Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Sympathy for the devil: identification with the aggressor

Dr. Sanity has a post that's well worth reading, on the topic of identification with the aggressor--how it begins as a normal process in childhood, enabling a child to manage threats and anxiety, and how it sometimes morphs into the pathological. She links this latter point to what's known as "Stockholm Syndrome," the identification with a kidnapper or hostage-taker by the hostage him/herself.

One of the worst feelings on earth is that of being a vulnerable victim. Humans will go quite far to avoid such a feeling--including, at times, deciding the aggressor is not so bad, after all; maybe even good. Of course, brainwashing can play a role in that transformation, especially if the kidnapping has gone on for a long time. But sometimes it doesn't take all that much, and overt brainwashing is not a necessary part of the process.

Abused children are among the most vulnerable of humans. Way too early in life, they are faced with the terrible dilemma of dealing with their own powerlessness in the face of an aggressor, sometimes even a family member whose proper role should be to protect. It's a fact that, although most abused children do not go on to becoming abusive adults, most abusive adults were abused as children.

I'm not offering this as any sort of excuse for such behavior--unfortunately, I'm not sure it's even an explanation. For we cannot ignore the fact that the majority of the abused do not take identification with the aggressor to the point where they become one. Au contraire.

So, how can we really explain the difference between those who end up becoming what, in childhood, they most hated, and those who go on to become exemplary citizens and parents? Those who identify with the aggressor, and those who don't? At this point, we really can't. It's one of the most important unsolved riddles in the social sciences.

It seems to me that there are two responses for a victim of childhood abuse. The first is to say "Never again." This child grows up knowing that this is one thing he/she will never do, and perhaps even later joins a profession or group that is involved in preventing, treating, studying, or fighting abuse. The second reaction is to let feelings be the guide. In a certain percentage of people who seem to lack operating moral brakes and who have identified with the aggressor, those feelings lead to a re-enactment of the crime, this time as powerful perpetrator. And thus the torch is passed.

[ADDENDUM: Just to clarify: abused children who grow up to abuse others do not necessarily norm their own abuse and think it was OK.

There are those who do, of course. For example, there are abusing parents who justify their actions in abusing the child by saying they are just "teaching my child about his/her sexuality," or who offer any number of other twisted but benign reframings, and who say they were not harmed by themselves being abused as children.

However, there are those who hate what the abusive adult did to them when they were a child, and yet they still grow up to abuse children. This is done by some mental mechanism as yet poorly understood, but the best description I can offer is that they are on emotional automatic pilot when they are doing the abusing. The feelings of rage and powerlessness are all there, encapsulated inside the adult, unprocessed and poorly understood. Those feelings now drive the behavior of the abusive adult, who converts the feelings of powerlessness felt as a child into a feeling of power over another child.

The worm turns--the victim becomes powerful by being the vicimizer. But the adult usually does not understand or have any awareness of the process by which this happens.]

9 Comments:

At 5:51 PM, January 17, 2006, Anonymous dicentra said...

In the case of the abused child who becomes an abuser, does the child come to believe that the abusive parent was not so bad after all, or does he think the abusive parent was bad but doesn't exert the cognition necessary to see the bad behavior in himself ves when he becomes a parent?

My abusive and abused father seems to have a dim understanding that he was mistreated, but he insists it didn't affect him. He displays some symptoms of a personality disorder, such as lack of empathy, always being right, and having absolutely no insight into how his actions affect others.

He just doesn't seem to get it, nor does he seem to think he needs to.

So to extend the example, are you suggesting that today's fascist sympathizers may become fascists themselves through identification? Despite the fact that lefties are ostensibly against fascism, I can see them cozying up to the fascists, donning burkhas to show solidarity and becoming as bad as their enemies. All so that they can be "above" the petty concerns of middle America.

 
At 6:22 PM, January 17, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Children who are abused, may grow up to see the abuse as a kind of love and compassion. So they feel it natural to show the same love and compassion to their own children, thus the abused becomes the abuser. A misidentification of love with violence, does that to people. If people link love with pain and kindness with cruelty, their morality will be different and so will there behavior change.

One of the worst feelings on earth is that of being a vulnerable victim. Humans will go quite far to avoid such a feeling--including, at times, deciding the aggressor is not so bad, after all; maybe even good.

Neo, have you asked Sanity what happens if the victim doesn't decide the aggressor is the norm and the good? You've spoken about one side of the equation, but not the other. Not the opposite, where the helpless individual resolves to become more powerful than the aggressor.

Such a thing might have happened in the Warsaw ghettoes, where there was an armed conflict in resistance to being marched off quietly in the night to Nazi death camps.

What would a person do if he strived to become more powerful than the aggressor, and viewed the aggressor as absolute evil instead of absolute good?

 
At 6:53 PM, January 17, 2006, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

If you are helpless, it is very difficult to stand the feeling that another party means you harm.

To avoid that feeling, some (kids, esp. & the Stockholm Syndrome sufferers) come to think the other party isn't that bad, even to sympathize with him.

Bruno Bettelheim kept his sanity in the death camps by observing, and has written about identification with the oppressor even there.

If a guard stomped the mud off his boots before entering the barracks, some might say, "see, he likes us" when the reality is that it is uncomfortable to walk on hard, flat surfaces with a glob of mud on the sole of the boot, or because it's a habit of a man growing up in a muddy part of the world.
But they couldn't afford to believe the reality.

 
At 9:02 PM, January 17, 2006, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

I work with horribly abused people and have two sons who were horribly abused in Romania, both by their father, and also in the state orphanage after. Because they were in a kindly Christian orphanage for over three years where I worked several times, I know the early stories and outcomes of the other children in that group as well. For obvious reasons, I attend to what research comes out about such children.

Neglect is worse than abuse. Amazing as it may seem, violence is still physical contact, which the human body seems to need. Resilient children also exhibit some protective characteristics: another relative or adult who cared about them, above-average intelligence, religious faith, or enough ambiguity in the abuse, e.g. the abuser was kind when sober, to have just enough to make it through.

For those who are interested, studying the issue in terms of cortisol levels can be instructive. As children age, they attach explanations as to what has, or is happening to them. There seems to a matter of just plain luck about this, or at least, something we cannot yet see. Those children who develop an explanation which includes part, but only part, of the reality have abetter chance. The full truth is too juch to bear, but pure fantasy also gives no predictive value and no help.

I wish I knew how they did it.

 
At 9:39 PM, January 17, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Just to clarify: abused children who grow up to abuse others do not necessarily norm their own abuse and think it was OK.

There are those who do, of course. For example, there are abusing parents who justify their actions in abusing the child by saying they are just "teaching my child about his/her sexuality," or who offer any number of other twisted but benign reframings, and who say they were not harmed by themselves being abused as children.

However, there are those who hate what the abusive adult did to them when they were a child, and yet they still grow up to abuse children. This is done by some mental mechanism as yet poorly understood, but the best description I can offer is that they are on emotional automatic pilot when they are doing the abusing. The feelings of rage and powerlessness are all there, encapsulated inside the adult, unprocessed and poorly understood. Those feelings now drive the behavior of the abusive adult, who now converts the feelings of powerlessness felt as a child into a feeling of power over another
child. The worm turns--the victim now becomes powerful by being the vicimizer. But the adult usually does not understand or have any awareness of the process by which this happens.

 
At 10:56 PM, January 17, 2006, Blogger Dymphna said...

Gosh, neo, I just came over to pick up the link for Moby Dick (to use for my own nefarious purposes --linking both you and Gerard VdL) when I happened on this post on child abuse, a subject I've researched for years.

Please look at
Cast Adrift by Judge Cashman.

Also see the comments.

Now...I have to go get that link to Moby D.

 
At 7:45 AM, January 18, 2006, Anonymous Ben USN (Ret) said...

Good post.
I suspected that most abused children didn't become abusers themselves, and your post confirms and explains that well.
What are your thoughts of the defense being used by some abusers; that being abused as children themselves means they are not guilty of the same abuse by reason of mental illness?
Personally, I think it is BS to abdicate responsibility and accountability, but I'm biased.
Thanks-Ben.

 
At 1:15 PM, January 18, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

What Neo describes is the same as the monkey reflex. Alpha monkey hits small monkey, and small monkey then finds someone smaller to hit.

 
At 11:47 PM, February 01, 2006, Anonymous erin said...

i don't really know how to go about this, because i've never said or written this before, but i was sexually abused from about age six until i was thirteen by my brother. i am sixteen years old now and i still live with my brother along with my parents who are very happily married.
the thing is, i have no idea how to tell anyone this. i don't want to hurt my parents' marriage and i don't want to ruin my brother's life, but at the same time, i know i can't keep on living with this hanging over me.
i'm also really worried about the effects this will have on me when i grow up. i don't want to become another statistic, but all the literature i've looked at basically says i have no choice and that it's all a matter of my psychological makeup.
i'm scared that what happened to me will make me a bad person when i leave this house and that i will have no control over my life.

 

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