A number of years ago, I worked at a shelter for women attempting to escape from abusive relationships—a “Battered Women’s”[i] shelter. Before starting there, I, and every staff member and volunteer, was required to go through an intensive training that took place weekends over the course of a couple of months. The point of the training was not just to introduce us to the elements of our jobs, but to rid us of some of the preconceptions we might have about “Battered Women,” and to educate us about the attitudes in our society that actually support and perpetuate the practice of Domestic Violence. We learned about the cycle of violence and how it shows that women in abusive relationships cannot avert the abuse or control their abusers by adjusting their behavior, as many people believe. We learned about the common myths of domestic violence and thought patterns and cultural systems that continue to allow it to happen[ii]. We learned that abusers have often been abused themselves,and suffer from low self-esteem and a perceived inability to control their lives. And we learned that the attitudes that lead to Domestic Violence stem from a conflict-oriented model of society, where Might equals Right and physically stronger people are encouraged to impose their will and take out their frustrations on those not as apparently strong (and are often rewarded for doing so). Abusers, we learned, are not monsters. They’re not inherently evil. They have motivations we can understand and sympathize with, even as we work to free their victims and ourselves from the conflict-oriented societal model that allows them to act with relative impunity.
In my early twenties, I was more than ready to hear all this. I had been an uneasy Feminist for a number of years—Feminist because I had first-hand experience of the way our supposedly advanced society treats women as second-class citizens, uneasy because I never quite fit in with others who adopted the label with rampant fanaticism. I also self-identified as a religious Witch, and at the time you almost couldn’t do that without getting involved in gender politics and the movement for societal change. And I’d never been a person who thought in terms of black and white. From a very young age, I looked for underlying causes and was interested in why people and cultures acted the way they did. Despite being raised in a Christian household, I never could incorporate a Good vs. Evil dichotomy in my world view. It simply didn’t make sense to me (and still doesn’t).
The Safehouse training encouraged all of us to move away from conflict-based thinking and problem solving and toward better communication and seeing all people as individuals with individual needs, and that’s a good thing to do, in general. I, as is often my pattern, took the idea somewhat too far. I made a conscious decision to start creating the world I wanted to see—one that contained less conflict—by applying the Safehouse lessons to my daily life. To see people as individuals, and realize that people with whom I disagreed and those I perceived as downright enemies or even horrible individuals in their own right had lives and problems of their own, reasons for acting the way they did. I resolved not to judge, but to listen and support as much as possible, in hopes of modeling behavior that these people would miraculously recognize as superior and adopt. (The fact that I was attending a Buddhist college at the time reinforced my decision to do this.) I also decided to carry the attitude into my work as an aspiring Fantasy writer. I would create a world without conflict, where my characters worked everything out in sensible, non-violent ways and glitter dropped from their tongues with every word (not really).
Of course, I caught on pretty quick that trying to tell a coherent story without any kind of conflict in it is a losing proposition. You don’t have to have a huge Apocalyptic war of Good vs. Evil to have a good story, but there has to be some kind of tension, some dispute to be settled or problem to be solved. Also, there’s a place for violence. Nature is raw and bloody and violent, and human beings are animals, part of nature. Sure, we can work at curbing or understanding some of our instincts and shape ourselves into less brutish patterns. But though refraining from the actions that increase your Karmic load and thus condemn you to more time on the Wheel of Samsara is a value of many Eastern religious systems, it is, in my belief, a good goal to keep in mind but one that can never be achieved in any practical way. Besides, violence and conflict make more interesting reading than a bunch of people sitting around having intelligent conversation.
In my actual life, however, I continued to let my dislike of conflict turn me into a doormat. Over and over again, I formed relationships with people who, if not physically violent, were manipulative, emotionally abusive and toxic. Some of them were people I’d been friends with for years who came back into my life, and some were people I’d met only recently. And it was always the same. We’d hit it off right away—too quickly, one might say. We’d be sharing confidences before a week was out. I always found the other person charismatic and developed a kind of hero worship for her (it was always a woman) for any number of reasons. Because she was (in my opinion) prettier, or more experienced, or wiser, or had a better job. We became best friends.
And then she’d start the abuse. And it always looked the same. She’d elevate me into a position of ostensible power—one coven High Priestess “passed the wand” to me, for example—and then undermine my authority at every turn. She’d use subtle techniques to get me to take responsibility for her emotional health and well-being. She’d sulk and throw tantrums when I wouldn’t concede on an issue, often to the point where I’d give in just to shut her up. Or, if I held my ground, she’d ignore me and go her own way anyway, often lying and telling me I had never expressed any disagreement with her when I had, more than once.
I knew this was abuse. I KNEW IT. And yet, it often took me years and years to get out from under it. One relationship, with a woman I had known since middle school, went on past the point where the stress literally put me in the hospital. It took my therapist telling me, “You have to break it off with this woman or the relationship will kill you,” before I could shut her out of my life. And I still feel guilty about doing it, though it was nearly ten years ago.
Why? I’m a smart woman. I’m educated. I’ve studied psychology virtually all my life. So why couldn’t I get out of these relationships before they damaged me?
Lots of reasons. I grew up in a family where this kind of emotional abuse was a daily occurrence, and though I questioned it, I also thought of it as normal. At the time, emotional abuse was not really recognized or addressed by the therapeutic professions. I was brought up to put everyone else’s needs above my own. When I was bullied in my expensive, private school, I was told to stay silent and ignore it instead of making an issue of it. As a woman, I was taught to have fluid boundaries. I suffer from low self-esteem myself, so on some level maybe I thought I deserved the treatment. I am always ready to question myself, less ready to address the behaviors of others. But most of all, I sympathized with my abusers. I understood them. I knew where their behavior was coming from. My early therapists preached forgiveness and understanding: “They’re doing the best they can with what they have,” rarely going on to condemn the actions that were driving me insane. Those confidences my abusers shared with me gave me insight into their actions. They also felt powerless. They also had been abused. They needed to be loved and accepted unconditionally. I needed to prove to them that they were valued as human beings and that they did not need to resort to bizarre and destructive patterns to participate in relationships. That’s my own ego investment. Mea culpa.
I sympathized with the monster.
In fact, I empathized. I have always been an unusually empathetic person. When I got bullied in school, I did not immediately turn my frustration on someone weaker. I remember thinking, even at a very young age, “Wow, this feels so horrible. I am never going to act this way to another person.” And later, when I learned that abusers have usually themselves been abused, it was easy for me to associate their acting out with those horrible feelings I had experienced, with that pain. And because I empathized, I excused the behavior, even when it damaged me. I was incapable of addressing it, of saying, “No. This is wrong and I won’t put up with it. You need to stop, or I’m leaving.” If you understand someone so deeply, if you train yourself to refrain from judging their actions because you know the root causes, how can you give up on them? How can you distance yourself from someone who has such a deep need?
Of course, “Battered Women” have been asking themselves this since the Dawn of Time. I was just late getting on the train, possibly because this pattern never appeared in any of my infrequent romantic relationships. I like to think if it had I would have been out the door. But I can’t say.
For years I have struggled with the question: How can you understand a person (or a system) and still have boundaries? How can you label behavior as repulsive without dehumanizing the person perpetrating it? It’s easy for me to sympathize with the monster, with the eternal Other. I have, myself, been “Othered” at various times in my life—for being fat or female or too tall or not having the right clothes or income or for expressing uncomfortable ideas. Any number of things. I seem to live my life at the edge of the acceptable. In my work, I am constantly rewriting folk tales from the point of view of some minor character or making my protagonist someone who does not quite fit in to what’s considered normal society. I love this shit. In fact, I don’t think I do it enough. I like making the dark places a bit lighter, making the creature under the bed someone you can talk with over cookies and milk. I like “de-Othering.” I like reducing that conflict.
(I see an interesting pattern here.)
But you can take it too far. Far enough that your therapist tells you, “Get out or it will kill you.” And you need to listen to that. You really do.
I didn’t really begin to come to terms with all this until I read the novel Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper, an incredible writer of speculative fiction. One of the themes in the book is the existence of evil, presented in an alien race that in its adolescent stage suffers from congenital xenophobia. This race can grow into an adult form that is beautiful and wise and super intelligent. The adolescent form, however, wants nothing more than to wipe out all life that differs from itself, and it nearly succeeds. They are monsters, and sympathizing with them will get you killed. Help them evolve and transform into their adult phase, by all means. But do not lose track of this fact.
Sometimes I think that progressive thinkers have lost track of this fact. Too much popular culture now hinges on sympathizing with the monster. We have sparkly vampires and cuddly werewolves. Little animated kids go to the land in the closet and hang out with friendly night terrors.
Villains are depicted as bumbling idiots, and this makes their plans for the subjugation of “inferior” beings more palatable. And sure, there’s always been some of this. The attraction for the “Bad Boy” or “Bad Girl” is a cliché. Serial killers on death row get a huge number of letters from “fans” of all genders who find them irresistible. And sure, it’s easy to say, “We reasonable people can recognize the difference between a TV show or a book and reality.”
Except, we can’t. Our minds do not distinguish between vividly imagined reality and concrete reality. When something in a book or film moves us, we experience the same emotions and emotional process as we do when a real-life situation moves us, sometimes more intensely. So when you forget about the monster, when you excuse the abusive behavior of a stage character because “it’s about love,” or dismiss the fact that a handsome vampire is self-centered and manipulative because underneath is all he’s really kind and devoted to the heroine, you are bringing those attitudes into your own life. You are subscribing to the kind of thinking that can endanger you, and you are responsible for perpetuating it in society. This needs to stop. Putting a pretty wrapper on abuse doesn’t make it acceptable. It just makes it harder to see.
The truth is, for time out of mind we have sympathized with the monsters. We’re all too ready to justify and excuse their behaviors, whether we’re talking about the untutored golem who kills his maker and incurs the wrath of the uncaring local villagers or the man who, due to the stress of his job and family responsibilities, lashes out at his wife and beats her bloody. The point is, the abuse has to be confronted or it will never end. Yes, perhaps none of the monsters in our lives are inherently evil. Perhaps their behaviors can be understood. It doesn’t mean what they do is acceptable. As individuals and as a society, we need to focus less on the underlying causes and more on the actions. Stand up and say, “This is wrong and you need to stop.” And take whatever steps necessary to enforce that boundary, whether that means supporting someone in getting therapy or leaving a relationship. It’s no crime to put yourself and your safety first. That’s one of the first lessons the women coming to the Safehouse had to learn.
Sympathize with the monster, by all means. But never forget it has teeth.
[i]I am well aware that men can be victims and women perpetrators of Domestic Violence. The shelter I worked with served a female population, so that’s what I’m talking about.