On October 15, 2017, I published an article to my website entitled, For Those Who Condemn Themselves for Acts Coerced Under Torture. In that article, I, along with 65 other therapists and researchers, hold blameless victims of extreme abuse who have been coerced through torture to harm other victims. The response to that article has been very gratifying. Both survivors and therapists have told me it has been life-saving.
As I wrote that piece, I knew that I would also need to examine the more challenging issue of victims of extreme abuse who have harmed others while not under direct torture and the degree to which they are, or are not, responsible for these acts. This is a much more complex psychological, moral, and legal issue. Victims harshly condemn themselves for any abuse that they have done to others, even if this occurred only when they were children. Many other people condemn them as well. But, in this article, I explain that a willingness to understand the factors that propel victims of extreme abuse to harm others reveals a much more complex picture and forces us to make much more considered judgments.
As I have written this article, I have had to hold in mind five kinds of victims, all with valid positions and unique needs:
- Victims who have bravely faced that they were coerced through direct torture to harm other victims;
- Victims who have been subjected to traditional organized criminal terrorization, that is, violence against victims combined with threats to harm or kill victims’ loved ones, to compel victims to follow abuser directives to do later harm to others;
- Victims who make the frightening discovery that psychologically-sophisticated dissociation-savvy abusers have manipulated and conditioned (“programmed”) dissociated identities within them to perform abuser functions out in the world while not under direct torture, out of their conscious awareness;
- Victims of all severities of abuse who painfully remember that, as children, they enacted their physical or sexual abuse against other children or pets while in flashbacks of reliving their abuse, in dissociated trance states, in dissociated identities, and/or in eruptions of rage, based in having no other means to deal with their confusing, painful, and terrifying emotions and memories, having no one they felt safe to disclose their abuse to, and, too often, while not being protected against ongoing abuse; and,
- Victims who hold their abusers accountable, even if these abusers were themselves once victims, including victims of perpetrators who appear to have made a conscious choice to give themselves over fully to sadism, cruelty, and evil.
I have done my best to honor each of these kinds of victims and their positions and experiences.
I will start with a summary of the points I make in my first article.
I. Victims Coerced through Direct Torture to Harm Other Victims
I have come to clearly understand that victims who are coerced to harm or kill other victims under direct torture carry no responsibility for these acts, whether as a child or an adult. In the case of extreme and sadistic abuse, any resistance or any indication of hesitation typically results in the abusers escalating the torture, including greater intensity of the prior torture, adding an other form of torture to the first, and/or intensifying the torture of the second victim. Sadistic abusers also mock resisting victims for having brought this on themselves and for having caused further harm to intended secondary victims.
A common response to first hearing of such horrors is to think: “I would let them kill me before I would torture or kill someone else.”
Most victims being tortured-coerced to harm others also desperately prefer to die. But sadistic abusers do not allow victims the option of death. The infliction of pain, terrorization, and heartbreak are their goals. Many abusers keep victims at the brink of death to maximize their cruelty. They medically intervene when a victim begins to die. They drug victims awake with stimulants if they pass out. They also punish any effort to commit suicide with more intense, prolonged, or additional forms of torture and/or double-down on the torture of the intended second victim. They have complete control of the space, time and torture devices. All of this is quickly understood by victims.
My understanding is that all victims of such torture submit quickly, first in terrorized submission, then in robotic compliance, and finally in a “snap” into a violent state. Victims report that this happens suddenly and automatically. It is a kill-or-be-killed response familiar to soldiers in combat.
Each of these psychological responses also involves the formation of dissociated self-states (these are not fully developed identities when they first form). Violent self-states “snap” into being at the moment that the identity who had been sustaining the torture a moment before could not bear another second of pain, horror, helpless victimization, and heartbreak. This is the heartbreak that comes of being the target of unmitigated cruelty, the complete lack of mercy on the part of another human being standing right before oneself. It is the heartbreak of being coerced to hurt another human being. It is unbearable.
These self-states also snap into existence because of built-up stores of survival-based, terror-driven, rage. The memory of the torture to which they were just subjected and their terror will likely be held unconsciously in these self-states. What they hold in their consciousness is rage and their function of committing violence. This is all they know, are, and do. Psychoanalytic thinkers will correctly understand this response as an instantaneous form of defensive identification with the aggressor that is confined to a particular dissociated self-state or identity.
With each subsequent session of torture, especially if it includes being coerced to harm others, the identities who initially formed to serve these functions – terrorized submission, robotic compliance, and perpetration– become re-activated and once again perform their functions. As these existing identities reach their limit, victims’ mind spontaneously form additional new dissociated self-states.
In the worst abuse, victims’ dissociative identity systems will eventually include hundreds of parts. This is known diagnostically as complex Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
When victims discover that they have identities whose entire function is that of doing violence, they usually condemn these parts of themselves as morally evil, as willing abusers. However, there is no free will involved. These identities have done violence in the service of both physical and psychological survival. It is more accurate to understand their responses as acts of self-defense.
I believe that when children, especially young children, are subjected to extreme torture, all of these responses are automatic and inevitable. If such children are later tortured in adolescence or adulthood, their existing dissociated identities will again be activated and new dissociated identities may also form.
What I do not know is whether these responses occur in the same way if a victim is first tortured in later childhood, adolescence, or adulthood. One would think that if a person had succeeded in forming a relatively cohesive sense of self in a low-trauma childhood, this would guard against this far-end dissociative response. However, even adolescents and adults may form dissociated identities in response to torture calculated toward this end and in reaction to the devastation of being coerced to harm others.
I will now address the more complex issue of victims who have done harm to others while not under direct torture. I will first discuss traditional organized criminal terrorization, that is, violence and threats to harm or kill loved ones, to compel victims to follow abuser directives to harm others. Next I will discuss the calculated psychological manipulation of victims’ dissociated identities (“programming”) to induce them to perform abuser functions while out in the world. Then, I will address victims who have done harm to others without direct abuser manipulation, such as abuse enactments in eruptions of abuse-driven rage, sexual acting out, and in various kinds of dissociative states. Next, I will discuss victims who have, at some point(s), exercised some degree of free will in doing harm or discharging rage or sexual impulses onto innocent others. Finally, I address victims who have, for a short or enduring time, fully and consciously given themselves over to sadism, cruelty, and evil.
II. Violence and Threats to Harm or Kill Loved Ones to Compel Victims to Follow Abuser Directives to Do Later Harm to Others
Old-school, Mafia-style, terrorization tactics, that is, threats to harm or kill a victim’s loved ones, are clearly adequate, in themselves, to compel victims to comply with abusers’ directives, including orders to do harm to others. This is an alarmingly common tactic used by both solo perpetrators and organized abuser networks to terrorize victims into silence and compliance.
Even vague threats by abusers can have devastating and long-term effects. For example, Junot Diaz, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, explains in his April 16, 2018, New Yorker article, The Legacy of Childhood Trauma, that his rapist’s simple threat that he would be “in trouble” if he did not return the next day was enough to gain his compliance and silence:
“I was raped when I was eight years old. By a grownup that I truly trusted.
After he raped me, he told me I had to return the next day or I would be “in trouble.” And because I was terrified, and confused, I went back the next day and was raped again. I never told anyone what happened, but today I’m telling you.
Clearly, specific threats to harm loved ones have a much more devastating effect. The abuser has already demonstrated a capacity for brutality and has “fear-conditioned” the victim (See Joseph Ledoux’s book, The Emotional Brain, to gain an understanding of the deep and enduring effect of fear-conditioning). These are not empty threats. Some abusers intentionally pair their spoken threats with acts of violence to further reinforce a survival-driven fear of non-compliance. Some abusers force victims to witness violence against other victims, especially punishment for anything but full and immediate compliance.
Some abuser networks have secured physical facilities where they permanently imprison some of their victims. They threaten the same fate for the victim’s loved ones: “If you tell, if you do not do everything we say, we will capture your [parents, siblings, pet, etc.], imprison them here, and torture them forever.” Abusers may even show victims audio or video-recordings of their loved ones to further terrorize them.
Threats made in these contexts are very effective in gaining a victim’s silence and compliance for life. What are a child’s options if he or she is told to lure a child in a playground into a van, under threat that the abusers will kill his/her family if he/she does not do as instructed?
Add to these considerations that such networks may include abusers wearing police uniforms, actual law enforcement officials as active participants in the abuse, and police officers who guard abuse sites.
Two kinds of abuser networks that operate with this level of organization are networks that engage in ritual abuse and networks that produce and distribute child rape and torture materials (“hurtcore”) and snuff films on the dark web. I discuss the multi-billion dollar “hurtcore” industry in an article I published to my website on September 29, 2018: Child Rape and Torture Materials on the Dark Web: Peter Scully and Beyond. This industry has the resources to install itself in key institutions to cover up its crimes, much like the Mafia of years past. It has been growing for at least four decades, dating back to the distribution of VHS child sexual abuse materials before the internet. These networks threaten, infiltrate, bribe, blackmail, and otherwise compromise critical segments of law enforcement. I fear that they are gaining a stronghold everywhere.
Victims of organized criminal networks with far-reaching tentacles understand that the likelihood of any form of law enforcement protection is negligible.
It is important to note that children can be accessed by abusers even if they have protective parents. They may be accessed while with an extended family member who is an abuser, on a visit to a friend’s home, while with a baby-sitter, through a corrupt daycare facility or school, through a religious institution, through athletic events, etc. Children are easily terrorized into withholding disclosure, concealing their injuries, and being deceptive about where they were and what they were doing.
Compliance with abuser directives is often confined to only particular dissociated identities within a victim. The “front” identities who perform normal life functions may have no conscious knowledge of the abuse because it is too devastating to hold in normal consciousness. To relegate knowledge of the abuse to particular identities is a means by which the mind preserves its sanity and victims preserve their functionality. To be forced to harm other people, to lure victims into the hands of one’s abusers, is soul-crushing. In many ways, it is more psychologically overwhelming than being directly tortured. The mind will typically defend itself by forming dissociated identities whose specific function it is to comply with the abusers directives to do harm to others. It is likely that these identities will be the most deeply submerged in a victim, the least available to normal consciousness. In other words, victims comply with directives to harm others in dissociated identities that exist out of the awareness and control of their “front” identities. (The deliberate psychological manipulation of victims’ dissociated identities for such purposes by dissociation-savvy abusers is discussed in the next section.)
Victims who were first terrorized by abusers as children will be deeply traumatized and will, in most cases, have developed complex dissociated identity systems driven predominantly by terrorization and fear-conditioning. As they develop into adolescence and adulthood, they will still function much like terrorized children. Their dissociated identities can still be coerced into submission to ongoing abuse and compliance with directives to do harm.
The road out of this quagmire is arduous and requires great courage. Any consideration of disclosing one’s abuse to a partner, therapist, pastor, etc., provokes overwhelming fear of abuser retaliation. In some cases, this fear is realistic. If one’s abusers are no longer an actual threat, fear still looms large. Violent abusers are usually perceived as omniscient and omnipresent. Logic does little to settle this fear. Even if victims have been able to disclose their abuse to loved ones or in therapy, extricating themselves from their abusers’ psychological controls takes a long time. The victim may have dozens, hundreds, even a thousand identities who must all be discovered and helped to begin to act of their own free will.
What about victims who are first subjected to this level of abuse and terrorization as adolescents?
While simple threats by abusers, such as, “You will be in trouble,” are not likely to have a significant effect on an otherwise secure adolescent, threats to harm or kill loved ones may be enough to terrorize a teenager into silence and compliance, especially if delivered in the context of torture-level abuse or being made to witness other victims being tortured or imprisoned. Other factors, such as shame at having been helpless to defend oneself, feeling defiled by rape, feeling emasculated, etc., can silence victims and lead to them becoming further entrapped by their abusers. Of course, coerced perpetration is a highly effective means of entrapping victims and may even be enough to induce new dissociated identities to form in adolescents and adults who had never before formed dissociated identities.
Can victims first exposed to this level of abuse as adults be controlled by terrorization tactics?
Abusers appear to be more interested in torturing children and adolescents than adults. The sexuality of pedophiles is based in hurting children. But opportunity may also play a role in the choice of children as victims. Lori Handrahan, Ph.D., in her book, Epidemic: America’s Trade in Child Rape (2017), writes:
“Pedophiles rape and abuse children because it is easy to do. The more vulnerable the child the better. They do this because they care about obtaining gratification for themselves, regardless of the damage it does to anyone else. In fact, the pain they inflict on others is often what gives them gratification. Children are easier to control and abuse than adults, with a far greater chance of impunity for the crime. That is why pedophiles target younger children. They are easy marks. It is a strategic choice, not a sexual preference.
Another reason that abusers rarely first target victims in adulthood is that adults can file crime reports that law enforcement may deem credible and then investigate. The social class of the victim is a factor in this. The more economically and professionally established the adult, the more skilled in advocating for oneself, the more likely law enforcement will investigate both crime reports and reports of them going missing. This holds less true for disenfranchised adults, such as the poor, homeless, sex workers, drug addicts, alcoholics, and those with substantial psychiatric histories. Reports of abuse by these people are more likely to be dismissed and law enforcement will not likely search for them if they go missing.
However, even established adults are vulnerable to abusers’ cruel intimidation tactics. Threats to kill or kidnap one’s children may be enough to stop parents from reporting child abuse to the authorities. Some abusers break into people’s homes and vehicles and leave signs that they were there to terrorize them. Some abusers cause car accidents, such as forcing cars to drive off embankments or into trees. Some make murders look like suicides. Some lure adults into illegal sexual activity while secretly filming them in order to use these films to blackmail them into silence or participation in the abuser network. Even law enforcement officers are vulnerable. Threats of harm to family members may be all that is needed to compel an officer to stop or sabotage an investigation.
Most people do not want to believe that they could be subject to being manipulated in this way. We would like to believe victims should just “tell” someone, that law enforcement should be notified, and that justice will be served. But, even if victims somehow overcome their terrorization and dissociation and risk making a report, even if protective adults file child abuse reports, even if psychotherapists and doctors file reports, even when the relevant law enforcement agencies are not compromised, multiple problems are typically encountered when reporting crimes of this severity and level of organization. Law enforcement may consider the crime being described as unlikely or the reporting parties non-credible. It is unlikely to investigate if no evidence of a crime is provided other than victim testimony. Furthermore, local law enforcement agencies are generally under-resourced to investigate organized crime.
I address these issues in greater depth in this article on my website: Legal and Ethical Dilemmas for Psychotherapists in Making Reports to Child Protection and Law Enforcement of Suspected Child Abuse within Ritual Abuse and the Production of Child Rape and Torture Materials:
We like to believe that our protective institutions work and that justice will be served, especially for abused children. But, it is very difficult and rare to obtain justice for abuse victims. Sociologists refer to the cognitive bias of expecting justice as the Just World Fallacy. Discovering the limitations of our protective institutions is, in itself, a devastating form of trauma suffered by victims and their supporters.
Note: An appendix at the end of this article shares information on making use of evidence packets to increase the safety of survivors and their loved ones in response to dangerous abuser networks.
III. Direct Psychological Manipulation of Victims’ Dissociated Identities (“Programming”) to Induce Them to Do Harm for the Abusers While Not Being Directly Tortured
Victims of extreme abuse often make the painful and frightening discovery that their abusers have calculatingly manipulated and conditioned, that is, “programmed,” many of their dissociated identities to perform abuser functions while out in the world, while not under direct torture, outside of their conscious awareness. These functions typically include obtaining new victims, stalking and terrorizing current victims, especially victims who resist compliance with abuser directives, and killing victims.
“Programming” can be understood as the psychological manipulation of dissociated identities for long-term control by means of:
- conditioning, that is, torture-level punishment, and reward, such as stopping the torture,
- double-binds to set identities up to believe themselves evil, as abusers, etc.
- deception by use of illusions, tricks, and film, often facilitated by hallucinogens, and,
- manipulation of attachment needs and defensive identification with the aggressor (as above).
Dissociation-savvy abusers also calculatingly torture victims to induce new identities to form. As new self-states (newly formed identities) snap into being, they are terrorized, survival-driven, primed to submit, and easily conditioned.
I further break down the psychological components of programming, as well as psychotherapy approaches to help survivors overcome programming, in a lengthy chapter entitled: Torture-based mind control: Psychological mechanisms and psychotherapeutic approaches to overcoming mind control, in the book, Ritual abuse and mind control: The manipulation of attachment needs, published in 2011, edited by O.B. Epstein, J. Schwartz, & R. Wingfield, published in London by Karnac. (I have no financial interest in the sales of this book.)
Psychologically-sophisticated abusers are skilled at programming dissociated identities to serve abuser functions apart from any conscious awareness on the part of the “front” identities who navigate normal life, such as being a member of a family, going to school, working at a job, etc. Successful programming causes front identities to not know about the abuser-compliant identities nor about the acts that these identities perform. Programming and traumatophobia (the fear of overwhelming events) also cause front identities to account for the missing time (while programmed identities are active) with the perception that they were engaged in some kind of benign activity at the time, like napping, watching television, etc.
A simple example of programming is accomplished as follows. When Tammy is first tortured in a space controlled by an abuser network, either during the torture or immediately after, the abusers say: “When you are here, you are Janie, when you go home you are Tammy.” The command that was paired with torture and the child’s own psychologically defensive response accomplish the abusers’ objective.
Terrorized programmed identities have little awareness of anything but the torture to which they have been subjected. They typically perceive themselves to be confined to the torture facility, bound to torture devices, and tortured in response to any resistance. The abusers that populate this hallucinatory inner world are as real to these identities as external people are to individuals without DID, and retain the same control as when they were being actually tortured. I have witnessed programmed identities walk in a robotic fashion, stare ahead vacantly in a trance state, and be relatively non-responsive to attempts to gain their attention. They are driven by pain and terror. If they fail to perform their functions as directed, they internally re-experience the torture that was applied for resisting.
Are the front identities responsible for these programmed acts? Are the programmed identities responsible for the acts they perform under programming? Can either realistically exercise any free will?
It terrifies victims to discover that they may not be able to control their behavior because they have been subjected to programming. This realization commonly results in dangerous suicidality.
Those of us who have not endured this degree of calculated cruelty are very frightened by the idea that one person may have the capacity to control an other person’s mind and behavior. But this is exactly what dissociation-savvy abusers work very hard to accomplish, often with much success.
Psychologically-sophisticated abusers also manipulate particular dissociated identities to be loyal to the abuser network. This includes identities who the abusers intentionally fill with rage, identities who are promised that they will be granted special status in the abuser network and spared further abuse, and identities who are subjected to calculated double-binds to force them to harm or kill others, followed by proclamations that they are evil, accomplices, or willing members of the network. When programming is done effectively, such identities exist apart from the conscious knowledge of the front identities.
What about victims who have begun to be consciously aware of having been programmed? Are these victims responsible for their actions? This too is not simple to understand or for victims to overcome.
Psychologically-sophisticated abusers do not program just one identity to serve their ends. They program multiple identities to serve as back-ups. In therapy or otherwise, a victim may discover a programmed identity, may be able to help it realize that it is no longer being actively tortured, may gain insight into how it was psychologically manipulated and deceived by the abusers, may be able to help it defy the directives of the abusers, and may be able to relocate the identity out of the perceived torture site in the internal world to a place of inner safety or to present-day time and place. These kinds of steps work to overcome the “programming” of such identities. However, back-up programmed identities continue to serve their programmed functions until they too are discovered and their programming is overcome. This is a lengthy process because perhaps half of all programming is done to prevent the front identities from becoming conscious of their programming and the programmed identities.
Programmers also manipulate particular identities to monitor other identities and report all non-compliance to the abuser network. Needless to say, all rebellion in severely punished.
In the case of sophisticated programming by experienced abuser networks, hundreds of identities may have been successfully programmed to fully submit to the directives of the network.
Many abuser networks have the ultimate objective of programming some of their victims to eventually become abusers across all of their identities. They calculatingly exploit this natural psychological response to years of torture and terrorization. They induce hundreds of identities to form through torture- coerced harm to others and then convince these identities that they are evil, accomplices, murderers, the same as them, then willing abusers. They manipulate them to discharge their rage onto other victims. They convince them that love is not real, that no one can be trusted, and make them believe that they will never be accepted by anyone else. They indoctrinate specific identities for a lifetime to believe that they have been selected for special status by the god(s) or goddess(es) that they worship. They promise wealth, safety, and an end to their abuse. They consistently demonstrate dire consequences to victims who defy or attempt to escape them. I do not know the specific means by which abusers psychologically manipulate the “front” identities to join in becoming abusers, but clearly, the psychological and real-world pressures are enormous.
I will now turn to the case of violence that erupts within victims apart from direct abuser manipulation and programming.
IV. Victims Who Have Done Harm to Others With No Direct Abuser Coercion or Manipulation
Based on 35 years of clinical work with both abused children and the reports of adults abused as children, I believe that at least half of all child abuse victims, as children, enact their abuse against other children or pets. This applies to victims of both physical and sexual abuse. It happens at all levels of abuse severity, but with much greater frequency in extreme abuse.
Adult child abuse survivors experience heartbreaking grief as they recall and disclose that, when they were children, they enacted their abuse on others. In most of these cases, I believe that these children had no control over these enactments. There was no decision, no choice. The child was being driven by psychological forces much stronger than his/her consciousness and conscience.
Abuse enactments have multiple origins and levels of dangerousness. Children who are too young to understand sexuality and the connected social norms often repeat their sexual abuse with other children because they do not understand that they should not. Many kinds of sexual abuse result in premature sexualization of children with no ability to understand or control their abuse-driven sexual impulses. Many abused children enact their abuse against other children in the role of the perpetrator in efforts to master the anxiety they experienced while being abused. This is much like children who have been bitten by a dog who take the role of an aggressive dog in their play to master that trauma. These are both derived in defensive identification with the aggressor, that is, an unconscious effort to cope with their overwhelming fear, pain, helplessness, shame, and anger.
Dissociative processes are central to abuse enactments. As abuse memories are activated internally or by external reminders of the abuse, children may enact their abuse in trance states against other children. Similarly, as dissociated identities connected to the abuse become activated, they can take control of executive functions and enact their abuse against others, often with no awareness by front identities. For children besieged by intense fear, helplessness, anger, rage, and threats to survival, explosive violence is likely to erupt against others before they can stop themselves, often without any conscious awareness.
Enactments are especially likely in children who have been unable to disclose their abuse to a protective adult, who have no other outlet for their distressing feelings, and for whom the abuse is ongoing.
Years ago, I treated a 12-year-old boy who had raped his younger cousin. Prior to therapy, he had never disclosed to anyone that he was violently raped in a park. To make matters worse, he believed that being raped by a man made him a homosexual, which was unacceptable to him given his cultural context and the times. When he disclosed all of this, I said, “I bet each night when you tried to go to sleep, you wanted to kill yourself and kill somebody else.” He nodded yes and blurted out with a flood of tears, “I did not mean for it to come out on my cousin, but it did.” This boy was trapped in an internal hell and knew no way out. His self-hatred and rage exploded in enactments of abuse against the younger child.
Clearly, if we respond to such children as if they had done a willful immoral act, we would only increase the fear and shame they already carry.
At what age and in what situations is a person morally responsible for abuse-driven harm done to others? Can a 15-year-old who has been subjected to significant abuse prevent abuse enactments and explosions of rage? Can a 25-year-old? Many complex factors must be considered in making such determinations.
Abuse enactments are likely when abuse is ongoing and when awareness of one’s abuse is dissociated.
There is a growing body of evidence of cases of adults who continue to be abused by the same abusers who abused them in childhood. This is driven by terrorization and dissociation. Organized criminal networks regularly terrorize and control their victims into adulthood (See: Michael Salter (2017): Organized abuse in adulthood: Survivor and professional perspectives, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 18:3, 441-453, DOI: 10.1080/15299732.2017.1295426). It also occurs in cases of incestuous abuse (see: Warwick Middleton (2013): Ongoing incestuous abuse during adulthood, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation: 14(3):251-72. DOI: 10.1080/15299732.2012.736932).
Even if the abuse has ended, the abusers may be family members or still live in proximity. This tends to enforce dissociation of the abuse and to inhibit disclosure for fear of abuser retaliation. The victim may also fear not being believed by other family members, being shunned, that disclosure may break up the family, or may hurt caring family members. Teenagers with no supportive adults are unlikely to disclose.
All of these factors set up victims to be pressure cookers of fear, self-hatred, and rage, all pressing for release. Close observation may reveal intense body tension. When victims can tune into the sensations that they feel in their bodies (which is often very challenging as dissociation tends to guard against this), they may describe their muscle tension as excruciating and constant. A poignant case example that illustrates this is included in this 2018 article by Richard Hohfeler, Ph.D.: Relationally based psychodynamic psychotherapy in prison: processes of control, shame, and dissociation, Attachment: New Directions in Psychotherapy and Relational Psychoanalysis, Vol. 12, December: pp. 127–146.
My impression is that most victims find this release in self-harm and suicidality. However, many victims experience uncontrollable increased states of tension, sympathetic nervous system arousal, and rage, and then explode in acts of violence before they can stop themselves (often only in specific identities). Even if they feel deep remorse after the fact, this might not be enough to prevent another eruption of violence.
It is also important to understand that victims of extreme abuse often come to believe that the world is composed of only abusers and victims. They have no experience with caring reciprocal relationships. I have seen this world-view represented in the play of severely abused children. Their dramas include terrifying perpetrators (predator animals, monsters, adult humans) and terrorized victims (prey animals, child figures), but no helpers, no places of safety. Dramas often end in complete destruction of the entire scene. With only these options in their experience, how can they choose against being the top dog? Can anyone truly know that he or she would not do the same having been subjected to this severity of abuse?
Accordingly, victims of extreme brutality generally anticipate attack at every turn. They may not be able to sleep at night as they, or particular dissociated identities, remain vigilant all night to guard against anticipated assault. They may fear going outside, expecting that anyone in proximity may assault them. In some cases, they confine themselves to living in isolated areas, even the wilderness, like combat veterans who suffer extreme Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). See the film, The Spitfire Grill (1996), for a poignant example of a Vietnam veteran who could not leave the woods. This state of hypervigilance to anticipated assault can lead victims to mistakenly perceive threats and to lash out in self-defense against people who actually intend them no harm.
Similarly, severely abused individuals may suffer from intense flashbacks in which they experience themselves as reliving their abuse and lose their orientation to their present surroundings. During these flashbacks, they may harm people in their proximity in self-defense, mistaking them as their abusers.
In cases in which a victim suffers abuse severe enough to have needed to form dissociated identities to contain this knowledge apart from “front” identities for psychological survival, the teen or young adult may have no awareness of these dissociated identities, often for decades. Some of these dissociated identities may serve the function of carrying stores of rage or dangerous sexual impulses and may harm other people unbeknownst to front parts. Even if a person becomes aware of having identities that do violence and sexual aggression, he or she may not be able to control the actions of these identities. (For a review of the relationship between dissociation and violence, see: Moskowitz, A. (2004). Dissociation and Violence A Review of the Literature, Trauma Violence & Abuse, 5(1): 21-46,DOI: 10.1177/1524838003259321).
It is natural to want to condemn anyone who does violence to another person as morally inferior and different than us. We tend to think of them as bad and ourselves as good, as incapable of such acts. If we understood that many, if not most, people who commit violence have been terribly abused and that this abuse is the deepest basis for their violence, we would have to consider that if we were terribly abused, we too might be capable of such cruelty or violence. This is a disturbing concept to tolerate emotionally.
We also fear significant social consequences if we temper our condemnation of violence by anyone. We worry that victims of extreme abuse will use an understanding of trauma-driven perpetration to relax whatever internal controls they may have on their potential for violence. We worry that everyone who commits violence will deceptively claim that they were terribly abused, that they have dissociated identities that they cannot control, and that they had no control of their actions. We worry that dangerous offenders will be released into society. We worry that our world could become even more unsafe.
These are important points to consider. Whether or not one is a victim of extreme abuse, it is not acceptable to consciously or willfully discharge rage and sexual impulses onto innocent others. To whatever degree a person can control his or her actions, he or she is responsible. But, these points do not make it any less true that many victims of extreme abuse have no conscious control over some or all of their violent and sexually aggressive acts.
The legal system, the media, and the general zeitgeist of our times help us keep this issue simple and non-threatening: Do the crime – serve the time. The media rarely delves in any depth into the childhood of the mass shooter or serial killer (see David McGowan’s 2004 book: Programmed to kill: The politics of serial murder, in which he builds the case that many serial killers were abused within the CIA’s MKULTRA projects). The corporate-owned American media prefers to keep consumers oblivious to the amount and severity of child abuse and other human cruelty in today’s world. Most of the media influences the public to be complacent consumers rather than socially conscious and activists for change.
What kind of change in social consciousness would come about, what social change would follow, if we understood that our jails are not filled with monsters, but with victims of child abuse and terrorized young people who began as children trying to survive neighborhoods where the streets were war zones?
V. Victims Who Have Exercised Some Degree of Free Will in Discharging Rage or Sexual Aggression Onto Others or Who Have Fully Given Themselves Over to Sadism, Cruelty, and Evil
In the previous sections of this article, I have described terrorization tactics and psychological mechanisms that result in acts of harm beyond an individual’s conscious knowledge and/or control.
In this section, I address those abuse victims who have exercised some degree of free will, made some degree of conscious choice, in doing harm and/or releasing rage and sexual aggression onto innocent others, and those who have fully and consciously embraced sadism, cruelty, and evil.
To begin this discussion, we must first think about the words: freedom, choice, and consciousness.
There can be no free will, no choice, when there are no alternatives from which to choose. Victims coerced to harm others under direct torture have no option but to comply. Similarly, victims who are told that the abusers will harm or kill their loved ones if they do not comply have no real freedom to choose. Both alternatives cause others harm. In both cases, victims may act consciously, but without choice.
When actual alternatives exist from which to choose, how responsible are we for our choices? Do we have free will or are our actions pre-determined by past experience and present environmental pressures?
This question has been debated for thousands of years, as early as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Science has introduced further complexities into this issue as we better-understand the influence of genetics, neurobiology, disease processes, endocrine system imbalances, mental illness (such as schizophrenia), and the effects of experience, especially child-rearing and psychological trauma, particularly the deep impact of child abuse and subsequent dissociative responses, terror, shame, rage, and sexual impulses.
Even as we hold all of these factors in mind, we still must ask: Can victims of extreme abuse with stores of terror-and-shame driven rage, intense needs to exact revenge on someone, anyone, abuse-driven sexual impulses pushing for expression, still be responsible for unleashing these impulses onto others?
It is easy to run ourselves in philosophical circles as we consider questions of psychological determinism vs. free will. We may understand that, in many cases, extreme abuse victims may not be able to inhibit acts of violence and sexual aggression, while also believing that even extreme abuse victims can, in many cases, exercise some degree of free will and conscious choice that makes them responsible, at least in part, should they commit acts of harm. Psychologically-minded people tend to then ask follow-up questions such as: What determines this choice? Why do some people choose to do harm while others choose against it or stop themselves? Is the deciding factor whether the person also received love? Does it relate to the presence or absence of current support? Is it determined by genes*? These are all important factors. But, such follow-up questions are premised in psychological determinism and stacked against considering the possibility of free will. How do we find our way out of this loop?
* A new body of research suggests that specific genetic factors relate to empathy and sensitivity. See:
Rodrigues, S.M., Saslow, L.R., Garcia, N., Johna, O.P, & Keltner, D. (2009). Oxytocin receptor genetic variation relates to empathy and stress reactivity in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,106 (50), 21437–41: Published online 2009 Nov 23. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0909579106 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2795557/
Bernhard, R.M., Chaponis, J., Siburian, R., Gallagher, P., Ransohoff, K., Wikler, D., Perlis, R.H., and Greene, J. D. (2016). Variation in the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) is associated with differences in moral judgment, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 1-10.
I believe the answer may lie within each individual’s subjective experience and honest self-appraisal. Perhaps only the individual knows if he or she could have made a choice that spared someone harm.
Many people excuse themselves for things that they could have stopped themselves from doing, while others unfairly judge themselves, punish themselves endlessly, for things they could not have prevented.
But, what if we honestly search our souls, with no agenda to undo deserved guilt or impose unfair guilt?
I believe the amount of responsibility carried may lie in the answers to the following kinds of questions:
Did I consciously chose expediency over ethics?
Did I knowingly choose the easy self-serving path at the expense of others?
Did I harm other people, knowing I could I have stopped myself, done better?
For those victimized by extreme abuse who have harmed others, these kinds of questions apply:
Did I consciously choose to discharge rage onto children in order to distance myself from the painful and terrifying memories of my own child abuse, the unbearable sense of helplessness, rather than address these issues in therapy?
Did I know my rage was really toward someone else, but still let myself release it onto children?
Did I tell myself that children are sexual, that society’s mores about sexuality are unnecessarily restrictive, when I knew I had suffered much pain in my own childhood sexual abuse?
Did I have the ability to control my ability to act on my impulses to sexually abuse children, but still abuse them for my own sexual gratification?
Despite the significant pressures on me at the time, did I know that I had the strength to endure the consequences that would befall me for choosing the high road, but still choose to harm others, knowing that the consequences to the other person would be much greater than the consequences to me?
Did I make a decision to abuse others and then consciously choose to later forget that I had made this conscious decision, once I was deeply involved in sadism and cruelty?
Did I willingly involve myself with an organized abuser network to sexually abuse children knowing that this would deeply involve me in the torture perpetrated by this network?
There are also specific kinds of questions for people with dissociated identities who have harmed others:
Did I know that I had dangerous identities and choose to ignore their existence?
Did I willingly let a dissociated identity release rage or sexual impulses on others so I could tell myself that only a fully dissociated identity did it and disavow my own responsibility?
Did I take drugs with the intended purpose of letting myself lose conscious control of my rage and sexual impulses?
To ask these questions of oneself is grueling. Finding the deepest truth is exceedingly difficult as it is affected by one’s fears, wishes, self-recrimination, psychological self-preservation, and complex dissociative processes. The answers will usually lie in confusing grey areas, as the impact of the abuse almost always plays a greater role than any conscious choice in determining a victim’s actions. Furthermore, it may not be possible to take on this search alone. The survivor will probably need to work with a knowledgeable therapist or clergy-person to delve into these questions with insight, kindness, and compassion.
Even if the answers to some of these questions is a partial yes, I believe this does not define the person forever. People who have abused others with some amount of willingness can feel remorse, and sorrow, endure their guilt, acknowledge their wrongs, and make a different choice at a later point in time.
Many extreme abuse survivors choose this difficult and painful path. A ritual abuse survivor who had become an abuser told me that her children later told her that, as she was driving home with them from an abusive ritual, she had said to them: “I just can’t hurt people anymore.” This was the turning point for her. She suffered terribly for making this choice to break free of her powerful abuser network, including physical punishment, losing loved ones, having to go on the run many times, nevertheless, she has remained committed to this path for 25 years, as the devastation of hurting others was worse than anything else.
To return to the very beginning of this article, I do not want to dismiss the terrible anguish of survivors of extreme abuse, the intense emotional pressure to discharge rage and abuse-driven sexual impulses on other victims, and the difficulty in inhibiting the expression of such impulses. Doing violence to others, even sadism and killing, can be easier for victims than facing the reality of their own abuse and the shame, self-hatred and unbearable helplessness connected to their abuse. Sadism and violence, a flight from fear and helplessness, can make victims feel powerful and take on its own inertia. At certain levels of suffering sadistic abuse, is addiction to sadistic perpetration inevitable?
Even so, it is also appears to be true that some victims make some degree of conscious choice to yield to these internal pressures. And some perpetrators, likely once victims themselves, appear to embrace sadistic violence fully. Their sadism and cruelty are so intense, so prolonged, so aimed at complete extermination of their victims’ innocence, minds, bodies, and souls, so much a part of who these abusers have become, that this seems to involve a full and conscious choice, a complete surrender to sadism.
Graham Music discusses these ideas in his 2016 article, Angels and Devils: Sadism and Violence in Children, Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 42:3, 302-317. Music states that some sadistic children experience “sexual excitement in inflicting pain,” and that, “such defences often become addictive in their own right in similar ways to gambling, drugs or pornography.” Music does not specifically address whether “cold” and calculating vs. “hot” reactive types of sadists make some kind of decision, conscious or preconscious, to embrace sadism, but he states that “pressing the ‘fuck-it button’ gives rise to a triumphant thrill” (quoting Nathanson, 2016). I believe this concept presumes the question: At critical junctures, is there some element of choice in embracing sadism, a decision to press the “fuck-it button,” to give into one’s wish to discharge rage onto helpless, innocent victims and turn off all regard for their (and one’s own) pain, terror, and suffering. And once on a path of sadistic brutality and destruction of others, is it even harder to get off of it?
Ishmael Beah, in his fascinating book, A Long Way Gone (2008), explains that the child soldiers from Sierra Leone, of which he was one, did not experience terrifying flashbacks, posttraumatic, nightmares, etc., until they were placed in a residential rehabilitation program where they could no longer kill. They even initially permanently injured a staff member as they could not stop their violence.
For survivors of extreme abuse, therapy brings up painful and frightening memories. The survivor may suffer intense suicidality and self-harm. Posttraumatic intrusive symptoms often increase. Sexual abuse regularly results in terrible (though undeserved) feelings of defilement. Having been completely helpless during any abuse causes terrible feelings of shame. If the person was coerced to perpetrate against others, the self-hatred is enormous. In many ways, it is easier to perpetrate abuse than to walk the path of healing and recovery.
A Worst-Case Scenario in the Context of Extreme Abuse
I would like to present an example that illustrates what might be one of the most painful considerations raised in this article. I am using the example of a boy, but the child may be either gender.
Imagine that the boy has been sadistically abused beginning as a toddler by his family who are members of a ritually abusive network or one that produces hurtcore and snuff films. Such a child will have been coerced through torture to hurt, maim, and kill other victims from the earliest possible age. By age six or seven years, he has formed numerous dissociated identities, many of whom, by necessity, function as perpetrators. As he matures, he is used less as a rape victim and more as a perpetrator. By age 12, he has hundreds of personalities. By age 14, more of them are abusers than victims. His front personalities function as would a normal person outside of the abuse. He may not learn of his abuse-involved identities for decades, even for a lifetime.
On the other hand, at some point, his front personalities may become conscious of his participation in this abuse. Perhaps, by late adolescence or early adulthood, he has come to understand that if he becomes a willing perpetrator, he will no longer be tortured. Perhaps the abusers have offered him the “deal” that if he agrees to perpetrate for the abuser network, to exact unending torture on others, and/or to work in a profession to conceal the networks’ crimes, his torture will end.
The non-abused reader thinks: Run! Move away! Report the abuse to the police.
The extreme abuse survivor understands the trap as does the young man.
He knows that if he tries to escape or to harm the network in any way, the network will behave like any organized crime ring. It will hunt him. It has made it clear to him that it will kill his loved ones. He has likely been made to have children at a young age who have been adopted by members of the abuser network or who are held captive by the abusers. He has repeatedly seen what the network does to anyone who fails to cooperate. They capture them, imprison them, torture and mutilate them, and cause them unthinkable and unrelenting pain for as long as they decide to keep them alive.
Now, consider how many perpetrators of extreme abuse who were once its victims are a variation of this.
Of course, if such individuals have any time away from the network, suicide is an option. One could argue that it is the only ethical option. I am aware of one case in which the survivor believes an abuser did just this. But, this may also carry a devastating cost. The abusers may imprison and torture their loved ones to make an example to other victims that they will not allow suicide without punishment.
I have been grappling with all of these complex issues for some time, as do victims of extreme abuse and their therapists. Many victims do not know how much to hold their perpetrators responsible. Of course, victims have every right and need to feel rage at their abusers. The experience of intense anger is necessary to reclaim a stolen right to self-agency and to recover the ability to act on one’s own behalf. But, victims of extreme abuse also know that the capacity for cruelty and violence resides in them as well. This is the most insidious and painful outcome of having been terribly abused. The more that we all face that this capacity lies within each of us, the more we can create a world in which they can heal.
Years ago, I worked with a 5-year-old girl with the wisdom of the ages. She began one session by talking about, and representing with toys, the abuse done to her by an older relative, a teenager, whom she loved and trusted. This teen had admitted to an adult who was protecting the girl that he was abused by the network and that he had abused this girl. The girl struggled with having both loving and angry feelings toward this teen. In a later session, this girl realized that this teen had probably abused her because he too had been abused. She then became very quiet and thoughtful and said; “The people who abused him probably got hurt when they were little too.”
I will end my article with a precious and compassionate little story written by Jean Riseman, MSW, a colleague and activist who is a survivor of extreme abuse.
Did I ever tell you my theory of how all this started?
Mankind once lived in peace in the forest, hunting and gathering. They never hurt each other, there was no abuse, no unkind words.
One day a horny ape with real bad eyesight saw the little troop and … well, did you-know-what. He didn’t mean no harm, he just couldn’t see well.
And those poor traumatized people acted out what was done to them, generation after generation.
It was nobody’s fault, just a huge misunderstanding.
Making Use of Evidence Packets to Increase the Safety of Victims and their Loved Ones in Response to Dangerous Abuser Networks
The safety of victims and their loved ones can be increased by creating evidence packets and distributing them to trusted parties. Crime evidence held by trusted parties may safeguard victims and loved ones against being killed, disappeared, permanently disabled, etc., in order to lose or destroy all evidence.
Typical evidence included inside of the sealed packets:
- Identifying information on victims
- List of other victims, alive, dead, disappeared, and any identifying demographics
- Identifying information on the perpetrators and suspected any perpetrators
- Identifying information on any potential future victims and an explanation for this concern
- List of people at current risk of being killed, tortured, held captive, etc.
- Photographs of all of these people
- Description of the abuse
- Descriptions of the threats
- Descriptions of any abductions
- Descriptions of abuse locations and any suspected locations, including suspected dark websites
- Documentation corroborating abuse, e.g., medical evidence, emails, audio-visual recordings, etc.
- Health and mental health providers who may have documentation or corroborating evidence.
- Past reports to law enforcement, child protection, etc., including those that were dismissed, etc.
- Rationale for not reporting some or all of the crimes to law enforcement (e.g., the victim believes that reports to law enforcement would increase the dnager to the victim, loved ones, etc. “It’s better to point a gun than to fire your only bullet and have nothing else.”) (See: http://endritualabuse.org/legal-ethical-dilemmas-reporting-abuse-2018/)
- Video-record (e.g., flashdrive)
Information Included on the Cover-sheet of the Safety Packet
1. Brief description of the purpose of the safety packet (as above), including the identities and contact information for parties that the packet was created to protect:
- Name: Phone: Email: Address:
- Name: Phone: Email: Address:
- Name: Phone: Email: Address:
- Name: Phone: Email: Address:
- Name: Phone: Email: Address:
2. List of the kinds of evidence in the sealed packet (as above)
3. List of kinds of harm or foul play that the abusers may commit, e.g., murder, disappearance, vehicular accidents, suicides made to look like murders, foul play to induce medical illness or incapacitation, false claims of mental incapacitation to institutionalize individuals in psychiatric facilities
4. List of the first group of people who have been given these packets. It is advisable to ask the people in this first group to provide the packet to one or two people they trust, but not to share these names with the person preparing the packet so that person can never be coerced to reveal the names of all of the parties who hold the packet.
5. Instructions to the first group of people to do the following:
- Hold the existence of the evidence packet confidential
- Keep the packet sealed and safely secure where it cannot be found except by the people to whom it has been entrusted.
- If you become aware of any harm or suspected foul-play to any of the protected parties above, contact the other parties to coordinate efforts. Unseal the packet if that is part of the plan. If the remaining parties cannot be found to coordinate efforts, you are authorized to unseal this packet, to release the enclosed information to law enforcement, to child protection, to legislators, and to the public, and to advocate for the affected individuals.
6. Victim authorization: In the case of the death, disappearance, or mental incapacitation, of myself or ___________________________, I, authorize all of the people to whom I have entrusted these packets to release all information and material in these packets to each other and to law enforcement, child protection, the courts, legislators, the press, and to anyone else. This authority includes oral and written communication and the furnishing of copies of protected health information (PHI). The specific use of the released PHI is to search for me and anyone else who may have disappeared, and should I die or become mentally incapacitated, to investigate the people who abused me, to protect the victims, and to work to bring the perpetrators to justice. I place no limitations on the information to be released. This authorization is valid until ______. I understand that I may revoke or modify this authorization, but must do so in writing. I understand this can not change the fact that some PHI may have been sent or shared before that date. I also understand that: a) I do not have to sign this authorization. My refusal to sign will not affect my abilities to obtain treatment; b) I may inspect and have a copy the PHI described in this authorization; c) If the person or entity receiving my PHI is not a health care provider or health plan covered by federal privacy regulations, the information described above may be redisclosed and no longer protected by those regulations. I hereby release the above parties from any legal liability that may arise from my authorizing the release of this confidential information. I understand that I have a right to receive a copy of this authorization. I affirm that everything in this form that was not clear has been explained. I believe I now understand all of it.
Signature of Victim __________________________
I, witness (preferably a mental health provider), have discussed the issues above with the client. Observations of his behavior give me no reason to believe he is not fully competent to give informed/ willing consent: Sign:
Creating a Video Record to Increase One’s Safety
Survivors who believe they may be killed, “suicided,” or abducted should make a clear and convincing video-record in which they state their fear of being murdered or disappeared, their desire to live rather than to suicide, their having no intention to willfully disappear, and their opinion about who may want to cause them such harm. This may decrease the likelihood that an abuser network will harm the victim in these ways. Here are some guidelines for making a Safety Video-record:
- Fill out your responses to the following questions.
- Have someone ask you these questions while video-recording you.
- Refer to this form to remind you of all of your key points.
- Express genuine emotion to get your point across and to make the authorities and the press more likely to use the video-record as evidence.
- Distribute copies of the video-record widely.
- Have holders of the video-record secure it safelty.
- Attempt to make it widely known (e.g., speaking engagements, publications, e-mails, conversations on telephones you believe to be tapped) that the video-record is widely distributed and will be released to the press, concerned parties, and law enforcement, if you die of suspicious causes or disappear.
- What individuals or groups of individuals do you believe want you dead?
- Why would these parties want you dead?
- Can anyone support or corroborate that these parties have harmed you?
- What methods do you believe these parties use to murder or disappear people?
- Do you believe there have been any previous attempts on your life? If so, describe the suspected assailants and methods used.
- Are you suicidal?
- Why do you want to live?
- Under what circumstances would you ever suicide?
- Do you abuse life-threatening substances?
- Do you have lethal weapons or substances in your home?
- Do you drive safely? What is your record of traffic accidents and violations?
- Do you have any desire to flee your current home and support persons?