Intimate Torturers

This post is part of CTC’s Reflections from our Clinicians series. These series consists of blogs written in the first person narrative, meant to reflect our values of independence while ensuring a broader diversity of topics, styles and opinions.

The recent shooting in Texas is generating conversations regarding mental health, gun control and domestic violence. President Trump’s statement about the shooting and his quick link and blame to mental health issues, rather than domestic violence is not surprising from a man who embodies misogyny. Having counseled both domestic violence survivors and abusers, I can say that domestic violence is not a mental health problem, it’s a cultural problem. Men (as in most cases the perpetrators are men) do not abuse women because of some unexplained mental health disorder, but because they are taught through culture, and society, that women are less than them, that women are Objects/property, and that they can and should be controlled. President Trump whose anti-choice pussy-grabbing woman-hater statements are all over the news, is a clear example of this.

It is my hope that the recent tragedy in Texas will facilitate conversations about domestic violence and also about gun control, power and aggression, as well as access to psychotherapy and the problems with managed care. At this time, we know that the shooter (who I consciously chose not to name throughout this essay) had a history of domestic violence, as well as a history of aggression, and that at some point he was receiving some type of mental health services from an institution that he escaped/fled. Based on this current information, it is easy and simple, to blame the incident on mental health issues. However, events such as these are never simple. Researched coupled with my experience as a psychotherapist, shows that folks with mental health issues are not more violent, or more prone to violence than the general population. I caution against correlating mental illness with violence so quickly, as the connection is not apparent or simple. Worse, connecting metal illness with violence further stigmatizes mental illness, and discourages people who need services from acquiring them.

I started in this field by studying Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), with a particular interest in torture. Early on in my career this focus was on political and religious persecutions, however with time, I slowly realized that the most horrific atrocities and torture does not occur in the public sphere but in private ones, in our homes. It is easier to understand political and religious motivated torture than personal torture. Psychologically it seems more logical, easier to work through the process and to heal from political or state sanctioned torture, than it is from torture suffered at the hands of a parent or a loved one. As a result, my focus and interests shifted towards issues such as: domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse, and family violence to name but a few.

Terrorism is politically motivated violence meant to control the behavior of others, and domestic violence is motivated violence and manipulation intended to control and scare anOther. Abusers are terrorists in their own homes, lashing out violently against their partners, children and/or other family members systematically and periodically, in order to control them and to exert power over them. This controlling behavior, similar to political torture is motivated by ideology, by rigid ideas such as gender roles, femininity, autonomy and power.

As the recent report released by Everytown.org shows, domestic violence perpetrators share qualities with terrorists, namely: they are willing to die for their beliefs. Further, much in line with terrorists, in 56% of cases of domestic violence related mass murder, the killer committed suicide. These are men (and, yes, mostly men ) who chose their last few moments on earth to be an act of anger, and a display of power and control over people who, at some point, had loved them. These men are also victims of a society that teaches boys to dominate and control and teaches girls that they are the weaker sex. Domestic violence is not inevitable or a mental health problem, it comes from cultural attitudes and messages.

The shooting in Texas, also offers us an opportunity to reflect on mental health issues, since it seems that the shooter also had a history of mental health problems. Although we do not know the shooter’s mental health diagnosis we know that he was receiving some services at some point. This shooting can be a small example of the need for more affordable and comprehensive mental health services. The gatekeepers – insurance companies — are often more eager to cover medication than talk therapy, however we know that medication alone does not work. Worse, in some cases insurance companies decide to terminate payment for treatment based on the amount of session or time, rather than the patient’s well-being. For others, who lack health insurance there are even fewer options if/when they need mental health services but cannot pay for them.

Lastly, we as a nation need to be mindful that the personal will always be political, meaning this tragedy and the shooter is a product of our times. We live in a war culture that promotes violence and competition. Through movies, video games, narratives of war and destruction, our access to weapons, our ideology reflects a discourse of aggression. Whether we publicly talk about hunting terrorists, or claim that we strongly believe in the competition of the market, or that women need to be controlled, we promote discourses of domination and subjugation. Not surprisingly the shooter also at some point joined the military, another institution that adheres to strict rules and admires the powerful. In this world view, one is either attacked or attacks. Although we do not know or understand the shooter’s motives for the shooting, we can see how he is a product of a society that reveres the strong and punishes the weak. The time has come to change this!