This would likely apply in many ways to VERBAL and EMOTIONAL abusers as well, who also are full of rage and lack empathy, likely for the same or similar reasons. Abusers like my ex, Dan, who interestingly enough, was a very heavy drinker by the time we split and apparently still is. Remember that verbal and emotional abuse often escalates to physical abuse, and even when it doesn’t, that verbal and emotional abuse and the psychological damage it causes, such as depression and PTSD – often take longer to heal than the broken bones and bruises of physical abuse.
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Dear Mr. Brown:
We have never met. I don’t presume to know your life story. If the allegations against you are true, however, and you did brutalize your girlfriend, I do know something very important about you.
First, you should know a little about me. I am a forensic psychiatrist who has treated violent men and women and testified as an expert in state and federal courts in cases involving rape, assault and murder. On more than one occasion, I have testified about the underlying psychological dynamics that resulted in men killing women. I also wrote the New York Times bestseller Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson. You would have been just 16 when Peterson was sentenced to death for the murder of his wife Laci and unborn son Conner. I tell you all this to increase the chances you might actually take what I have to heart before you ruin your life and destroy someone else’s.
Here’s what I know about you, if you are guilty of the charges against you: You are different from the vast majority of men. You have been emotionally and physically violent toward a woman, and I believe you’ve done it before. Men who find themselves in court for assaulting females rarely have the good fortune to be caught—and, hopefully, get help—the first time.
Psychologically speaking, what you are up against is like psychological cancer—a malignancy that is life threatening and hard to treat. Just when you think you’ve overcome it, it can overtake you. It is deep in the marrow of your mind or brain or both. I don’t like your odds against it—even a little bit. Defeating it will take an act of will greater than any you have summoned before.
For one reason or another, you lack the empathy or impulse control that would have allowed you to restrain yourself from lashing out when anger surged inside you. This is no small matter. Empathy is a miraculous human quality that allows one human being to imagine the suffering of another and seek to minimize it whenever possible (not inflict it). Impulse control is closely linked to having empathy, but can also depend on parts of the brain—especially the frontal lobes—functioning appropriately. Impulse control also depends on being sober. Alcohol or an illicit drug is often the culprit when violence erupts.
If you lack empathy, your character is badly damaged, and it is essential that you figure out how that occurred. You need to examine which events in your life were so painful that you stopped feeling your own sadness and hurt and tried to keep everything buried inside you. That doesn’t work. The things you bury never go away, they get more intense, then spill out of you in ways you can’t predict or control. Only a skilled therapist can help you look at yourself in the way you need to now, to unearth the emotions you’ll need to in order to have any hope of remaking yourself into the kind of man you deserve to be—a man of character who can form loving relationships, not abusive ones. And only a psychiatrist can prescribe whatever medicine might be needed in the short or longer-term to help you keep your demons from getting the upper hand again while you wrestle with them.
Character pathology often goes hand-in-hand with alcohol and drug problems. That’s because alcohol and drugs are another way people try not to feel the turmoil inside them. But, trust me, it’s a sucker’s game. Ultimately, booze or coke or heroin only fuel the ugly things inside a person. If you’re using and think you can stop on your own, think again. You’re in a war, and you’re losing. Check yourself into a rehab, if you have to. Get to AA or NA, if you have to. Do more than you think you need to. You’ll underestimate your enemy. Every alcohol or drug abuser does.
Go see a neurologist, for good measure. Tell him or her that you need to know if there’s any damage to your brain—maybe from prior head trauma—that could leave you without normal neurological defenses against your underlying anger.
You’ll mount a vigorous defense in court, of course. Nobody wants to go to jail. But don’t defend against the truth you know in your heart of hearts. Whatever unresolved rage is inside you isn’t under your control, and you’d better get the upper hand over it—and soon. Someone could end up dead. You could end up living a life behind bars. You weren’t born for either tragedy. You can do better.
One last thing: Think about your children. I know you don’t have any today, but you might some day. Think about the fact that they’ll see your girlfriend’s battered face on the Internet years from now. They’ll know what people said about you. Let yourself feel some shame over that. You’ll want to be able to tell them how much you’ve changed, how it wasn’t easy (because it won’t be), but how they, too, can defeat any ugliness they find inside them, if they don’t try to run away from it.
Turn and face the truth about yourself. One day, with a lot of hard work, a lot of help and some luck, you could be proud of what you see. It’s a noble goal—maybe the most noble of all. Now is the time to embrace it.
-Keith Ablow, MD