By Michael Pyrgas
Doctor: You see her eyes are open.
Gentlewoman: Ay, but their sense is shut (Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, scene 1).
I chose to write this article after the dust has somewhat settled over the tragic death of a 34-year-old woman, Eleni Frantzi. She was recently found dead in her home, years after a sexual harassment case involving her foster father who was a priest. It is hard to think of substance when emotions are high.
The purpose of this article is to stimulate thinking and not to add fuel to the fire. Allegedly, she was sexually abused by her foster father and physically abused by her foster mother while she lived with them from 4-10 years of age. She was rehomed at the age of 10.
She allegedly repeatedly reported the abuse but social services were indifferent. Even when – once she was an adult – her foster father was found guilty of the lesser charge of sexual harassment and sentenced to two years in prison (he served 18 months), the young woman did not receive the necessary support from authorities.
Specifically, her first report of sexual and physical abuse in the foster family at the age of 10 was dismissed by the social services as unfounded. She had to report it again in 2011, as an adult, to be taken more seriously. In addition, law enforcement authorities did not prosecute the foster mother even though the police and the court stated that the young woman’s claims were sufficiently substantiated.
In 2015, the investigative committee of the Holy Synod reinstated the priest after he had served his prison sentence, ignoring the court’s decision. Amidst all of this, she alleged that she was rejected and avoided by community members for undermining and staining the reputation of a member of the clergy.
Why did all these well-meaning individuals, groups, agencies, committees and authorities turn a blind eye or had their eyes wide shut over the potential abuse?
Violent behaviour, especially if it is charged with sexual and perverse elements, is psychologically upsetting. It is difficult to think about and make sense of it dispassionately. It activates a very primitive mechanism to avoid awareness.
There is a part of the mind that wants to take action and protect victims of abuse. However, the other part dreads and detests the emotional reality. This part can take over thinking, attack the senses, highjack intelligence and inhibit making sense of what one sees and hears.
This is eloquently depicted in the above conversation between the doctor and the gentlewoman in Macbeth: even though Lady Macbeth’s eyes were open, she could not see anything. Another example is Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut that, interestingly, is about sexual deviation and perversion.
This is a universal mechanism. It does not relate to the person’s overall cognitive faculties. It is not an esoteric abstraction lost in the elusive and arcane theoretical or philosophical writings of psychoanalysts. Rather, it is a widespread, all-pervasive phenomenon and its enactments abound around us.
After the tragic event, a plethora of well-meaning experts, state officials, members of parliament, and politicians speculated about what may have happened, passionately promised that “things will be better next time” and devised elaborated action plans.
However, they seemed to be unaware that while one part of the mind really wants to implement interventions that will effect meaningful changes, the other part of the mind hates to change directed thinking and, unconsciously, sabotages them. Consequently, changes, if any, are implemented too slowly and not as effectively as could have been.
Why is it so difficult to make a change? A prerequisite is the ability to learn from experience. Despite how intuitive this might look, it is not always easy. In addition, parts of the mind can experience change as catastrophic and as a potential loss because the outcome is unknown. The psychic economy wants to minimise losses and exposure to the unknown. This loss aversion creates blind spots and erects powerful resistances towards meaningful change.
Because the dark reality of child sexual abuse is emotionally painful, unthinkable, and touches one’s own unresolved abuse and loss issues, confusional states are activated that rapidly default the whole process. This is the absolute triumph of the part of the mind that fears awareness, turns a blind eye towards it, and thwarts change because it perceives it as catastrophic. Therefore, reality, no matter how painful, is tenaciously held, causing inaction, brilliantly illustrated by the phrase “better the devil you know”. The part of the mind that hates reality induces confusional states in its attempt to restore awareness. Therefore, making sense of things rapidly becomes non-sense, confusion, or disorientation.
These confusional states are enacted through interdepartmental miscommunication, interdisciplinary feuds, decision-making delays, unproductive meetings, unwillingness, passivity, inactivity, procrastination, mismanagement of resources, long-overdue legislative changes, labyrinthine legislation, etc.
Until recently, a similar state of affairs can be seen in the minimal penalties for sexual perpetrators. It is as if the part of the mind of the state that hates facing the reality that sexual abuse of children does happen and justice needs to be served, assailed and induced confusional states in the part of the mind that wants to deliver justice.
Contrary to the common belief, common sense is not common. It entails thinking. Thinking means making sense. However, one part of the mind shields one from coming into contact with the reality of sexual abuse. Therefore, thinking and senses are savagely attacked, causing inaction and confusion.
It is, therefore, important to be aware that such a mechanism is operative in everyone. Even the most experienced professionals and brightest people can have their thinking negated simply because of certain situations that are not conducive to thinking. It is also important to seek an outside perspective on challenging issues, such as debriefing, talking to a trusted colleague, external supervision, etc.
Of course, a related imminent and frequent obstacle is the realisation that one is not all-mighty and does not possesses all the knowledge. The delusion that our perspective is clear and unmistaken, is a widespread and pervasive dynamic. This dynamic is endemic not only to individuals, but also in groups, committees, organisations and institutions.
Michael Pyrgas is a licensed clinical psychologist working in Limassol. He can be reached at [email protected]