Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Aren't Being Fooled (8 page)

BOOK: Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Aren't Being Fooled
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Bystanders' betrayal blindness may be a fundamental factor in what has been called “psychic numbing” to horrific events such as genocide. In these cases, the bystanders risk their own well-being in society if they dare to be fully aware of the mistreatment. An example of this sort of bystander betrayal blindness may be found in the
Vel' d'Hiv
Roundup, also known as the French Roundup.


Not far from the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the
Vélodrome d'Hiver
was a large indoor cycle track. In July 1942, the velodrome was used in a most terrible way. French police, under Nazi occupation and order, arrested thousands of Jewish citizens, particularly women and children, and brought them to the velodrome as prisoners, simply for being Jewish. These individuals were eventually transported to Auschwitz, where most of them were killed. This horrific event is notable for being both orchestrated and implemented by French police, rather than by Nazi officials, and for the massive forgetting that seemed to happen around the event. Even today, many people would be astonished to learn that many of those killed in Auschwitz were French citizens who were arrested by their own countrymen.
Eventually, and more recently, certain citizen groups have demanded that this event be acknowledged. In Paris, one can now find plaques commemorating the victims, but there was a time when the official French position was largely to deny accountability. Finally, in July 1995, then president Jacques Chirac ruled that it was necessary for France to be accountable for the role it had played in victimizing Jews and others during the German occupation:


These black hours will stain our history forever and are an injury to our past and our traditions. Yes, the criminal madness of the occupant was assisted by the French, by the French state. Fifty-three years ago, on 16 July 1942, 450 policemen and gendarmes, French, under the authority of their leaders, obeyed the demands of the Nazis. That day, in the capital and the Paris region, nearly 10,000 Jewish men, women and children were arrested at home, in the early hours of the morning, and assembled at police stations. . . . France, home of the Enlightenment and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, land of welcome and asylum, France committed that day the irreparable. Breaking its word, it delivered those it protected to their executioners.


The levels of betrayal here are extraordinary, of course, but so are the levels of betrayal blindness. It is good to know that in recent years, more light has been shed on these terrible betrayals. In chapters 10 and 11, we discuss the risk and the healing power of removing blinders, of being aware of past betrayals.




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Why Blindness?


Betrayal can be deeply traumatic, but we don't usually think of betrayals when we think of
. We all know about war, earthquakes, tsunamis, and car accidents, and often we assume that this is what trauma is. We so often miss the trauma of betrayal and its effects. Some betrayals are fairly mundane, but many betrayals are traumatic events in their own right. For instance, child abuse committed by a parent, rape perpetrated by a partner, or societal events such as the Holocaust are both betrayals
traumatic events. We call these events
betrayal traumas


Jennifer Freyd first developed betrayal trauma theory in the early 1990s to make sense of one particular puzzle:
would some people forget traumas that happened to them? Let's consider the case of Hendrik Janssen, an accomplished physician, who told us about forgetting a major trauma—his experience of being sexually abused as a child by his minister.


Hendrik wrote to us:


I was sexually abused by a minister when I was in the age range of six to eight. It was not something I ever recall having a conscious memory of until I was an adult. Over the years, I did frequently remember getting sick when I went to church, but I never knew why. I first sought help for a worsening depression in 1990 during my residency. I was undergoing therapy at the time the memories started coming—seeing a therapist about once a week. At the time, I also took a seminar with a group of about 20 other people over about four separate weekends. During that group, there was a lot of discussion about people's pasts, and so on. It was in this group setting when everyone was individually sharing their past experiences (some painful) that I first started having the memories. The group was the first people that I told. The general memory that I was sexually abused by a male figure came back immediately—I knew right away I was remembering being sexually abused by a male. I think at that point, though, there was still a lot of denial on my part. The details around the abuse—when it happened, what all he did, where it happened, number of times, who knew—all came back in bits and pieces. As I continued to talk about it more and started discussing it with my family, I would remember more things. Some of the memories were confusing at first—came back more like pieces of puzzle, bits of memory that I wasn't always sure at the start of where it fit with the rest of the memories. Once I started talking about it, some of the memories came back, much like any memory—talking about, going back to where it happened—triggered more memories. Most all of these pieces would just come back to my mind as was thinking about what happened/journaling—then would go back and share/discuss it more with my therapist.


Hendrik also explained,


When these memories started to surface, I did go back and do a lot of things. This minister was then deceased but was apparently discharged from the church (secretly discharged) for abusing his grandchildren, which he apparently admitted at that time. Since then, I have found there are several victims—mostly all from his own family. For several reasons, including learning that one of their leaders had knowledge of my abuse, I did pursue a civil suit against this church and won the suit. We really found quite a lot of supporting information.


There was indeed strong corroboration of Hendrik's memories of his childhood sexual abuse. During the legal proceedings, Hendrik introduced various types of compelling evidence, including testimony that the minister had sexually abused his grandson and eyewitness testimony to one of the incidents of sexual abuse of Hendrik himself.


What happened to Hendrik was a terrible trauma. It was also a huge betrayal. We wondered about his family context. Perhaps that would help us better understand his story. We asked Hendrik, “Do you remember your relationship with your parents and family members when you were six to eight years old? What sort of parents and family did you have?”


Hendrik responded,


There were seven children in my family, twenty-year age difference from oldest to youngest. I am the third to the youngest. We grew up on a farm—Father was very busy trying to make ends meet. My mother had recurring problems with depression for much of her life as I was growing up as a child. She spent a couple spans of several months hospitalized for this depression and some smaller periods as well. The longer spans occurred prior to my abuse (the minister had knowledge of when she was hospitalized). As children, we were always concerned about her health/well-being. During my six- to eight-year-old period, I was concerned about my mother's well-being. We had a fairly good relationship, but at times I felt more like a caretaker for her, instead of vice versa.


My father was generally very quiet, and overall, we didn't communicate about our problems or what was going on with us. He would often get very quiet and not talk for few days—I thought then that he was angry during these times. He never hurt me directly, and generally he was always good to me. He did, though, sexually abuse/hurt some of my sisters to varying degrees (in the same general time period)—part of which I had some knowledge of as a child.


We asked Hendrik to tell us more about his father's sexual abuse of his sisters.


[With] my sister Patty, it involved only attempted inappropriate touching and did not go any further—he attempted to remove undergarments. He stopped when she resisted. I did not know about this until this issue was brought up in the family ten years ago. My father has admitted such, and it seems like it was no more than this incident, and my sister Patty has been open about it.


My sister Jane was abused to a much greater degree, involving intercourse. What I knew predated what happened to me by a short time (age ages five to six or so). I think the only thing that I knew at the time was that he hurt her in bed together. My father has admitted to abuse, although not entirely to that degree. I know that it was not an isolated incident and probably occurred mostly when my mother was hospitalized. I do not know for certain when it started or over how long a period of time. I was quite young at the time and really don't remember any specific clues, other than what I mentioned above. I know that she saw a physician, and when she was bit older, I always remember my father being very concerned (overly) she was going to be pregnant—but at the time I thought he was relating to her dating. My oldest sister remembers Jane coming to her saying something about him trying to touch her and that she had gone and talked to him after that incident.


My sister Jane had an eating disorder that started after the abuse ceased (bulimia), which is something I also suffered with for a period.


Hendrik described being sexually abused by someone he had reason to trust: the minister in his church. He also described a family in which sexual abuse was rampant. Hendrik was betrayed by both his church
his family, and for a long time he forgot all of these betrayals.


Betrayal trauma theory was first created to account for massive forgetting and unawareness of this sort. The core idea is that forgetting and unawareness help the abuse victim survive. The theory draws on two facts about our nature as social beings and our dependence and reliance on others. First, we are extremely vulnerable in infancy, which gives rise to a powerful attachment system. Second, we have a constant need to make “social contracts” with other people in order to get our needs met. This has led to the development of a powerful cheater-detector system. These two aspects of our humanity serve us well, but when the person we are dependent on is also the person betraying us, our two standard responses to trouble conflict with each other. To understand this better, let's consider these concepts one by one.


Dependence on the Caregiver and Attachment


Human infants emerge from the womb with almost no ability to fend for themselves. If you think about almost any other animal at birth, you'll appreciate how relatively helpless the human baby is. Although the human baby gradually acquires various skills that can aid survival, this maturation process takes a very long time. In fact, human infants are almost entirely dependent on adult caregivers for months, and after that they remain very dependent for years. This long period of dependence is possible in part because of our highly inbred attachment system. The
attachment system
is the name researchers have given to all of the various processes that together ensure that babies love their caregivers and that caregivers love their babies. This includes the smiling and cooing sounds a baby makes, the desire to hold and be held, the pleasure in the scents of a baby, and so on.


It is important to realize that both the caregiver and the baby have attachment systems—that the relationship is reciprocal, in the sense that attachment depends on both parties behaving in ways to inspire the attachment of the other. If a baby consistently fails to smile or coo or if a young child will not hug or make eye contact, that child is risking not only his or her own attachment to the caregiver, but also the caregiver's attachment to the child. Without caregiver attachment, the baby or the child is at risk of not being cared for, and this means at risk of dying. This is a crucial point, because it means that the baby and the child have an essential “job”—to attach to a caregiver and thus promote the caregiver's attachment and care. Attachment is essential when there is dependence. Humans are often dependent on others, even after infancy and childhood. As we will see, this attachment system and the need to maintain relationships, even in adulthood, drive our blindness to the betrayal of people who are important to us.


Social Contracts, Trust, and Cheater Detectors


In addition to being dependent on one another for caregiving, we are interdependent in another sense: we make deals with one another constantly. These deals have been called “social contracts,” and they include everything from explicit major contracts, such as marriage, to much more mundane everyday agreements that occur when I give you half of a sandwich in return for half of your piece of pie. We exchange goods, we exchange work, we trade, we barter, and we are constantly making cost-benefit negotiations. This extremely high number of social contracts is at the heart of what makes us such social creatures. Our most intimate relationships are no exception to this. In fact, in close relationships we have some of our most important social contracts: you keep my secrets and I keep yours; you remain faithful to me and I to you; and so on.


Social contracts depend on trust. This is particularly the case whenever there is a time discrepancy between the agreement and the resolution of it. I agree to keep your secret—that is an agreement about time. I agree to send you a check after you provide some service—that is an agreement that takes place over time. When an agreement is made at one point in time but can be completed only at another point, trust is required.


Whenever there is a social contract, and especially one depending on trust, there is also the opportunity for a violation of that contract. In other words, for every deal we make, there is the chance we can get cheated. With every social contract, we risk betrayal. When there is betrayal, the pain of that betrayal is highest in close relationships that depend on mutual trust for their maintenance.


Because we can be cheated in social contracts, we have developed—through evolutionary history and our individual life experiences—the ability to expertly detect cheating in others. In fact, we are so good at detecting cheating that evolutionary psychologists have come up with the term
cheater detectors
to describe our specialized skills. A series of research studies conducted in the 1990s by evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby demonstrated that humans can reason about violations of social contracts—that is, cheating—at a much more rapid rate and at a more accurate level than they can reason about other sorts of problems that involve the same reasoning logic.


The exquisite ability we have to detect cheaters is a very important survival skill because it means that we can reduce the probability of getting cheated. Most of the time, when we realize we have been betrayed or cheated, we also have a strong emotional reaction—a very negative reaction that washes over us, like the free fall or disorientation described in previous chapters. This sort of predictable strong emotional reaction in response to a thought or a perception is the hallmark of a highly important process—the strong reaction motivates our behavior. If we experience cheating or betrayal, we typically take one of two actions. One action is to confront. The other action is to withdraw. Either action may protect us from the harm of cheating. For instance, if you are cheated by a friend, you can confront the friend and demand that the situation be corrected, or you can withdraw from that relationship and protect yourself from future harm.


Betrayal Blindness When Attachment and Cheater Detectors Collide

BOOK: Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Aren't Being Fooled
5.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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