The most dangerous men on earth are those who are afraid that they are wimps. Wars have been started for less. The main motives for violence [are] the fear of shame and ridicule, and the overbearing need to prevent others from laughing at oneself by making them weep instead. (Dr. James Gilligan)
To really understand something, we gotta get up close and personal with it. Sometimes this is done by choice, other times it happens through lived experiences forced upon us.
The dominant euro-religious-colonist culture that inflicts and imposes itself on the entire planet wholly relies on violence to uphold its greedy, narcissistic. de-humanized self. Being embedded in such a culture insidiously traumatizes ALL of us, to different degrees and dependent on our social place, i.e. how life has played out for us (much of which is out of our control), what kind of family and community we were born into, our genetics, our relationships, and so on.
Amy Herdy’s job as a crime reporter, and her seemingly deeply personal mission is getting up close and personal with the decay that is male violence in order to try and understand it with the ultimate goal of ending it.
I first learned of Amy when watching an Investigation Discovery episode of On the Case with Paula Zahn. It was featuring infamous serial rapist Brent Brents, who in 2005 received a 1,509-year prison sentence for 80 criminal charges including rape, kidnapping and attempted murder. Brents stalked, violently attacked, raped and tortured many, many women and children (and men in prison). His prison sentence was the longest one ever doled out by the state of Colorado.
In her compelling and emotionally jarring book, Diary of a Predator: A Memoir, Amy explains her role in this story:
At the time I started working on Brent’s case, I was a Denver Post criminal justice reporter, cynical and driven. I’ve often said that this is the tale of two predators – one a criminal, the other a journalist – for don’t we as journalists often prey upon people for their story? So this is also the account of my own awakening.
Mine too, which remains a work in progress. Reading Amy’s book is not for the light-hearted; it took me on an INTENSE emotional rollercoaster that had me wrestling with all kinds of conflicting feelings like disgust, terror, empathy and despair as I learned of Brent’s attacks and his childhood, which was filled with unspeakable child abuse which, unsurprisingly and all too commonly, resulted in a full blown sadistic, out of control, violent, sociopathic man.
Alongside my disgust, despair, and terror, I also found myself feeling empathy for Brent because little tortured boys don’t just disappear, they slowly morph into violent adult men. This is not to say that ALL abused boys turn into sadistic men, but some do, it’s simply how life works — everyone copes differently with the inner hell such a childhood creates. To turn away from this and say “But so and so was abused and neglected too and HE didn’t turn into a rapist/killer!!” is to miss the point entirely, because Brent and his kind DO exist, so it’s useless to take the thinking in the direction of those who turned out differently; it slams the door shut to understanding HOW the Brents of the world come to be.
We often hear violent predators described as “evil”, “born bad”, and simply “predisposed” to violence, with minimal acknowledgement of being abused as children. And when abuse/neglect IS acknowledged, it’s usually given the briefest of nods, and what usually follows is “That’s no excuse!” Of course it’s no excuse, but it’s a reason full of important information critical to understanding how this shit plays out. Further, I think these sentiments (evil/no excuse/born bad) are emotionally and intellectually lazy and result in a huge fail for a) the thousands of abused and neglected kids around us who are predators in the making due to their brutal mis-treatment behind closed doors, and b) society as a whole. Your nephew, student, or next door neighbor can be the next Brent Brents or any other infamous serial killer or rapist or less well known one, of which there are MANY. It could be your own son if you treat him badly enough, and physical or sexual violence are but two of many ways to profoundly wound children.
The graphic accounts of Brent’s violent acts — as victim and perpetrator — were gut-wrenching to read; I can only begin to imagine what his victims went through, and what he went through as a boy mercilessly tortured by his father. This is such a mentally and emotionally disturbing experience that for many people, it starts and stops at the feelings. But to try and make some clear, coherent sense of male violence in the hopes of preventing it, we must wade through the quicksand of how we feel about it and zoom out in order to look at the bigger picture.
Recall my article about domestic violence survivor Wendy Maldonado and how I speculated that her brother-in-law is as much an “abusive asshole” as Wendy’s (now dead) husband was. To call him an asshole is to judge and close the door to understanding how the sickness of violence works.
Amy’s book captures in one person what Dr. Gilligan found in his many years as a prison psychiatrist working with some of the most violent men in the US. He discovered that SHAME plays a HUGE role in the making of violent men. From his illuminating book:
Violence – whatever else it may mean – is the ultimate means of communicating the absence of love by the person inflicting the violence. […] The absence or deficiency of self-love is shame; its opposite is pride, by which I mean a healthy sense of self-esteem, self-respect and self-love. When self-love is sufficiently diminished, one feels shame. But it may be somewhat paradoxical to refer to shame as a “feeling,” for while shame is initially painful, constant shaming leads to a deadening of feeling, an absence of feeling.
To suffer the loss of love from others, by being rejected or abandoned, assaulted or insulted, slighted or demeaned, humiliated or ridiculed, dishonored or disrespected, is to be shamed by them. To be overwhelmed by shame and humiliation is to experience the destruction of self-esteem; and without a certain minimal amount of self-esteem, the self collapses and the soul dies. Violence to the body causes the death of the self because it is so inescapably humiliating.
Psychological violence which, even in the absence of physical injury, can kill the self. Thus people do not need to have been physically attacked in order to become violent. Violent child abuse is not a necessary precursor to adult violence for the simple reason that violence is not the only way in which an adult can shame and humiliate a child. Words alone can shame and reject, insult and humiliate, dishonor and disgrace, tear down self-esteem, and murder the soul.
The most intractable component of [violent men’s] distress […] is their inner emptiness and deadness and past victimization. […] Feelings of deadness [and] the absence of feelings [is what these men] describe as the most intolerable of their various torments. […] This is one reason why a humane environment is an absolute prerequisite for the healing of violent men, and why punitive environments [i.e. prisons] only perpetuate the violence of the criminals who are placed in them.
Ending violence goes far beyond “changing the system” because ‘the system’ is flawed and short-sighted at its core simply because it was created within and responds to problems the culture itself creates. This is to say that a predatory culture will naturally create predators, so whatever its ‘fixes’ are will always fall short and fail until the culture wholly and radically changes. This starts with how we raise and respond to children, individually and as a society. Brent says it best in Amy’s book:
Please, if you are a parent, planning on being a parent or are someone who is responsible for the well-being of children: Treat them with dignity, respect and love. Be good role models. Teach them empathy, compassion and integrity. Regardless of your financial, emotional and physical situations, show them how to overcome and achieve. Be loving and attentive. Listen to them, hear them, spend time with them and nurture them. Most of all, give them your heart forever so that they will become good people.
Amy and Brent continue to stay in contact. The book and a regularly updated, interactive website is their Project towards understanding, responding to, and ending violence.
There is so much more to this conversation because the dominant colonist culture is infected by and saturated in violence in so many direct and indirect ways; the media, pornography (see this video and this blog and this one for three very distinct and BRILLIANT porn truth-telling), video games, how we speak to and treat eachother, how we school kids, the exploitation and violence inherent in capitalism and its corporations, the colonial government and its violent enforcers (police and military), and so much more.
I highly recommend Amy Herdy’s book, her website, and James Gilligan’s book if you’re interested in better understanding the decay that is violence. As Einstein said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” The existing responses to violence are for the most part, gross failures. We need to take the time to really think about what’s going on, and very importantly — suspend our judgments — so that we can respond effectively. Alongside all the real life experiencing and book-learning and expert-listening (noting that some “experts” have no clue) about violence, let’s talk about and effect concrete ways to END IT, above and far beyond boring , rigid and short-sighted things like “systems” and “fundraisers” or godforsaken plastic colored bracelets or running marathons. Not that these things aren’t fun, but come on, let’s get REAL. Fun can be had doing better than that. Plus, we’re so much smarter than that.
I salute and thank you Amy for taking on such a daunting task — you do it so very well. Your book was so illuminating and you inspire me to keep digging so that I can do my part in my own community to combat the cancer of violence plaguing the colonist culture. You are the wind beneath my feminist, decolonist, peace-seeking wings!