From chapter "Abusers"
Violence against women and violence against the Earth, legitimated and promoted by both patriarchal religion and science, are interconnected assaults rooted in the eroticization of domination. The gynocidal culture’s image of w oman as object and victim is paralleled by contemporary representations that continually show the Earth as a toy, machine, or violated object, as well as by the religious and scientific ideology that legitimates the possession, contamination, and destruction of Mother Earth.
We have been too kind to those who are killing the planet.
We have been inexcusably, unforgivably, insanely kind.
I understand now. For years I have been asking whether abusers believe their lies, and I’m finally comfortable with an answer.
This understanding came in great measure because I finally stopped focusing on the lies and their purveyors and I began to focus on the abusers’ actions. I realized, following Lundy Bancroft, that to try to answer the question of whether the abusers believe their lies is to remain under the abusers’ spell, to “look off in the wrong direction,” to allow myself to be distracted so I “won’t notice where the real action is.” To remain focused on that question is exactly what abusers want.
Bancroft helped me realize some very important things. He writes specifically about abusers, emphasizing perpetrators of domestic violence, but what he says applies as well to this whole culture of abuse, and to perpetrators of the larger scale abuse I’ve been writing about.
His central thesis seems to be that the primary problem is not that abusers particularly “lose control” or that they are particularly prone to “flying into a rage,” but instead that they feel entitled to exploit, will do anything in order to exploit, and will exploit precisely as much as they can get away with.
Bancroft excels at exploding misconceptions. When a woman stated that her abusive partner Michael loses control and breaks things in a rage, only to feel remorse afterwards, Bancroft asked whether the things that were broken were Michael’s or hers. She answered,“I’m amazed that I’ve never thought of this, but he only breaks my stuff. I can’t think of one thing he’s smashed that belonged to him.” Bancroft asked who cleans up. She does. He responded, “Michael’s behavior isn’t nearly as berserk as it looks. And if he really felt so remorseful, he’d help clean up.”
I remember a time my father was berating and beating my teenaged sister, and her boyfriend showed up an hour early for their date. My father immediately ceased calling her a slut, dropped his hands to his sides, smiled, and walked to greet her boyfriend as if nothing had happened. His rage was not out of control, but something he was able to turn on and off like a light switch.
Or picture this. My father hits my mother. He has hit her many times before.
But this time she slips into another room, calls the police. She comes back out. My father hits her again and again. He is interrupted by the doorbell. He points one finger at her, runs his other hand through his hair, walks to the door, opens it. There are two policemen. My father is cool, calm, as though nothing has happened. My mother is frantic, frightened, having just been beaten. The cops sympathize with my father for living with someone so emotional—they also sympathize because their allegiance already runs to the abuser (see, for example, the arrest rates for rapists in Humboldt County)—and they leave. The door closes. My father resumes beating my mother. His rage, once again, could be turned on and off.
My mother can perhaps be forgiven for her naïveté in relying on authorities to assist her. She was, after all, nineteen years old, with two children and preg-nant with a third. But at this point, especially on the larger scale, the rest of us should not be so naïve.
Abusers are not out of control. They are very much in control. I never under-stood that till I read Bancroft’s book.
Similarly, I speak of this culture’s destructive urge, and how those in power destroy those things they cannot control. I have written of clearcuts, of devastated oceans, of murdered poor and extirpated species. But corporations and those who run them do not flail willy-nilly at everything around them. Like Michael, they do not destroy what belongs to them. And of course they do not clean up their messes, no matter how much remorse they may feign, and no matter how much they may claim to have moved beyond petroleum, or into new forestry, or whatever other words they may wish to throw around.
Bancroft asks the abusers he works with what are the limits of their violence. He might say, “You called her a fucking whore, you grabbed the phone out of her hand and whipped it across the room, and then you gave her a shove and she fell down. There she was at your feet, where it would have been easy to kick her in the head. Now, you have just finished telling me that you didn’t kick her. What stopped you?” His point is not so much the question as the answer. He says the abusers “can always give … a reason.” Some of the reasons: “I wouldn’t want to cause her a serious injury.” “I realized one of the children was watching.” “I was afraid someone would call the police.” “I could kill her if I did that.” “The fight was getting loud,and I was afraid neighbors would hear.” The most frequent response is, “Jesus, I wouldn’t do that. I would never do something like that to her.” Only twice in fifteen years has Bancroft heard the answer, “I don’t know.”
His point is that when abusers are committing their atrocities, they remain acutely aware of the following questions, “Am I doing something that other people could find out about, so it could make me look bad? Am I doing some-thing that could get me in legal trouble? Could I hurt myself? Am I doing anything that I myself consider too cruel, gross, or violent?”
These questions are asked word-for-word in corporate boardrooms. I spoke at length a few years ago with a former corporate lawyer who recovered her con-science, quit, and began working against the corporations. “The people who run these corporations,”she said,“know exactly what they’re doing. They know they’re killing people. They know they’re destroying rivers. They know they’re lying. And they know they’re making a lot of money in the process.”
Bancroft continues, “A critical insight seeped into me from working with my first few dozen clients. An abuser almost never does anything that he himself considers morally unacceptable. He may hide what he does because he thinks other people would disagree with it, but he feels justified inside. I can’t remember a client who ever said to me: ‘There’s no way I can defend what I did. It was just totally wrong.’ He invariably has a reason that he considers good enough. In short, an abuser’s core problem is that he has a distorted sense of right and wrong.”
This is true on the larger social scale. Clearly, a culture killing the planet has a distorted sense of right and wrong. Clearly a police department that arrests tree-sitters yet neither deforesters nor rapists has a distorted sense of right and wrong.
Bancroft asks his clients whether they ever call their mothers a bitch. When they say they don’t, he asks why they feel justified to call their partners that. His answer is that “the abuser’s problem lies above all in his belief that controlling or abusing his female partner is justifiable.”
Once again, the connections to the larger cultural level should be obvious. In some ways this is a restatement of premise four, but it’s different enough and important enough to become the nineteenth premise of this book: The culture’s problem lies above all in the belief that controlling and abusing the natural world is justifiable.
It all comes down to perceived entitlement. As Bancroft states, “Entitlement is the abuser’s belief that he has a special status and that it provides him with exclusive rights and privileges that do not apply to his partner. The attitudes that drive abuse can largely be summarized by this one word.”
This same attitude applies on the larger social scale. Of course humans are a special species, to whom a wise and omnipotent God has granted the exclu-sive rights and privileges of dominion over this planet that is here for us to use. And of course even if you subscribe to the religion of Science instead of Christianity, humans’ special intelligence and abilities grant us exclusive rights and privileges to work our will on the world that is here for us to use. And of course among humans, the civilized are especially special, because we are such a high stage of social and cultural development, with especially exclusive rights and privileges to use the world as we see fit. And of course among civilized humans, those who run the show are even more special, and so on.
The flattering belief that one is entitled to exploit those around him is a major reason abusers so rarely stop their abuse. Although this is, according to Bancroft, “rarely mentioned in discussions of abuse,” it “is actually one of the most important dynamics: the benefits that an abuser gets that make his behavior desirable to him. In what ways is abusiveness rewarding? How does this destructive pattern get reinforced?”
He also states,“When you are left feeling hurt or confused after a confrontation with your controlling partner, ask yourself: What was he trying to get out of what he just did? What is the ultimate benefit to him? Thinking through these questions can help you clear your head and identify his tactics.”
My father tells my sister to do the dishes. She complains that she has never seen him do them. He stares at her. She does them. He points out a place she missed on a plate. He hits her. Never again will she suggest he do dishes, unless she is willing to accept the consequences.
My father wants sex. My mother tells him no. He stares at her. He pouts. Later that day he hits her because of something unrelated. But this happens again later that week, and again the next week, and the week after, until finally she makes the connection. Never again will she tell him no, unless she is willing to accept the consequences.
As Bancroft writes, “Over time, the man grows attached to his ballooning collection of comforts and privileges.”
This takes us right back to William Harper’s 1837 defense of slavery: “The coercion of Slavery alone is adequate to form man to habits of labour. Without it, there can be no accumulation of property, no providence for the future, no taste for comforts or elegancies, which are the characteristics and essentials of civilization.”
On the larger scale, too, each time we are left confused or hurt by the lies or other tactics of those in power—as ExxonMobil changes the climate, as Boise Cascade deforests, as Monsanto poisons the world, as BP lies about its prac-tices, as politicians lie about everything—we need to ask Bancroft’s questions: What are those in power trying to get out of what they just did? What is the ultimate benefit to them?
* * *
One of the bad things about abusers as compared to other sorts of addicts is that at least substance abusers sometimes “hit bottom,” where their lives become painful enough to break through their denial. No such luck with those who abuse others.
Bancroft states that partner abuse “is not especially self-destructive, although it is profoundly destructive to others. A man can abuse women for twenty or thirty years and still have a stable job or a professional career, keep his finances in good order, and remain popular with his friends and relatives. His self-esteem, his ability to sleep at night, his self-confidence, his physical health, all tend to hold just as steady as they would for a nonabusive man. One of the great sources of pain in the life of an abused woman is her sense of isolation and frus-tration because no one else seems to notice that anything is awry in her part-ner. Her life and her freedom may slide down the tubes because of what he is doing to her mind, but his life usually doesn’t.”
* * *
Many Indians have asked these questions about the civilized. I have asked these same questions about CEOs, corporate journalists, politicians. How do these people sleep at night?
Soundly, in comfortable beds, in 5,000 square foot homes, behind gates, with private security systems, thank you very much.
* * *
It is others who lose sleep over their activities.
* * *
Within an abusive family dynamic, everything—and I mean everything—is aimed toward protecting the abuser from the physical and emotional consequences of his actions. All members are enculturated to identify more closely with the family structure and its abusive dynamics than with their own well-being and the well-being of their loved ones and other victims. Because the dynamic is set up to foster the well-being of the perpetrator, every action, then, by every member of the family—and more to the point every member’s every thought and non-thought and feeling and non-feeling and way of being and not-being—has as its goal the protection of the abuser’s well-being. This “well-being” is a particular sort, devoid of relationship and accompanying emotions, heavy on the kind of external rewards abusers reap because of their abuse (and of course precisely the kind of external rewards emphasized by a grotesquely materialistic culture), and most especially focused on allowing the perpetrator to avoid confronting his own painful emotions, including the pain he inflicts, the pain he received as a child (and adult) that caused him to separate from his own emotions (to identify not with himself but with an abuser and an abusive dynamic), and the pain of living in an abusive dynamic where rewards gained through abuse never quite compensate for the emptiness of living a “life” devoid of real relationship.
In my book A Language Older Than Words I detailed, among other things, the importance of amnesia or selective memory to the survival of abused children. If you are powerless to prevent yourself from being harmed or to defend yourself in any way, it serves no purpose to consciously remember the atrocities. In fact it can be lifesaving to read and then identify more closely with the perpetrator’s emotions and state of being than one’s own. After all, the child’s emotions don’t matter, but the child needs to be capable at all times of reading and if possible placating the powerful adult’s emotions. But I did not mention the function this induced amnesia serves for the perpetrator: it allows him to confront neither the emotional consequences nor the emotional motivations for his abusive behavior.
Everyone at every moment acts to protect the abuser. Think about it in your own life. How many times has someone abused you and you did whatever was necessary to make sure the other person did not feel bad? What did you do to take care of the other person? Here is a story a woman just told me. She was sitting in a bar with her sisters, drinking Coca Cola. A man struck up a superficial conversation with her. Soon she walked into the bathroom. When she emerged from her stall, he was waiting for her. She asked what he was doing. He forced her against the wall, pushed his hips hard into her. She somehow slipped from his grasp, and returned to the main room. He followed. He remained within ten feet of her. She stayed for another hour. Now here’s the point: Not only did she not make a scene, but she did not even leave. Even as she was slipping away from his attempted rape and all through the next hour she was thinking, I don’t want to hurt his feelings.
I cannot tell you how many times I have similarly betrayed myself to protect an abuser.
Years ago, in the midst of one of those abusive relationships I mentioned earlier, a friend was counseling me through the latest incident of abuse. At one point I said, “I don’t think she meant to hurt me. Here’s what I think she was thinking—”
My friend cut me off: “If I was interested in what she was thinking, I would talk to her. But I’m not, so I won’t. I’m interested in what you were thinking, and feeling.”
I didn’t have an answer. I had no idea. I was too busy taking care of the other person’s feelings.
To care about another, to have compassion for another, is beautiful and life-affirming. To care about and have compassion for another who is abusing you is a toxic mimic of real compassion, and is one of the obscenities spawned by a culture of abuse.
The same thing happens all the time on the larger scale. I also cannot tell you how many times I have been told that I must have compassion for CEOs, who are human too, and who once were children. We must never hurt their feelings, nor especially their person. We must always be polite to those who are killing us. If we insist on using any hint of violence, we are told, if we absolutely must kill them back, we must kill them only with kindness. This is supposed to somehow be effective at something. But the only one it helps is the perpetrator.
Bancroft states that one of the most common forms of support for abusers is the person “who says to the abused woman: ‘You should show him some compassion even if he has done bad things. Don’t forget that he’s a human being, too.’” Bancroft continues, “I have almost never worked with an abused woman who overlooked her partner’s humanity. The problem is the reverse: He forgets her humanity. Acknowledging his abusiveness and speaking forcefully and honestly about how he has hurt her is indispensable to her recovery. It is the abuser’s perspective that she is being mean to him by speaking bluntly about the damage he has done. To suggest to her that his need for compassion should come before her right to live free from abuse is consistent with the abuser’s outlook. I have repeatedly seen the tendency among friends and acquaintances of an abused woman to feel that it is their responsibility to make sure that she realizes what a good person he really is inside—in other words, to stay focused on his needs rather than her own, which is a mistake.”
We have all been trained to identify more closely with the abusive personal and social dynamics we call civilization than with our own life and the lives of those around us, including the landbase. People will do anything—go to any absurd length—to hide the abuse from themselves and everyone around them. Everything about this culture—and I mean everything—from its absurd “entertainment” to its equally absurd “philosophy” to its politics to its science to its interspecies relations to its intrahuman relations is all about protecting the abusive dynamics.
R. D. Laing named three rules that govern abusive family dynamics, that allow the family to not acknowledge the abuse:
Rule A: Don’t.
Rule A.1: Rule A does not exist.
Rule A.2: Never discuss the existence or nonexistence of rules A, A.1,or A.2.
These rules hold true for the culture. We see them every day in every way, from the most intimate to the most global. This culture collectively and most of its members individually will give up the world before they’ll give up this abusive structure.