We recently deeply overestimated our commenters as a whole when Revena posted about an episode of Serenity about a man who survives a Reaver attack, then does his best to become a Reaver, and Mal’s explanation: that after having been traumatized, he must’ve felt the need to become like his abusers. Revena cited this bit from an email I’d written her.
In this ep, we have a guy who… what? Is suffering from Stockholm syndrome + 1? He’s seen horrific abuse, so he’s going to become like his abusers? Thank goodness that’s not how it works on non-fiction humans, or you can imagine the fallout from Bosnia, the Holocaust and tortured POWs – not to mention abused kids. I mean, we’d be extinct already with that amount of conscience-free sport abusers wreaking their havoc… It makes Mal look incredibly stupid (just observation and a moderate knowledge of history overcomes this idea) and it insults the vast majority of survivors of abuse and horror who absolutely did NOT go on to resemble their abusers in any way.
Apparently, a lot of our commenters think Mal makes good sense there, because we are having to delete comments right and left that seek to correct my confusion and explain that abused people become abusers. We’ve explained it all in the comments, but the new commenters don’t bother reading. They just can’t wait to share the fruits of their superior brainz with us confused people.
Except, no. I’ve actually done some reading on psychology. Hell, I’ve also looked at the people in the world and made some observations. If you think adults can suddenly snap and turn abusive, you’ve been watching too much TV without thinking critically, and that makes you not really what we’re looking for in a commenter. Here are some facts about psychology. And no, I’m not providing links on every damn detail because most of this info is already on this site or What Privilege. Check the “Related Posts” at the bottom – I’m sure most of them will turn up. (Again, can’t be bothered? Then go away, and peace be with you.)
- Empathy is a learned behavior. You learn it between 18 months and 4 years. For proof, you can read Daniel Goleman, or you can just watch kids, because mothers are often aware of this intuitively whether they have the psych vocabulary to explain it or not. Kids start noticing when other kids show distress, and it upsets them, and the process builds from there.
- Empathy learning can be interrupted by trauma, neglect or abuse. It can also get befuddled when a parent (primary person children look to mimic) has no empathy and other people around a child do. Sometimes empathy learning is so thoroughly derailed that the person grows up without any empathy at all, and therefore can’t feel remorse or even understand why your feelings should matter to him at all. These people have serious mental health issues, most typically Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Anti-Social Personality Disorder, which are extremely common amongst serial killers and rapists and famous despots, but are also present in your neighborhood and the office where you work, right now, as we speak. You’ll hear these disorders referred to a lot on this site.
- Yes, abusive people virtually always have been victims of abuse.
- But remarkably, the vast majority of kids (estimated at 7 out of 8 [ETA: or 9 out of 10?], though more studies are needed) raised in abusive situations do not become abusers themselves. Why is that, do you suppose? This is where critical thinking is helpful.
- Statistically, the fact that abusive backgrounds usually don’t produce abusers is more telling than the fact that virtually all abusers come from abusive backgrounds. Think of it this way. If 88% of people who eat beef don’t get hives, but everyone who has hives eats beef, would you conclude that eating beef is the sole cause of hives? I hope not. The typical child molester has up to 400 victims* in his or her lifetime (and this is just one type of abuser). Even using the 1 in 8 stat (for how many sexually abused kids become abusers themselves), one child molester should produce up to 50 new child molesters in every generation. And yet, if the amount of child molesters was multiplying that exponentially every generation, and we know child molestation’s nothing new in human experience, wouldn’t non-molesters be a serious minority by now?
- If abusive backgrounds usually don’t produce abusive adults, they cannot be the sole cause of how abusive personalities come into being. There have to be other factors, and no consensus has been reached as to what. The general theory in both law enforcement and counseling is that there are probably genetic factors and social factors as well as the upbringing to consider.
My personal theory is it’s not abuse that causes people to develop these personalities: it’s lack of consistent discipline which often accompanies an abusive upbringing. (Note: beating the shit out of a child does not equal discipline.)
But let’s move on to the bit you really should be able to work out for yourself without any textbook reading at all: once empathy is learned, it can’t be lost through sudden trauma. The idea that an adult who’s always been nice and wonderful (and not at all violently delusional) can suddenly snap and go on a killing spree is a myth spread by hack screenwriters. NPDs and APDs can do a great job of mimicking someone who’s nice and wonderful for a very long time before something happens (what profilers call a “stressor”), and suddenly they can’t maintain the facade anymore. (This, by the way, would be the most logical explanation for what happens to our Reaver victim turned abuser, by the way – that he was always lacking empathy, and what happened with the Reavers freed him of the need to keep maintaining his Mr. Good Neighbor facade.)
But the reason I say you should’ve known this yourself without any particular education is: do the math.
- Something like 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted as adults.
- No one’s too sure about stats for men, but some not insignificant number of men are sexually assaulted.
- In 2005 alone, 476,280 adults experienced domestic violence. Sorry, reported domestic violence. The actual number must be considerably higher. Most will have survived it.
- Lots of adults have really traumatic car accidents.
- Loads of people survive horrible random violence – drive-by-shootings, home invasions, etc. Or the loss of a loved one to violence.
- Loads of people have traumatic experiences from working in the military or law enforcement or other dangerous jobs.
- Hitler left an awful lot of traumatized survivors.
- So did Bosnia.
- So will what’s happening in the Congo. (Hey Sylvia, I wonder if this could be the closest we’ll get to a real world approximation of what Reavers do to victims?)
- How many people get stalked? Forced to leave a job because of sexual harassment, or discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, etc.? How many people are being emotionally abused by partners, but not physically? These are traumatic, abusive experiences.
People who haven’t experienced some kind of emotional trauma as an adult are possibly more unusual than those who have (especially the older your sample group, since just being alive raises your odds). If anywhere near all these people snapped and became capable of willfully and remorselessly harming others, this world would be way more of a cess pit than it is. Because they wouldn’t just harm one or two people. Oh, no.
For goodness’ sake, people, when you come to this site and spout your mouth off, you are talking to a lot of abuse, assault and trauma survivors. If you don’t feel the need to educate yourself on what we’ve been through before telling us all about ourselves, then do not comment. If my reasoning doesn’t do it for you, then use your own: you apparently think we’re all likely to rape you to death and then skin you for clothing, and if you’re lucky, we’ll do it in that order.
*See this comment. The “400″ number may not be reliable. However, even if the typical number of victims is just 1-2 kids, child molestation would be not only self-sustaining and growing all the time, and that’s just one form of abuse that’s been going on for at least the duration of recorded history.