Friday, July 16, 2021

Book Review: Not to People Like Us by Susan Weitzman

"If you think I support domestic abuse-- if you think my not explicitly writing, ad nauseum, "NO TOLERANCE" or "IT'S NOT THE VICTIM'S FAULT" is evidence that I think "sometimes the bitch deserves it "then I can tell you without error that [this year] is going to be way too complicated a year for you to endure, and you are seeing a psychiatrist, and it isn't helping. Stop being you. The world does not have to validate your prejudices." ~ The Last Psychiatrist.


Warning: Since I am writing about domestic abuse, I quote the Last Psychiatrist before people start accusing me of “victim blaming” or “excusing the abuser.” Obviously, people who injure other people are committing a crime and deserve to be in jail. But that doesn’t mean the victims have no responsibility for any self destructive behavior (which BTW is NOT a crime) they exhibit – like returning to their abusers again and again and protecting them by keeping the abuse secret. 

As Michael Kerr once said, when it comes to relationships: “It’s all my fault” and “I had nothing to do with it” are both irrational ideas. The sad part about this is that absolving the victim of any and all responsibility for their predicament often has the effect of making them feel more helpless, useless, and resigned to their fate. The people who do this to them are without a doubt harming the very people they claim to be helping.

The book being reviewed here is about upper class, affluent couples in which the men physically and mentally abuse their wives. The author believes the couple dynamics in this population are different than in those in poorer communities. Strangely, most of the women she discusses are highly-educated professionals or have high paying jobs, and some of them even earned more than their husbands.

The most interesting thing about this book for me is the author. As I read it, I kept wondering if she thinks these women are as stupid as they act, although she is clearly questioning that proposition. She spends half the book wondering about how such bright, educated woman can believe their bullcrap excuses for staying in these relationships, and blame themselves for the abuse (although some of them did admit to provoking it, to supposedly make the beatings "more predictable" as if they weren't predicable enough), and the other half buying into their rationalizations.

I find this interesting because, when I first started thinking about psychotherapy paradigms, I myself struggled with this question mightily. I called it the "question of stupidity," and resolving it led me to the concepts of mutual role functions support, the paradox of altruism, and something called dialectical causality.

Still, I wondered why the author didn’t question some of her own assumptions. For instance, she says most of these women she has interviewed did not come from families of origins in which there was significant spousal abuse. Well, maybe, but how can she know she is being told the truth about that? 

These women often lied about the abuse from their husbands to everyone for years, and even to other therapists, before coming clean. Some of them told their mothers about it, and the author admits that their mothers essentially blamed them for the abuse and told them to go back to their husbands. And in her chapter on the children from these relationships, she says, “…they too feel that they must hide the family secret.” If the abuse victim grew up in such a family, wouldn’t that characterization apply to her? So what on earth makes the author believe these women would suddenly become paragons of honesty about their parents when they come to see her?

Some of the women also claimed to think that they would be left penniless if they were to leave their successful husbands, even though many have or had successful careers themselves, and that their husbands will be able to manipulate the courts so they would never get alimony or child support. Well, rich successful men sometimes are able to do that, but in what alternate universe are there no attorneys capable of forcing otherwise reluctant men to fork over the cash? Maybe these cases where the rich men prevail are won partly because their wives hired lawyers who secretly believe that she really did deserve what she got. 

Why are they hiring such terrible lawyers? Weitzman brings up the O.J. Simpson case as an example, but apparently does not know how badly the prosecutors botched the case. (This is brilliantly described in the book Perfect Pitch by Jon Steel).

Then there is the book’s title. These women allegedly hide the abuse because they sort of think it isn’t supposed to be happening in their social circles, and they are ashamed. But if someone is beating the crap out of you, why would you care whether or not it was happening to anyone else? It’s clearly happening to you, and it’s clearly evil. If fact, if you really thought your situation was that unusual, that would highlight how unacceptable it ought to be.

And another implicit premise here seems to be that being embarrassed is worse than having your jaw broken! Really???

The stories the author relates literally reek of gender role conflicts in both the husbands and wives, but gender roles barely rate a mention. Despite the author’s psychodynamic training, the concept of intrapsychic conflict seems foreign to her, let alone her having an understanding of family systems issues and the power of groupthink and kin selection. 

For example, despite being successful career women, many of these women expected, and were expected by their husbands, to do all of the domestic chores and child rearing. One father wouldn’t even get up to feed the baby when mommy was violently ill. A lot of the couples also stopped having sex while the man was off having multiple affairs – the old Victorian whore/Madonna conflict in the flesh.

The author correctly points out that most of these men have narcissistic personality disorder, but she does not understand the family dynamics of it. (As my readers know, my views of that are different than the prevailing wisdom). She does make the accurate point that one of the DSM criteria for this disorder, lack of empathy, is incorrect. These men have very good empathy. The problem is they use it in order to more successfully manipulate other people to get what they want. Not having something is obviously not the same thing as using something one has in the service of bad intentions.

The author does acknowledge that these women did seem to ignore red flags when they first meet their husbands, but seems to downplay the significance of this, and offers no convincing explanations of why they would do this. In fact, as I like to say, there are often more red flags than at a meeting of Chinese communists.

Oh well.