Letters to Sam Vaknin 2
©Stephen McDonnell and Sam Vaknin 2004
All text is copyrighted and is published here
with the permission of the authors.
Letter no 2 October 16, 2004
Thank you Sam for such rich and enlightening answers. You
wrote me that you have been involved in a 9-year study of narcissism,
and thus yourself. Therefore you can speak with authority on
NPD, and PDs. In fact I have gleaned a lot from reading your
pages. My own experience has been a more personal one, and my
understanding of what makes narcissists tick is at second hand.
While I have read other books that treat narcissistic personality
disorder directly or indirectly, I still feel like I can only
see them as shadowy figures. I will mention in passing the wonderful
book by Alice Miller, "The Drama of the Gifted Child, The
Search for the True Self" and a more recent book on how
to deal with narcissists at work entitled, "Where Egos Dare,
the untold truth about narcissistic leaders - and how to survive
them" by Dean B McFalin & Paul D Sweeney.
I have reviewed what you wrote in response to my first
letter and I would like to address a few things. You are right
to be concise in naming the different disorders. One should call
a spade a spade. In your web pages you have introduced new labels
(I hate to say it but narcissists like to label people and thus
objectify them) and new analysis of disorders that connect to
narcissism. I had the hubris to give a name to the victims of
NPDs that I call Mirror/Echo Personality Disorder. http://narcissism101.com/Narcissism_101/mirror.html
Unlike the narcissistic sub group described in their book
"Personality Disorders in Modern Life", by Theodore
Millon and Roger Davis, I believe the "Masochistic or Self-Defeating
Personality Disorder", better describes the victims of narcissists.
This may be contrary to your assertion that, "While the
narcissist is rarely a full-fledged masochist, many a narcissist
exhibit some of the traits of this personality disorder."
It seems to me that the NPD is more a sadist than a masochist;
he or she enjoys causing pain more than suffering pain. (I believe
this is why Alice Miller blamed the horrors of World War II on
the decades of whipping of young children - those children grew
up to be sadistic adults.) While his or her victim enjoys the
suffering and pain. Just as every voyeur has a Peeping Tom and
every dominant has a submissive, the NPD seeks people who enjoy
or who are trained to give narcissistic supply. As you wrote,
"Narcissists are aided, abetted and facilitated by four
types of people and institutions: the adulators, the blissfully
ignorant, the self-deceiving and those deceived by the narcissist."
You then go on to list the reasons and characteristics of the
abuse. The hopelessly hopeful continue to believe they are at
fault, not the NPD. http://samvak.tripod.com/journal27.html
On the face of it, there is no (emotional)
partner or mate, who typically "binds" with a narcissist.
They come in all shapes and sizes. The initial phases of attraction,
infatuation and falling in love are pretty normal. The narcissist
puts on his best face ñ the other party is blinded by
budding love. A natural selection process occurs only much later,
as the relationship develops and is put to the test.
Living with a narcissist can be exhilarating,
is always onerous, often harrowing. Surviving a relationship
with a narcissist indicates, therefore, the parameters of the
personality of the survivor. She (or, more rarely, he) is moulded
by the relationship into The Typical Narcissistic Mate/Partner/Spouse.
First and foremost, the narcissist's partner
must have a deficient or a distorted grasp of her self and of
reality. Otherwise, she (or he) is bound to abandon the narcissist's
ship early on. The cognitive distortion is likely to consist
of belittling and demeaning herself ñ while aggrandising
and adoring the narcissist.
The partner is, thus, placing herself in
the position of the eternal victim: undeserving, punishable,
a scapegoat. Sometimes, it is very important to the partner to
appear moral, sacrificial and victimised. At other times, she
is not even aware of this predicament. The narcissist is perceived
by the partner to be a person in the position to demand these
sacrifices from her because he is superior in many ways (intellectually,
emotionally, morally, professionally, or financially).
The status of professional victim sits
well with the partner's tendency to punish herself, namely: with
her masochistic streak. The tormented life with the narcissist
is just what she deserves.
In this respect, the partner is the mirror
image of the narcissist. By maintaining a symbiotic relationship
with him, by being totally dependent upon her source of masochistic
supply (which the narcissist most reliably constitutes and most
amply provides) ñ the partner enhances certain traits
and encourages certain behaviours, which are at the very core
The narcissist is never whole without an
adoring, submissive, available, self-denigrating partner. His
very sense of superiority, indeed his False Self, depends on
it. His sadistic Superego switches its attentions from the narcissist
(in whom it often provokes suicidal ideation) to the partner,
thus finally obtaining an alternative source of sadistic satisfaction.
It is through self-denial that the partner
survives. She denies her wishes, hopes, dreams, aspirations,
sexual, psychological and material needs, choices, preferences,
values, and much else besides. She perceives her needs as threatening
because they might engender the wrath of the narcissist's God-like
The narcissist is rendered in her eyes
even more superior through and because of this self-denial. Self-denial
undertaken to facilitate and ease the life of a "great man"
is more palatable. The "greater" the man (=the narcissist),
the easier it is for the partner to ignore her own self, to dwindle,
to degenerate, to turn into an appendix of the narcissist and,
finally, to become nothing but an extension, to merge with the
narcissist to the point of oblivion and of merely dim memories
The two collaborate in this macabre
dance. The narcissist is formed by his partner inasmuch as
he forms her. Submission breeds superiority and masochism breeds
sadism. The relationships are characterised by emergentism: roles
are allocated almost from the start and any deviation meets with
an aggressive, even violent reaction.
The predominant state of the partner's
mind is utter confusion. Even the most basic relationships ñ
with husband, children, or parents ñ remain bafflingly
obscured by the giant shadow cast by the intensive interaction
with the narcissist. A suspension of judgement is part and parcel
of a suspension of individuality, which is both a prerequisite
to and the result of living with a narcissist. The partner no
longer knows what is true and right and what is wrong and forbidden.
The narcissist recreates for the partner
the sort of emotional ambience that led to his own formation
in the first place: capriciousness, fickleness, arbitrariness,
emotional (and physical or sexual) abandonment. The world becomes
hostile, and ominous and the partner has only one thing left
to cling to: the narcissist.
And cling she does. If there is anything
which can safely be said about those who emotionally team up
with narcissists, it is that they are overtly and overly dependent.
The partner doesn't know what to do ñ
and this is only too natural in the mayhem that is the relationship
with the narcissist. But the typical partner also does not know
what she wants and, to a large extent, who she is and what she
wants to become.
These unanswered questions hamper the partner's
ability to gauge reality. Her primordial sin is that she fell
in love with an image, not with a real person. It is the voiding
of the image that is mourned when the relationship ends.
The break-up of a relationship with a narcissist
is, therefore, very emotionally charged. It is the culmination
of a long chain of humiliations and of subjugation. It is the
rebellion of the functioning and healthy parts of the partner's
personality against the tyranny of the narcissist.
The partner is likely to have totally misread
and misinterpreted the whole interaction (I hesitate to call
it a relationship). This lack of proper interface with reality
might be (erroneously) labelled "pathological".
Why is it that the partner seeks to prolong
her pain? What is the source and purpose of this masochistic
streak? Upon the break-up of the relationship, the partner (but
not the narcissist, who usually refuses to provide closure) engage
in a tortuous and drawn out post mortem.
But the question who did what to whom (and
even why) is irrelevant. What is relevant is to stop mourning
oneself, start smiling again and love in a less subservient,
hopeless, and pain-inflicting manner.
You may be unaware of my work on Inverted
People who depend on other people for their
emotional gratification and the performance of Ego or daily functions.
They are needy, demanding, submissive. They fear abandonment,
cling and display immature behaviours in their effort to maintain
the "relationship" with their companion or mate upon
whom they depend. No matter what abuse is inflicted upon them
ñ they remain in the relationship.
See also the definition of the Dependent
Personality Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual
Also called "covert
narcissist", this is a co-dependent who depends exclusively
on narcissists (narcissist-co-dependent). If you are living with
a narcissist, have a relationship with one, if you are married
to one, if you are working with a narcissist, etc. ñ it
does NOT mean that you are an inverted narcissist.
To "qualify" as an inverted narcissist,
you must CRAVE to be in a relationship with a narcissist,
regardless of any abuse inflicted on you by him/her. You must
ACTIVELY seek relationships with narcissists and
ONLY with narcissists, no matter what your (bitter
and traumatic) past experience has been. You must feel EMPTY
and UNHAPPY in relationships with ANY OTHER
kind of person. Only then, and if you satisfy the other diagnostic
criteria of a Dependent Personality Disorder, can you be safely
labelled an "inverted narcissist".
Sooner, or later, everyone around the narcissist
is bound to become his victim. People are sucked ñ voluntarily
or involuntarily ñ into the turbulence that constitutes
his life, into the black hole that is his personality, into the
whirlwind, which makes up his interpersonal relationships.
Different people are adversely affected
by different aspects of the narcissist's life and psychological
make-up. Some trust him and rely on him, only to be bitterly
disappointed. Others love him and discover that he cannot reciprocate.
Yet others are forced to live vicariously, through him.
There are three categories of victims:
Victims of the narcissist's instability
The narcissist leads an unpredictable,
vicissitudinal, precarious, often dangerous life. His ground
is ever shifting: geographically as well as mentally. He changes
addresses, workplaces, vocations, avocations, interests, friends
and enemies with a bewildering speed. He baits authority and
He is, therefore, prone to conflict: likely
to be a criminal, a rebel, a dissident, or a critic. He gets
bored easily, trapped in cycles of idealisation and devaluation
of people, places, hobbies, jobs, values. He is mercurial, unstable,
and unreliable. His family suffers: his spouse and children have
to wander with him in his private desert, endure the Via Dolorosa
that he incessantly walks.
They live in constant fear and trepidation:
what next? where next? who is next? To a lesser extent, this
is the case with his friends, bosses, colleagues, or with his
country. These biographical vacillations and mental oscillations
deny the people around him autonomy, unperturbed development
and self-fulfilment, their path to self-recognition and contentment.
To the narcissist, other humans are mere
instruments, Sources of Narcissistic Supply. He sees no reason
to consider their needs, wishes, wants, desires and fears. He
derails their life with ease and ignorance. Deep inside he knows
that he is wrong to do so because they might retaliate ñ
hence, his persecutory delusions.
Victims of the narcissist's misleading
These are the victims of the narcissist's
deceiving emotional messages. The narcissist mimics real emotions
artfully. He exudes the air of someone really capable of loving
or of being hurt, of one passionate and soft, empathic and caring.
Most people are misled into believing that he is even more humane
They fall in love with the mirage, the
fleeting image, with the fata morgana of a lush emotional oasis
in the midst of their emotional desert. They succumb to the luring
proposition that he is. They give in, give up, and give everything
only to be discarded ruthlessly when judged by the narcissist
to be no longer useful.
Riding high on the crest of the narcissist's
over-valuation only to crash into the abysmal depths of his devaluation,
they lose control over their emotional life. The narcissist drains
them, exhausts their resources, sucks the blood-life of Narcissistic
Supply from their dwindling, depleted selves.
This emotional roller coaster is so harrowing
that the experience borders on the truly traumatic.
To remove doubt: this behaviour pattern is not confined to matters
of the heart. The narcissist's employer, for instance, is misled
by his apparent seriousness, industriousness, ambition, willing
to sacrifice, honesty, thoroughness and a host of other utterly
They are fake because they are directed
at securing Narcissistic Supply rather than at doing a good job.
The narcissist's clients and suppliers may suffer from the same
The narcissist's false emanations are not
restricted to messages with emotional content. They may contain
wrong or false or partial information. The narcissist does not
hesitate to lie, deceive, or "reveal" (misleading)
half-truths. He appears to be intelligent, charming and, therefore,
reliable. He is a convincing conjurer of words, signs, behaviours,
and body language.
The above two classes of victims are casually
exploited and then discarded by the narcissist. No more malice
is involved in this than in any other interaction with an instrument.
No more premeditation and contemplation than in breathing. These
are victims of narcissistic reflexes. Perhaps this is what makes
it all so repulsively horrific: the offhanded nature of the damage
Not so the third category of victims.
These are the victims upon which
the narcissist designs, maliciously and intentionally,
to inflict his wrath and bad intentions. The narcissist is both
In hurting others he always seeks to hurt himself. In punishing
them he wishes to be penalised. Their pains
Thus, he attacks figures of authority and
social institutions with vicious, uncontrolled, almost insane
rage ñ only to accept his due punishment (their reaction
to his venomous diatribes or antisocial actions) with incredible
complacency, or even relief. He engages in vitriolic humiliation
of his kin and folk, of regime and government, of his firm or
of the law ñ only to suffer pleasurably in the role of
the outcast, the ex-communicated, the exiled, and the imprisoned.
The punishment of the narcissist does little
to compensate his randomly (rather incomprehensibly) selected
victims. The narcissist forces individuals and groups of people
around him to pay a heavy toll, materially, in reputation, and
emotionally. He is ruinous, and disruptive.
In behaving so, the narcissist seeks not
only to be punished, but also to maintain emotional detachment
Preventive Measures, EIPMs). Threatened
by intimacy and by the predatory cosiness of routine and mediocrity
ñ the narcissist lashes back at what he perceives to be
the sources of this dual threat. He attacks those he thinks take
him for granted, those who fail to recognise his superiority,
those who render him "average" and "normal".
And they, alas, include just about everyone
But are not the victims guilty as well, guilty of at least
being stupid, if not ignorant? In my own case I was surprised
that all the signs were in front of me, but I refused to see
them. Of course when I first started "feeling" that
something was wrong with certain people, the DSM IV did not have
NPD as a mental disorder (that I can recall). All I could say
was they were crazy - crazy like a fox! Has this changed over
It takes two to tango ñ and an equal number to sustain a long-term
abusive relationship. The abuser and the abused form a bond,
a dynamic, and a dependence. Expressions such as "follies
a deux" and the "Stockholm Syndrome" capture facets
two of a myriad ñ of this danse macabre. It often ends
fatally. It is always an excruciatingly painful affair.
Abuse is closely correlated with
alcoholism, drug consumption, intimate-partner homicide, teen
pregnancy, infant and child mortality, spontaneous abortion,
reckless behaviours, suicide, and the onset of mental health
disorders. It doesn't help that society refuses to openly and
frankly tackle this pernicious phenomenon and the guilt and shame
associated with it.
People ñ overwhelmingly women ñ remain in an abusive household for a
variety of reasons: economic, parental (to protect the children),
and psychological. But the objective obstacles facing the battered
spouse cannot be overstated.
The abuser treats his spouse
as an object, an extension of himself, devoid of a separate existence
and denuded of distinct needs. Thus, typically, the couple's
assets are on his name ñ from real estate to medical insurance
policies. The victim has no family or friends because her abusive
partner or husband frowns on her initial independence and regards
it as a threat. By intimidating, cajoling, charming, and making
false promises, the abuser isolates his prey from the rest of
society and, thus, makes her dependence on him total. She is
often also denied the option to study and acquire marketable
skills or augment them.
Abandoning the abusive spouse
frequently leads to a prolonged period of destitution and peregrination.
Custody is usually denied to parents without a permanent address,
a job, income security, and, therefore, stability. Thus, the
victim stands to lose not only her mate and nest ñ but also her off-spring. There is the
added menace of violent retribution by the abuser or his proxies
coupled with emphatic contrition on his part and a protracted
and irresistible "charm offensive".
Gradually, she is convinced to
put up with her spouse's cruelty in order to avoid this harrowing
But there is more to an abusive
dyad than mere pecuniary convenience. The abuser ñ stealthily but unfailingly ñ exploits the vulnerabilities in the
psychological makeup of his victim. The abused party may have
low self-esteem, a fluctuating sense of self-worth, primitive
defence mechanisms, phobias, mental health problems, a disability,
a history of failure, or a tendency to blame herself, or to feel
inadequate (autoplastic neurosis). She may have come from an
abusive family or environment ñ which conditioned her to expect abuse
as inevitable and "normal". In extreme and rare cases
the victim is a masochist, possessed of an urge to seek ill-treatment
The abuser may be functional
or dysfunctional, a pillar of society, or a peripatetic con-artist,
rich or poor, young or old. There is no universally-applicable
profile of the "typical abuser". Yet, abusive behaviour
often indicates serious underlying psychopathologies. Absent
empathy, the abuser perceives the abused spouse only dimly and
partly, as one would an inanimate source of frustration. The
abuser, in his mind, interacts only with himself and with "introjects"
representations of outside objects, such as his victims.
In a recent Discover magazine there was a pie chart showing
the percentage of PD's, NPD was not included! So despite your
assertion that they are everywhere, an assertion I whole-heartedly
agree with, the scientific world refuses to see them.
I would like to have an opinion on something. In the October
10, 2004 New York Time's Book Review section Sally Satel critics
a new book entitled "The cult of Personality" by Annie
Murphy Paul published by Free Press. The critic and the book
seem to take a different view than you do; they see personality
tests and the accent on Personality disorders as overdone in
our society, especially when it comes to young people. The subtitle
of the book goes: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate
Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves.
You write that, 'Narcissists are aided, abetted and facilitated
by four types of people and institutions: the adulators, the
blissfully ignorant, the self-deceiving and those deceived by
the narcissist.' What category would you put the author and critic
of the former book? The author is a former senior editor at Psychology
Today and wants to get personality testing out of the courtroom,
though she concedes there is room for narrow focused tests along
with personal interviews.
Having read emails and postings on your web sites by people
who have to go up against spouses who suffer from Narcissistic
Personality Disorders, and who are very good at manipulating
people, I wonder if throwing out such tests would be like throwing
out the baby with the bath water?
Some criticism of the current orthodoxy, as represented by
the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), is justified.
The classification of Axis II personality disorders - deeply
ingrained, maladaptive, lifelong behavior patterns - in the Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual, fourth edition, text revision [American
Psychiatric Association. DSM-IV-TR, Washington, 2000] - or the
DSM-IV-TR for short - has come under sustained and
serious criticism from its inception in 1952.
The DSM IV-TR adopts a categorical approach, postulating
that personality disorders are "qualitatively
distinct clinical syndromes" (p. 689). This
is widely doubted. Even the distinction made between "normal"
and "disordered" personalities is increasingly being
rejected. The "diagnostic thresholds" between normal
and abnormal are either absent or weakly supported.
The polythetic form of the DSM's Diagnostic Criteria - only
a subset of the criteria is adequate grounds for a diagnosis
- generates unacceptable diagnostic heterogeneity. In other words,
people diagnosed with the same personality disorder may share
only one criterion or none.
The DSM fails to clarify the exact relationship between Axis
II and Axis I disorders and the way chronic childhood and developmental
problems interact with personality disorders.
The differential diagnoses are vague and the personality
disorders are insufficiently demarcated. The result is excessive
co-morbidity (multiple Axis II diagnoses).
The DSM contains little discussion of what distinguishes normal
character (personality), personality traits, or personality style
(Millon) - from personality disorders.
A dearth of documented clinical experience regarding both
the disorders themselves and the utility of various treatment
Numerous personality disorders are "not otherwise specified"
- a catchall, basket "category".
Cultural bias is evident in certain disorders (such as the
Antisocial and the Schizotypal).
The emergence of dimensional alternatives to the categorical
approach is acknowledged in the DSM-IV-TR itself:
to the categorical approach is the dimensional perspective that
Personality Disorders represent maladaptive variants of personality
traits that merge imperceptibly into normality and into one anotherî (p.689)
The following issues
- long neglected in the DSM - are likely to be tackled in future
editions as well as in current research:
- The longitudinal course of the disorder(s) and their temporal
stability from early childhood onwards;
- The genetic and biological
underpinnings of personality disorder(s);
- The development of personality psychopathology during childhood
and its emergence in adolescence;
- The interactions between physical health and disease and
- The effectiveness of various treatments - talk therapies
as well as psychopharmacology.
All personality disorders are interrelated,
at least phenomenologically - though we have no Grand Unifying
Theory of Psychopathology. We do not know whether there are ñ
and what are ñ the mechanisms underlying mental disorders.
At best, mental health professionals record symptoms (as reported
by the patient) and signs (as observed).
Then, they group them into syndromes and,
more specifically, into disorders. This is descriptive, not explanatory
science. Sure, there are a few etiological theories around (psychoanalysis,
to mention the most famous) but they all failed to provide a
coherent, consistent theoretical framework with predictive powers.
Patients suffering from personality disorders
have many things in common:
- Most of them are insistent (except those
suffering from the Schizoid or the Avoidant Personality Disorders).
They demand treatment on a preferential and privileged basis.
They complain about numerous symptoms. They never obey the physician
or his treatment recommendations and instructions.
- They regard themselves as unique, display
a streak of grandiosity and a diminished capacity for empathy
(the ability to appreciate and respect the needs and wishes of
other people). They regard the physician as inferior to them,
alienate him using umpteen techniques and bore him with their
- They are manipulative and exploitative
because they trust no one and usually cannot love or share. They
are socially maladaptive and emotionally unstable.
- Most personality disorders start out as
problems in personal development which peak during adolescence
and then become personality disorders. They stay on as enduring
qualities of the individual. Personality disorders are stable
and all-pervasive ñ not episodic. They affect most of
the areas of functioning of the patient: his career, his interpersonal
relationships, his social functioning.
- The typical patients is unhappy. He is
depressed, suffers from auxiliary mood and anxiety disorders.
He does not like himself, his character, his (deficient) functioning,
or his (crippling) influence on others. But his defences are
so strong, that he is aware only of the distress ñ and
not of the reasons to it.
- The patient with a personality disorder
is vulnerable to and prone to suffer from a host of other psychiatric
problems. It is as though his psychological immunological system
has been disabled by his personality disorder and he falls prey
to other variants of mental illness. So much energy is consumed
by the disorder and by its corollaries (example: by obsessions-compulsions,
or mood swings), that the patient is rendered defenceless.
- Patients with personality disorders are
alloplastic in their defences. They have an external locus of
control. In other words: they tend to blame the outside world
for their mishaps. In stressful situations, they try to pre-empt
a (real or imaginary) threat, change the rules of the game, introduce
new variables, or otherwise influence the world out there to
conform to their needs. This is as opposed to autoplastic defences
(internal locus of control) typical, for instance, of neurotics
(who change their internal psychological processes in stressful
- The character problems, behavioural deficits
and emotional deficiencies and lability encountered by patients
with personality disorders are, mostly, ego-syntonic. This means
that the patient does not, on the whole, find his personality
traits or behaviour objectionable, unacceptable, disagreeable,
or alien to his self. As opposed to that, neurotics are ego-dystonic:
they do not like who they are and how they behave on a constant
- The personality-disordered are not psychotic.
They have no hallucinations, delusions or thought disorders (except
those who suffer from the Borderline Personality Disorder and
who experience brief psychotic "microepisodes", mostly
during treatment). They are also fully oriented, with clear senses
(sensorium), good memory and a satisfactory general fund of knowledge.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual [American
Psychiatric Association. DSM-IV-TR, Washington, 2000] defines
"Öenduring patterns of
perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and
oneself Ö exhibited in a wide range of important social
and personal contexts."
to read the DSM-IV-TR (2000) definition of personality
The international equivalent of the DSM is the ICD-10, Classification
of Mental and Behavioural Disorders, published by the World Health
Organization in Geneva (1992).
to read the ICD-10 diagnostic criteria for the personality
Each personality disorder has its own form
of Narcissistic Supply:
- HPD (Histrionic PD) ñ
Sex, seduction, "conquests", flirtation, romance, body-building,
demanding physical regime;
- NPD (Narcissistic PD) ñ
Adulation, admiration, attention, being feared;
- BPD (Borderline PD) ñ
The presence of their mate or partner (they are terrified of
- AsPD (Antisocial PD) ñ
Money, power, control, fun.
Borderlines, for instance, can be described
as narcissist with an overwhelming separation anxiety. They DO
care deeply about not hurting others (though often they cannot
help it) ñ but not out of empathy. Theirs is a selfish
motivation to avoid rejection. Borderlines depend on other people
for emotional sustenance. A drug addict is unlikely to pick up
a fight with his pusher. But Borderlines also have deficient
impulse control, as do Antisocials. Hence their emotional lability,
erratic behaviour, and the abuse they do heap on their nearest
See also my article "The
Myth of Mental Illness".
But you are right about the system's tendency to pathologize
It is telling that precious few psychology and psychopathology
textbooks dedicate an entire chapter to abuse and violence. Even
the most egregious manifestations ñ
such as child sexual abuse ñ
merit a fleeting mention, usually as a sub-chapter in a larger
section dedicated to paraphilias or personality disorders.
Abusive behavior did not make it into the diagnostic criteria
of mental health disorders, nor were its psychodynamic, cultural
and social roots explored in depth. As a result of this deficient
education and lacking awareness, most law enforcement officers,
judges, counselors, guardians, and mediators are worryingly ignorant
about the phenomenon.
Only 4% of hospital emergency room admissions of women in
the United States are attributed by staff to domestic violence.
The true figure, according to the FBI, is more like 50%. One
in three murdered women was done in by her spouse, current or
The US Department of Justice pegs the number of spouses (mostly
women) threatened with a deadly weapon at almost 2 million annually.
Domestic violence erupts in a mind-boggling half of all American
homes at least once a year. Nor are these isolated, "out
of the blue", incidents.
Mistreatment and violence are part of an enduring pattern
of maladaptive behavior within the relationship and are sometimes
coupled with substance abuse. Abusers are possessive, pathologically
jealous, dependent, and, often, narcissistic. Invariably, both
the abuser and his victim seek to conceal the abusive episodes
and their aftermath from family, friends, neighbors, or colleagues.
This dismal state of things is an abuser's and stalker's paradise.
This is especially true with psychological (verbal and emotional)
abuse which leaves no visible marks and renders the victim incapable
Still, there is no "typical" offender. Maltreatment
crosses racial, cultural, social, and economic lines. This is
because, until very recently, abuse has constituted normative,
socially-acceptable, and, sometimes, condoned, behavior. For
the bulk of human history, women and children were considered
no better than property.
Indeed, well into the 18th century, they still made it into
lists of assets and liabilities of the household. Early legislation
in America ñ fashioned after
European law, both Anglo-Saxon and Continental ñ
permitted wife battering for the purpose of behavior modification.
The circumference of the stick used, specified the statute, should
not exceed that of the husband's thumb.
Inevitably, many victims blame themselves for the dismal state
of affairs. The abused party may
have low self-esteem, a fluctuating sense of self-worth, primitive
defense mechanisms, phobias, mental health problems, a disability,
a history of failure, or a tendency to blame herself, or to feel
inadequate (autoplastic neurosis).
She may have come from an abusive
family or environment ñ which conditioned her to expect abuse
as inevitable and "normal". In extreme and rare cases
the victim is a masochist, possessed of an urge to seek ill-treatment
and pain. Gradually, the victims convert these unhealthy emotions
and their learned helplessness in the face of persistent "gaslighting"
into psychosomatic symptoms, anxiety and panic attacks, depression,
or, in extremis, suicidal ideation and gestures.
From the Narcissistic
Personality Disorders list ñ
excerpt from my book "Toxic Relationships ñ
Abuse and its Aftermath" (forthcoming, 2004):
Therapists, marriage counselors, mediators, court-appointed
guardians, police officers, and judges are human. Some of them
are social reactionaries, others are narcissists, and a few are
themselves spouse abusers. Many things work against the victim
facing the justice system and the psychological profession.
Start with denial. Abuse is such a horrid phenomenon that
society and its delegates often choose to ignore it or to convert
it into a more benign manifestation, typically by pathologizing
the situation or the victim ñ
rather than the perpetrator.
A man's home is still his castle and the authorities are loath
Most abusers are men and most victims are women. Even the
most advanced communities in the world are largely patriarchal.
Misogynistic gender stereotypes, superstitions, and prejudices
Therapists are not immune to these ubiquitous and age-old
influences and biases.
They are amenable to the considerable charm, persuasiveness,
and manipulativeness of the abuser and to his impressive thespian
skills. The abuser offers a plausible rendition of the events
and interprets them to his favor. The therapist rarely has a
chance to witness an abusive exchange first hand and at close
quarters. In contrast, the abused are often on the verge of a
nervous breakdown: harassed, unkempt, irritable, impatient, abrasive,
Confronted with this contrast between a polished, self-controlled,
and suave abuser and his harried casualties
ñ it is easy to reach the conclusion that the real
victim is the abuser, or that both parties abuse each other equally.
The prey's acts of self-defense, assertiveness, or insistence
on her rights are interpreted as aggression, lability, or a mental
The profession's propensity to pathologize extends to the
wrongdoers as well. Alas, few therapists are equipped to do proper
clinical work, including diagnosis.
Abusers are thought by practitioners of psychology to be emotionally
disturbed, the twisted outcomes of a history of familial violence
and childhood traumas. They are typically diagnosed as suffering
from a personality disorder, an inordinately low self-esteem,
or codependence coupled with an all-devouring fear of abandonment.
Consummate abusers use the right vocabulary and feign the appropriate
"emotions" and affect and, thus, sway the evaluator's
But while the victim's "pathology" works against
her ñ especially in custody
battles ñ the culprit's "illness"
works for him, as a mitigating circumstance, especially in criminal
In his seminal essay, "Understanding
the Batterer in Visitation and Custody Disputes", Lundy
Bancroft sums up the asymmetry in favor of the offender:
"Batterers ... adopt the role of a hurt,
sensitive man who doesn't understand how things got so bad and
just wants to work it all out 'for the good of the children.'
He may cry ... and use language that demonstrates considerable
insight into his own feelings. He is likely to be skilled at
explaining how other people have turned the victim against him,
and how she is denying him access to the children as a form of
revenge ... He commonly accuses her of having mental health problems,
and may state that her family and friends agree with him ...
that she is hysterical and that she is promiscuous. The abuser
tends to be comfortable lying, having years of practice, and
so can sound believable when making baseless statements. The
abuser benefits ... when professionals believe that they can
"just tell" who is lying and who is telling the truth,
and so fail to adequately investigate.
Because of the effects of trauma, the victim of battering
will often seem hostile, disjointed, and agitated, while the
abuser appears friendly, articulate, and calm. Evaluators are
thus tempted to conclude that the victim is the source of the
problems in the relationship."
There is little the victim can do to "educate" the
therapist or "prove" to him who is the guilty party.
Mental health professionals are as ego-centered as the next person.
They are emotionally invested in opinions they form or in their
interpretation of the abusive relationship. They perceive every
disagreement as a challenge to their authority and are likely
to pathologize such behavior, labeling it "resistance"
In the process of mediation, marital therapy, or evaluation,
counselors frequently propose various techniques to ameliorate
the abuse or bring it under control. Woe betides the party that
dares object or turn these "recommendations" down.
Thus, an abuse victim who declines to have any further contact
with her batterer ñ is bound
to be chastised by her therapist for obstinately refusing to
constructively communicate with her violent spouse.
Better to play ball and adopt the sleek mannerisms of your
abuser. Sadly, sometimes the only way to convince your therapist
that it is not all in your head and that you are a victim ñ
is by being insincere and by staging a well-calibrated performance,
replete with the correct vocabulary. Therapists have Pavlovian
reactions to certain phrases and theories and to certain "presenting
signs and symptoms" (behaviors during the first few sessions).
Learn these ñ and use them to
your advantage. It is your only chance.
Why do good people - church-goers, pillars of the community,
the salt of the earth - ignore abuse and neglect, even when it
is on their doorstep and in their proverbial backyard (for instance,
in hospitals, orphanages, shelters, prisons, and the like)?
I. Lack of Clear Definition
Perhaps because the word "abuse" is so ill-defined
and so open to culture-bound interpretation.
We should distinguish functional abuse from the sadistic variety.
The former is calculated to ensure outcomes or to punish transgressors.
It is measured, impersonal, efficient, and disinterested.
The latter - the sadistic variety - fulfils the emotional needs
of the perpetrator.
This distinction is often blurred. People feel uncertain and,
therefore, reluctant to intervene. "The authorities know
best" - they lie to themselves.
II. Avoiding the Unpleasant
People, good people, tend to avert their eyes from certain institutions
which deal with anomalies and pain, death and illness - the unsavory
aspects of life which no one likes to be reminded of.
Like poor relatives, these institutions and events inside them
are ignored and shunned.
III. The Common Guilt
Moreover, even good people abuse others habitually. Abusive conduct
is so widespread that no one is exempt. Ours is a narcissistic
- and, therefore, abusive - civilization.
People who find themselves caught up in anomic states - for instance,
soldiers in war, nurses in hospitals, managers in corporations,
parents or spouses in disintegrating families, or incarcerated
inmates - tend to feel helpless and alienated. They experience
a partial or total loss of control.
They are rendered vulnerable, powerless, and defenseless by
events and circumstances beyond their influence.
Abuse amounts to exerting an absolute and all-pervasive domination
of the victim's existence. It is a coping strategy employed by
the abuser who wishes to reassert control over his life and,
thus, to re-establish his mastery and superiority. By subjugating
the victim - he regains his self-confidence and regulate his
sense of self-worth.
IV. Abuse as Catharsis
Even perfectly "normal" and good people (witness the
events in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq) channel their negative
emotions - pent up aggression, humiliation, rage, envy, diffuse
hatred - and displace them.
The victims of abuse become symbols of everything that's wrong
in the abuser's life and the situation he finds himself caught
in. The act of abuse amounts to misplaced and violent venting.
V. The Wish to Conform and Belong
- The Ethics of Peer Pressure
Many "good people" perpetrate heinous acts - or refrain
from criticizing or opposing evil - out of a wish to conform. Abusing
others is their way of demonstrating obsequious obeisance to
authority, group affiliation, colleagueship, and adherence to
the same ethical code of conduct and common values. They bask
in the praise that is heaped on them by their superiors, fellow
workers, associates, team mates, or collaborators.
Their need to belong is so strong that it overpowers ethical,
moral, or legal considerations. They remain silent in the face
of neglect, abuse, and atrocities because they feel insecure
and they derive their identity almost entirely from the group.
Abuse rarely occurs where it does not have the sanction and blessing
of the authorities, whether local or national. A permissive environment
is sine qua non. The more abnormal the circumstances, the less
normative the milieu, the further the scene of the crime is from
public scrutiny - the more is egregious abuse likely to
occur. This acquiescence is especially true in totalitarian societies
where the use of physical force to discipline or eliminate dissent
is an acceptable practice. But, unfortunately, it is also rampant
in democratic societies.
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