PRISON Part 1: From victim to perpetrator, perpetrator to victim – blurry roles except in the eyes of the Law – just look at Helen and Rob…

Having disclosed earlier this year, albeit unwittingly, that I listen to The Archer’s, I might as well go further and write about the incident back in April that was so dramatic it hit the headlines. For months listeners had has been pursuing a story line about domestic abuse, which then escalated into a stabbing and prison – topics far closer, I have to say, to my areas of interest than crop rotation.Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 07.46.17.png

The details are unimportant here except to say that the woman being abused, Helen, did the stabbing, transforming her in an instant from victim to perpetrator and the abuser, Rob, from perpetrator to victim. Of course stabbing someone is, in the eyes of the Law, a clean-cut case of wrongdoing, a serious and punishable crime. But the law can be clunky, a heavy-handed waiter in mittens trying to extract dirty glasses from a dinner table.

Most of the characters in The Archers were not privy to the manipulation, deceit, dishonesty, and control that have been going on behind the scenes. They, like the law, look at the facts in front of them and form judgments. We the listeners, however, have been flies on the interior walls of the couple’s home, witnesses to Rob’s subtle, undermining comments and sinister infiltration of control designed to induce a gradual deterioration of Helen’s confidence and increasing sense of madness. She is the clear victim and he the perpetrator… until, in a knife’s flash, the roles reversed and she became the perpetrator and he the victim. These black and white terms are blatantly insufficient, as are the cowboy and Indian duality that still guides many American policies, or the goody-baddy definitions that, to a degree, still dictate the World War narratives in this country. There are always two or more sides to any conflict but rarely do we, let alone the Law, take into proper consideration the perpetrator’s back story.

Amongst women prisoners

  • 46% report having suffered domestic violence
  • 53% report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood.

Amongst men, abuse rates are lower but also widespread. I remember working in the segregated unit for severe crimes in Cologne Prison with Herr P, a quiet, sweet, intelligent man who looked more like he belonged on a college campus than in a cell. However, he had stabbed his pregnant girlfriend multiple times as they were unloading the shopping from their car. As with Helen, this violent outburst was just too incongruous with his gentle character to stick. You found yourself, like Helen’s family, begging to know what had happened. And when you heard his back story you understood. And by “understanding” I don’t mean you condone, excuse or justify the crime, just that you can comprehend or empathise with how it came about.

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Herr P’s character and confidence had been whittled away first as a child by his domineering mother, then by his nagging girlfriend. Together they formed a focused team of abusers, every bit as dreadful as Rob and his mother. His sense of identity was attacked almost to the point of extinction; he was pushed further and further into a corner until, one day, in one single unplanned moment, he made a bolt for the only exit he could see.

Archer fans are all rooting for Helen to be freed, for the truth to come out, for Rob to be punished and locked away and for the Law to realize that she will not re-offend because such a situation will never re-occur and her goodness is so much greater than her bad action. But how many people are rooting for those in prison like Herr P whose abuse was not witnessed as it built up like steam in a pressure cooker, to explode in one unique Molotov cocktail of desperation?





2 thoughts on “PRISON Part 1: From victim to perpetrator, perpetrator to victim – blurry roles except in the eyes of the Law – just look at Helen and Rob…

  1. Dear Angela, Thank you for writing this post. What you express is just the tip of the iceberg in how the criminal justice system works. In 2009 I instigated a project to sit inside the Magistrates court for 6 weeks and assess whether any of the cases would benefit from a Restorative / Mediatative approach. What I saw went to the core of how crazy the system is. Of course, there were repeat offenders like shoplifters who really needed to find some other way to get their needs met (a whole other topic about how punishment doesn’t work which I won’t cover here but would be happy to expand on).Mostly I saw bewildered people being pushed through a conveyor belt having no clue what was happening to them and coming out of the other end as ‘criminals’. For those that really needed educating on how to participate in society without causing injury, loss or harm, I saw no credible evidence of them having to take any responsibility for their actions (because it is perfectly possible to sleepwalk one’s way through the system) or any system for providing that education. Many of the cases were escalated disputes between people who knew each other and I couldn’t help notice that if these people had money they would have pursued their claims through the Civil Justice courts but, having no money, they escalated the arguments physically and then called the police making it a criminal matter. Many of these cases arose because we have no readily available mainstream tools for conflict resolution in our society yet most of the problems we encounter are as a result of poorly managed conflict. In my work at The Centre for Peaceful Solutions, we have prevented murders, healed violent family rifts, resolved neighbour disputes which have escalated to violence and helped teenagers get over their squabbles and get rid of their knives. All of these would have eneded up as criminal cases but of course I cannot count what was prevented (a whole other topic about how we count things). My conclusion was that the Criminal Justice System creates its own customers and has become an ‘industry’. As you can imagine, I wasn’t popular in espousing that view. The deeper problem is trauma and how much of what people do is a trauma response and while, I can at least raise conflict resolution as a topic and feel that there are nods of agreement, we haven’t even begun to talk about the effects of emotional trauma and its connection to how a couple like Rob and Helen end up in the mess they are in.

    • Thank you Maria, I agree with so much of what you say and I explore most of the issues you raise in my talks and other blogs – both about offenders, trauma, restorative justice, rehabilitation and a lot more. There’s so much to say and do…!

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