeping is my side, she starts sleeping there. We all know who is boss around here. It isn’t me.

I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. It’s just one of those days.

I am angry with no clearly defined cause, no one to blame for it. I just woke up that way. I could, if I felt like it, comb through my memory banks and find something to feel justifiably angry at, but I am just not in the mood. I don’t feel like confabulating a reason for my anger solely to make myself feel more reasonable. I’ve done it before, but I just don’t feel like it today.

So here I am angry and frustrated with nothing in particular to be angry or frustrated at.

And that forces me to sit with it and to just be. And that is really probably the best thing. It’s just not really what I was taught to do with feelings–aren’t they there to analyze and make sense of?–and it isn’t second nature. It isn’t really 4th or 5th nature. We are looking more at distant 20th.

But I like a challenge, so here I am.

I told you I was working at feelings. I didn’t lie.

And some of that is pretty low-level, pretty literal. But integration means you have access to all parts of yourself, or at least the parts of yourself it is normal to access. (No, I don’t have conscious control of my digestive tract, I admit to that, and I cannot “feel” myself giving my intestines the instruction to speed up or slow down.)

Integration means you can feel your body. And so it also means we need to start being able to organize experiences felt in the body, that we didn’t really need to organize before, because they were simply suppressed.

It means feeling all kinds of bizarre sensations in my abdomen and begin to identify them. “That is anger.” “That is excitement.” “That is merely indigestion.”

And so this bout of anger this morning has a purpose. There is, in fact, something I can do with it that desperately needs to be done. I can link it to what I am feeling now in my body that I actually couldn’t before.

This isn’t to say that I couldn’t identify when I was angry, but I was basing that identification on less complex information. It mostly had to do with what I thought. And maybe a certain degree of physiological arousal: heartrate, respiration, muscular tension. Not funny feelings in my stomach.

I’m doing what 2-year-olds do, I suspect. I’m learning to use my words.

The difference perhaps is not that I don’t know the words. I’m learning a new use of the words I already know, an additional aspect of their meaning I had been lacking before. In other words, this is kid’s stuff. Little kid’s stuff.

It is yet another way I was robbed of my childhood. I was robbed of a core portion of my experience, because I was robbed of at least some of my ability to feel.

The worst thing you can do around a psychopath is feel. He’ll know when you’re feeling. He’ll see it on your face. And he’ll find some way to use that feeling to harm you. Whenever I watch films or television shows with sadistic psychopathic villains, I implore their victims silently (sometimes out loud) stop begging. Stop appealing to their compassion. They don’t have any. Look tough. Look like nothing scares you. That might get you out alive. But fear will get you killed.

With a psychopath, feeling is dangerous, quite literally, and not always only dangerous to yourself, but to others you care about. Because that can be used to hurt you too.

There is a wonderful scene in Cracker, when Fitz (a criminal profiler with a rocky marriage), tells the serial rapist who is now holding Fitz’s own wife hostage how much of a favor this would be for him. It saves her life. She is hardly appreciative of his efforts, but it works. Of course it does. That is exactly how a psychopath thinks?

How can I hurt you? What do you care about?

In my case, I care about animals. (So you can understand now why it kills me to think of my cat suffering. Why I agonize about what to do when it seems to me she’s suffering. I keep trying to save the cats my dad tortured in front of me–not from death, but from something worse than death, from suffering.)

I learned not to feel, to feel less, or to feel only when no one else was around. I kept me from getting hurt. It kept the neighbors’ cats from getting hurt too.

But my dad isn’t here now. It’s time for a change.

And sometimes what I most need to do is simply feel again. Like today.

Feelings can seem so inconvenient; working with parts can seem so inconvenient. Why would I want to be an angry, frustrated, tantrum-y 2-year-old again? And yet that is what I am being given back–those missed parts of my childhood. It isn’t pleasant sometimes, like today, but it’s mine. I am getting back my own.

Too Awful for Words

god-hates-you-350Something came to me today. It has a vividness and a specificity that makes me think it really happened.

I’m not too sure. But I think so.

It came after an afternoon of feeling more genuinely despairing than I have felt in a long time. It wasn’t exactly sadness, so much as a sense of the pointlessness of it all.

It was terrible. It was really too awful for words.

And then this popped into my head:

God hates you. Stop asking Him for help.

Not my voice, but someone else’s voice. A male voice. And there was a sense of looking at something. Knees perhaps. Something dark and long, you know, like trouser legs.

Who says that?

Well, my father would. He would.

And maybe he did.

It’s a Predator Thing

imagejpeg_5 (4)
Eating non-prescription food.

At the vet’s the other night, picking up the prescription that my cat refuses to eat, the receptionist bent my ear a bit about how infrequently they see cats as compared to dogs. Apparently, we can’t tell when cats our cats are sick.

Actually, I can. Over the years, my sick cats have hid behind the books, stopped eating, used the box too much or not at all, and most obviously of all stopped smiling. I don’t know what I mean by smiling, but happy cats do smile. And mine have always intentionally widened their eyes in some kind of bizarre bid to look cuter. There was a point when only one of them did this, but then after a decade or so of living together, the second one picked it up as well. So when they are unwell what I notice first are these little tiny eyes peering at me.

But as I watch mine not eat, use the box too much, and hide under the bed–but still smile–I wonder what she really feels, and whether I can only tell when she’s very sick.

Reading up on her condition, I ran across the apt observation that at least some cats often conceal their physical discomfort from their owners, putting on a show of normalcy until they no longer can. (It’s a predator thing, the writer said.)

And I can’t remember where I ran across that bit of wisdom, or I would link to it and credit it appropriately, but I think it is a predator thing. I think it is about being a predator among other predators that does that to creatures.

Two male lions, Kenya. Photo credit: Anup & Manoj Shah (
Two male lions, Kenya. Photo credit: Anup & Manoj Shah (

Lions, in fact, attack members of their pride who show symptoms of canine distemper. Predators see weakness in others as an opportunity to attack, and although it isn’t actually the reason lions attack their sickened pridemates, it is the reason predatory people attack other people.

If you are around a predator, your best bet is to conceal any sign of weakness, any indication that you can feel pain or sorrow or fear. Your best bet is to behave like another predator.

I should know. I was raised by one.

But it’s no way to live.

Cat Grass and Sociopathic Landscapes: Thoughts for a Monday

I am growing what turns out to be millet. I had birdseed in the cabinet that I didn’t know what to do with. I thought the cat might like it.

She does. Just gave it a good chewing on this morning.

There are some sunflowers thrown in for good measure.
There are some sunflowers thrown in for good measure.

I don’t know if the sunflowers will make it.

I swear I am not one of those crazy cat-ladies that feeds her cat prime rib in a cut crystal dish.

But I do mash up a bit of over-the-counter fiber laxative to give her slightly-impaired intestines a boost. And water down the whole thing until it’s something like cat food soup to help her dying kidneys keep on keeping on.

I’d show you a picture of that also, but I don’t think you want to see it.

And maybe that means I am.

She’s old and I hear getting old isn’t for the faint of heart. I’m just trying to make the whole thing a bit more pleasant for her, a little less constipated, a little less achy and tired like having the flu.

I suppose this is what it means to be kind. I suppose I should look at that and say I’m a kind person. That’s at the heart of who I am. I have planted millet grass because the cat might like it. And she does.

Mt. Jackson, Antartica. Photo credit: Wikipedia
Mt. Jackson, Antartica. Photo credit: Wikipedia

But I’ve mixed myself up in my own mind with someone else, and I can’t seem to get it straight.

I spent a lot of time shutting down how I felt growing up and doing what I needed to do. I spent a lot of time being practical and not feeling.

I spent a lot of time hating the part of myself that did feel.

I remind myself of my dad that way.

Being with him was like being in the midst of a wind. If you were to take a picture of my dad’s soul it would look like a bit like this. His heart is an ice floe, a desert, a freezing wind. But it isn’t beautiful. It is just cold.

I can still feel that coldness in me whenever I think of him. But what is hard for me to grasp is that I was the one who froze in it.

What Do They See in Them?

I am confident my dad never rocked this look. Not in 1968.
I am confident my dad never rocked this look. Not in 1968.

The story my mother tells about meeting my father for the first is that one day he showed up at her Bible study wearing a suit and running shoes. Her last view of him as he left that night was of my dad pulling the seam of his pants out of his ass.

She sees him as kind of a pathetic loser who needs a bit of looking after.

He’s a psychopath. Apparently, that image works for him. That kind of man works for some women, I guess.

But what makes a woman so devoted to a man like that that she will let him abuse her kids in the most sadistic and perverted of ways?

Saying that, I know there are things my father did to us that my mother didn’t know about. And there are some things she knew about but chose not to. But there were things she did know. That she should have been appalled by. And wasn’t. Participated in instead. Why?

My mother was no picnic herself. Still, hers was a much more direct, honest kind of abuse. She blamed others for the pain she felt and wanted to punish them for it. She was violent and negligent. She beat the shit out of me, and then left me to die. But she didn’t do what my father would do: stick around to watch me suffer.

My mother wasn’t the same kind of jacked up. And what she let my father do to us, and what she did to us herself at my father’s urging, should have crossed a line. Even for her.

The cover design for Born to Die. Bad boy, anyone?

So, what did she see in this man? Why do women sacrifice everything for psychopathic sadists, serial killers, and madmen?

Grandiosity. That’s what I think it is.

Not too long ago, I went through a bit of a Lana Del Rey phase. She reminds me of someone.

Not my mother, incidentally. My dad went to church three times a week. He was never my mother’s “bad boy.” And Lana likes “bad boys.” No, Lana reminds me of Carol Ann.

Carol Ann was my father’s girlfriend. My father was Carol Ann’s “bad boy.”

Carol Ann abused me too. In front of my father. Because he liked it. My mother did the same thing. Who does that?

Someone who craves grandiosity, who lives to feel important. Psychopaths feel important. They want to feel important, and they do. Their belief in their own importance can be contagious. It is why, even if you aren’t religious, you can sit in a revival tent and still feel a little twinge. It’s all that grandiosity collected in the same room. You can catch a little of it just sitting there.

Some of the Manson family members at Spahn Ranch. From left to right Jennifer Gentry, Catherine Share, Sue Bartlett, Danny DeCarlo, Sandra Good, Lynne Fromme, Chuck Lovett, and Ruth Ann Moorehouse.
Some of the Manson family members at Spahn Ranch. From left to right Jennifer Gentry, Catherine Share,
Sue Bartlett, Danny DeCarlo, Sandra Good, Lynne Fromme, Chuck Lovett, and Ruth Ann Moorehouse.

It isn’t the spirit of God moving you in that tent. It’s that sense of being important.

It may be a part of why some of our most inspiring leaders move us. They believe what they are doing is important, and so do we. It is not just a cognitive thing–I know intellectually that this is a good cause–but an emotional thing. Importance feels good. We need a little of that. And feelings of importance–like all feelings–are contagious. Some of us need it more than others.

Some of us need it like a drug. I don’t know why, but I’m sure that they do.

At the same time, psychopaths are known for destroying the self-esteem of their partners. I’m sure that makes it worse. You feel defective, unlovable, unimportant. You need your drug.

You need your drug.

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.