Looking into an abuser’s eyes

Published 10:57 am Wednesday, July 28, 2010

It was a hard to read story about pain inflicted on a child. Part of me wanted not to know, had a strong urge not to learn about something bad happening to an innocent child.

Perhaps it is easier to remain in the dark about such things, to turn away from the knowing, but something draws us to these stories. And, once we know our first reaction is anger at the person or persons who cause the pain.

Most of my life that was my reaction too, but lately I’ve taken to looking at the faces, especially the eyes, of the abusers when they appear in the paper or on the television screen.

Sometimes the eyes look hard, almost defiant or angry. Mostly, I see a kind of blankness like the person inside is gone or at least far away. As I look at the faces of those who commit acts that defy explanation, I think about the child that person was in the beginning.

Once they were new baby humans filled with hope and possibility, perhaps dreams of what life might be when they grew up. Surely, they didn’t come here filled with whatever fills them now and causes them to act in ways we struggle to understand.

I learned that abuse tends to repeat itself. Consider these statistics from the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect.

.• 95 percent of child abusers were themselves abused as children;

• 80 percent of substance abusers were abused as children;

• 78 percent of our prison population was abused as children;

While it makes no sense to me that someone who suffers abuse repeats the behavior that is often the case. Experts explain it this way.

“They (abusers) are familiar with and fully understand the terror of being the helpless victim from their own childhood experience. The opposite of being a victim is not simply opting out of abuse; it is instead, to be abusive. Given the choice between being the out-of-control victim, or the in-control abuser, some of these people grow up to prefer the role of the abuser.

“As they become adults, they turn this relationship dynamic around and start acting out the “abuser” side of the relationship dynamic they learned. By choosing to be the aggressor and abuser, they may get their first sense of taking control over their own destiny and not being at the mercy of others. That they hurt others in the process may go unregistered or only occur as a dim part of their awareness.”

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not excusing the abuse because not every abuser grows up to abuse. So there is an element of choice at work too. And people must take responsibility for their actions.

That said, it seems we often approach a problem from the wrong end. We focus on punishment rather than prevention, judgment rather than understanding, compassion and love, which I tend to think are powerful forces for change.

No child, no person, should be abused and children must be protected. Still there has to be space for compassion when the person abusing suffered abuse. It is a vicious cycle. Refusing to see that does nothing to stop it.

Still, it’s an innocent child suffering at the hands of an adult. How do I come to terms with the feeling that brings to the surface? As I struggled with this, I happened upon something posted on Facebook. It was a simple statement that pretty much covers it and something I’m going to do my best to remember when I encounter these hard to read stories.

Don’t judge… you never know what a person’s story is… leave that up to God.