The Myth of the But-There's-No-Way Abuser

Another day, another famous person accused of abuse or assault.  And with it, yet another wave begins of victim-blaming and denials from fans and people who know the person being accused of abuse personally or professionally.

We've been here before, so many times. We're all familiar with the kinds of things that will be said about the person who suffered the abuse and the person accused of doing the abusing. There will be a ton of victim-blaming, as well as accusations made that the victim is not really a victim, no matter what they do, including when they've -- as they have in this case -- done all the things people tell victims they should do: documenting the abuse and its impacts, telling friends or family, asking for help, involving the justice system. Because celebrities are involved, much of the reporting will be tabloid, with all the cruel, shallow insensitivity and complete lack of journalistic standards that are hallmarks of tabloid reporting.

There will also be overt or covert statements that the person accused of abuse just couldn't possibly have been abusive because they're so sweet, so kind, so gentle.  While, yes, of course, others have been abusive, it will be said that this person just couldn't possibly be abusive; something that's been said by at least one person, and often far more than one, about every single person who has ever been abusive. Pretty much every person ever who has been abusive has had at least someone who intensely denied that they possibly could have been, even when it's as clear as clear gets that they've engaged in abuse. There will probably be statements coming from previous partners about how this person didn't abuse them, so there's just no way that they possibly abused someone else.

Except that it is possible. And there is always a way.

Because it is always possible, for anyone on earth, to abuse.

We don't need to talk about or know for sure whether Depp, or anyone else, actually did or didn't abuse, to simply acknowledge that of course Johnny Depp could have abused Amber Heard, because anyone, any of us, could abuse someone else. There's no impossibility here, ever, not for anyone, no matter how liked or loved, no matter how impossible or improbable it may seem.

Just like anyone could suffer abuse, anyone -- including you and me -- could abuse someone else, whether we've done it before or haven't, whether we are or we seem sweet and gentle and kind in other ways or with other people or not.  Just like we can all potentially interact with others in emotionally healthy and safe ways, we can all potentially be abusive unless we choose not to be and put a constant, active and intentional effort into doing all we can to make our interactions and relationships with other people safe and emotionally healthy.

Being abusive or not is rarely automatic nor outside of our control. It's not some kind of lottery we win or lose at birth, where we're just "born that way," or we aren't. It's something we learn to do -- either very directly, like from our families, or less directly, like from our culture -- or learn not to do, then something we choose to do, or choose not to do. Setting aside the influence of certain severe and uncommon personality or impulse disorders, which are not issues for the majority of people who abuse others, it's something we learn to do or learn not to do -- it's always a choice we all have the ability and capacity to make.

One of the things that drives victim-blaming -- which always hurts and further marginalizes all victims and survivors, and creates serious barriers to victim's rights and to abuse prevention -- is the belief that we're not all vulnerable to abuse. Many people believe that someone who has been abused was because they did or didn't do something, something that if we all do or don't do, will absolutely protect us from ever being abused.  Many people still believe that abuse isn't something that happens only because someone chooses to abuse, but because of something someone who has been abused did or didn't do: many people still believe that abuse happening isn't about who does it, but about who it's done to.

By all means, how likely we are or aren't to be abused in some way (if we haven't been already, as so many of us have: in fact, in the United States alone, before around 50% of people even get through their teens, they'll have experienced some form of abuse) varies, mostly based on how much or how little agency we have in the world and our relationships rather than on the kinds of things people like to trot out when they're victim-blaming. But ultimately, any of us could be victims of abuse at some time in our lives.

That's a hard truth; a terrible truth.  It's something many people, understandably, just don't want to accept. Setting aside the desire to deny that reality to excuse abuse, which is also a big factor with this, many people don't want to accept it because it is just scary as hell. It makes us all feel less safe in and less certain about our lives, our relationships and our world.

But it seems like the even harder truth to accept is that ultimately, any of us could also abuse. Any of us could be abusive, including people we like, love or admire. Just like no one is immune from being abused, no one is immune from being abusive. If only.

Until we can all get on board and accept both of those awful truths, we can barely even get started doing all that all of us can to turn the still all-too-common tide of abuse around. One of the big reasons we're seeing such a slow change in turning abuse around, despite some deeply dedicated efforts to do so, is that still-so-common cultural denial of both those truths stands in the way, a denial that only gets more entrenched the more people keep doing it. Until we all at least accept these realities, and then start working from there, abuse is going to remain common, and an awful lot of people are going to continue to be the collateral damage of our personal or cultural denials.

I get how hard it is to accept that anyone we like, we love, we look up to, we trust could be or could have been abusive. I really do. In fact, anyone who has suffered any kind of abuse has most often suffered it not from strangers, but at the hands of someone they liked, loved, looked up to or trusted, and so we really get it, more than anyone who hasn't themselves been abused ever possibly could. It's a giant and a horrible betrayal. No one wants to have been betrayed, whether they're someone being abused or who has been abused or someone on the outside of that abuse with an emotional stake in the person who's done the abusing. No one wants to believe that anyone we think or thought we could trust may choose to hurt us or others.

This really is the worst, but if you haven't already, you will know or know of someone who has abused or does abuse and who you didn't think could or would. Chances are pretty good you already do, whether that's someone famous whose movies you watch or whose music you listen to, someone you aren't close to, but know or know of in your community, or a friend, partner or family member you do know or have known very well. If someone manages to go through a whole life and come to the end of it thinking they didn't’t know or know of and like, or even love, ANYONE who abused someone else then either they just didn't find out about it, or, and more likely, they'll have been in denial as deep as the Pacific Ocean. It’s not so much if someone abusive is going to be in our worlds -- or even our personal lives -- as when.

Whether that has already happened for you or it's down the road in the future, chances good are you or others will be surprised, shocked and in disbelief, and will have or have had the impression that someone who abused just didn't possibly seem like the kind of person who could do that because they seemed, to you, to be so sweet, so kind, so gentle.

Here's the thing about that: if people who abused didn't seem like they weren't or couldn't be abusive to most people most of the time, there would be a LOT less abuse in the world.  After all, if we could all see the abusive people coming so easily, it’d be a lot harder for them to find people to abuse in the first place and a lot harder to find people to enable their abuse and protect them rather than those they've hurt or are hurting. One of the things people who abuse others usually learn is to hide that behavior from others well; to show the world and most people they encounter in it a very different person, and very different behavior, than the person and behavior those they abuse will, once the abuse starts, see, know and experience.

If we want to prevent abuse, and see rates of abuse turn around much faster than they have been, we have to talk about and start to figure out how to best deal with people who have, do or will abuse, in our lives and world, and to figure out how we’re going to interact with those people in ways that don't enable abuse, and don't endanger those they have abused, do abuse or will abuse, but either prevent that abuse or stop it. To even start doing all of that, we have to at least first acknowledge they exist and they are already or will be some part of all of our lives. We all have to at least accept, hard as it is, that anyone -- including ourselves -- could abuse. And to assure we interact with people in ways that are emotionally healthy and safe, rather than abusive, we have to accept that we or others could be abusive, and actively choose and make real efforts not to be.

We can’t prevent abuse -- doing it ourselves, or others doing it -- if we’we've got blinders on about it. We can’t gain a real awareness of if and when we may start to go down that slippery slope ourselves if we don’t know and believe that we -- any one of us, any at all -- could be abusive.

Something we know from abuse within families is that even families steeped in abuse, who have been abusive in some way for generations, can turn into families where there isn't any abuse at all in just a few generations.  When that fantastic outcome happens, it does because someone in the family first gains an awareness that abuse has happened or is happening, accepts it is happening or has happened -- rather than denying it -- and acknowledges it's just not okay. That person also accepts that they, too, could perpetuate that tradition of abuse...and then works, instead, to learn other ways, healthy ways, of interacting and breaks that family cycle of abuse by learning and working to behave differently, behaviors and healthy dynamics their children and other family members then see, experience and can learn, rather than continuing a legacy of abuse.  It's really hard work to unlearn abusive behaviours anyone's seen and known as normal in their families, often for as far back as we can remember, and to learn different ways or behaving.  But it's doable, and there are plenty of us who have done it.

Just a few generations: that's a pretty short and impressive period of time to turn something so complex, hard and still very culturally enabled around. I believe we could see a similar turnaround in our culture if all of us who haven't done it already did the same thing with the abuse so prevalent in our world that those who break the cycle of abuse in their families do.

The first step in breaking any cycle of abuse, whether in our families, our other relationships, or our culture; whether we're victims ourselves or not, abusers ourselves or not, is always to accept, rather than deny, that abuse happens, and it's always possible someone, anyone, even us, could not just be victims of abuse, but could abuse someone else. Until we can at least do that, we really can't even get started with the personal and cultural work and change that will make it much less likely anyone does or will abuse someone else, that anyone is or will be abused, let alone the work and change that could potentially end abuse, full-stop.