Identification with the Aggressor: How Crime Victims Often Cope with Trauma

By Melsky, Ryan E. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Identification with the Aggressor: How Crime Victims Often Cope with Trauma


Melsky, Ryan E., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


    He was too weak to live down the shock of the killing. That's what
he suspected must be troubling him. A real man could have come out of it
in a short time and resumed a normal life.
    After all, he had done all he could that night. He had nothing to
feel bad about. Nothing at all. It was easy for some of them to
criticize him. To have their training classes and criticize him and Ian
and say what should have been done.
    Then he was crying. It was the first time he had cried like this.
Karl Hettinger sat hunched in his chair and his wet cheeks glistened
silver from the light of the television, and his shoulders began heaving
and great shuddering sobs ripped out. He lost control. He wept and the
shame of it made the tears gush hot. There was nothing left, not a shred
of self-respect.
    One day while walking through a department store with O'Lear looking
for thieves, he saw a masonry drill he needed. He started to buy it but
instead just put it in his pocket. It was as baffling and inexplicable
as the weeping.
--Joseph Wambaugh, The Onion Field (1)

The notion that a traumatic experience produces an extreme reaction is an ancient one. When confronted with serious, often life-threatening situations, crime victims instinctively resort to various cognitive mechanisms that allow them to cope with their sudden victimization. (2) Many people are familiar with the more common of these coping strategies, or "defense mechanisms" as psychologists call them, which include regression, denial, and repression.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In addition to these, crime victims also can cope with life-threatening trauma by "identifying" with their aggressor, just as Karl Hettinger--an officer with the Los Angeles, California, Police Department--did after witnessing two thieves murder his partner. Identifying with the aggressor has become a well-documented, bona fide defense mechanism. (3) By understanding why people often identify with their aggressors and how this affects future behavior, the law enforcement community can better comprehend the vicissitudes of victimization and, as a result, provide more effective victim services, thereby facilitating a healthy recovery for crime victims.

Identification Process

The process of identification occurs when one person forms an emotional bond with another. Introjection then takes place, whereby identifying parties modify their own personalities and physical characteristics in an attempt to imitate the person they are identifying with. (4) Typically motivated by unconscious forces, identifying parties may not recognize the effects that identification has on their actions. (5)

Examples of identification happen every day, especially in children and teenagers. Little boys wear toy guns and badges to emulate their police officer fathers. Young girls don their mothers' jewelry and makeup to look like them. Teenagers often dress in the same type of clothes and speak in the same manner to identify with their social groups.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Identification with Aggressors

By identifying with their aggressors, assuming their attributes, and imitating their aggression, crime victims cognitively transform them-selves from the people threatened into those making the threat. (6) This mental transformation allows the victim to achieve some feeling of strength in an otherwise humiliating situation. In short, when an aggressor sticks a gun in a person's face or kidnaps someone at knifepoint, often the victim's only chance for survival is to join the aggressor emotionally, as well as physically. Anything short of total cooperation likely will result in death.

In addition to its cognitive utility, identification with the aggressor serves an important, external function. With this defense mechanism, victims make an intuitive prediction regarding their aggressors' reactions to the bond. (7) Instinctively, victims know that if they appease their aggressors, their chances of survival increase. …

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