Friday, January 28, 2011

Why Don’t Perpetrators Say They’re Sorry? A Psychoanalytic Perspective

Posted by Carol Poole

[Image: In downtown Leeds, a city in which Meredith was extremely happy]

A disclaimer: I do not intend these remarks as commentary on any specific individual(s). I’m offering them as food for thought, for anyone who (like me) struggles to understand both the human capacities for destruction and for healing

Why don’t abusers apologize when they’re caught? Even when it would be in their own best interest to show remorse?

Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes people own their crimes and take responsibility. The less shameful the crime, the more likely this is. As Johnny Cash sang, “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die.” When he sang at Folsom Prison, no doubt his audience nodded along, sharing a general sense that shooting or getting shot in a bar is the kind of thing that any man might find himself doing on a bad day.

But no one sings about molesting a child. Or rape. Even the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, was offended when officers suggested he had raped the women he murdered—women, most of them young, all of them working the hardest of jobs and deserving much better.

So there are some crimes that no one brags about—or apologizes for, either, which is a shame, since the survivors and loved ones are left to try to understand what has happened. In my work as a psychotherapist for trauma and abuse survivors, I seek answers for this difficult question: how can people do such terrible things to others, and show no remorse?

This is especially hard when the perpetrator seems like a nice, “normal” person, a respected member of society. We can more easily understand when an act of violence is committed by someone in the grip of a psychotic delusion. It’s just a terrible accident then, a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Likewise, we don’t lose sleep trying to understand a coldly sociopathic attack: we don’t have to wonder why a mugger steals a purse.

But it baffles and hurts us deeply when someone we should have been able to trust commits violence against one of us. Especially when the crime is covered up by denial, adding injury to injury by robbing the injured parties of something they need in order to heal: acknowledgment of the truth of what’s happened.

Dori Laub, a psychoanalyst who survived a childhood in concentration camps in the Holocaust, observed that when our faith in goodness is shattered, we feel abandoned by the world of goodness, and lost in a kind of desert of the soul, a deathly state that feels empty of all life except for the malign presence of the perpetrator.

And he pointed out something he must have learned by experience: there is something about trauma that messes with our ability to recognize it when it’s happening. Our minds sometimes cannot see it, refuse to put together the picture that is right in front of our eyes, perhaps because we fear that if we see the truth, it will destroy our hope that the world is the good place we need it to be.

This, I believe, is why good people sometimes collude with abuse by refusing to see it. The refusal is happening at such a deep instinctive level that it’s rarely an entirely conscious choice.

And in a sense, it’s also why perpetrators of the worst crimes so rarely own what they’ve done. Research has shown that abusers have a curious relationship with remorse: they may have formidable defenses against feeling guilt, which is feeling bad about what you’ve done. But they are highly prone to shame, which is feeling bad about who or what you are.

The kind of people who are most likely to abuse others are those who are absorbed by a damaged sense of self. They lash out in a crude effort to fend of feelings of being bad, in a kind of magical thinking: If I put the badness in you, it won’t be in me anymore. If I make you hurt, then I won’t have to hurt. To a very childish state of mind, to hurt is to be bad. We all make that equation when we’re very small, but most of us grow a mature sense of self that integrates our many different feelings into a whole picture.

Having a mature sense of self means being able to say, “I sometimes do things that aren’t good. I wish that wasn’t true, but it is. At least I can try to repair the harm I’ve done, and learn not to do it again.” The same sense of integration is what prevents us from acting out our worst impulses. We can safely want to strangle people from time to time, knowing we will never do it.

When someone’s sense of self is so badly damaged that they can be violently abusive, they aren’t able to hold together a whole story about themselves, or about what they’ve done. It’s only after years of therapy (or other means of growth) that such a person might become able to really put together the picture of their own violence, and take responsibility for their actions.

Which means that people who have been harmed by violence have to find ways to take care of themselves and heal, even though the perpetrator has an infuriating, baffling way of seeming not to have been there at all. It’s as though nothing happened.

It’s natural to wish that the perpetrator would be sorry. It would help so much to hear their apology. But there’s a trap, too, in waiting for help from that quarter. It’s no good trying to get such a person to hear you or understand that gravity of what they’ve done. It’s like trying to get a clear reflection out of the fragments of a shattered mirror.

Instead, what helps survivors and loved ones heal is to tend their souls, and work their way back toward everything that makes life full: love, trust, gratitude, hope. Which means finding a way to grieve the losses.

We don’t grieve in the cold shadows of the death zone; we grieve when we remember our love and our hope for the future.

It helps to have a sense of community acknowledging our loss. It helps if we can find a way to bring something good out of the devastation—if we can at least bring some meaning to the loss by letting the tragedy inspire us to do good.

It’s only at the end of the movie, when the mother and child embrace, that we can let down and weep for everything they had to go through to find each other again, and weep too for the ones we miss.

Posted by Carol Poole on 01/28/11 at 02:55 PM in Various hypothesesThe psychology

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Interesting and very insightful perspective. The reference to the Johnny Cash song is quite perceptive. The song as whole parallels the overall message of the article.

As you may or may not know, Johnny Cash personally suffered a horrible emotional trauma himself in life. When he was a boy he watched his beloved older brother die an unimaginable slow death after he was practically sawed in half vertically as the result of falling on a faulty rotary saw machine while cutting wood.

After his brother died, family members said he ran off out the house where his brother died in bed ,and that “he kept running (from dealing with event emotionally) from that point on”. In the movie Walk the Line it was inferred the line in Folsom Prison Blues “just to watch him die” was inspired by this trauma and it was inferred also he either felt a personal responsibility for what happened and or he was blamed by his father for going fishing and “not being there” when his brother was injured.

Another admission of guilt in the song is “I knew I had it comin, I know I can’t be free” Free from prison life or guilt? Another line, “When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry..”

Does the “whistle” represent freedom or a reminder to his guilty conscience for what he have done? From a very speculative standpoint, maybe “the whistle blowin” are the cries of agony his brother made while dying.

And the final verse is also interesting.

“Well if they freed me from this prison,
If that railroad train was mine
I bet I’d move it on a little farther down the line
Far from Folsom prison, that’s where I want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away…..”

Moving the train that is a reminder of freedom (or more likely a guilty conscience) “further down the line”. Further away from him, so he doesn’t have to deal with his guilt. If he was “freed from this prison” why would it matter how close the train is to the proximity of where he was once incarcerated? And the very last line of the song “I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.” If he is “Far from Folsom Prison” why does he still hear “that lonesome whistle”?

Perhaps he is back on the train, running away from his guilt only to find himself in another prison. After all, as he said in the song earlier, “he can’t be free”. The “lonesome whistle” is the reminder of his guilt. How can this “blow his blues away”? Perhaps it is a message that being freed from his prison-(locking himself away in denial) and getting on the train where he can be both physically and emotionally closer to the train-(acceptance for what he needs to get on board with to recover), he now “owns the train”)accepts the reality, and the whistle blowing with slowly “blow his blues away” come to full acceptance of his responsibilities and remove himself from the stage of denial.

I did not post this as my psychological breakdown of Johnny Cash or his classic song which to many is regarded as one of the finest country songs ever written, but leave it up to the reader to apply this analysis as a way of reinforcing the above article.

It cannot be denied though, that when speaking in terms of the tragedy this site was dedicated to, that there are definite parallels to the song when we speak of denial of horrible events and how some persons, AK and RS of course, are in denial and refuse to free themselves from the “prison” they created in their minds that will most likely exist long after they are ever released.

Kudos to this site for keeping the memory of the victim, Meredith Kercher alive and that her “lonesome whistle” will not be so lonesome as so many will keep it in their ears and in their hearts.

Posted by Kazwell on 01/28/11 at 08:35 PM | #

Hi Kazwell. Great rumination. I liked the lonesome whistle for Meredith bringing it full circle.

I drove down to Nashville and Memphis and New Orleans a few weeks ago and for once really listened to C&W radio the equiv of 24/7 as it really speaks to you down there, and I could tell how much Johnny Cash still means to the DJs.

The occasional duplicate comment is caused by, well, in short, massive site reload meet massive hoster firewall. Click twice and it obliging crunches double.

Posted by Peter Quennell on 01/29/11 at 12:58 AM | #

Quoting one of your own paragraphs, Carol Poole:

“When someone’s sense of self is so badly damaged that they can be violently abusive, they aren’t able to hold together a whole story about themselves, or about what they’ve done. It’s only after years of therapy (or other means of growth) that such a person might become able to really put together the picture of their own violence, and take responsibility for their actions.”

With respect to Amanda:
“...they aren’t able to hold together a whole story about themselves…”
My belief is that Amanda has been trying now for three solid years to create, within her own mind, another Self on whom it would be impossible to fasten the “mask of an assassin.”  (Hypothetical)

But then:
“...It’s only after years of therapy (or other means of growth) that such a person might become able to really put together the picture of their own violence…”
Therapy is hardly to be thought of, here.
The other means of growth, of which I have experience, is Confession. It would be her sole redemption if someone could persuade her to undertake it.

For a crime so gross & growing out of a life already so disorderly, a few pages of “confession” would never do. The model in my mind is that of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Not at all for imitation except in scope & thoroughness—it was for Capote a project of six years & a certain personal relentlessness.

Amanda’s academic intelligence has been overstated by her family but she would be quite able to do this—to trace the very origins of her ghastly deed & all the origins of all her qualities to the furthest reaches of her memory & life.

It would take enormous courage. She would have to break from—even defy—her family. At some point she would undergo an enlightenment which would very likely prove to be also a (transitory) “breakdown,” certainly of the false Self she has been trying to invent & interpret.

That way redemption lies & I think in no other direction. When the appeals fail, as they must, I should hope that someone who has access to her would urge this course upon Amanda.

With breakdown, acknowledgment & remorse, she would qualify for an earlier release. Nonetheless, Years to achieve such a thorough confession. Also, a quick release is not to be thought of.

Sorry for a long post—but I shall button my lips!

Posted by Ernest Werner on 01/29/11 at 06:56 PM | #

Carole - thank you SO much for that exceptionally insightful article.  I completely agree with your assessment.  It absolutely fits my experience, and I believe with the AK/RS/RG situation of denial of responsibility for their hideous, unforgiveable actions against Meredith.

Having been the victim of unprovoked violence by my older “sister” (it in quotation marks since I’ve had to disown her for my own sanity) followed by false accusations and pathological lies against me, the victim, to the authorities, combined with her on-going denial and denigration of me, I completely agree with your analysis and rationale.  I appreciate hearing from a professional analyst in this regard, as I’ve had 3 years to decipher her behaviour and that of her adult children following the incident.  She has been emotionally abusive to them her entire life and they both know she is self-absorbed and delusional, and extremely judgemental.  They will not seek help for her because they are in denial and prefer to treat me as if I were guilty, when in fact the system found that I was innocent.  They are ambivalent, but will not look into the facts and records, or even talk about it with all the other (and older) family members who DO know what she’s the guilty party and that she’s been going “off the rails” for at least 10 yrs.  I have had little oppportunity to heal as she takes up all the space with her lies, abject denial, and insistance that she (the bully) is the victim.  It is crazy-making. 

She seems confident in her life/work, but she has no solid, realistic sense of self, and therefore no ability (and no desire) to take any responsibility for anything negative that she does.  She will hold to her false story till she dies, just like AK and likely RS.  I do hold out some hope that RS might realize he could tell the truth (which would likely show AK to be the inciting party) to possibly get a shorter sentence.  He has no remorse but does have self-interest.

I find it fascinating that people can do such horrible things and deny to ends of the Earth that they did them, even when all evidence proves that they did.  Remorse, no, we shall not see it from those with borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, or any related mental illnesses.  I have seen for myself how a “regular” person can and will lie through their teeth to police, lawyers, judges, family, acquaintances, etc. to relinquish any responsibility for their own inappropriate or even vicious actions.  These people are religiously devoted to a feeble, grossly distorted version of the world in which they are (always) the wronged party and (always) totally without accountability. 

We just have to try to heal after violence, emotional or physical.  Your article was profound and I appreciated it greatly.  Thank you.

Posted by all4justice on 01/29/11 at 09:33 PM | #

Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

I just want to add to your story that Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, did apologise in court and stunningly and movingly was publically forgiven by one of the victims’ father.

Posted by bucketoftea on 10/20/11 at 03:45 PM | #
Green River Forgiven

Posted by bucketoftea on 10/20/11 at 04:06 PM | #
Green River Forgiven

Posted by bucketoftea on 10/20/11 at 04:54 PM | #

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