My desire to understand the mind of an abuser is rooted in my own experience as a victim of domestic violence

Last Thursday I published a piece about domestic abuse.  The opinion column was the second stage of a concerted effort, on my part, to bring the important issue of domestic violence to my audience – a large section of which are young men.

The first stage of my drive to explore this issue occurred the previous week when I released a short film titled Gaslight which attempts to portray an abuse scenario from the deluded mind of a perpetrator.  In less than two weeks the video was viewed nearly 18,000 times, even shared by White Ribbon, Australia.

The release was the culmination of over a year of painstaking development during which the topic was treated with the highest level of sensitivity – as it should be – whilst also attempting to elucidate the issue from another angle; aware it would be provocative.

Over the course of the year the material was previewed on a number of occasions.  I received feedback from community leaders, police officers men’s groups and school pupils.  I heard testimonies from scientists, medical professionals and judges.  I had conversations with social workers, victim advocates, lawyers and even former perpetrators.

But more importantly I sought the blessing of victims of domestic abuse for whom I previewed the lyrics, music and film many times, at various different stages, on a number of occasions.  It was only once I felt confident that all possible care had been taken to ensure that the film did not encroach on the interests or needs of those who have suffered that I finally released it.

The process took almost a year.

The reception was overwhelmingly positive and of that 18,000 views so far you can be sure that a large percentage of those engaging with the film are young men.  Young men who can begin to self-identify as being on a spectrum of abusive behaviour.  When I undertook the task to produce the film I did so fully aware of the risks but felt the potential benefits outweighed them.

So when my follow up piece on STV was met in some quarters with anger, confusion and dismay then I was not surprised.  This topic is as close to the bone as it gets in public life precisely because it is so deeply personal for so many.

As an artist I believe strongly in tackling the pertinent issues and it would seem nothing is more pressing than this.

I welcome the criticism no matter how harsh.  It’s right that I should be held to account for my views.  When you understand the seriousness of this issue then you already know the areas of sensitivity at play.  I made a conscious decision to analyse this issue from a hypothetical perpetrators perspective partly because I knew it would be provocative and, therefore, generate a frank exchange of views.

This issue is getting worse not better and I believe part of the solution lies in how we think about, and discuss, this matter culturally.  For this to happen a provocation is required in order to move the debate beyond the current parameters.  Parameters which, despite the best intentions of various stakeholders, have come to inhibit the free exchange of ideas.

While some critics seem adamant that I have no idea what I’m talking about, or that my view is poorly informed, I have considerable experience as a professional operating in challenged communities with violent young men – in every possible setting you can think of.  Therefore, my decision to enter this discussion at such a potentially jarring gradient is rooted, absolutely, in my belief that there has to be a more emotionally sophisticated approach than we currently have.

I make this claim with total awareness of the potential for very strong reactions and condemnation.

While I have the utmost respect for the many people who believe my views are dangerously misguided I also have to stay the course and stand behind what I have said – even the clumsy parts.

I’m not trying to change the minds of people with strong convictions I am trying to persuade onlookers that there might be, in some cases, more to this issue than meets the eye.  How can we overcome a problem of this magnitude without being able to speak honestly about the constituent parts of the problem?

Even where I am wrong that should be okay too.  People need to be able to stumble a bit when trying to make sense of such complicated issues.

And like many of the people who have condemned my contribution I, too, have strong convictions rooted firmly in my personal experience.  I’ve witnessed domestic abuse up close.

I’ve seen children tied to furniture and kicked across the floor.  I’ve huddled with my siblings in a dark room scared to make a sound as a man screamed death-threats through the letter box, kicking and punching the door, on a cold stormy night as my ‘care-giver’ lay drunk and unconscious.  I’ve desperately reasoned with an abusive, neglectful Mother who tried to make me dig up a dead animal from the bottom of our back garden.  And I stared into her black eyes as she held a knife to my throat and told me she was going to kill me for refusing to go to bed when she asked.

As you can imagine it is very difficult to be accused of apologising for the very abuse I, myself, have survived.

My desire to understand what goes on in the mind of an abusive person is rooted in my own experience as a victim.  I’m not satisfied that there is no more to it than her being on a power trip.  Patriarchy offers little reprieve from the niggling suspicion that other aspects were at play besides the cultural context for the abuse. Abuse I cannot recover from unless I am able to reconcile who I thought she was with who she really was – because no matter how frightening she could be: I still loved her.

I have to believe in her humanity or my life has no meaning.  I have to understand that she was not simply evil or I will never be able to move on.  I suspect many victims of abuse struggle in the same way and in their vulnerability we have to be careful about the kind of message we give them about the true nature of their abusers.

Part of solving this problem will involve an uncomfortable level of compassion, patience and love in the face of impossible odds and unconscionable acts of violence.  That is after all, what social justice is about.

When it comes to other social problems, such as addiction, we now know that isolating the issue and treating symptoms does not always work.  We also know that prison is not always an effective deterrent and that when people do go to jail it often reinforces the attitudes that led to the destructive behaviour – and increases their chances of re-offending.  So we try, wherever possible, to treat the problem holistically.

How did the person develop unhealthy coping strategies?  What is their back ground?  What needs to be in place to help sustain a positive change in behaviour?

Of course, we hold people to account for the crime they commit against others – absolutely!  But do so with an acute awareness that, ultimately, jail-time doesn’t get people sober and unless they undergo a fundamental shift in thinking then they will return to their old ways as soon as they are released.

We also recognise that many approaches have to run parallel because there are so many variants of the problem that a one-size-fits-all method only fails the people who suffer.

Same with an issue like homelessness.   Homeless caseworkers will attempt to plug a homeless person into a variety of services in recognition that their problem is more complicated than just giving them a house.  Yes, it means vast deployment of resources upfront, which can be politically difficult to say the least, but long term it brings the overall cost to society down.

But ultimately, in these sectors, it is understood that prevention of the issues is better than cure.  The problem is, often, our leaders lack the political courage to speak honestly about the problems due to the political sensitivities of the day.

That said, I also understand that, just like me, every other person with a strong opinion is coming from their own unique perspective on this issue; rooted firmly in their own internal logic and unshakable visceral experience.

So whilst I feel frustrated that my true intentions to illuminate some of the darker truths of this issue have been misinterpreted I also completely accept that criticisms are valid (and welcomed) and that this comes with the territory.

It’s important that I resist the urge to fire back at anybody or to draw wild conclusions about the motives of those who are very clearly adamant that I am part of the problem here.  It seems there is a broad range of criticism and I want to say to those people:  I hear you.

It’s absolutely essential for me to practice good faith in relation to critics and detractors, no matter how ferocious or wide-of-the-mark I think they may be.  Eliminating a social problem like this is not just about the laws we create but also about how we navigate the new landscape of public discourse while plotting our journey towards better understanding.

My goal is to contribute to a culture that promotes open discussion as opposed to rousing more suspicion and prejudice in people by taking reactions to my work personally.  Which is why I always try to engage with criticism and why I always embrace being wrong – even when it’s painfully counter-intuitive.

I’m just trying to create mirrors in which people may catch a fleeting glimpse of themselves.  I want to create the circumstances in which a person may be able to self-identity as an abuser in the privacy of their own mind and begin to grapple with that reality.  As well as that I’m also trying to catalyse a discussion about what else we can do to try and stem this growing problem.

Of course there are gaps in my understanding, as well as flaws and prejudices at play, which I may not yet be aware of.  But should that preclude me from taking part?  If it does then surely that applies to everybody else too?  Because nobody has all the answers and nobody is free of prejudice – no matter what they claim.

I’ve received countless messages from women over the last couple of weeks, many of them victims of abuse, thanking me for the work that I am doing.  Women sharing very intimate details of their lives and experiences who feel inspired by a message that acknowledges the humanity in something as upsetting and ugly as a perpetrator of abuse.  Yes it is controversial but that is the purpose of art.  So when people who label me an abuse apologist do so on the basis that they are speaking on behalf of victims then I do, gently, have to remind them that they do not speak for all victims.

Nobody can make such a claim.

I’ve seen domestic abuse.  My subsequent life as a homeless, drug dependent alcoholic bore all of the hallmarks of trauma from that experience.  I believe in certain circumstances I, myself, could have become an abuser.  And if that had transpired then the prior causes would have been fairly obvious.  While this does not explain the journey of every perpetrator it does increase our understanding of the complex, repetitious, nature of violence.

And this will need to be confronted without fear or favour at some point or we consign ourselves to simply building more prisons where we rely on state violence to as a deterrent from a culture of violence.

If there is a gap in my knowledge – and I’m positive there is – then I simply beg you to educate and not condemn me.  No one person, agency of public body will turn the tide of this terrible problem.

And neither of these can claim to exclusively comprehend the needs of the victims either.

It’s time we held our hands up and admitted we don’t know what to do about domestic abuse.  Only with that humility, in the face of this horrendous problem, can we lower our defences sufficiently to let the light of understanding shine in.

7 Comments


  1. I have read your posts and thought a lot about it over the weekend. I respect your personal struggle with this and just want to make one point, with good intentions.
    The mindset of wanting and trying to understand the mind of the abuser is typical of a victim of abuse. ‘If only I could understand why I’m being abused, I would be able to prevent it happening’. The alternative is to accept that you can’t prevent it. In many circumstances, when there is no escape, that scenario is less bearable than continuing to believe you can prevent it somehow. It’s a very compelling part of the cycle that keeps people in abusive situations.
    Your ITV piece seemed to reinforce this victim mindset, when that mindset needs to be broken to get anywhere.
    I understand that you have experience. But experience is not the same as understanding. It is part of your recovery from your experience to try to make sense of it, naturally. But, with respect, I don’t think you have yet.
    The mental image I had when I read your article was of someone trying very hard to describe the trees that he could make out in the dark, while blanking his mind from the too scary fact that he is still lost in a dark forest.
    I am hesitating whether to post this because I don’t want to add to all the upset and anger that there has been about this, or spend all day getting attacked about what I have said. But I hope it will be seen at least as trying to be helpful.

    1. I didn’t get this impression from the author at all.

      There’s a difference between trying to understand and empathsize with your abuser while you’re being abused to looking back after an abusive relationship to understand the root of the problem. The former gets you caught in those loops you speak of, but the latter makes sure you are equipped with the knowledge to not get stuck in them again.

      Much of what I read on narcississtic abuse dehumanizes the abuser, arguably because victims often have the problem of overempathesizing, and the goal is to get them to stop and leave those relationships. Perhaps dehumanizing is okay initially just to get victims over the first hurdle of leaving the relationship. However, the fact is abusers are indeed human. In order that we dont become abusers ourselves, or attract them into our lives, we have to understand the root causes and their motivations.

      I’m convinced abuse is born of blindspots and fear. We all have blindspots that drive us and terrify us, and this I believe is what the author means by “creating mirrors in which we might catch a fleeting glimps of ourselves.

      1. I agree with your last two paragraphs.
        The first paragraph – fair enough, I see what you’re saying. But we don’t react freshly to each experience, we bring our previous experience, habits and learned reactions with us. It’s particularly hard to change the ones we learned early on, because they are laid so deeply. The ones that stay with us are the ones reinforced by fear and danger. For example, children who are abused or neglected by their parent are faced with the choice of thinking their parent is wrong or useless or not capable of looking after them (very frightening for a child) or that they are bad themselves (which leaves a hope, the possibility that if they tried harder, they could get the parent to love them and treat them right). We all know people who carry the feeling that they are bad or worthless into their adult life. It’s common, and very hard to shift that belief. It expresses itself in different ways – often depression, substance abuse, self destruction. Sometimes, a burning desire to prove yourself.
        As you say, abuse is born from blindspots and fear. Blindspots and fear are often related to these early learned defence mechanisms.
        When I read the article, I thought maybe some of those things were having an influence on the beliefs that were being expressed.

  2. With you on this 1000% Loki. There seems to be two quite different ways of understanding perpetrators of domestic abuse in terms of the main debate around this. The first is that it is purely a social problem, so if you fix patriarchy then you fix abuse. However this assumes that the inherent sexism of patriarchy is all that’s needed for a person to become an abuser. It’s simply about control due ultimately to gender inequalities within society, and sexist understanding/conditioning arising from this. This begs the question then, what is it that makes some men, conditioned by society into sexism, into abusers, whilst many/most such men aren’t?

    The second view is really the one you’ve been exploring (as I understand it), which is that as well as patriarchy we have to consider the personal, as the factors in becoming an abuser are due to the interaction of both (and imo this is the answer to the above question). This view says there is a personal aspect here, which can often be quite complex, and that unless we try to understand the kinds of contributing factors that lead to men becoming abusers then we will find it very difficult to prevent abuse and/or reform abusers.

    I think if you have experienced abuse, especially if it’s been by more than one person, an aspect of much of your life even, over some time, you really do get to see up close how that person’s conditioning works itself out in the person and their actions, and it can also reveal certain patterns. For example, and statistics back this up, how that very often violent men tend to have been abused as a child, often by a father but also as Loki describes here could just as easily be by a mother, and how this has affected them. And mental health – again there are studies which have shown a high prevalence of personality disorders among male domestic abusers – how often mental health seems to play a role (not just in terms of personality disorders, just used that as an example). Noticing this kind of stuff isn’t just about noticing patterns and types of causal factors in abuse, it also works to demonstrate that there are other factors which are very often at play in what leads to a person becoming an abuser; factors which if treated/addressed, could prevent abuse/reform abusers.

    This leads to the problem I have with proponents of the first view when it comes to their take on the second. If you hold the (second) view that abuse, at least some of the time, is about more than patriarchy and thus the personal needs to be addressed in order to have the best chance of minimising incidences of domestic abuse and saving lives, you can completely embrace the view that patriarchy is a causal factor in domestic abuse because you are acknowledging this, you are just saying it’s not the *only* causal factor, or at least not always. Whereas if you hold the first view, you end up saying to people who have experienced directly that other factors were involved/even predominant, that their lived experience is wrong. Just think on that for a minute. While I accept that having suffered DA doesn’t make you an expert on everything relating to DA, it does often mean you are very intimate with the drivers of your abuser, and certainly I would argue no-one has the right to dismiss your lived experience because it doesn’t match theirs/their interpretation of others’. Indeed this happened to me yesterday and I was surprised at how painful it was, in fact it feels very similar to when your voice didn’t matter all those times your agency was taken away….

    Only one side of the debate is doing this, and for what? What harm can it possibly do to try to understand any and all possible contributing factors and involve the personal in approaches to reform/developing preventative measures/encouraging self-reflection on unhealthy, harmful and abusive attitudes/behaviours? Because viewing patriarchy as the only cause of abuse means that you are acknowledging abuse is conditioned (i.e. you’re not holding some sort of view that some people are inherently evil), so in acknowledging the power of conditioning why would you dismiss those who have experienced the causal factors of DA, either as a victim or a perpetrator, as complex and not just solely and ultimately as the result of a social issue? There’s no way you can know you’re right and that all who disagree with you are wrong about their experiences/themselves, so if there’s even a chance it could make a difference what harm does it do, why would you condemn the effort when it only has the potential to reduce abuse? Because trying to look at contributing factors the way Loki is, has backing from people like me precisely because it relates to our experience – our reality – and we think it has the potential to do just that – i.e. ultimately to reduce abuse. Loki himself has been bravely honest to admit his own struggles here, and in doing so he makes it so much easier for men with the same issues to be honest with themselves and take steps to change. And unlike what some have very unfairly said, trying to understand the causes of abuse from a place of compassion/aim to understand and work with what’s there as constructively and fully as possible doesn’t equal condonation/idea that perpetrators aren’t responsible for their choices. In fact it is simply an acknowledgement that we are dealing with conditioned attitudes and behaviours.

    I hope Loki continues this difficult work, I think it’s very important and has a great deal of potential. And not everyone has to agree with his take on things of course, but I think anyone condemning him for looking at abuse beyond patriarchy needs to step back and think about why you see something that only has the potential to help and at worst achieves nothing, as a threat – what is it you’re defending? Because it’s not women like me…

  3. In my experience there are many different reasons people become abusers. But the common denominator I have ALWAYS seen is that the cause was never the victim. The victim is merely the gentle or perhaps protective soul who takes the abuse. But the abuse comes from a third party in almost all cases I have witnessed. Most times the abuser is slighted/wronged/etc by someone else they perceive as stronger or more powerful than they are and they don’t feel capable of fighting back against that person and winning. So instead they beat the victim down to reassure themselves of their own self-worth.

    Another type of abuse though is based on anger at a third person where the abuser is unable to direct the anger at this third person. This abuse is often sober but of course can be complicated with drugs or alcohol. A common example of this occurs when a spouse leaves: the abuser takes his or her anger out on the people who remain with them even though their anger is sourced from the person who left. abuser I’ve witnessed Since they do not feel capable of fighting back

    For some, it IS control of another human being. This is their display of power and they are able to put themselves on a diety-like level similar to the so-called “god complex” that doctors are sometimes susceptible to.

  4. Hi Loki,
    I too wanted to understand my perpetrator, so I went back to uni and started working in a perpetrator program. Most research does not consider the perpetrators’ perspective. My study was one of the first of its kind; receiving a distinction. I examined their underlying beliefs, triggers, intents, emotions, and learned responses. Feel free to email me if you’d like to discuss.

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