Does Loving a Man Imprisoned for Life Make Me Crazy?

A few years ago, I heard on the news about a rape and murder not far from me. I followed the story from that point on, becoming obsessed with it. I wanted to know everything about the case and researched it like crazy when I wasn't working. Well, one weekend, after fighting the urge for a while, I finally decided to write the killer in prison, where he's serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. I was sure my letter would end up in some corrections officer's trash bin. To my shock, though, a few weeks later I got a letter back. It had obviously been seen by someone else before it got to me, but it was explicit in answering my questions. It included details that hadn't been reported before, and while a part of me was uneasy knowing so much about this terrible crime and the man who openly admits he committed it (while on a five-day drug binge), another part of me felt a strange sense of connection, or trust, or what-have-you, with this person who, somewhere along life's journey, went wayward and couldn't find his way back. We continued to exchange letters, and after a number of weeks I asked if I could come visit him at the penitentiary. I have visited him six times since. I know this is going to sound terrible given what he did, but I am in love with him. I know what love is, and I really am in love. I know people think that's crazy. My family does. It might even upset some people. But I believe people deserve a chance at redemption, even when their crimes were heinous. I feel a connection to this man that I have never felt with anyone else. I am not overlooking his crimes and will never identify with why he committed them, but I empathize with and love him, and I genuinely believe he loves me back. Should I deny myself (and him) this chance at happiness because of mistakes he's made that had nothing to do with me? I know it's not everyone's idea of happiness, but we're not talking about everyone here. We're talking about me. Am I as nuts as everyone seems to think I am? —Accidentally in Love
Dear Accidentally in Love,

Thank you for your very honest letter. First, let me say that I do not think there is any such thing as “crazy.” Part of my work as a psychotherapist is to put such apparently “irrational” responses in a context or illumination where they start to make sense and can be understood as part of the human situation. Life is so complex that we often find ourselves driven by concepts or desires that remain unconscious. This is why movies and novels, for instance, can often seem more real than “reality,” since they symbolize or represent the complexity of life and the intensity our unconscious human feelings and desires (to love, conquer evil, what have you). Life, it could be argued, is a kind of waking dream (and sometimes nightmare). “Follow your dream,” the old saying goes. Sigmund Freud, for all his flaws, was on to something when he began the process of exploring the connections between dreams and a person’s conscious and unconscious psychological reality.

Your letter sounds like a kind of dream, or dream state, where you feel some strong, obsessive draw to this man—mysterious, dangerous, yet alluring. I would bet that behind your motivations to connect with this man are very complicated and maybe even contradictory hopes, fears, and longings. Were we ever to meet in my consulting room, I would be interested to know what it was that drew you, what you imagined would happen, and how it was for you when he actually made contact. Further, I would want to know more about how and in what ways you empathize with him. To me, one clue was this idea that he had gone on a wayward path and “couldn’t find his way back.” All this may sound “illogical.” But what of our passionate attractions or dreams is “logical”? How dull would life be if Romeo and Heathcliff and Luke Skywalker and the rest of us decided our loves and passions were, in the end, not all that logical, so let’s just all forget it and watch TV? Of course, the line between passionate love and obsession to the point of harm (to self or others) is extremely gray.

As my mentor George Atwood says, “Saying a person is ‘crazy’ denotes our failure to understand their all-too-human experience.”

One thing that strikes me is your attraction to someone you know only through secondhand accounts (putting his violent acts aside for a moment). The phenomenon of falling in love from afar is by no means a “freakish” occurrence. How many people have fallen for Beyoncé or Johnny Depp just by seeing them onscreen? In your case, there is something about this man that really caught or “hooked” your attention, as a focus of some desire and longing. One person’s violent criminal is another’s misunderstood, lost little boy. You refer to him, again, as “wayward.” Is there the hope that you can help him find his way home? Do you see yourself as that home? If so, what lies behind such hope? The desire to provide and thus have a home of your own? That in the providing may come the receiving?

The drug element also sparked curiosity. How and in what way might you have empathized with him in this regard? Perhaps there has been an addicted loved one in your life, or you have had your own struggles with drugs—whose influence also produces a kind of dream state. This would imply, again, he is a lost or suffering soul who did not mean to hurt someone; he only got lost and acted out of the deepest fear and desperation. There is a classic and archetypal kind of love for the person whom no one else “gets” or understands, meaning that the two of you might have a special, unique kind of attachment. Some may call this “mushy,” but it can appear very real, experientially speaking. Again, Freud—and Carl Jung, too—were on to something when they spoke of the awesome power of unconscious feelings and desires.

Then we come to the violent aspect. Somehow, this did not frighten you off. In fact, it seemed to heighten your curiosity, your obsessive interest. I’d like to know more about your own experiences in life. Have you personally been abused or violently hurt, and if so, longed to connect with the vulnerability behind the person who abused you (represented by this man)? Have you been on the giving end of such an attack, meaning he might really “get” you and vice versa? Did you ever feel violated for your very existence, and long for someone who represents your attacker and who might be able to reveal the vulnerability behind the terrifying aggression? Where others would be horrified and withdraw, you step forward, undaunted. Unusual, but not at all “crazy.”

Is there a lost part of yourself—the inner child, as it were—that feels imprisoned, that you hope to liberate via loving (and/or forgiving, understanding, etc.) someone who can in turn love you back? If so, this might represent a restorative hope or fantasy wherein you reunite with the lost, misunderstood, and shunned part of someone who symbolizes something profound for you and/or parts of yourself also, or parts of someone you loved but never had the chance to fully connect with.

It’s possible the violent side of this man has subsided, but it’s also possible it is only in remission. You may want to think about your own boundaries and safety—not necessarily physical but also emotional and psychological—and reflect upon your draw to this person, as every relationship has the potential for a dark side.

A final point, since the speculations here are endless. For some reason, I thought of the classic “rescue” desire to help someone in jeopardy. It’s interesting to me that you are far more drawn to the perpetrator and not the victim; I got the feeling you saw this man as a victim of sorts. It’s true that some deeds are so violent—and rape and murder are as serious as it gets—that the person disappears behind those deeds and is seen forever as, and only as, a “violent offender.” You, then, have the chance to offer him redemption, a powerful experience, indeed, by which you (possibly) might then feel redeemed.

Someone here might object and say, “Hey, this is all fantasy and none of it is based on reality; how can we claim to know someone from a distance? That’s nonsensical.” Except, as I explained earlier, “reality” is a kind of waking dream. Remember the parable of the blind men and the elephant, where each person touches and feels different parts of the elephant. One might define an elephant as “a tail,” another as “a trunk,” yet another as “a big, floppy ear,” and so on. We live in an era where people have an extremely difficult time agreeing on what reality “is.” (Read political blogs to catch my point in no uncertain terms.)

I offer one word of caution. While it is true that people can find it in their hearts to accept responsibility for bodily harms inflicted on others, express genuine remorse for pains inflicted, a life taken, or make a sincere attempt to become sober (if addiction is in the picture) and seek redemption, all of this is an arduous road requiring diligence and commitment. People with addiction are notoriously impatient, but his story (and yours) sounds likely to be more of an epic than a single, hour-long episode. Often, someone who harms another so violently has personally suffered horrible trauma (usually in childhood) and felt “murdered” or annihilated on a soul level, which explains in part why so many who become sober or find religion describe a process of becoming “reborn.” But healing such early trauma means the sometimes grueling working-through of rage and anger, and the emotional injuries underneath, that sound in this case very real.

It’s possible the violent side of this man has subsided, but it’s also possible it is only in remission. You may want to think about your own boundaries and safety—not necessarily physical but also emotional and psychological—and reflect upon your draw to this person, as every relationship has the potential for a dark side. This is not to second guess yourself, but to look at what part of you might feel imprisoned or hurting, so that you will recognize possible abuse if it happens. The trick of life is to engage with those around us, including those we fall in love with, with an open heart and a watchful set of eyes. There is an old saying from the Middle East: “Keep your eyes toward Heaven, but park your camel.”

Thank you for sending such an honest and intriguing question!

Kind regards,
Darren

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
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  • Olivia

    Olivia

    October 30th, 2015 at 11:07 AM

    But you really don’t have a future that is possible with this person. I know that you are aware of that but will there come a time when you start to resent him for the things that you have had to give up to be together with him?

  • Justin

    Justin

    October 30th, 2015 at 7:31 PM

    Do you think that in some way this has happened because you feel as if you have the need to save someone? And what better person to save is someone who has no chance of ever getting out of prison and in your eyes is so misunderstood?

  • leila

    leila

    October 31st, 2015 at 11:14 AM

    Have you watched Orange is the New Black? They will use you for your money

  • Deb

    Deb

    October 31st, 2015 at 6:21 PM

    I agree with all the points in the response. I also wonder why she has chosen to fall in love with an unavailable man ? Maybe this is comfortable for her . She never really has to “be” with this man in a relationship but she can have “love”. I hope she gets some counseling and really examines her choices before she goes any further with this .

  • thomas

    thomas

    November 2nd, 2015 at 2:21 PM

    Deb I think that you bring up an EXCELLENT point. Maybe this is what she is seeking, being able to love someone but never having to fully commit because he isn’t going to be aorund in her day to day life. She probably doesn’t see it like this at all but I think that if you started to peel away some of her layers you might see that this is a very real possibility in her life. I don’t know, I try not to judge but then again I feel like if you are writing here then you are putting everything out there for a reason, looking for answers. I sure do hope that one day she is able to find what it is that she is looking for, whether it is with this person or not.

  • Ed

    Ed

    November 4th, 2015 at 8:53 AM

    you need to find you someone who can be right here with you right now. You can’t hold out hope for something that you know in your heart of hearts will never be.

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