It’s your fault for letting yourself get hurt.
Just reading that sentence probably makes you agitated. But people say that about each other all the time. We blame victims for letting themselves get hurt. Now maybe you want to say, “NO I DON’T.” It’s offensive, right? We all want to be the kind of person who shows up with band-aids and soup and enough time to really listen and care about what happened. That’s because we’re decent people, and we do care.
But think for a moment about how we respond differently to the kind of hurt that takes a band-aid and that we can see maybe happening to us and the kind of hurt that we never, ever want to touch our lives. We know we’re all going to scrape our knees, be rejected by a crush, get the flu, and lose loved ones. We do what we can to avoid these painful experiences, and we learn as we grow up how to deal with the hurt and how to rely on each other for support.
Then there’s the kind of stuff that we never want to experience and will naturally do anything we can to keep out of our lives. Within this range of experiences, there are some that we understand are uncontrolled, and some that we feel we might be able to control and therefore protect ourselves from. The more we can lump in under our “I can prevent that” category, the safer we feel in the world. So we mentally push as many human traumas into the “I can prevent that” category as possible.
So when something unspeakable happens to someone else, our response to their hurt comes out of this whole internal mix of self-protection combined with our history, our personality, and our natural capacity for empathy. I’m not trying to say that we’re all exactly the same in our responses, because we clearly aren’t.
There are some interesting patterns though. Let’s talk about these patterns in relation to how we respond to unspeakable trauma that we feel absolutely cannot be controlled. For example, a tragic, no-fault car accident. Or when young people are diagnosed with terminal illness. Or natural disasters, like a tornado sweeping through a village at night. These experiences generally bring out our most empathetic responses. We moan, we wring our hands, and we give our money, our time, our furniture, our homes to others. We will give anything needed to help victims of uncontrolled and unpredictable trauma. These are the times when we forget how we used to complain about our neighbors and instead show up at their door with warm, meaningful hugs and enough clean laundry to get them through the week.
Then there’s the way we respond to terrible trauma that we feel could be predicted, avoided, or controlled.
And remember, it’s human nature to convince ourselves that all kinds of bad experiences (if not most) fit in the “preventable” category, because we want to imagine that we can protect ourselves if we’re following the rules.
“Just follow the rules, and no one gets hurt.”
These sets of rules vary by person and place. They serve to make us feel safe in the world. Because we all want to feel like we can create our own safety, right? At least mostly? Maybe barring the tornados, but otherwise yes?
Yes. And so when someone gets hurt, we run it through our mental checklist about whether it could happen to us and make some maybe even unconscious decisions accordingly. We revise our list of personal rules to make sure we’re protected from whatever just happened to them. Who are they? They are the victims of terrible, even unspeakable trauma that the world imagines could’ve been prevented.
And remember, there are always those people who see right through all of this and don’t have grand illusions about our safety in the world, and these people have often been through unspeakable trauma themselves. They are the ones who rush in to help, who don’t judge, and who truly understand. They are the saviors of the truly needy. They are the world’s rock stars, in my opinion.
But then there’s the more common response. The response that comes from a lack of understanding. The kind of response that sounds like this: “Well, she shouldn’t have been on that street after dark.”
Or this: “I’m telling you, she had on a skirt up to here and a shirt down to here! Any girl dressed like that is asking for it.”
Or this: “A man is a man. And you know that little girl is a total flirt.”
Or this: “What gay guy struts around like that in this kind of town. He was begging to get smacked. I mean, they did take it too far. But come on.”
The experience of writing these comments is sickening. I despise the act of tapping them out on my keyboard, and reading them actually does make me feel sick to my stomach. But they’re things people say all the time. I’ve heard this stuff before about myself.
Because everyone wants to imagine that they would never be raped as long as they follow their personal safety rules. Whatever that list is. Don’t go on that street. Don’t go out past 2am. Don’t walk alone at night. These may be good practices—I’m not judging that here. I’m simply saying that you can be following the strictest list of safety rules in the world and still get raped. It’s not entirely controllable. Maybe you can reduce the likelihood, but there will always still be an element of chance.
And that is scary as hell.
There’s also always a chance that our children could be harmed by people who claim to love them. That’s even scarier. And what’s weird about this one is that most of the safety rules we follow to protect our children aren’t the best ones. Anna Salter has a book called Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, And Other Sex Offenders that I highly, highly recommend if you want to add “rules” to your safety list that actually work. Like teaching your children about more than just “stranger danger,” which isn’t statistically where they’re most likely to get hurt. Instead, you can teach your children to be conscious of people who are in their close proximity, to have an open relationship with you, and more.
But there I go getting caught up in trying to help you build a list of safety rules. It’s natural, right? It’s not bad that we want to do that. There are ways to keep ourselves more safe. It’s just that there aren’t really ways to keep ourselves 100% safe from everything no matter how big our lists are.
There’s a chance you could do everything right and still get victimized.
I know because it happened to me.
And I got blamed for it, because if people can make it my fault, then they can imagine that they’re safe because they’re not like me.
This has happened several different times.
The first one I can think of is when my one of my very best friends from sixth grade through college suddenly tried to rape me one night when we were out with a big group of friends.
I’ll never forget the shock of seeing him come toward me naked. I had never seen him naked; we had never even kissed each other on the cheek. I started screaming as I realized that he wasn’t going to listen to me and go away, and then I beat on him and smashed his fingers over and over.
I was lucky that he eventually quit and left. He was an athlete—incredibly big and strong. I was lucky, but what he tried to do broke my heart. I walked around for days in a fog, sobbing off and on uncontrollably. I hated him. I wondered why. I tried to talk to our friends about it. And you know what? No one wanted to talk. No one wanted to believe me, and no one wanted to see me cry. Not a single friend in our tight knit little group was able to open up to it.
And then one friend made the statement I’ll never forget:
“You shouldn’t have stayed with him in the first place.”
That just shook me to the core. Maybe it’s true. Maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe it’s not true. Maybe we should be able to trust our lifelong friends to defend us instead of trying to take us. Maybe some lifelong friends out there actually do stick up for each other. My mistake was that I believed in him. But if you can’t believe in your lifelong friends, who can you?
And whose fault is that? Mine or his?
I think it’s his fault, for violating everything. For making that terrible choice and for being that kind of person, in secret.
But ultimately, others blamed me for “letting” it happen. And this is because people want to imagine that if you don’t stay overnight with anyone, then you won’t be violated. They want to imagine that so they can follow that rule and then pretend that it will guarantee their safety.
There are no guarantees.
But then there’s the fact that I married a psychopath. I’m too darn trusting, right? I must be an absolute FOOL to imagine that a lifelong friend wouldn’t try to rape me or to be seduced by a psychopath.
Because that would never happen to someone who’s not a fool, right?
Funny, because I still watch my ex seducing high-profile, high-functioning, capable and confident people every single day. He has big people wrapped around every single one of his fingers, and so why not me?
Do we really believe we’re better than that? Do we have to pretend that we couldn’t be seduced? What is the benefit in that?
The benefit, again, is our own sense of safety. The idea that if I follow my rules and don’t let a man with clear attachment issues and piercing eyes take me to his personal sex dungeon (wait, isn’t that a popular fairy tale romance right now?), then I won’t get assaulted, or seduced by a psychopath, or anything like that.
And even though I’m strong, and even though I broke free from my psychopathic ex, and even though I’ve managed to raise my three children to be—so far—stable, loving, mostly secure individuals who have hopes and plans and positive dreams—even though I’ve done all that and feel proud of it, I still get the “victim” label far too often, and I still get blamed.
For example, my ex engages in every tactic of parental alienation. He has been inspiring my children to feel negativity toward me for the past decade.
Any time I’ve asked for help, I’ve been blamed. At least initially. The gut response I get from every professional is this:
“If you were a good mom, your kids would never feel bad about you.”
“If you were a good mom, you wouldn’t be in this situation.”
These comments NEVER come from anyone who knows me, my family, or our history. They are the instant remarks that come from a natural response—to blame victims.
But I fight back. I’m not going to be blamed for what’s not my responsibility. I’m not carrying that suitcase around through life. Also, I feel like it’s my duty to educate these people so they can help other families like mine. Because once these professionals get to know me and understand my family and our dynamics, they don’t blame me anymore. Their eyes are opened to parental alienation, and they will do whatever they can to help my children maintain their relationship with me.
Once they know me, they say I’m one of the most amazing moms they ever met.
And that’s quite a drastic swing. It’s just too bad that I have to waste so much time and energy fighting against the most common first impulse, which is to blame the victim.
Why do we blame victims? Because we don’t want it to happen to us. Parental alienation is one of the most devastating things a parent can experience. I know there’s a big list of devastating things. I’m just saying it’s on it. And so no one wants to believe that it could happen to them—everyone wants to believe instead that if you’re a good parent, you will never risk being alienated from your children. It’s on the list we imagine to be “preventable” along with sexual assault and being seduced by a psychopath.
The problem is that none of these things are entirely controllable, and when we imagine that “that could never happen to me,” we fail to understand victims. We leave them isolated, stranded, and even re-traumatized by all the blame.
We tell ourselves stories about victims to make sure that they aren’t like us. We create a psychological distance. You might be doing it now, simply because I’ve listed three ways I’ve been hurt in my life—ways I’ve been a victim—so you might find yourself saying, “Well that woman sure has a pattern of being victimized. So maybe she’s asking for it. I’m glad I’m not like her.”
And writing that makes me smile, actually. Because yes, I’ve been a victim in my life. But that’s not my whole story. I could make this chapter about leadership and talk about three big leadership moments of my life and how people reacted to me in those moments, and then you’d wrap up reading it thinking, “Wow, that woman is a real leader. I want to be more like her.”
My point is that I’m lots of things. Yes, I’m a leader. I’m also a good mother, a writer, a psychotherapist, a daughter, a friend. I’m an athlete and a gardener and an artist. I’m a traveler and an avid hiker and a push-over when it comes to getting another pet. But you know what else I am? A victim. I’ve been traumatized by experiences I didn’t know how to prevent, that I couldn’t control, that tore my heart, and that I ultimately recovered from and recover from still. Like everyone on this planet, I’m a lot of things.
So I’d ask you not to get locked in on the times when I’ve been victimized. Don’t let your mind make that all I am.
I’d also ask you something even more challenging. To take this chapter with you through life. And when you hear about terrible things happening to people, take care of the victims.
And keep blame where it belongs—with the perpetrator. With the one who thought the thought, made the choice, and committed the act.
Follow these links to previous chapters and a community of support on Lovefraud.com:
Chapter One: Everyone’s Ex is a Psychopath
Chapter Two: Labels and Lists Might Not Help
Chapter Three: There Are Degrees of Conscience and Empathy
Chapter Four: Richard Parker is Not Your Friend
Chapter Five: Who is a Potential Victim?
Or you can find The Other Side of Charm: Your Memoir at major booksellers.