(This article is copyrighted © 2012 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of male gender pronouns is for convenience’s sake and not to suggest that females aren’t capable of the behaviors and attitudes discussed.)
It can be hard to hate or despise even the most terrible human being so long as he’s inflicted his cruelty on others, but spared you. Take a sociopathic relative, even a close one.
If somehow he compartmentalized his life, lived a “double life”—in any case, if you learned that he treated you (retrospectively even) with an exceptional, aberrant mercy that he denied his victims, you might very possibly remain “loyal” to him. You might still even “love” him.
Various defenses are pertinent—such as denial, dissociative and other self-deluding mechanisms. Gratitude may also be present, expressive of a different defense mechanism: the “monster,” after all, spared you, but not others. He exempted you from the cruel fate he inficted on them, who were helpless to protect themselves, as you were too, only he spared you. So it may seem as if he were somehow “protecting” you from the “demons” he unleashed on others.
This kind of analysis can engender, as I say, a form of “gratitude” and “loyalty” towards the victimizing individual; it is a variant of “identifying with the aggressor.”
Now it’s true that many, discovering the unseemly truth about someone close to them, even if they were spared the individual’s predations, will modify their view of the individual, bringing it into conformity with reality.
But not always.
I stress: sometimes the monster will retain his “backer.” And the chief point I stress is that his “backer” will probably be under the sway of twin, interrelated and twisted forces of logic—if he didn’t do this to me, then how could he have done this to them? And if he did it to them and not me, then he must have somehow “loved” me?
In either case, “I exculpate him.” In this way, I can remain “loyal” to him,without feeling I’ve transgressed my value system.
Thus disbelief (enabled by denial), mixed and confused with the fantasy of having been a special, exceptional object of his “love” (thanks to which he “amnestied” you from the cruel fate to which he subjected others) supports the rationalization to “stand by” him.
We are strange in the sense of this contradiction: on one hand, we are highly prone to judging others; on the other, we have the capacity to utilize defense mechanisms in the service of “withholding judgment” whenever the need arises.
We do both regularly—that is, regularly we relent to the tendency to judge, while often simultaneously exercising the detachment necessary to “not judge” sometimes disturbing individuals and their alarming stories of transgression.
Many professions, like that of psychotherapy, require the capacity to “suspend personal judgment” just so its practioners can work effectively with a wide range of stimulating, and sometimes disturbing, information.
Families have been torn apart by this psychological dynamic in a sometimes brutal clash of dichotomous positions. I’ve seen this more than a few times. A violator in the family has wrought it shame, perhaps public shame. The violator has perpetrated terrible things now known to the family.
Some family members revise their view of the individual and come to despise him, want nothing more to do with him, have sworn the individual out of their lives.
Other family (especially those who weren’t personally victimized by the individual) may “stand by” the individual, “retain” their faith and belief in him; and thus a rift between the “factions” occurs, adding another layer of nightmare to the trauma precipitated by the violating relative.
This is a preliminary examination of this very complicated subject, to be explored in further depth ahead.