In 1990, I was a prison psychologist at Wisconsin’s intake facility, Dodge Correctional Institution. At the same time, I volunteered at a local battered women’s shelter, running its women’s support group.
I had an epiphany during a conversation I was having with a psychologist who practiced in the local community. “I bet you find them different, the populations,” she said, “the victims versus the victimizers.”
She believed we should care more about the victims than the victimizers. Mentally, I disagreed with her. Both were victims, I thought. They were different only in the way each responded to the trauma. They were different only in the coping strategies they developed to help them survive their abusive childhoods.
Once, Derek and his brothers prevented their father from raping their sister. “We had won that morning,” he said.
Later the same day, however, his father returned saying, “Boy, I am going to teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.” He then beat him repeatedly with an electric extension cord “until I forgot any pride I ever had and begged him to stop.”
As Derek related his story, other group members nodded their heads in shared memory. “My dad said the same thing, about teaching me a lesson,” said one of them.
None of the group members had forgotten it. That feeling of powerlessness takes away all sense of agency and control, leaving its victims disempowered and helpless.
Derek’s powerlessness was reinforced as he watched his father beat his mother, acts he described as worse than his own beatings. “I couldn’t protect her,” he said. “I was a coward. I blamed myself for her getting hurt.”
His self-blame and unsound reasoning are typical of men who are abused as children and become violent as adults. In his book, The Creation of Violent Criminals, sociologist Lonnie Athens refers to this process as “personal horrification.” It causes children to develop a defectiveness/shame life trap, whose core belief is, “I am inadequate. I have no value. I’m broken. No one will ever love me.”
Derek’s way of coping with feeling defenseless and vulnerable was to counterattack. He fought the schema by convincing himself and everyone else around him that the opposite schema was true: That he was in control, first as a schoolyard bully then as a barroom brawler and finally with his wife, Tamika.
When Derek abused her, he showed no outward sign of self-hatred and instead presented as confident, arrogant and narcissistic. Inside, however, he felt self-loathing.
Derek responded to his trauma with anger, aggression and violence, conferring upon him the simultaneous and contradictory roles of victimizer and victim.
Traumatic experiences of abuse, rejection and shame are stored as implicit memories that become unconscious, automatic and permanent, often triggering a negative emotional response to stimuli reminiscent of the original trauma even before or without conscious awareness.
The emotional memory is experienced as if in the present, repeating itself like an emotional flashback, and can be overwhelming and devastating.
The victim’s anger, shame and despair can be directed inward to generate symptoms of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. These internalizers keep their pain and anger inside and “act in,” rather than act out. These survivors develop self-hatred, become emotionally dependent and seek a submissive position in relationships, leading to re-victimization.
Externalizers, like Derek, direct their emotional pain outward as aggression, impulsiveness, delinquency and hyperactivity. The most concerning cope with early abusive relationships by shutting off and dismissing instinctive needs for emotional human connection. As adults, these individuals view others as objects, never develop empathy and are capable of extreme violence.
Addictions and compulsive behaviors — overeating, gambling and excessive risk-taking — serve to help the survivor avoid the emotional pain of the repeating memories of trauma.
Dissociation, an extreme form of escape, protects children from inescapable threats, allowing them to detach, separate from reality and retreat into their imaginations. The response becomes habitual and automatic in adulthood and allows the adult to express otherwise controlled negative impulses.
In a study of 53 homicide offenders over a 10-year period, (Tanay, 1969), the author reported 70 percent of the sample had been in a dissociative reaction at the time of their crimes. Another study of women who were abused as children, (Egeland, 1996), found that the women who abused their own children scored significantly higher on a scale of dissociation than mothers who, despite having been abused as children, did not repeat the violence.
There are many ways for children to cope with the emotional pain of an abusive and neglectful childhood. While adult childhood trauma survivors who internalize and are often re-victimized present as more sympathetic, responsive to treatment and appreciative of therapeutic support, others grow up angry and recreate the violence in their adult lives.
Abused and neglected children grow up without the emotional caring and support they need to live a productive, meaningful life with healthy emotional connections to others. Some continue the abuse; others do not. They all are victims.
As a society and as psychologists, we are ethically compelled to fight for all children’s rights to grow up in a caring, supportive environment. One way is to understand more fully how childhood experiences affect personality development. We could provide parenting education with programs — such as Siegel and Hartzell’s 2012 Parenting from the Inside Out, which helps parents understand how their own childhood influenced their own parenting skills.
When we meet a domestically violent offender, let us examine to what extent their adult violence is a response to the strategies the child learned to help him survive within an uncaring and hostile family environment. If our abusive clients encountered early childhood trauma and then committed their own aggressive behaviors, we need to help them look at their past and understand how it led them to their self-defeating and destructive behaviors without blame or shame.
Linda Nauth, MS, worked as a psychologist in the Wisconsin prison adult system and as a school psychologist in the juvenile institution. She wrote Lifetraps: From Child Victim to Adult Victimizer (2018) as a personal and professional reflection of what she learned about the causes and treatment of domestic violence. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.