To be able to help survivors who have been victimized by coerced perpetration, those of us who support victims – therapists, clergy, loved ones, fellow survivors, etc., first need to develop a deep understanding of how torture-coerced harm works, that torture can make anyone do anything, and the kinds of “breaks” in free agency that happen in the course of torture.
We need to understand all of this well enough to put it into words, as many times as it takes, to help victims begin to understand and forgive themselves for things that they could not escape and for which they hold no realistic responsibility.
These two pages on my website go into substantial depth about the effects of coerced perpetration:
Treatment of Victims Who Condemn Themselves for Harm Done to Other Victims (2020) (includes a video presentation)
For Those Who Condemn Themselves for Acts Coerced Under Torture (2017)
The calculated evil that underlies coercing victims to harm, torture, and/or kill other victims is unthinkable and unspeakable even to the victims who have lived through it. Therefore, those who love and support survivors must be prepared to talk about it for them and with them. Why?
- Survivors need the knowledge and support of people outside of themselves to be able to make sense of coerced perpetration, to process what happened within the horrors they endured, to know that these crimes exist, and to understand that it is a common tactic of sadistic perpetrators, even though the world, the media, even most trauma professionals, do not usually speak about it.
- Survivors need to be able to share this victimization with others, to release their devastating grief, and to receive compassion in response.
- Survivors need to hear others explain that they were completely entrapped and terrorized in order to begin to replace self-condemnation with self-compassion, to heal their moral injury.
- Survivors need the support of others in order to be able to overcome the terrorization that they were subjected to, which usually includes torture, threats, set-ups to disclose followed by torture-punishment, etc. We need to say things to help them even listen to us talking about it. My colleague Eileen Aveni, LCSW, suggests we say things like:
Remember that I am saying these things. You are not. I already know. Brave souls who told me about these things before have made it possible for me to share this knowledge with you. You are not in trouble. You will not be punished for what I say. You can just listen. You are not revealing anything I did not already know. It is okay in this office.
We need to sit in knowledge and compassion rather than denial or condemnation. Unless therapists, clergy, loved ones, and fellow survivors serve this function, sadistic abusers will have accomplished their goal of locking victims into never-ending self-loathing and silence, an inability to recover from their trauma, and often, continued victimization into adulthood.
Supporters need to let survivors know, through our words and demeanor, that we know that when torture of this magnitude is perpetrated, the pain, terror, and helplessness are unendurable, there is no option but compliance, that victims lose all self-agency, and that a robotic, detached, or primitive kill-or-be-killed survival response kicks in … in everyone, as it would in even us.
In response to coerced perpetration, especially in childhood, victims’ minds will generally form multiple dissociated self-states in order to enable them to perform the intolerable coerced acts of harm and in order to psychologically survive these events in the aftermath. In many, if not most, cases, as victims are repeatedly coerced to harm others, as dissociated self-states can no longer endure consciously registering the heartbreak of harming others, the mind of the victim “flips a switch” and forms a new identity who is filled with murderous rage and a greater capacity to perform the acts that are being coerced. Sadistic abusers often use this opportunity to pronounce this identity as “evil,” “murderer,” “one of us,” etc. These identities usually believe themselves to be evil as well. In such cases, I find it important to talk through to the whole system of personalities with the deepest intention of having the aggressive parts receive my messages, in a soothing, empathic, and calm tone, at significant length about the psychodynamics that underlie the formation of aggressive, rageful parts. I explain that:
- Some identity had to form to hold the rage.
- It is inevitable to have murderous rage for ferocious abusers.
- Murderous rage in response to victimization, the longing for talion, eye-for-an-eye revenge, for primitive justice, is universal. It is a common theme in art, literature and film. For example, see the revenge scene in Extremities, and in Death and the Maiden: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Ls3WG8kNvw
- Most identities could not risk experiencing rage at all because if they did, the abusers might have noticed this anger and responded punitively.
- Rage-bearing identities form to serve a function that other identities could not serve.
- Rage-bearing identities are not evil. They are deeply human and protectors.
- Other identities can help rage-bearing identities by trying to feel some rage without switching so the rage-bearing identities need not serve this function all alone.
I have found that this kind of information can soothe aggressive parts, help them feel understood, increase their insight into how they formed, help them realize that they are not one-dimensional, that they were victims too, appreciate that they have value, help them now have words to attach to otherwise primitive only-somatic feelings, and help them take in some compassion, modulate their rage, and begin to develop self-compassion.
When survivors realize that they were not to blame for the acts their abusers coerced, when they realize the abusers are wholly to blame and not themselves, the abusers’ programming fails. The perpetrators’ objective of making the victim believe her/him evil, one of them, unworthy of the love of good people, of a loving God, no longer entraps the victim in the world of the abusers.
For more on the subject of working with personalities who perceive themselves to be abusers, see this page on my website: https://endritualabuse.org/work-with-abuser-personalities/
What Words Can Supporters Use to Help Victims Heal the Emotionally Devastating Moral Injury of Coerced Perpetration?
As I sit with victims, my heart breaks as I witness the torment and devastating moral injury of having been coerced to harm another person, usually a child, sometimes an adult. The magnitude of the abusers’ cruelty is also absolutely terrifying. Simply listening is almost too much to take. I sometimes feel that I am losing my mind. But I write down every word. I type it up later. I will not let these horrors be forgotten or dismissed.
I work to mentally put myself in their position. When I do, I am clear that I could not hold out any longer than they did, that I too would break. I too, under torture, would harm and kill another person.
Always knowing that my words are inadequate, I tell them words to the effect of:
I know that they would have been able to make me do that too, even though I am a senior citizen, not a child. There is no way that anybody would not submit under those conditions. Anyone who says they would have not done these things is living in a happy little bubble, has been lucky enough to have never been tortured and to never have had to find out how these horrors work.
I believe that the guilt, shame, and moral responsibility for these acts is borne entirely by the perpetrators who executed the torture, not by the victims who were being coerced. I say:
The abusers reduced you to a hammer, a tool, that they wielded. You had that little control over your actions. The one who holds the hammer holds the responsibility.
I sit with how bad the torture was and try to put the intensity of the coercion into words. I say:
You were trapped, stripped of all control. You had no choice to do anything different.
Torture is completely intolerable. Anybody can be coerced to do anything under torture and they are not to blame for what they are forced to do.
You had learned a long time ago that you don’t cross these people, by the time they forced you to do this
Remember Lieutenant Alvarez. He was a Navy pilot and soldier trained to withstand torture, yet submitted to the will of his torturers too. Alvarez explained that under torture, he realized he was “not a superhuman”:
“When that cell door would open, when they would say, ‘You, you turn,’ you know, the bottom just fell out of you, and you knew that you may not come back. The manacles, the ropes, the beatings, they broke bones, they did everything. My arms turned black from the cuffs that cut off all circulation. And they didn’t let me die. They just kept the pain. That’s when I realized that I was not a superhuman. The first time I broke, I gave them something, I felt so low, I felt so little.”
I tell them that I know that they would never have committed any of these acts of their own will:
I know that you would never have done any of these things if you had any choice.
You were completely stripped of your own free will.
There was no escape. I know you were completely trapped.
I know that you learned early on in the torture that any resistence met with an escalation of torture.
I know you would have rescued the victims if there was any way.
When I see despondent shame in their eyes that betrays that they believe themselves monsters, I say:
You are innocent. You are as worthy of love and compassion as anyone else. In fact, any person with a heart would feel even more love for you because of what you have suffered.
I tell them that I know that everyone “breaks” under torture and that the final breaking point is a rage-filled, kill-or-be killed, state. I say things like:
Under this degree of torture, this much unrelenting pain, everyone breaks, everyone snaps, everyone enters a rage-filled, kill-or-be-killed state, everyone. It is a primitive survival response that people who have never been tortured never have to discover in themselves.
Sometimes, I express anger at the condemnation that they imagine others would have for them. I say:
I know that you imagine that people would say, “I never would have done that,” “I would have chosen death over hurting somebody else,” or platitudes like: “We are all ultimately responsible for our own actions.” Well, isn’t it nice that they can sit there in their comfortable recliner chairs, never having been tortured, and tell themselves that they would have been able to do something different? Aren’t they lucky that they can bask in a self-satisfying story of moral perfection and condemn those who were brutalized into submission and never given death as an option.
These words are never enough and I believe it helps to say that too:
I know if I were made to do these things, I would unjustifiably hate myself too. How could anyone not feel that way? But it is unfair. It is unfair.
I know that no matter how many times I say you were not to blame, it will not take away the pain of what you were forced to do, and the memory of looking into the eyes of the other victim, but I will keep saying it anyway because it is the truth.
The following are the words of a loving mother to her child who was kidnapped, subjected to extreme abuse and coerced perpetration by highly sadistic abusers:
“If you were bad, would you feel as bad as you do? If you were like them, you would think it was funny. Did you kidnap them? When you saw the other kids forced to hurt other kids, did you think they were bad? If you have compassion for them, why not for yourself? You don’t have to ask forgiveness. You have done nothing that needs to be forgiven. I know you would you have chosen to die to not hurt someone else if that was an option. You were not given that choice.”
Below is something I wrote to a survivor who was subjected to extreme torture and coerced perpetration and who believes “themselves” stupid, evil, weak, selfish, unworthy of love, etc.
You and the other victims understand things that are almost impossible for other people to understand in terms of the ferocity of the evil and how it comes very close to destroying the mind and soul of its victims. The cruelty perpetrated against you went very deep and almost accomplished what the sadists intended, to make you purely evil like them.
I try so hard to help you understand and forgive yourself for all of the ways that you broke under torture. I know I would have broken all of these same ways. I know I would have formed hundreds of parts and that half of them would only know rage and sadism. It’s simply the last breaking point when there is no more room in your mind to hold the helplessness and terror of being victimized and no more room in your heart to hold the guilt and heartbreak of being coerced to perpetrate and see the horror and heartbreak of the other victims.
I know that when I was born, I was born no better than you. We are the same, both born innocent babies who only wanted to experience reciprocal love and who had no innate sadistic instincts. But under sadistic and brutal torture, anyone and everyone will form parts who are sadistic. Anyone who wants to believe otherwise does so only for self-serving motives.
I get it that it feels like only the other victims could ever truly understand all of this, forgive you completely, and love you anyway – actually love you more because of it. But I believe that everyone owes you to understand all of this as deeply as they can, to forgive you completely as there is nothing to forgive as there was never any choice, and to love you, have deep compassion for you, respect you for what you have endured, and to want to do everything in their power to help you to feel loved by them and to love yourself. That is the only way to begin to bring any justice at all to any of this.
I do not believe you did anything out of weakness. I think it is simply easier to condemn yourself as weak than to remember what it was like in your mind, in your body, and in your soul to be relentlessly tortured with no conceivable means of escape.
You are in no way ungrateful or selfish. You are wonderfully grateful. And how much can you expect to be able to give to others right now when you are still so devastated emotionally and psychologically?
You believe yourself evil, but I believe that the word evil does not apply to you. Yes you have parts who could not stand being victims anymore, who were completely alone in the depths of hell and unbearable unrelenting torture, and who took all of their justified rage and vented it on others. I know I would have done the same and I do not believe I am evil. To “break” in this way is inevitable when one is tortured and humiliated and coerced to harm others for unending hours and days. I feel angry at anyone who would like to pretend that they could do better and I feel no anger you at all.
Truly, deep in my heart, I believe you are wonderful.
The best for last. Victim A was forced to harm Victim B while Victim C was forced to watch. When A and C were alone again, Victim C tried to comfort Victim A. Victim A explains:
…When I saw [Victim C] again, she hugged me for a long time and finally said, “It’s okay. Only thing you could do, no choice. You never have a choice. I love you. She [Victim B] wasn’t mad, just scared. But so were you. Dog-eat-dog place here. You’re not bad, you’re an angel in a nightmare. It’s not your fault, please don’t feel sad.”
Although the moral injury runs deep and although it may take years for survivors to overcome their unjust self-condemnation, our insight into the power of torture and our words of compassion for the heartbreak of coerced perpetration mean the world to survivors. The more we bring this truth out into the open in the world of working with extreme abuse, on websites, etc., the more momentum we gain in helping survivors out of the psychological traps that the abusers sought to lock them in forever.
Sitting with Survivor’s Emotional Devastation about Having Harmed or Killed Others
In addition to expressing words to help survivors understand their inability to defy the abusers who were torturing them, we also need to be able to sit with them in the pain of having harmed another human being, no matter what the reason, no matter what the level of torture.
They had to look in the face of another victim, perhaps a child who trusted them, who previously relied on them, who hoped they might be rescued by them, maybe a sibling or best friend, maybe a parent or child, and had to see the absolute terror and utter anguish of betrayal. Perhaps the victim begged for them to stop. Perhaps they watched the victim’s heart break right in front of their eyes.
Perhaps they killed the intended victim robotically and without feeling. Or maybe they had been pushed to the point of “kill-or-be-killed” rage. Perhaps they killed while in a dissociated identity who had finally embraced sadism as his/her own, who had aligned him/herself with the abusers as one of them. They may live in fear and grief that this last experience may haunt the victim forever.
Listening to this, allowing survivors to express the pain and horror associated with this, is very, very hard. Our natural impulse is to try to relieve their unjust self-hatred before they can tell us how bad it was. But, if they cannot tell us, who can they tell? Very few people have the capacity to hear this and sit with it. We have to figure out how deep to let them go in expressing this pain before we offer them the lifeline of solace, words of compassion, understanding, and realistic self-judgement.
Victims’ Forgiveness and Compassion for the Co-victims Coerced to Harm or Kill Them
Although victims of coerced perpetration have seen sheer terror and heartbreak in victims they were forced to harm or kill, they often saw something very different in their eyes– concern for them. The victims they were coerced to harm or kill may have understood that the abusers were making them do this and that they had no choice.
It is near-inconceivable that anyone, often a child, being killed would be more concerned about the victim being forced to torture or kill them than themselves, but I have heard many accounts of this being the case. In the midst of utter terror and sadism, victims sometimes manage to communicate to the victim being coerced that they understand and that it is okay. And sometimes, it truly is okay. The victim who is being killed usually wants to die rather than be subjected to endless torture and suffering.
I sit in near-disbelief as survivors tell me that some of the victims they were forced to kill, especially the ones with whom they had been long-term co-victims, looked at them during this horror with understanding, love, compassion, and sorrow, holding them blameless, knowing they have had no choice in any of this. I try to find a way with my clients, within their spiritual beliefs, to help these deceased victims to experience their love and sorrow and to be in peace .
I try to breathe as people tell me of the compassion that they have for the children who were forced to hurt them as children, understanding the intense forces that were acting on them, and how they immediately forgave them, even during the torture, even while being almost killed.
I let myself cry.
Survivors deserve our tears, our outrage, an admission of our own feelings of helplessness in response to these forms of ferocious and calculated cruelty, and our willingness to travel into these nightmarish hell-holes with them, in order to extend a hand that they can grasp to begin to climb up and out, and to feel worthy of the love of people who will rally with them against this evil.