Thank you Rev. Sheri Heller for another great article!
As a trauma therapist of over thirty years I’ve encountered all sorts of heinous victimization from sex trafficking, to child sexual abuse, domestic violence and prolonged emotional and psychological torment. The ravages of ongoing trauma lead to subsequent victimization and often lead to aligning with predation. Suffice it to say the victim-perpetrator paradigm is a complex and nuanced polarity that feeds off each other. Hence, many victims perpetrate, but not all victims who perpetrate are repentant.
When I worked with a forensic population and sundry folks who have committed criminal acts in which depraved behavior towards others repeatedly occurred, I learned a great deal about the spectrum of humanity. Most notably I witnessed a clear distinction between an abuser who evidences sincere remorse and a willingness to face their demons, and an abuser who shields themselves behind a righteous narrative of ignorance that proclaims, “If I don’t know better I can’t be held accountable.” This sentiment is often coupled with glorifying adversity, where ones’ personal suffering is used as justification for harming others.
These distinctions often allude us. In fact all too often I hear from therapy clients who are beset by complex trauma, “I know s/he did outrageously horrible things to me, but deep down I know if they hadn’t suffered so much misfortune they wouldn’t be this way.”
Anecdotes of forgiveness typically follow. Yet as Dr. Judith Herman wrote in Trauma & Recovery, “True forgiveness cannot be granted until the perpetrator has sought and earned it through confession, repentance, and restitution.”
In my experience, those who experienced the Grace of forgiveness typically received some form of earnest apology and penance. This makes me question if it’s truly plausible to forgive an abuser who shows no contrition. I tend to veer towards Dr. Judith Herman’s contention that in the absence of repentance what might seem like forgiveness, may in actuality be a destructive fantasy of forgiveness.
This makes me wonder about the credibility of exonerating another who fails to even recognize the need for absolution.
True repentance emanates from morality that is not just cerebral or motivated by conformity. Although moral conduct doesn’t necessarily require the involvement of emotions or even critical thinking, clearly complying with what is viewed as acceptable is not the apex of morality.
A more evolved state of contrition requires one to humbly examine their shortcomings and evaluate their character. It requires what Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg referred to as a post-conventional level of moral development. This evolved state of morality regards the cultivation of personal principles and abstract reasoning as greater than societal mandates or even the need to belong. At this stage, morality as a means to an end is obsolete as absolute moral law, which characterizes this stage of moral development, harbors no ulterior motives. Philosopher Immanuel Kant referred to this as a ‘categorical imperative’.
For a perpetrator to fully own up to their behavior and make intrinsic emotional and psychological shifts they need to value ethical principles, not because it refines a facade of character, but because it speaks to a deep sense of humanity. From this stance, bringing unconscious, suppressed and repressed material into conscious awareness so that it can be examined and effectively assimilated is a moral imperative. From this stance, there are no excuses, only choices.
Father of psychoanalysis Carl Jung contended that even the unconscious has a consciousness. This suggests that irrespective of the universal plight of suffering and the multitudinous variables that comprise one’s unique nature, we are all responsible for how we manage adversity. This is not to suggest that someone who comes from a stable loving home has the same challenges as someone who is systematically abused by a pedophile. Their life experiences will deeply impact how they navigate through aggression, betrayal and loss.
Nevertheless, despite our station in life suffering is an archetypal human experience. Life is sometimes simply unfair. Regardless of what we’ve been born into or what tragedies have befallen us along the way, the only viable perspective in the face of unmerited pain, is that of transformation through acceptance of what life is and reconciliation with our limits. This requires us to take responsibility for the decisions we’ve made and the pain we’ve caused. If we insist we can’t or we won’t, we are still liable.
Psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity, even under the most difficult circumstances to add a deeper meaning to his life.
It may seem contradictory to suggest that compassion and judgement can co-exist, yet that is often what I experienced when I was forced to take a hard line with those at risk for returning to jail or having their children removed if they didn’t sober up and responsibly continue with mandated treatment. Sometimes upholding those consequences generated positive change. Sometimes it didn’t. Yet if I enabled the excuses, the manipulation and the amoral behavior then I would be complicit in its continuation. It would have been not only a disservice to those they harmed, but to the offender as well. I would have denied them the possibility of making the heroic choice to be brave, dignified and unselfish.
Alternatively, as Frankl shares, In the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”
We cannot choose for another what choice they make. We can however stop excusing depravity and uphold standards that oppose victimization and praise the strength of sincere atonement.
Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW
NYC Therapist & Author. Complex Trauma & Addiction. Dual citizen, traveler, lover of art and nature. I appreciate the absurd. Sheritherapist.com