By: Dr. Buddhini Samarisinghe
Sympathy for the devil Empathy for the abuser
The man who abused me told me that he had a lot of baggage.
He told me he had an unhappy childhood. He told me that he grew up without his father, who abandoned his family when he was younger so that he had to step in to take care of his siblings and mom. He told me his mom was abusive, and that his grandfather had abused his mom. He told me that he never felt loved, and that he never felt safe, and that he never felt supported.
The man who abused me told me he had a past history with mental illness. He told me that he had been diagnosed with depression, and that he was institutionalized as a teenager when he tried to kill himself. He told me that he has been on various medications for his illness sporadically, and that these medications were responsible for his mood swings.
The man who abused me told me that he had a past history with substance abuse.
The thing is, the man who abused me was also a compulsive liar. He lied to me about his finances, his relationships, and his work. He lied about the most insignificant things, like when he told me that he is not a smoker, and hates cigarettes – I found out this was a lie when I spoke to several of his other victims who told me he was actually a chain smoker.
I know that the man who abused me used his baggage to entrap me. I know that I explained away a lot of his abusive behaviors because of his baggage. The man who abused me is a skilled manipulator. Gaslighting is second nature to him, and he would spin stories to fit his agenda without batting an eyelid.
As a survivor of his abuse, it’s hard for me to separate the truth from his lies. I spend a lot of my time trying to do this – alone, with friends, with my therapist. Sometimes, questioning the things he told me feels wrong because of the essence of the question. Think about it – “did he really experience childhood abuse or was he just saying that so I would feel sorry for him?”. Now try to imagine how awful a childhood abuse survivor would feel to have their experiences questioned like this.
As a survivor of his abuse, I often notice that I am expected to take these ‘extenuating circumstances’ into account when I consider his abuse. As if his baggage is somehow an excuse for what he did. As if I owe him empathy – as if I owe him the courtesy – to take these things into account when I take stock of my devastated sense of self. I hate how I am expected to be kind and empathetic and watch my language when I talk about this man who harmed me because he (allegedly) has a history of mental illness/substance abuse/childhood abuse. Accounting for his baggage and nuancing how I express my hurt and anger feels wrong. It’s wrong to expect the survivor of abuse to have empathy for their abuser.
I am not at a place where I can feel compassion for my abuser. I still hate him for what he did to me, and it is a hatred that feels everlasting. It burns bright, like the sparks from an oxyacetylene torch, blinding me to anything else other than a desire to see him suffer. I don’t know if I will ever get to a place where I can stop hating him, but I know that any lessening of hatred needs to come from within me, when I feel ready for it. It cannot come externally, from people who had the luxury of not experiencing his abuse telling me how I should and shouldn’t process my experience.
Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe is a science writer with a background in molecular biology and cancer research. Her writing can be found at Jargonwall. She is also the founder of STEM Women, an initiative dedicated to promoting and celebrating women in STEM. Follow on Twitter @DrHalfPintBuddy, Facebook and Google+