Some prisoners never did trust me. Others took a very long time. Happily for me, Dennis (#3) was exceptional. Harvey, a stocky, tough, sensible man, walked round me for 9 months. “Are you coming to see me tomorrow?”, I would ask, everytime I came across him on the wing. “Fat chance”, was his regular response. Undeterred, I persisted. Never too intrusive, never coercive, never parental. Playing a waiting game. Then, out of the blue, he said “Yes”. He then attended, without fail every week for 6 months, uncovering the most horrendous childhood. Eventually saying, on camera, “If I hadn’t been talking to you, I’d have killed three times on this wing”.
How would you explain that? Once he started, there was no stopping him. His father was extraordinary. On one occasion, they were both looking out of a first floor window, and his father threw him out of it. Whereupon Harvey walked up the stairs again, and his father repeated the assault. What was going on? If someone injures you, why re-expose yourself and let them do it all over again? So if someone in authority, such as your father, set this as the standard of “normal” behaviour, would you trust them, or anyone who had power over you, to do the right thing by you, ever?
Well, Harvey eventually did. But only once he’d convinced himself that though I was strong, I was also safe. I had to be stronger than his abuser, but also safer, else the chance that I would repeat the abuse was just too much to ask. And don’t forget, a doctor in a prison, especially a psychiatrist has overwhelming power – one wrong exchange, and you could find yourself shipped off to Broadmoor, or any other horrendous prison “hospital”.
Worse, his father was meant to be on his side, just as this doctor kept saying he was. As a small child, he had needed his father, like every human infant does. Who else was going to protect him from the dangers of this world? That’s why he kept going back up those stairs to him – he had no alternative, there was no one else around to look after him, since at that tender age he couldn’t look after himself. No one can. So here was another, apparently benign soul, also offering to help – why trust them? Last time you tried it, you nearly died, so risking it again was too much. In those days you were too small to have any alternative – but now that you are strong, and potentially lethal, things were different. And the one thing you had very clearly decided was that, now that you could see how things worked, you were not going to re-expose yourself as you had had to do last time.
So those 9 months were hard work for Harvey. Declining to talk to me became ever harder. He kept getting these reports from his fellow prisoners that I was OK. But his previous experiences went very deep. He also knew that doctors would regularly write “resistant to therapy”, “uncooperative with treatment”, even “untreatable”, or some other such phrase which would stick in his prison record for ever, and place the blame for non-compliance firmly on his head. He needed time to find out if I resorted to such unprofessional gambits. He needed more time to overcome his entirely understandable resistance to accepting help from anyone stronger than him – it had never worked in the past – why expect it to do so now? Given this, 9 months doesn’t seem all that long.
He had survived by being stronger than any opponent who happened along. He was certainly muscular, and could cause considerable injury, even death, if he put his mind to it. What he didn’t know, and what it was my job to bring to his reluctant attention was just how much baggage he was still carrying. All that hate that his father had fed him, unsolicited, when he was a small child, had never found an outlet. Indeed it had never been really examined, let alone exposed. Every time things began to move in that direction, he had robustly blocked them, so as to prevent the identical pain happening all over again. Somehow, so the story went, if you didn’t think about it, it couldn’t harm you anymore.
This strategy of emotional omerta, didn’t actually work. Indeed it sucked all the joy out of life, just like the blackhole had done with Alec (#2). But it was all he knew. And until we could put something rather more healthy in its place, he was stuck with it – most likely, for life.
You can tell all this by the 9 month preamble. By this time, on the wing, people were cheering up, they were regaining a future, they were booking into correspondence degree courses, their sleeping patterns improved, their use of tranquilisers shrank. So there was this optimistic background to his machinations. But it still took him 9 months to even begin to consider opening the ever-so painful box in his mind. He was using the one remedy he had found throughout his entire life – “this isn’t happening to me”. It was all he had had available to help him deal with his brutal father – and he wasn’t going to swap it, without very good evidence to do so.
I didn’t know the details of what was going on, hidden away at the back of his mind. No one knew that. He made sure he didn’t really “know” himself. The way it works is that if you think about it, the very thought will bring it all back. Once bitten, twice shy. You were 100% vulnerable then – it makes no sense to expose yourself to it ever again. But, and here’s the difference – I did know that there were terrible ghosts haunting his every waking minute. Only by distracting himself, as with Alec before, was he able to continue. Yet murder was constantly on his mind, which was why he was serving a life-sentence in this maximum security prison. He had killed before going into prison. He had killed while in prison. And he saw no real reason why it should stop. The “hate” implanted by his father didn’t stop either – and until that did, he wouldn’t either.
So that’s why Harvey walked round me, never taking the plunge. I knew why he hesitated – he did not. If you’d asked him, he’d have come up with something like “you can never trust these doctors”, or “prison staff, even medical, are the enemy”. Push these a little, and you uncover any number of bizarre and totally unrelated prejudices. They never change, because their owner doesn’t want them to see the light of day. Last time they came anywhere near, death seemed imminent. If you’d ventured to tackle Harvey directly on what effect his father’s defenestrations had had, he’d have ducked the issue, or come up with a nonsense, or, an ever present risk in these deep matters, with murder.
So while he was walking round me, others near him, were at risk of being killed – by him. He wasn’t thinking clearly about these deeply painful emotional matters – he was wrestling with his own version of the blackhole, whose first effect was to stop him thinking straight. So he thought crooked – and he didn’t even notice. Killing someone else didn’t stop the torture his father had planted in his mind, all those years ago. It didn’t even come close. So what would?
Well here we had a standoff. I claimed to know more about how his earlier traumas were playing on his mind than he did. But why would he trust me? It was no good me knowing – if, as with David earlier (#1), I had no way of getting that across. Sitting in my mind was this beautifully simple concept, together with an even simpler solution or cure – but what good was that when the mind it needed to be operating in, was closed. And it was closed because of the appalling and unacceptable hazards that he had experienced before. Once bitten, twice shy indeed.
So though Harvey still had hard work to do, the hardest bit fell to him personally – something he had to do himself, before we even began. All right, I needed to have built up enough confidence that I did have possible answers. If I’d gone in there, without any idea as to how these things worked, that would have been risking far too much. I did know enough. But getting this across to those who needed to know it equally well – now there’s a challenge of a different order again.
Let’s now take a closer look at that simple 5-letter word, trust. It is not an easy concept either to define, or to secure. Take the heading of this post – Harvey claimed he would have killed three times on this wing. What was your first reaction? Did you believe it? Did you trust it? Or did it cross your mind that it might just have been hyperbole? Bear in mind, this was in a maximum security wing, with extra prison staff to boot - fewer opportunities for murder than elsewhere. Yet there were tales of a murder having taken place in its earlier years – and killings in prison are far from unknown. Even Harvey himself, had already shown it was possible – he had killed a fellow inmate earlier in his sentence, so unlike Dennis, he fully merited his placement in this Special Unit for unduly violent, illdisciplined, unstable lifers.
So yes, murder was certainly well within his capabilities. He knew how to do it. He’d done it before. It wasn’t as routine as it had become with Alec, but it was certainly at a matter-of-fact level, something that was entirely “normal” for such as Harvey. Which leads to the conclusion that it would be unwise not to take him at his word, to trust what he said to be true, even when he comes out with a statement like this, that in any other circumstances, would be extraordinary.
But equally, from his viewpoint, he had to be extra careful about trusting me. Why would I not let him down, as he had been taught would happen to him, by his unstable childhood, every time? His problem was that he continued to believe that circumstances had not changed in the decades since – and until he elected to change them, that was the way they would stay. As for me, I already knew how crucial it was that the decision to trust me, should it ever come, would have to originate 100% from within him. It was not anything I could do for him. Not something I could command, nor coerce. In fact, like all medical interventions should be, it had be with consent, or not at all.
Yet how do you ensure consent in a maximum security prison wing? Everything there is built on coercion – you go to bed at this time, your meals are at that hour, you are locked in your cell until someone in authority unlocks you. Well, of course, this was no use to me whatsoever – I needed people like Harvey to unpack their concrete mental boxes, from the inside, not from irresistible pressures from anywhere else, especially not from expectations emanating from me.
What this means is that you cannot have trust without consent. This was the reasoning behind my waiting game – I waited until Harvey felt under no duress to come and see me. Quite an ask, that – invite a known criminal, to start to unburden himself – BUT ONLY WHEN HE HIMSELF, CONSENTED.
Everything else there was done on command – do this, do that, miss out, and you’re punished. Here was I, with a decidedly counter-cultural message – come in your own time, make up your own mind, if you decide against, there’s no penalty, it’s entirely up to you.
Some contrast. No wonder he took his time – 9 months. But, and here’s the next surprise, once he had decided, he showed exceptional dedication. He attended without fail, once a week, while we delved deeper into the traumas, and the wounds he had suffered as a small boy – wounds that had remained hidden as a safety measure, until he felt validated enough to unpack them.
My approach was as simple as it had been with Little David (#1). I provided a safe, trustworthy context in which he could unburden himself. I asked general questions – more to open things up, and to let him know I was prepared to hear anything, but anything, he cared to bring up. And Harvey, for one, certainly did. Being thrown out the window by a father whose job was to prevent him from being thrown out of windrows, or anywhere else for that matter – had deeply wounded him. It had the effect, which life-or-death trauma does, of sealing off that part of his mind where it took place, so that it was no longer available to ordinary conversation. No, we needed to probe the painful bits, carefully, and with consent.
Thinking about it now, I was looking for revenge. As a small child, your options are limited. If bad things are done to you, your scope for correcting them is too small to make any difference. However, being human, you hurt. And being hurt, your first response is to hurt back. That’s where revenge comes from. All revenge. But killing a fellow prisoner, in lieu of your father, gains you nothing, and loses them much.
This is obvious, if you can think it through calmly. I didn’t need to drive the point home. Indeed it was better that I didn’t. The magic comes from within the sufferer in exactly the same way, and for identical reasons it did with Little David. Quite remarkable.
And of course, there was much inside Harvey to be revengeful about, as with all the other murderers I worked with. Yet there’s a logical error, a mistake in the thinking. He had impulses to kill his father, to prevent further damage from that quarter. He didn’t dare kill him, since he remained a terrifying figure. So he killed other people instead. All violence is revenge, including all murder.
“I feel pain – so the best thing is to make you feel pain too”. That simply doesn’t add up. However much pain I inflict on you, this has zero impact on my suffering. “It makes me feel better – s/he had it coming – no one messes with me and gets away with it”. All rather too familiar for comfort – but irrational nonetheless.
So my task was, at base, essentially simple – first, I had to winkle out the hate, by evaporating the fear that underlay it. Next I had to say that the fear, the terror, was out-of-date, and had been for decades – next time your dad wants to throw you out of the window, you are big enough to tell him “No”.
Simple in principle, not easy in practice. But the first stage had been passed – Harvey had agreed to talk. Once we did, once trust had been established, and consent empowered, we were motoring. All the crap from yesterday came out on to the table, and evaporated in the light of the present day. His terror of his father, the very speechless-terror that had kept the whole thing under wraps up till that point, went. Simply disappeared into the fresh air. He was able to cut the ties that had prevented its going before, and he ceased his “need” to kill, that is to kill all those substitutes of his abusive father. The term I used at the time was that he had finally got his parental figment, his parental remnant out of his head.
And the three times he would have killed, if he hadn’t agreed to talk with me? Well there would have been only one victim – he said. We both knew who it was, a rather irritating little man – nothing like his father in any respect. And though he assured me, once he’d confessed, that there would have been only one body, not three – there was no guarantee there would not have been others, later on. However, once his “father was out of his head” – that was a cast iron, solid gold, permanent guarantee that there would be no more. At least that’s my belief. Would you trust him?
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NEXT post, is about Percy, who couldn’t stand hearing nice things said about him. Check it out, when it’s posted.
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MEDICAL NOTE – at one level this is just as simple as it sounds. At another, it involves life-or-death emotions – which is why it all gets so gummed up. So you need to be extra careful when discussing these points with people who might have similar, deeply buried problems. IF IN DOUBT, DON’T. Life-or-death could mean yours.
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NOTE These posts are a new venture for me. I’ll aim for at least twice monthly. If you like what I write, please encourage me by responding, all but the latest will be free. You can always read the academic background to it all, free, by clicking The Simple Science of Sanity. Thanx.
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