Identification with the aggressor: how crime victims often cope with trauma.
He was too weak to live down the shock of the killing. That's what he suspected must be troubling him. A real man could have come out of it in a short time and resumed a normal life. After all, he had done all he could that night. He had nothing to feel bad about. Nothing at all. It was easy for some of them to criticize him. To have their training classes and criticize him and Ian and say what should have been done. Then he was crying. It was the first time he had cried like this. Karl Hettinger sat hunched in his chair and his wet cheeks glistened silver from the light of the television, and his shoulders began heaving and great shuddering sobs ripped out. He lost control. He wept and the shame of it made the tears gush hot. There was nothing left, not a shred of self-respect. One day while walking through a department store with O'Lear looking for thieves, he saw a masonry drill he needed. He started to buy it but instead just put it in his pocket. It was as baffling and inexplicable as the weeping. --Joseph Wambaugh, The Onion Field (1)
The notion that a traumatic experience produces an extreme reaction is an ancient one. When confronted with serious, often life-threatening situations, crime victims instinctively resort to various cognitive mechanisms that allow them to cope with their sudden victimization victimization Social medicine The abuse of the disenfranchised–eg, those underage, elderly, ♀, mentally retarded, illegal aliens, or other, by coercing them into illegal activities–eg, drug trade, pornography, prostitution. . (2) Many people are familiar with the more common of these coping strategies The German Freudian psychoanalyst Karen Horney defined four so-called coping strategies to define interpersonal relations, one describing psychologically healthy individuals, the others describing neurotic states. , or "defense mechanisms" as psychologists call them, which include regression, denial, and repression.
In addition to these, crime victims also can cope with life-threatening trauma by "identifying" with their aggressor AGGRESSOR, crim. law. He who begins, a quarrel or dispute, either by threatening or striking another. No man may strike another because he has threatened, or in consequence of the use of any words. , just as Karl Hettinger--an officer with the Los Angeles Los Angeles (lôs ăn`jələs, lŏs, ăn`jəlēz'), city (1990 pop. 3,485,398), seat of Los Angeles co., S Calif.; inc. 1850. , California, Police Department--did after witnessing two thieves murder his partner. Identifying with the aggressor has become a well-documented, bona fide [Latin, In good faith.] Honest; genuine; actual; authentic; acting without the intention of defrauding.
A bona fide purchaser is one who purchases property for a valuable consideration that is inducement for entering into a contract and without suspicion of being defense mechanism. (3) By understanding why people often identify with their aggressors and how this affects future behavior, the law enforcement community can better comprehend the vicissitudes vicissitudes
changes in circumstance or fortune [Latin vicis change]
vicissitudes npl → vicisitudes fpl; peripecias fpl of victimization and, as a result, provide more effective victim services, thereby facilitating a healthy recovery for crime victims.
The process of identification occurs when one person forms an emotional bond with another. Introjection introjection /in·tro·jec·tion/ (in?trah-jek´shun) a mental mechanism in which the standards and values of other persons or groups are unconsciously and symbolically taken within oneself. then takes place, whereby identifying parties modify their own personalities and physical characteristics in an attempt to imitate the person they are identifying with. (4) Typically motivated by unconscious forces, identifying parties may not recognize the effects that identification has on their actions. (5)
Examples of identification happen every day, especially in children and teenagers. Little boys wear toy guns and badges to emulate their police officer fathers. Young girls don their mothers' jewelry and makeup to look like them. Teenagers often dress in the same type of clothes and speak in the same manner to identify with their social groups.
Identification with Aggressors
By identifying with their aggressors, assuming their attributes, and imitating their aggression, crime victims cognitively transform them-selves from the people threatened into those making the threat. (6) This mental transformation allows the victim to achieve some feeling of strength in an otherwise humiliating hu·mil·i·ate
tr.v. hu·mil·i·at·ed, hu·mil·i·at·ing, hu·mil·i·ates
To lower the pride, dignity, or self-respect of. See Synonyms at degrade. situation. In short, when an aggressor sticks a gun in a person's face or kidnaps someone at knifepoint knife·point
The sharp end of a knife.
Under threat of being stabbed or cut with a knife: was mugged at knifepoint. , often the victim's only chance for survival is to join the aggressor emotionally, as well as physically. Anything short of total cooperation likely will result in death.
In addition to its cognitive utility, identification with the aggressor serves an important, external function. With this defense mechanism, victims make an intuitive prediction regarding their aggressors' reactions to the bond. (7) Instinctively, victims know that if they appease their aggressors, their chances of survival increase. Aggressors assured that they are "right" or whose controlling ideations are bolstered by the companionship of submissive victims will less likely dispose of this "positive" reinforcement. In this way, the victim's identification has somewhat of a controlling effect on the aggressor. Intuitively, the victim has outsmarted the aggressor.
From a causal perspective, some theorize the·o·rize
v. the·o·rized, the·o·riz·ing, the·o·riz·es
To formulate theories or a theory; speculate.
To propose a theory about. that identification with the aggressor results from the victim's appreciation for being allowed to live. When abductors threaten to kill victims, they establish intense fear in their captives. However, when abductors change their minds and begin to show compassion, their victims feel gratitude toward them. (8)
Karl Hettinger's troubling postvictimization behavior represents one well-known illustration of how crime victims identify with their aggressors. History is full of examples of how otherwise law-abiding victims bonded with their aggressors and subsequently went on to participate in, or cooperate with, criminal conduct.
When Adolf Hitler and other leaders of the Nazi regime implemented policies calling for mass genocide during the 1930s and 1940s, they recruited unlikely participants to carry out their murderous plans in the concentration camps. As a result, many of Germany's doctors were transformed from humanistic healers to coldblooded torturers and killers. Under the threat of their violent leaders, whether actual or implied, these educated and accomplished concentration camp doctors came to justify their crude and pointless human experiments as being necessary under the current conditions, just as Nazi policies proclaimed. (9)
In 1973, a bungled bun·gle
v. bun·gled, bun·gling, bun·gles
To work or act ineptly or inefficiently.
To handle badly; botch. See Synonyms at botch.
n. bank robbery The examples and perspective in this article or section may not represent a worldwide view of the subject.
Please [ improve this article] or discuss the issue on the talk page.
Bank robbery is the crime of robbing a bank. in Stockholm, Sweden, resulted in a prolonged hostage situation. As time wore on, the hostages became impatient and frustrated. As a result, they identified with their captors and eventually came to assist them against the police. This case prompted the term Stockholm syndrome Stockholm Syndrome Definition
Stockholm syndrome refers to a group of psychological symptoms that occur in some persons in a captive or hostage situation. . (10)
In what probably represents the most well-known case of identification with the aggressor, Patty Hearst was kidnapped, kept blindfolded blind·fold
tr.v. blind·fold·ed, blind·fold·ing, blind·folds
1. To cover the eyes of with or as if with a bandage.
2. To prevent from seeing and especially from comprehending.
1. and nude in a closet for several months, sexually assaulted, and deprived of food and sleep. Eventually, her abductors freed her from her confines and began to show her compassion. (11) When they did, she joined their bank-robbing escapades. Accounts of Hearst committing bank robberies seemed to portray a young woman who enjoyed her crimes as she acted under her own free will.
Many wonder why people caught up in such situations as these did not attempt to flee their captors. This mentality reflects a pervasive lack of knowledge regarding the subjective experience of crime victims. This insensibility in·sen·si·ble
a. Imperceptible; inappreciable: an insensible change in temperature.
b. Very small or gradual: insensible movement. , in turn, serves to revictimize the victim. Members of the law enforcement community, as well as society as a whole, must realize that the experience of being a crime victim creates a complex, long-lasting effect on the person's cognitive processes Cognitive processes
Thought processes (i.e., reasoning, perception, judgment, memory).
Mentioned in: Psychosocial Disorders . Moreover, these effects are not easily understood.
Long-Term Effects and Future Considerations
In its mildest form, identification with the aggressor is a healthy defense mechanism. It allows people to adjust to threatening situations. For example, a little girl afraid to walk down the dark hallway of her house for fear of meeting a ghost may solve the problem by "booing" her way along the corridor. (12)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, identification with the aggressor may lead to antisocial antisocial /an·ti·so·cial/ (-so´sh'l)
1. denoting behavior that violates the rights of others, societal mores, or the law.
2. denoting the specific personality traits seen in antisocial personality disorder. or "psychopathic psy·cho·path·ic
1. Of, relating to, or characterized by psychopathy.
2. Relating to or affected with an antisocial personality disorder that is usually characterized by aggressive, perverted, criminal, or amoral behavior. " behavior. Although especially true with continuous victimization over a long period of time beginning in early childhood, (13) a single life-threatening experience may be enough. Such was the case with Karl Hettinger. Obviously, identifying with an aggressor during victimization creates long-term psychological and personality changes likely to last well after the aggressor has relinquished control. Sadly, many crime victims, despite treatment by competent professionals, remain psychologically disabled. (14)
Coupled with identification with the aggressor, a traumatic experience also may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mental disorder that follows an occurrence of extreme psychological stress, such as that encountered in war or resulting from violence, childhood abuse, sexual abuse, or serious accident. (PTSD PTSD posttraumatic stress disorder.
posttraumatic stress disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) ). In turn, the victim may experience amnesia, depression, or suicidal tendencies, all of which are by-products of PTSD. Overall, the traumatic threat imposed on an unwilling victim by an aggressor can produce multiple cognitive and behavioral abnormalities for the rest of that person's life. (15)
This does not bode well for law enforcement officers, prosecutors, or therapists working with crime victims who have identified with their aggressors. In situations where antisocial behavior has resulted, the intrapsychic intrapsychic /in·tra·psy·chic/ (-si´kik) arising, occurring, or situated within the mind.
Existing or taking place within the mind or psyche. identification between the victim and the aggressor can be so intense that the victim actually will project the aggression onto those trying to help. (16) This results in an angry, difficult victim who resists change.
However, this does not mean that no hope exists. Rather, just as no one can force a physical wound to heal quickly, no one can force a psychological wound to heal either. In both cases, a person has to flow with the healing process, not fight it. (17)
What often is overlooked is that the healing process begins with the first law enforcement officer to make contact with the victim. Soon after, the victim likely will encounter other officers, detectives, paramedics, nurses, physicians, family members, prosecutors, judges, jurors, and therapists, to name a few. By not judging the victim by how they think that they would have acted in the situation, these professionals can resist the natural, often subconscious, tendency to blame the victim.
The process of identifying with their aggressors is a real, instinctive phenomenon that crime victims often experience. No one should scrutinize or judge the subjective, complex reactions of victims of violent crime because history has shown that this defense mechanism has played a role in saving the lives of countless victims.
Instead, people should come to accept what they already know--a traumatic experience produces an extreme response. Understanding this, law enforcement officers and others coming into contact with victims of violent crime can help these individuals begin the long road to healing, as opposed to exacerbating the problem by revictimizing them. A victim's seemingly odd reaction to the trauma directly results from the fact that the person had no choice but to adopt this form of behavior. Keeping this foremost in mind will serve the public and, most important, crime victims well.
(1) Joseph Wambaugh Joseph Aloysius Wambaugh, Jr. (born January 22, 1937, in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) is an American writer known for his fictional and non-fictional accounts of police work in the United States.
The son of a police officer, Wambaugh joined the U.S. , The Onion Field (New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of , NY: Dell Publishing, 1973), 347.
(2) Michael J. Scott and Stephen G. Stradling, Counseling for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Thousand Oaks Thousand Oaks, residential city (1990 pop. 104,352), Ventura co., S Calif., in a farm area; inc. 1964. Avocados, citrus, vegetables, strawberries, and nursery products are grown. , CA: Sage Publications, 1992).
(3) Anna Freud, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, vol. 2 (Madison. CT: International Universities Press, Inc., 1966).
(4) Nandor Fodor and Frank Gaynor, eds., Freud: A Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, 1958).
(5) Robert B. Ewen, An Introduction to Theories of Personality, 3d ed. (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1988), 37.
(6) Supra A relational DBMS from Cincom Systems, Inc., Cincinnati, OH (www.cincom.com) that runs on IBM mainframes and VAXs. It includes a query language and a program that automates the database design process. note 3, 113.
(7) For additional information on the intuitive ability to predict violence, see Gavin De Becker Gavin de Becker (born October 26 1954)  is an American specialist in security issues, especially for governments, corporations, and celebrities.
He is designer of the MOSAIC Threat Assessment Systems used to screen threats to Justices of the Supreme Court of , The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 1997).
(8) Vincent J. Schodolski and V. Dion Haynes, "Captive Girl's Actions Hint at Brainwashing brainwashing
Systematic effort to destroy an individual's former loyalties and beliefs and to substitute loyalty to a new ideology or power. It has been used by religious cults as well as by radical political groups. ," Easton (PA) The Express-Times, March 16, 2003.
(9) Robert Jay Lifton Robert Jay Lifton, M.D. (born May 16, 1926) is an American psychiatrist and author, chiefly known for his studies of the psychological causes and effects of war and political violence and for his theory of thought reform. He was an early proponent of the techniques of psychohistory. , The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1986).
(10) John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit (New York, NY: Pocket Star Books, 1995), 82.
(11) Supra note 8, sec. A, p. 4.
(12) Christopher F. Monte, Beneath the Mask: An Introduction to Theories of Personality, 5th ed. (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1995), 201.
(13) J. Reid Meloy, The Psychopathic Mind: Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1988).
(14) Shelley Neiderbach, Invisible Wounds: Crime Victims Speak (Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press, 1986).
(15) Supra note 2.
(16) Supra note 13, 52-53.
(17) Supra note 2.
By RYAN E. MELSKY, M.A., J.D.