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09/10/2004 Archived Entry: "Definition of victim"

A friend from my life in Los Angeles - which sometimes seems to be more than a life ago - wrote to me about my last entry on "Victimization." He commented, "One of my favorite film directors is Akira Kurosowa. When he was near the end of his life, somebody asked him what his films were about. He replied, why are we so mean to one another? The next obvious question to ask is; given the prevailing cruelty, what can be done about it?" That's a simple and elegant statement of the questions I'm determined to answer for myself.

I cannot go far into investigating any subject without realizing how lucky I am. (And, no, for once I'm not talking about my husband Brad.) I have strayed far from the straight-and-narrow of Objectivism in terms of political theory but, in most fundamental ways, I adhere as much today as ever to its philosophical positions, e.g. on epistemology (the theory of how we acquire knowledge). I was lucky to have stumbled across Ayn Rand's novel "We the Living" when I was fifteen years old. And even luckier to meet a man named Ed Paige who shaped my later teen years by playing me tapes from the Nathaniel Branden Institute, especially Barbara Branden's "Efficient Thinking" course. Ed played them repeatedly for me so I could make copious notes that I studied later on in solitude. I was very serious about becoming an A+ Student of Objectivism, as Rand's fans were called back then. I shake my head now about what a serious little thing I was then.

A lesson that stuck...always begin any intellectual process by defining your terms. (At 16, I was fond of pompously quoting Nathaniel Branden's statement, `Definitions give you the inestimable benefit of knowing what you are talking about.') So what is the definition of "a victim?"

A victim is someone who is harmed without deserving it. For the purposes of my discussion, a victim is someone who is deliberately harmed by another human being without deserving it and, so, is distinguished from those harmed by natural disasters, like hurricanes, by sheer accident, or through masochistic request.

I think there are two broad categories into which victims fall: those who bear no responsibility for the harm done to them; and, those who must share some responsibility. In the first category, I would place children, rape victims (female or male) and others who experience any isolated incident of violence or any sustained violence in circumstances where there is no opportunity to escape. Such individuals are not harmed through their own choices. Even if a woman or man drank to excess before a sexual assault - which is an example often cited to place some responsibility on the shoulders of a rape victim - the inebriated person did not deserve to be raped and bears no responsibility for another person's decision to violate her/him. This is especially true of those victims who act so as to never put themselves in a similar position of vulnerability again. Vulnerability does not mean culpability.

In the second category, I would place victims who accept repeated abuse as a condition of continuing in a situation from which they can leave. The paradigm of such a victim is spouse who chooses to stay in a physically abusive relationship. She/he makes a choice every day of the relationship to stay and I do not take the politically-correct stance of relieving the chronic victim of responsibility of choice. I do not think denying the role played by chronic victims in their own abuse is accurate, healthy or leads to an effective resolution. I believe the only path out of chronic victimhood is to acknowledge both the act of choosing and the power of victims to choose otherwise. I don't say this through a lack of compassion for anyone who is being battered. I've been there; I know the confusion and panic and pain caused by the situation; I know there comes a point when it is difficult to distinguish a closed fist from an act of love. But there is always a choice, even if the choice is an unpleasant one like begging for assistance. Or a small one that moves you a little closer to assuming control, like opening a magazine to read an article about domestic violence or anonymously calling a hotline.

I think part of the reason it has become so unpopular to focus on the fact that ongoing victims decide to accept their abuse is because, to some, it seems tantamount to saying they deserve the abuse and, so, are not victims at all. I do not equate the two statements. No one deserves to be beaten. The person wielding the fist doesn't escape criminal blame so easily. Just as the rape victim who gets drunk doesn't deserve to be raped, neither does the wife or husband who feels impelled to accept abuse - for whatever reason -- deserve to be battered again. The distinction I make between the two categories of victims merely points to a fundamental difference in the dynamics of the undeserved harm being inflicted. It is a difference that is the key to finding a way out of ongoing abuse: namely, the role an ongoing victim plays in making the choice to stay, over and over again.

People accept ongoing abuse for a wide variety of reasons, and some reasons are far more compelling than others. For example, women who have young children and no means to support them, victims who validly fear for their lives if they leave...it is difficult to look on such people and not have your heart break. The cost of leaving is so high that you understand why they feel there is no real choice. And, then, there are people like me. I stayed too long in an abusive relationship...tho', in fairness, the physical abuse did not occur throughout. I had no children, I have always supported myself, I did not fear physical retaliation for leaving. Without excusing the perpetrator one whit, I think it is more difficult to feel sympathy toward my choice to stay than toward that of some other victims of domestic violence. And, yet, the reasons I stayed probably play a factor in almost all cases of ongoing abuse. I do not think I am unusual.

Tomorrow I'll try to untangle my reasons in a way that makes sense.

Best to all,

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