Tag Archives: prison system

Every demon has it’s reasons **triggering**

This post has been hanging out in its infancy stages in my draft folder since April… I keep meaning to add to it, to flesh it out, but I have trouble articulating.  I think I am just going to hit post and hope for the best. I know I didn’t say everything I wanted to, but maybe this can be an ongoing thought process.   TRIGGER WARNING for talk of child abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence…

Recently I’ve been seeing that a county in Florida is posting “public service announcement” signs declaring the residence of sexual predators as such. I’m filled with mixed emotions in this. The survivor in me is happy that others will know, but the clinician in me cringes.

As someone effected by sexual violence, I want others to know that it’s not ok if it’s being done to them. It’s not ok to ever be hurt like that. It’s not ok to live with that fear. I want to be able to spot a “predator” from miles away and warn anyone that may come into contact with them. I don’t ever want anyone to go through anything like that again.  I want all failsafes in place to forever prevent situations like that. I want that as a professional also. I hate to see clients hurt like that. I want to stop the cycle of abuse and victimization. I want to be out of a job (or the prospect of a job, since I don’t currently work). I understand all too intimately the struggles of victims. I know the emotional torture these situations can bring about.  I know the lasting effects af assault and abuse.  I have taught classes on the effects of trauma.  I have interjected my personal experiences to these theoretical classes.  I can speak with some authority on it, but I wish I couldn’t. So totally I understand the need to point out dangerous people and situations.

The other side of me however, balks at the idea of signs proclaiming the presence of a “sex offender” plastered outside their homes. Don’t get me wrong, I most certainly do not ever want to see anyone else harmed like that, but I also know (from training and experience) that most sex offenders have some sort of trauma history.  Most offenders did not get to the point of harming someone else without first being harmed themselves.  Take the story of Aileen Wuornos (made into a movie, Monster, in 2003). She was one of a handful of female serial killers who murdered men in Florida.  She was tried, found guilty, and executed in 2002.  On the surface, she was a horrifically scary woman who seemed to kill her “johns” for no reason.  But if you dig into her story, you find a scared, damaged little girl who responded to the world in the only way that made sense to her at the time.  No, not all (or any? I can’t remember the full story at the moment) of the men she killed harmed her, but several others did.

I think there’s a very fine line that keeps some victims from becoming perpetrators themselves.  Many of us don’t ever cross that line, but some teeter on the edge, and some do cross it.  And not everyone that crosses that line is dangerous.  I worked in a clinic once where a “sexual predator” was receiving services.  To most people, he was a sick bastard who like to get off under women’s windows, or in the backyard by the kids toys.  He was arrested several times for exposing himself and “voyeurism”.  When he came to the clinic, he was quiet and shy.  He looked and acted more like a wounded animal than anything else.  Once he opened up to his clinician, we quickly figured out why he was doing the things he did.  Initially, all but one of the clinicians that had been asked to work with him had refused to do so.  Because of so many being reluctant to engage the client due to prejudices, his case was used in on-going training everyone at the office was required to attend.  The first training had almost all staff leaving either in tears or in a slight fog.  We were floored by the horrific abuse this man endured as a child.  One of his many punishments was being stripped naked and tied outside by his penis for hours at a time in all sorts of weather, and for seemingly innocuous “transgressions” (eating outside of a meal time, taking more food than allowed, not returning home at the appropriate time, simply existing).  He lived this his entire life.  No one made a move to take the child out of the abusive situation. No one helped him when he was “bad”. In turn, he learned that exposure and sexual discomfort were appropriate punishments for being “bad”, and that being bad could be as simple as thinking the wrong thing, or being early/late by a few minutes.  He learned to punish himself. After he grew up, he would stand outside a family’s home and expose himself.  He would stand there until someone called the police, or until he felt he had been sufficiently punished (sometimes hours in the snow). He replayed the same abuse he grew up with, only we didn’t see that part of his story.  All we saw was “some creep” being inappropriate around families, and it scared us… I still cry thinking of his story.

There’s a huge disparity in the treatment provided to victims vs offenders.  This is evident not only in the way we treat sex offenders, but in the way we treat perpetrators of domestic violence, or anyone in the criminal justice system.  We tend to forget that traumas wound deeply. Sustained traumas or early traumas tend to wound more deeply than later ones, but all of them have long-lasting effects on the people who experience them.  I think a good recent attempt at illustrating this is the Netflix show Orange is the New Black.  While it centers on one woman’s journey through the prison system, it does a good job of telling the stories of others also.  The characters we are introduced to as vile and unsavory turn out to be some really endearing and struggling women.  I don’t like every character on the show, and I don’t agree with all their life choices, but I can understand them.  And the show reminds me to take a breath before judging someone.  I try to let the anger wash over me, but then wash away.  I try to remember this for myself also when I get too down on my actions and behaviors.  I could easily have been one of those perpetrators with a sign in front of my house, but I’m not.  I had the presence of mind (and the support of others) to realize that certain actions are not ok.  I wasn’t pushed as far as some others have been, but that does not mean that if I had been in their exact situation I would have behaved differently.  I still very much struggle with the concept of some of the thoughts I used to have as a child.  It’s something I had only started admitting to De very recently, and only in the most vague sense (there is SO MUCH shame around it).  But I think it’s very important to realize every action or inaction has a reason. The more I learn about trauma and abuse, the more I deal with in my own personal life, the more I begin to think that the “nature” side of the debate is less and less pivotal than the “nurture” side of things.  Yes, there are very much differences in the way people are wired. There are different levels of sensitivity and resilience that have no known root in nurture, but nurture goes a long way in dictating the rest of our lives.  Had I not had the conversations with my mom and aunt that I did as a kid, had I not overheard their conversations, or seen the way they and others reacted to some horrific stuff, I doubt I would have set out on this “different” path than some others who became perpetrators.  I could have easily become the violent and out-of-control “monster” my father was (and still can be). I could have easily been in jail by now, but I’m not.  And I’m thankful for that every day…

I don’t want anyone to think that this blog is meant to advocate no punishment, or no consequences for actions, because that is certainly NOT my intent.  I just want to get wheels turning and people thinking.  I want to advocate compassion in everyday life, and an awareness that sometimes acting out is just the tip of the iceberg.  There are certainly people who are beyond scary. There are people who will likely not benefit from treatment or leniency, but there are also a lot of hurting people out there in the world.  I think we need more compassion for that…

I’m suddenly reminded of a TED talk that I first heard about last year or the year before.  It’s a different way to look at mental illness, and it speaks about “psychosis” with similar insight. It’s definitely worth a listen (or re-listen). Abuse and trauma has long-lasting effects, and maybe as a society, we need to start being more trauma-informed when dealing with perpetrators of abuses and crimes. We certainly need an over-haul to the mental health system in this country.

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