Blaming the Victim

Considering how we can blame our children when they don't flourish under our care, we may get new insight into the dynamics of blaming the victim in other realms.

My teenage son got sick with a little fever and cough. At first I thought it would pass in a day or two, but the cough lingered. So I went into action, putting energy into soups, soothing hot teas, trips to the drug store for cough drops. When over a week had passed and he was still victim to great persistent racking coughs, I noticed that I was no longer so patient in trying to help him with it. As a matter of fact, I was getting mad. What was wrong with him that he still had this cough? Why wasn't he taking better care of himself? Why did he keep on with this attention-grabbing coughing when he knew full well that I'd done the best I could to help him? It was an affront to my caring and love!

As I considered the manifest irrationality of this response, it reminded me of how often we get mad at people for things that are not their fault. In particular, we get mad at people that we love for not flourishing in that love, or, even worse, for being affected by our imperfections. Seeing them hurting because of something that we have done, or failed to do, is so galling. And since they're the ones who evoke that feeling in us, they are the ones who often receive the brunt of it.

Now I had not gotten to the point of abusing my son for his cough, but I was headed in that direction. And it brought to mind a puzzle that has been in the back of my mind for months. Much has been said about the challenge--or questionable wisdom--of forgiving abusers. But what about abusers forgiving their victims? Now this may seem like a totally perverted notion. How could an abusive person possibly think that any wrong has been done to him by the victim of his actions? I think the key lies in the fact that, at heart, people don't want to hurt other people. It's not our natural state. And those of us who find ourselves in that role are not at ease there. In order to maintain our balance in that state, we need to find something, or more commonly someone, else to blame.

I can't forgive my son for still coughing after I tried so hard to help him. I want to shake him to make him stop. A husband can't forgive his wife for letting him treat her so badly. She has forced him to show his worst side. It makes him angry, and she is the one he vents that anger on. A mother is hard on a child she loves. The bruises that result are a humiliating reminder of a loss of control. They are an affront to her real nature. They make her mad, ready to strike out at this ugly reflection of herself. It is helpful to me to get a better handle on this dynamic, to be able to make some sense out of such a totally irrational assignment of blame.

Of course, understanding how a person could come to act that way does not make the action acceptable. In the case of our relationships with our children, even though they are wonderfully generous in forgiving our many faults, we clearly need to take complete responsibility. Its our role to see what sets us up to blame the victim, and deal with our outrage in some other way or place. We can also arm them against abuse, even when it comes from us. We can let them know that they never, ever deserve it. We can give them all the information we have about what causes us to lash out and how they might avoid it. We can even give them the phone number of another adult that they can call for help if we're getting hard on them.

We can also recognize the places where we are vulnerable to abuse--from spouses, employers, relatives--and practice stepping out of the victim role ourselves. If we can learn to model not accepting abuse, totally confident that we do not deserve it, ever, under any circumstances, we will be doing a great service to ourselves, to our children, who watch us with hawk eyes, and to past or potential abusers, so that there will be no victims for them to blame.