Denial and Acknowledgement

Many aspects of my study of Criminology remind me of the abuse and behaviour surrounding abuse in my own life. This week I am studying the violations of human rights by states and how some regimes behave in ways to avoid, deny or dismiss accusations of human rights violations, and every person’s responsibility in addressing this issue.

So I want to start off by quoting a few passages in my study book which deal with the concepts of denial and acknowledgement.

To be ‘in a state of denial‘ is to block out or repress or to simply avoid acknowledgement of, in this case, human suffering (Drake and Scott, 2019, p. 175).

The opposite of denial is acknowledgement: recognising what is taking place and trying to intervene to make a difference. This can involve all sorts of different actions, but key among them is the act of questioning a situation wherein other human beings are suffering, being harmed or killed (Drake and Scott, 2019, p. 175).

Cohen (2001) identified 3 main ways people deny knowledge of suffering:

  • Literal denial: atrocities are not acknowledged to have happened at all.
  • Interpretive denial: a harm is reinterpreted so that it appears as less serious.
  • Implicatory denial: when people recognise the reality of human suffering but deny any personal responsibility.

Cohen (2001) then identified 7 forms of implicatory denial, which he referred to as ‘techniques of denial’.

  1. Denial of responsibility: A person denies they are fully or even partially responsible for human suffering they have directly witnessed or caused, but did nothing to stop. It was not their fault, it was an accident, or it was not intentional. The perpetrator, or observer, claims ignorance of what has occurred.
  2. Denial of injury: What happened did not hurt. There was no or only limited damage caused. The action was harmless or the suffering created insignificant.
  3. Denial of victim: There is no identifiable victim of the action. The sufferer has lost their claims to being a victim by precipitating the action themselves or undertaking an action that led to them being harmed: ‘They brought it on themselves’.
  4. Condemnation of the condemners: The person who is complaining should be condemned. They may be hypocrites, liars or not seen as a respectable person or an authority who can make such accusations.
  5. Appeal to higher loyalties: That the harm was done for the greater good. The suffering serves wider purposes, personal commitments, ties, bonds and beliefs. Somebody else is a more deserving person to be labelled a victim.
  6. Denial of knowledge: This is when people claim they have no knowledge of certain events. There are gradations of knowing, and there is a fine line between knowing and consciously not knowing.
  7. Moral indifference: The suffering of the other is acceptable. There is nothing to be explained away. Moral indifference arises when people become desensitized to suffering, emotionally overloaded, or when they distance themselves from others, seeing ‘the other’ as a lesser being.

In cases of domestic violence and also rape and sexual abuse all the above ‘techniques’ are being used by the perpetrator, and also by witnesses, family members or others with knowledge of the abuse. After reading this I was struck by the behaviour I recognised of some of the perpetrators, family and also of myself.

If you have read some of my former posts you will know I mentioned that as a child I was talking a lot, and also in a raised voice. I also questioned everything. At school, but also at home. So when my father came home from work I bombarded him with facts that happened that day between my mother and my sister, but also with questions. I wonder if I was always told to shut up because I was asking too many difficult and confrontational questions about my mother’s but also my father’s behaviour. As it says above, a key part of acknowledgement is the act of questioning.

‘Denial’ | Graphite and ink on paper | Mayola | 08/12/2020

Then all the different techniques of denial mentioned above make me think too. I recognise lots of different bits from all of the 7 points that I have seen in the perpetrators in my life. I think it is possible that perpetrators find all sorts of excuses, depending on the accusation and moment in time to defend their action or in-action. I think the human mind will always desperately try to avoid the confrontation with the reality of their behaviour, when challenged but also in case they are unchallenged. Over time their mind shapes a convenient memory they can live with, which often is not how it really happened.

Take point 1: Denial of responsibility: A person denies they are fully or even partially responsible for human suffering they have directly witnessed or caused, but did nothing to stop. It was not their fault, it was an accident, or it was not intentional. The perpetrator, or observer, claims ignorance of what has occurred. This is a point my parents keep making, they didn’t mean to do it. So that’s alright then, because they didn’t intend it. We still love you. And that is all in the past now. Well, no. It isn’t in the past, it keeps happening. And you keep saying you didn’t mean to. So no.

Another point I want to make is that a lot of feedback I get from others about my behaviour is the fact I have mental health conditions which are ‘probably partly to blame’. That sounds a lot like point 4 about condemnation of the condemners. Well, I know exactly what I am saying and doing, and why I am saying it and I take full responsibility for every word and action. I am writing this blog to question and bring into the open traumatic events that have happened to me, my sister and to what I have witnessed. But I am also honest about my own role in events and I want to question myself too. Because I believe, and this is what I think the text in my study module is referring to, that the only way to recover as a victim, and rehabilitate as a perpetrator is by facing up to the reality of what happened. By covering it up, staying silent, not discussing it openly and denying events, perpetrators will feel empowered to continue their sick behaviour, and the harm will continue.

I have decided that whenever I encounter harmful behaviour from anyone I have to protect myself, and my children. When I kicked out my ex-husband years ago, I only did that then because of the threat of my children being taken away from me if I did not act. But now, years later I have learned that I have to protect myself and my children by taking us out of the situation as soon as it’s clear that other options are exhausted, like setting boundaries, talking, confronting and ultimatums. I would like to take a quote from a Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet (1981):

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Point 6 I also find very interesting. ‘Denial of knowledge: .. there are gradations of knowing, and there is a fine line between knowing and consciously not knowing’. Off course in my module material the famous example of German citizens claiming ‘Ich habe es nicht gewußt’ (I didn’t know it) after the war and the atrocities of the Holocaust committed by the Nazis became clear. This is a devious act of denial; consciously not knowing. What is that? Pushing your acts to the back of your mind, to somewhere so obscure even you yourself can’t find it. Or pushing it so violently away in your memory it seems to be gone, until one day 35 years later you suddenly start to get nightmares about it. And there it is. Or like most murderers knowing to have done it, but because they decide from the offset to deny it, at whatever cost, until they themselves believe they are innocent because by denying it they have pushed themselves over the thin line between knowing and consciously not knowing.

In point 7 dehumanising the victim is mentioned. Well, my sister was definitely dehumanised by my parents, by humiliation, denying her food and entry to the house, locking her up or out etc. Also point 3 denying of victim. Because always her ‘bad’ behaviour needed to be punished, like wetting the bed (a sign of emotional distress in children) refusing to eat, or do as was told.

But the bigger point I want to make, is about rehabilitation, reconciliation and recovery of harms. To even start with these processes one has to begin with acknowledgement, and then recognising the behaviour in real time, then stopping the behaviour and lastly changing the behaviour. Depending on how seriously ingrained the behaviour is, this process can take a lifetime. And a big chunk of people never even start let alone finish this process. It needs a level of self awareness, openness in case of the victim and also ability to feel remorse and guilt in case of the perpetrator.

References

Drake, D.H. and Scott, D. (2019) ‘Dangerous States’ in Drake, D.H., Nightingale, A. and Scott, D. (eds) Introduction to Criminology 1, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 157-182.

Cohen, S. (2001) States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Narcotics Anonymous Pamphlet(1981)(Basic Text Approval Form, Unpublished Literary Work), Chapter Four: How It Works, Step Two, Page 11, Printed November 1981, Copyright 1981, W.S.C.-Literature Sub-Committee of Narcotics Anonymous], World Service Conference of Narcotics Anonymous. (Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20121202030403/http://www.amonymifoundation.org/uploads/NA_Approval_Form_Scan.pdf; website has been restructured; text is available via Internet Archive Wayback Machine Snapshot January 1, 2013 link PDF of pamphlet link. Accessed on: 10/12/2020.

Victims and perpetrators

In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defence. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim.

Herman (1992*, p. 8)

These are the first lines of a chapter in my learning materials I was studying this morning. And they hit me like a brick. To me, this is so recognisable in my life. Most of my abusers, including my parents, have done exactly that, secrecy and silence and attacking my credibility.

In fact, since starting this blog I have received an angry email from my father blaming my personality disorder and accusing me of publicly slandering his good name and venting lies about them on social media. Then he went on to say I had to delete it and how and what I could say instead.

Since I was a child he has been telling me to shut up, be quiet and let others speak. I had a big mouth and was always exaggerating everything. He was always telling me how things should be done and what was best. And now, nothing has changed, he still thinks he knows best. Well, I am an adult now, and in my experience people learn by example. He might have told me many times over what was best, but he didn’t show me in his actions. His actions are that of a coward, hiding behind his infantile wife who bullies him and her children around. And even now, 40 years on he denies facts and tries to silence me.

I think it is absolutely crucial to let others know about the abuse, to talk about it and bring it out in the open. As long as it’s hidden, and nobody talks about it or knows who commit these crimes it will continue and perpetrators will know they are safe. By saying here, publicly, what happened and who did it I hope somehow I can find a way to stop history repeating itself, and it also is an opportunity to learn. I imply here, that I am not merely a victim, but also a potential perpetrator. Because the sad truth is, because this is my example I find myself in similar situations with my own children. I feel incredibly lucky to have a sense of self reflection, which allows me to change my behaviour. I have to work hard for it, because it doesn’t come natural to me to be a warm, loving mother. I have made mistakes, I have been unable to give my children the emotional safety and care they need many times, but I recognise it now and I can start to change it.

So perpetrators are often themselves victims too. Because of this it is often extra hard to admit, recognise and work on breaking the chain. But there are always opportunities both for the victim and the perpetrator to start recovery. There are lessons for both.

Breaking the chain

At the bottom of all of this is a deep lack of love. There is probably a long line of loveless parents before me, my parents, my grandparents and so on. If you are victim of domestic violence you learn you are not worth love, you are worthless. And because you don’t love yourself, you can’t be around people who show you love, and you can’t show it yourself. You will be on the roundabout of looking for confirmation of that self-loathing. And so the cycle continues into eternity. Except, you can do something to stop it. By owning up to it, to your own faults, by starting to recognise how you can’t be vulnerable to others, even your own children, you can try practise and face that deep fear. Be uncomfortable, feel anxious, be brave.

Surely that is less hard than see your children turn their backs on you, see your children suffer like you did, see them try and run away from it all, see them in unhealthy relationships, see them lose themselves in addiction and sometimes even kill themselves. I am determined to let the buck stop with me. Or at least as much as I can. Cause I know I have already passed on some of the bad stuff. But at least I don’t want to be a coward and stick my head in the sand pretending it isn’t there. It IS there. My own daughter is afraid of me, at least sometimes. But that is one moment too many. She shouldn’t feel afraid of me even one moment. I need to make her feel safe, I need to protect her. I need her to love herself. And that can only happen if I learn to love myself.

So, facing the facts is important, but also accepting that the way you experienced something might be different to somebody else’s. In my opinion a perpetrator is not allowed to devalue the experience of the victim, their feelings, nor their way of expressing those feelings about it. As a perpetrator you can only accept the facts and live with it, own up to it and do whatever is in your power to not repeat it. This is off course not even possible or feasible for a lot of people, because they simply lack the ability, deny it and continue their abusive behaviour. The consequence is this endless cycle of violence, passed on from generation to generation.

Reference

*Herman, J. (1992) Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, New York, Basic Books.