Axes and Lambs: If You See Something, Say Something

Woman with backpack waiting for trainLast month we talked about infidelity and the abuse of trust, using the example of a marriage where multiple infidelities had occurred. How could the partners ever trust each other again? Sometimes it is possible, and the relationship can strengthen and deepen. Other times there is no reason to continue.

Abuse of trust is a terrible betrayal. We expect people to be kind, courteous, and honest, but not everyone treats others as they would like to be treated themselves. Today I’d like to examine the abuse of trust between strangers.

A few years ago, when I was riding home on the IRT in New York, a young woman, I’ll call her Norma, was sitting across from me, with a strange and frozen expression on her face. Next to her was a rather dirty man with his arm casually arranged on the back of the seat they were sharing, just close enough so that his fingers occasionally, seemingly accidentally, brushed Norma’s arm. At first these touches seemed unintentional, and she politely tried to ignore them, but as they continued and increased in their intensity, she became more flustered and frightened, while the man seemed pleased. Her courtesy coupled with a certain amount of timidity was her downfall, and exactly what the abuser was counting on.

I glared at him so he would know I was on to him; then the train came to a station and filled with people, and the next time I could see across the aisle the man had left. Norma was still there; we exchanged glances and I asked her if she was OK. She started to cry; she was upset, frightened, and angry with herself as well as the perpetrator.

Norma said she was thinking the whole time the abuse was going on, “Is this really happening? Maybe I just think it’s happening. Should I say something to him? What if I’m wrong and I’ve accused an innocent man and nothing at all is happening. I’ll hurt his feelings. He’ll get mad. What’s wrong with me?”

I told Norma that I had seen the whole thing, or much of it, and that it had really happened. Often the victim of this kind of abuse is not entirely sure what is real and what isn’t, especially when the reality is ugly and threatening. Partly that’s a symptom of posttraumatic stress. Partly that is the abuser’s setup, a con game to mess with the victim’s head and not just the body.

Contrast this with the experience of a woman named Janet, who was accosted by a flasher on another train in NYC. He wore the requisite trench coat, opened it briefly and flashed her. He was banking on her silence—he figured she’d be too scared and embarrassed to say a word, submissive like Norma, and most people, but he didn’t know Janet. Janet ripped open his raincoat and said in a really loud voice, “Look everybody! Would you just look at this! Just take a look at this little thing.” Lucky for her, the man slunk off the train. He could have been violent; she could have been hurt.

Then we have a book named Lamb, written by Bonnie Nadzam, about the seduction of a child, who is led along by a clever psychopath, a lonely man who seems to ask for the child’s consent and manipulates her will as he kidnaps her and keeps her prisoner for a period of weeks. She is lonely, too, and sometimes the two of them seem really connected in a healthy way, if only for moments. These bits of connection are partly what keeps her hooked. And the abuser knows how to dole them out, just enough to keep her wanting more.

That’s how abusive relationships work. There is just enough kindness or seeming kindness to keep the victim engaged with the victimizer. The world breaks into axes and lambs, like the heroine in the book of that name.

Over the past few months we’ve heard about the many young boys raped and abused at Penn State by their coach, Jerry Sandusky; the crimes were covered up repeatedly, not only by Sandusky but by the very famous and previously revered Joe Paterno and Penn State administrators. The Nittany Lions football team was rich and powerful and earned big bucks for everyone involved, while these crimes created a longstanding culture of predatory behavior.

Sandusky’s MO was to find naive young boys, dazzle them with his fame and attention, win their affection, and then rape them. The boys were scared to speak up—which Sandusky depended on, as most predators do. His crimes were witnessed, but he was protected by Penn State—and allowed to continue his vile behavior. The boys were not moneymakers like Sandusky and his crew, they were just regular boys, so their lives were not important. Sandusky and his protectors deserve long prison sentences.

We need to borrow some of Janet’s forcefulness, although not necessarily her actions, but we can speak up and stay safe. There’s a sign in the NYC subways these days, “If you see something, say something.” Speaking up protects all of us.

Related articles:
Eliminating the Stigma of Childhood Sexual Abuse
Learned Helplessness – You’re Not Really Trapped!
How Trauma Impacts Your Sense of “Me-ness” – Part I

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Scarlet

    Scarlet

    August 17th, 2012 at 10:27 AM

    I sometimes see these same kinds of things in the medical office where I work where you just have this feeling that something isn’t quite right with the relationship that you are witnessing but it’s pretty awkward to ask even when you are alone with the woman. Some women would be enraged to think that someone esle assumes that they are being abused when they haven’t even come to this realization yet themselves. Some have been a victim for so long that this is their own version of what is “normal” between a man and a woman.

  • Jacqueline

    Jacqueline

    August 17th, 2012 at 11:04 AM

    I’m a strong believer of shaming a perpetrator especially of crimes such as these.I think maintaining silence not only lets them get off the hook but also gives them courage to repeat the same and even go on to bigger crimes against innocent victims.So if you ignore such behavior you are indirectly helping the perpetrator.So stand up and speak out against something like this.You will feel a lot better too.

  • Val

    Val

    August 17th, 2012 at 2:26 PM

    I really do hate getting involved in others’ personal business. Aren’t these grown ups who could do something to take care of this if they wanted to?

  • harper g

    harper g

    August 18th, 2012 at 7:03 AM

    Tread lightly my friends with this issue, else you may find yourself in the cross fire of a relationship that is already quite toxic. I do believe that we have to keep our eyes open to what is going on around us, and sometimes we have to step in even when it doesn’t feel the most comfortable thing to do. I want to look after others, but there are times when this is probably not the most wise thing to do. You have to think about yourself too and how getting involved in someone else’s business could actually negatively impact yours. But enough about that. Sometimes the best thing to do is to quietly intervene, maybe even call the person whom you may think is being harmed and just express a little concern for their well being. Often all they need to hear is that someone is looking out for them, and once that hand has been extended they may be more open to sharing and seeking your advice and help.

  • deborah

    deborah

    August 18th, 2012 at 10:01 AM

    there’s a saying – if you do not speak out against evil, then you are a party to it. I totally believe in this. The next time you find yourself in such a situation just and find yourself hesitant to help the victim, just ask yourself – would you like it if a loved one was in a similar position and nobody around there helped?!

  • Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    August 18th, 2012 at 3:07 PM

    Scarlet, medical workers are among the first to witness this kind of behavior, and it takes skillful means to ask a woman (privately, of course), if she is or perhaps should be questioning her relationship. You’re in a tough spot.
    I think some areas have legal restrictions about this, and you should probably check them out.

  • Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    August 18th, 2012 at 3:08 PM

    Jacqueline, thanks for taking a strong stand and writing about it too!
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    August 18th, 2012 at 3:09 PM

    Val, I don’t know your age, but you’re right that this is grown up business; adults should intervene if necessary, and not children.
    Good thinking!
    Lynn

  • Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    August 18th, 2012 at 3:11 PM

    Harper G- thanks for your well thought out letter, which lists the many ramifications of interventions and suggests a subtle way to help. Wow!
    take care,
    Lynn

  • Marley

    Marley

    August 19th, 2012 at 5:09 AM

    I am so torn about this because I think that if I was in an abusive situation of my own that if I felt like I could not stand up for myself and extricate myself from it then it would be nice to know that someone was out there who could and would stand up for me.
    I think that this is especially true if the abuse case involves a child who is scared to tell and afraid of what will happen to him if he does. Then it is our moral responsibility to take action and report anything that we see as suspicious or harmful.
    With adults it does get a bit dicier, because there are just as many people in those abuse situations who want you to get involved as there are those who don’t.
    Many just want you to mind your own business and stay out of theirs, but no matter, I think that I still have to be a proponent of confronting it because i am not sure that my own conscience could take it if I thought something was going on, did not say anything, and then someone experienced great bodily harm or injury.

  • Wayne.G

    Wayne.G

    August 19th, 2012 at 11:52 PM

    Standing up for a victim against the perpetrator is always good and I wouldn’t think twice before doing that. But don’t you think this is somewhat old fashioned now? People get molested, mugged, beaten and what not, all in the presence of multiple people in proximity but not too many people will even look twice! Why has this degeneration happened in our society? Do we not become a partner in crime by not standing up?!

  • Sarai

    Sarai

    August 20th, 2012 at 4:30 AM

    what a crying shame that in cases like Norma’s someone is obviously taking pleasure out of demeaning her and making her feel so uncomfortable
    That’s a scary somebody right there

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    August 20th, 2012 at 8:31 AM

    Nicely said, Deborah. Thank you.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    August 20th, 2012 at 8:33 AM

    Marley, you’re very empathic- who wouldn’t want you to be on their side? You really now how to stand up for what’s right.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    August 20th, 2012 at 8:34 AM

    As you said, Wayne, if you don’t stand against the crime you become a partner to it.
    Thanks for writing in.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    August 20th, 2012 at 8:35 AM

    It is scary, Sarai, scary and creepy.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • emmett

    emmett

    August 20th, 2012 at 9:44 AM

    there are perverts n criminals everywhere.they will try to victimize you but whether you get victimized by them depends on you.a little help from others is always welcome but being aware of everything around you is a good start!

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    August 20th, 2012 at 6:39 PM

    Good advice, Emmett- thank you!

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