He Made Me Do It!

ImageNow that the Boston bombing suspect has been arraigned conversation on television reporters is the debate – what responsibility does a person have in their actions? What if any barring does being under the influence of another person play?


All the discussions brought me back to these very questions which I have had to address both in my work as a therapist and in myself.

So, what responsibility does a person have? Can another person really influence another enough to cause the first person to commit acts normally not within their personality and choices?

The answer to the first question is very difficult and has to be measured case by case. Even then, the judgment and punishment or rehabilitation of this person is really going to depend on the society in which the events occur. Said differently, there is no definitive yes or no. Defining the actions of the person, their mind set, their motive, the overall effect of their actions and how many people their actions affected all need to be taken into account. Not an easy task when you consider that most of us can’t sit around a table with friends or family and all agree on the definition of things dear to us like, is there a god and if so what is this thing we call god. How does God influence, control or look like?

There are many people eager to voice their opinion on the topic of culpability of the current bombing suspect.  What I have been hearing now, in cases of the past and in smaller circles such as in the actions of a friend to another or a spouse to another is, “I would never do that.” “No one could ever make me act that way or do that crime.”

I have bad news for this folks, you really don’t know until you have been faced with the manipulation strong enough to cause a variety of reactions known as Stockholm Syndrome, Helsinki Syndrome, Battered Person Syndrome to name only a few.

All these syndromes are named on events where there is an element of traumatic capture – bonding. Where for reasons of survival and coping, the target or victim bonds or becomes linked with their capture or perpetrator. It can range from: keeping the perpetrator’s actions secret, behaving in a way deemed by the perpetrator to keep the victim/target or their loved ones safe, to falling in love or having deep sympathy toward the perpetrator.

Horribly tortured victims (to use an extreme example) have gone to court to help their perpetrator because of this phenomenon. Whole groups of people have helped kill one another because they so believed in the cause of the perpetrator.  Victims/targets commit heinous acts of violence for their perpetrator because either they have been manipulated enough to believe in the cause even if it is totally against their norm.  Every day abused people stay with their abuser and tell you they love them and will not go to court to prosecute. I could keep going but I think this is clear enough.

Events where you might be familiar with this phenomenon might be Patty Hearst, Jim Jones cult, Charles Manson family, Salem Witch trial girls, Nazi Germany, some military hazing, college hazing, spousal abuse, child abuse, bullying in school. The list goes on.

I’d like to point out that the victim/target does not have to be in complete bondage (held without physical ability to leave) in order for this to happen.  This is because the definition of bondage is larger than physical location. Bondage occurs whenever the victim/target believes there is no way out.

How can this possibly happen to someone?

Unfortunately, it is easier then you might think. The very elements of what most of us would consider a model person make the victim/target shine like the noon day sun to a perpetrator. Traits such as trusting others, people pleasers (people who put others ahead of themselves), people who believe others can change and give them opportunities to do so, sympathetic, empathetic, the world is a wonderful place people, God will protect me people, it won’t happen to me, it happens to other people individuals. NOTE: not everyone with these traits will become a victim/target.

Should we go around not having those traits? No, what a horrible world we would have if we didn’t!  But what we need to know is that there are individuals who have learned the art of psychological manipulation and use it to the detriment of someone they know or seek out.

It might be easy to say you can just look at a person and figure out who are the manipulators.  Usually, the most dangerous kinds of manipulators appear kind, caring, helpful and claim they have your best interest at heart.  Families of these people often know the truth about them, but to the outside world they can appear wonderful, model citizens.

How does manipulation work?

This profile is generic but in my experience and research demonstrates most of the following steps typically used on a victim/target.

  1. They search for their target or happen upon them.
  2. They behave in ways to gain the target’s trust.
  3. They start manipulating information to confuse the target. i.e. “If you vote for this person, you will lose your house.” Knowing that there is no connection between who you vote for and the status of your home ownership.
  4. Manipulation of information increases and becomes more personal. i.e. “If he loved you, he wouldn’t work so long. I love you and I show it by not working all those hours. Why would you want to be with someone who does not love you when you can be with someone who does?”
  5. They set up situations so the information they are telling the target appears factual.
  6. They work to convince the target that it is in their best interest to listen and do what they say. This can be used through the manipulation of information or through threat and actual violence.
  7. They start to separate the target from familiar family and friends. Anyone who might be perceived as a deterrent by the perpetrator.
  8. The goal of the perpetrator is to cause as much confusion, cause an inability to reality check data fed by perpetrator to target, and wear the target down. This is typically done by causing lack of sleep, food refusal, environmental changes to make the target have to cope more to survive or violence /threat of violence. The key here is the target has to depend more on the perpetrator for their well being. Typically the target starts to trust the perpetrator more than family and friends.
  9. The target starts to see the perpetrator as correct, in their best interest to listen to and agrees to do what they say. Typically, this starts with small things the perpetrator wants the target to do and the target is rewarded. i.e. “If you agree to say nothing about what just happened I promise you I will never beat you up again.”  The target does what is asked. There are no beatings and reinforces that the request worked. Only the perpetrator changes from beating-up the target to some other form of torment.
  10. At some point the perpetrator may ask for the target to prove their worthiness or sorrow at making the perpetrator behave as they do. Notice, the perpetrator at this point convinces the target it is the target’s fault they are in this situation. This intensifies the shame and often prevents the target from searching help. They feel they deserve whatever happens to them.
  11. Proof activities or behaviors by the target can be typically radical, dangerous and demeaning.  The target is pumped full of information which propels them to act on the proof activity. At this point the target does the activity for one or more of the following reasons: they believe the lies told by the perpetrator, they fear retribution from perpetrator, they fear being the cause of something horrible happening to someone else (including the perpetrator) if they don’t comply.
  12. If the target manages to figure out what is happening and attempts to escape the bonds with the perpetrator, threats or actual extreme violence is not uncommon. Oddly enough, sometimes the perpetrator may fake a suicide attempt to guilt the target into compliance.

By putting these steps in numeric form, it sounds very concrete and easy to say, well I would easily see through that and it would not happen to me. Remember that these perpetrators have so confused the target that they trust the perpetrator, feel they need the perpetrator to survive or have to comply with them for the target to survive. They have convicted the target that people normally deemed trustworthy and helpful are the true enemy. They can even convince the target that they are in love with the perpetrator. No one is better than the perpetrator. No one else is more correct in their views, attitudes and desires then the perpetrator. No one else can save, help or care for the target like the perpetrator can. The perpetrator’s needs and wants and dictations are all that matter. The target is essentially brain-washed.

The result sometimes is devastating. Horrendous crimes are committed. The target allows horrible things to happen to them.  And in the end, if they get out of the situation, it can take years to un-due the damage. Families and marriages are destroyed. Career can be ruined. Lives lost.

If the event causes events ending in the court system, often the target is not able to testify accurately about what happened. Even after the perpetrator is gone, the effects of the manipulation are so strong, the target continues to believe the lies told them and in the actions they took on behalf of the perpetrator.

These targets – victims need extensive help to recover. Depending on what they did, how far from who their sense of ‘this is not who I am’, and the extent of the brain-washing typically determine rates of recovery.  But recovery with psychological scars is possible. I don’t think anything can totally remove the guilt, shame and shock when the target figures out and heals from what happened.

So, it comes down to the question: What responsibility does a person have for their actions when under the influence of a skilled manipulator? How do we as a society work with this?

I can still hear some readers saying, “I don’t get it.” I rather think unless you have had the unlucky experience of being in the shoes of a target, or worked extensively with the topic you probably will not totally get it.

When I look back at events in my life surrounding this topic, I still have a hard time getting it.  I’m a strong, independent minded individual. It didn’t matter. I was caught off guard and my personality coupled with shaky, stressful events in my family life made me a prime target. I used to believe that people are good and trustworthy. I always gave people the benefit of a doubt. I felt people can change and really, honestly want to. If they do or say something horrible to me, it is in accident or some other deeper reason they are not aware of.

It did not register that some people are none of these things and instead feed their own natures and desires on others. When I looked at historical events such as Nazi Germany or the Jim Jones cult suicides, I would think, those leaders were evil. Why didn’t anyone see it and do something? My experiences have taught me why.

So, I get it. I didn’t do anything resulting in legal action. Thank God. But I have worked with enough people who have. The personal damage is horrific. When I hear of events unfolding in the world where there is suspect of a manipulator in the background, my heart rips a bit.

Just remember, if you are like me and do get it, you are not alone. If you don’t get it, I hope the f… hell you never have to.

About Debbie Hill, deborahhillcounselor.com

Wellness Counselor, Author, Photographer, Interested in living a balanced, compassion centered life, travel, spiritual/supernatural issues, history, all things Disney. If that's not eclectic, I don't know what is.

Posted on April 24, 2013, in Relationships, The Therapist is in and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. You are so awesome! I do not suppose I have read something
    like this before. So great to find somebody with original thoughts on this subject.

    Seriously.. thank you for starting this up.
    This website is one thing that’s needed on the web, someone with some originality!

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