Understanding mental illness: The question of perpetrators' minds — and why they need therapy too
When the mental illness at the heart of our society is diagnosed, perhaps a solution to violence can finally be found – and this is why the trauma of perpetrators warrants attention too
Editor's note: What does it mean to be ‘mentally ill’? In this weekly column, Sneha Rajaram writes about navigating through a ‘mentally ill’ life — encompassing aspects that are both everyday (medications, rights) and contemplative (the universality of suffering).
A much-debated aspect of mental health that has come to light during this last year of #MeToo: Sexual harassers who have publicly apologised and, as a part of their apologies, mentioned that they are undergoing psychological counselling. This raises the matter of the mental health of perpetrators, something that neither diagnosed nor undiagnosed people want to acknowledge. Those of us who are diagnosed feel that to mention the mental health of perpetrators stigmatises mental illness. And the undiagnosed feel that it gives them too much sympathy/leeway.
There was a time when school shootings were beginning to proliferate in the USA and the mental illness of mass shooters was blamed for their actions. People rightly spoke out against this stigmatisation of the mental ill. I agree that mental illness is not to blame for their actions, since the majority of mentally ill persons do not commit mass shootings. And in the interest of centering the victim, it seems natural and right to feel that the trauma of perpetrators is secondary to their actions and to the trauma of the victims. But that debate has left an uneasy feeling in my mind about the role of trauma in larger-scale oppression and violence. After another mass shooting in California on 7 November that took 13 lives, singer Lady Gaga mentioned the fact that the perpetrator was diagnosed with PTSD. An opinion piece that attempted to appreciate her point got me thinking.
Little boys in our society are surely traumatised by patriarchy when they are taught not to feel and display their emotions. They are regularly beaten and physically punished in Indian schools, more than girls are. Their own culture of peer pressure is physically and emotionally violent. Those who are not allowed by their home environment to be in touch with their feelings force the others to dissociate too. These boys often grow up to be numb, angry, violent, black-and-white thinkers, emotionally unavailable, and to externalise their trauma – say, in the form of sexual harassment, domestic violence, or emotional abuse/neglect of spouse and children. Women who are traumatised by patriarchy, on the other hand – including little girls who are raped – take it out on themselves as adults more often than on others, when it comes to physical and sexual violence. We are far more vulnerable to re-traumatisation in our encounters with society and with men.
This April, Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz wrote an essay about his being raped as a child and the psychological consequences for him as an adult – his inability to maintain a loving romantic relationship with any woman. This essay was followed by several women who came out to talk about his emotional toxicity, raising the question of whether those who externalise their trauma – who press Ctrl C + Ctrl V onto others – still get to tell their stories of trauma in the same way that an internaliser does. But the question of the origins of toxic masculinity/hypermasculinity – a consistent phenomenon through millenia – still stands.
Given the limited number of good psychologists in the country, I find myself thinking of today’s sexual harassers who are undergoing therapy quite uncharitably. “That therapist could be better employed for the person whom this guy traumatised,” I think. And I also suggest to myself that he can only make amends by paying for his victims’ therapy – therapy being so expensive that very few people can actually access it.
Where do we focus our rehabilitating efforts – on the antisocial person who committed harassment or on the prosocial person who went through hell experiencing it, and then hell again by talking about it?
Shouldn’t they go to a sexual harassers’ bootcamp instead of a comfortable couch with a sympathetic therapist?
As statistics prove, punishment – incarceration, the death penalty, etc – is not preventive or even corrective. Many well-intentioned men’s focus on punishing a rapist, rather than on the rehabilitation of the victim, further invisibilises the victim’s trauma and perpetuates the dominance of violence in our collective imagination. It also blocks a deeper conversation on sexual violence in its tracks by exceptionalising the rape rather than seeing the misogyny in our society writ large. I hate to say it, but I must admit that perpetrators of sexual violence, too, need counsel.
And how did so many of our planet’s cultures become oppressive and violent in the first place? How did patriarchy become such a cancer? Can that be attributed to trauma too? Environmentalist Derrick Jensen has this to say:
Deep down our needs are simple: apart from food, shelter, and clothing there are the needs to love and be loved, for community, to be open to the world at large and for it to be open to us, to affect and be affected, to understand and be understood, to hear and be heard, to accept and be accepted. It is only when we fear that these needs won't be met that we grasp at them, and in the grasping lose any chance of satisfying them. Love controlled is not love; just as sex demanded is rape and acceptance expected is subservience.
I see this ‘grasping’ as the urge that the Buddha describes when he refers to craving and clinging (Pali: taṇhā): when we turn simple desires into neuroses and create suffering for ourselves and others. Our society’s need to control, to dominate, is everywhere – and it creates an unprecedented level of aggression on the societal and individual level that is tantamount to suicide for our civilisation. When the mental illness at the heart of our society is diagnosed, perhaps a solution to the violence can finally be found – and this is why the trauma of perpetrators warrants attention too.
Read more from this series here
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