The language of abusers who portray themselves as victims — Vagueness & Contradictions
When I’m listening to a person who is complaining about their spouse or their marriage, I want to discern whether they are a victim or a perpetrator. Does this mean I am suspicious of all disclosures of abuse? Yes; and no. In most cases, the person’s words (and body language, if I’m able to see it) tell me very quickly, almost immediately, that I’m hearing from a genuine victim. But there are some cases where that recognition and confidence does not come so easily. In such cases, I believe it’s right to honor to my feelings of uncertainty and be consciously suspicious. After all, we talk a lot on this blog about how perpetrators pose as victims in order to recruit allies and supporters. Jeff S recently said (in another thread) that the central question he would ask himself in this situation is is “does this person sound like he or she feels entitled?”
It’s an excellent question. I think we can use that question as a sea anchor when we are in these kinds of conversations. (A sea anchor is a device used to stabilize a boat in heavy weather. Rather than tethering the boat to the seabed, the sea anchor increases the drag through the water and thus acts as a brake.)
“Does this person seem to feel unjustifiably entitled?” is the basic question I’m asking myself when I’m listening to a person who is complaining about their spouse or their marriage. The word “unjustifiably” is important in that question, because survivors of abuse may so yearn for justice that they can come across as if they feel ‘entitled’ to justice. But victims of abuse are justified in yearning for justice – it’s not wrong for them to feel that way.
side note: When I was in early recovery from my first husband’s abuse and the ensuing abuse from the church, I saw a counselor who, to my face, seemed to totally support and validate me. Later, when applying for crimes compensation, I asked that counselor to write a report for the court about how I’d suffered psychologically as consequence of my husband’s actions. Her report was scathing: she described me as motivated by vindictiveness! I am convinced that she made that judgement because I talked quite a lot to her about how the church had mistreated me after I separated from my husband. I think she interpreted my feelings of outrage as vindictiveness. It was devastating when I read her report. I told the Victims’ Assistance Program staff that this counselor had maligned me unfairly, and they made a note not to refer clients to her again. But God, in His marvelous way, is now using that experience of mine to make me underline how important it is to ask “Does this person feel unjustifiably entitled to certain treatment?” – because there is all the difference in the world between justified entitlement and unjustified entitlement.
To ascertain whether the person’s feelings are justified or whether they are due to hardness of heart and overweening entitlement, I need to listen to the person’s story and keep my antennae alert for various markers.
What do I look for when I’m trying to discern whether a person’s account of their marriage problem is genuine?
Remember when you did essays in high school or college? One of the typical questions was “Compare and contrast ________”. I’m going to be comparing and contrasting the different styles of speech used by genuine victims versus perpetrators posing as victims. I’m writing from my own knowledge and experience but I have learned that the things I’ve gleaned off my own bat are confirmed by professionals who work in the field of family violence. I learned this when I went to a workshop called Assessing men who present as victims of family violence but who may actually be the primary aggressor which was presented by Nathan DeGuara, Victims Support Agency, Department of Justice Victoria, at the No To Violence conference in Melbourne last year.
There are many markers I look for and I think it would do the subject a disservice if I tried to squash them all into one post. (Update: I intended this post to be the first in a series, but unfortunately I’ve not had time to write more in the series yet.)
Vagueness and contradictions
If I discern vagueness or contradictions in the person’s story, I ask them to clarify. Usually in their clarification I can start to tell whether they are being deliberately (evasively) vague or whether their vagueness comes from something like PTSD, or can simply be explained by the fact that they haven’t told this story to many people who really want to listen, so they may be gushing and stumbling over themselves because the top has just come off the pressure cooker.
Note: I also keep in the back of my mind the possibility that their vagueness may come from an underlying condition not directly related to abuse perpetration or victimization – things like acquired brain injury, early dementia, genetic disorders affecting cognition, disorders that can impair memory such as clinical depression, disorders that may impair the person’s grasp of reality such as schizophrenia – and that list would not be exhaustive. I’m only speaking personally and I’m not a clinician, but in my experience, these “other” reasons for vagueness seem to be less common than PTSD or abuse perpetration.
Contradictions can be pressed to find out if they are simple errors and skips in accuracy while recounting the story, or whether they are actual deceit because the story was fabricated or air-brushed to begin with. You can point out the contradiction in what a person is saying quite politely, and ask them to comment. With a true victim, they will usually give you a much longer back-story, and then their whole account makes sense and it no longer seems like there is a contradiction. But when you press a perpetrator who is posing as a victim, they tend not to give you a long and more coherent back story, rather, they sweep off into deflection, blocking, red herrings, etc. When I try to press a phoney victim to explain the contradictions that they have uttered and they avoid making a sound explanation, I often have the gut feeling that I’m being bullied. There is the sense that the other person are trying to control the direction of the conversation and is discounting my reasonable questions.
For Further Reading