It turned out that Brents had followed my work. A few months before he was released from prison I had finished co-authoring an investigation into how the military mishandles domestic violence and sexual assault. It resonated with him, not because he was a perpetrator, but because the angry man-child within him, considered himself a victim.
Records and accounts from family members indicate that Brents’ father was a violent, sadistic man. The two children from his second marriage were removed from the home because of his abuse, and Brents and his brother, the product of his father’s third marriage, were also removed from the home, although for unknown reasons, Brent was returned.
This is Brent’s first grade picture. His father had been raping him for three years by then. A few weeks after this next picture was taken,
when Brent was 12, his father beat him so badly that Brent suffered what medical records described as a left orbital blowout fracture—his left eye socket was broken. He’s had seizures ever since. I will spare you the details of the sexual torture he endured. He said his father told him that he himself had been beaten and sexually abused as a child by his father, Brent’s grandfather.
And so the pattern repeated. Pain, degradation, shame. Brent Brents did to others what had been done to him as a boy, and while he was still a boy, like many victims, he blamed himself. He once wrote, “I can’t remember much about when I was real young except fear and shame and lack of courage.”
Shame is an enormous trigger of violence. Brents told me that after that detective said to him, Turn yourself in you little punk, he, Brents, worked himself into a rage. Then he went on his final horrifying crime spree.
I’m not saying these factors are an excuse for the violence Brents inflicted upon others. He made choices. He absolutely deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison. But knowing what happened to him helps explain why someone like Brents committed such violence with a lack of empathy–that his brain was predisposed toward it, and the abuse inflicted on him was his model.
It’s human nature to want to distance yourself from someone like him. Label him as a “monster,” dismiss him as evil, because we don’t want to have anything in common with such a monster–it could mean we, too, are capable of monstrous things.
It also makes it too easy. When we put rapists in the category of “monster” it may make us feel safer today but it’s more dangerous for tomorrow. Because then we won’t believe that the “monster” can be a neighbor, a good friend, a coworker. That enables them to hide in plain sight.
The dominant theme of how to prevent sexual assault today is cloaked in helpful advice, like don’t walk alone, don’t drink, don’t put yourself at risk—and the message, primarily to women, is, Don’t. Get. Raped.
How about we turn the spotlight to a different population and say, Don’t. Rape. And then take it one step further and ask, what are we doing wrong as a culture that we continue to produce rapists? Because whether it’s the ex-convict who attacks a stranger, the college boy who rapes his girlfriend or the celebrity who drugs and assaults his victims—they’re all choosing to exert their anger, power and control over someone else. With that choice, they are all the same, and they all leave pain in their wake.
I’ve interviewed more than fifty survivors of campus sexual assault in the past two years alone and the details I learn about their perpetrators paint a picture of SO MANY young men being deliberately predatory. They isolate their intended victim, ply them with alcohol or drugs, lock doors, ignore tears, ignore pleas to stop or ignore the fact their victim is limp with fear or is unconscious.
Ten years ago, Brent Brents was sentenced to 1,509 years. Today all over this country we are seeing new generations of serial rapists. Why is this still happening?
Why do we continue to reinforce the message to boys and young men that their worth is linked to their ability to dominate?
What if we prized compassion more than power?
When they’re little, we tell our children to play nicely in the sandbox.
As they get older, we say, don’t get in fights on the playground. Take a breath, count to ten, walk away.
Then they get even older and we teach them about the biological aspects of sex—health and reproduction.
What if we evolved those conversations with our youth, and teach them how feeling shame, feeling powerless or feeling angry–all of which cover up hurt and rejection—COULD cause them to want to dominate someone else?
And that they can learn to recognize triggers and not act upon them.
At least start that conversation.
And then speak up if you witness predatory behavior—and you’ll know it when you see it. Don’t make excuses. Don’t look away. Don’t cover it up.
And because sexual violence happens on a continuum—escalating from verbal harassment to physical attacks–Speak up when you hear or read a joke about sexual assault, or victimization. It’s not funny, it’s not sexy. It’s dangerous.
If someone confides in you they’ve been assaulted, believe them–false reporting is extremely rare, so yes, believe them. Listen to them without judgment. Help them find resources, and then support whatever they decide to do.
For perpetrators– Brents told me that group counseling for sexual offenders in prison does not work. For an inmate to even be seen going to sex offender group risks their safety, and once there, they don’t want to be seen as vulnerable. It’s hard to change when you’re living in fear. And if we really do want to help them try to change, let’s offer more of the respect and compassion that can be felt with one-on-one, focused attention—something a damaged person desperately needs.
Instead of building more prisons and focusing only on punishing the perpetrators, why don’t we try to prevent them?
Survivor: “I have been trying to find the courage to speak about having compassion for perpetrators of violence”
Comment: Hi Amy Herdy,
Your Ted talk led me to this website. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I want to thank you so much everything that you have brought to light in the talk and in writing, as I feel that it is something that needs to be said. I have been trying to find the courage to speak about having compassion for perpetrators of violence like this, because while it is hard to learn to forgive, there is a fact that I truly believe in: every person who does harm has been harmed.
I strongly believe this because of the stories I was told throughout my childhood by people who abused me. Almost every single one of them had a story about being abused as children, and they would often tell it to justify why they were hurting us. As a child, I was “trained” in very specific ways in how to abuse other children and in how to recruit children to bring back to sick adults to be abused. I have watched cousins and childhood friends turn to addiction and take on masks of mental illness to try to disguise what happened to us as children.
The reason that I feel compassion in spite of the anger about my life, is that, had it not been for a couple of extremely loving adults in my childhood who balanced out the pain, I cannot say that I would have turned out any differently than those who abused me. I experienced abuse as a sickness that is passed from generation to generation or from person to person. The difference with sexual abuse is that, unlike having a leg cut off and bleeding all over the place for the world to see, it is something that is so stigmatized and set in the category of “sexual.”
Knowledge of healthy sexual relationships isn’t something that children are typically exposed to as it is. But this is not a “sexual” thing. It is a “power” thing. In my experience, sexual abuse has more to do with one person feeling so powerless in themselves that the only way that they feel like they can have any sense of power in life is through taking advantage of others who are more vulnerable to them. This is the sickness.
In our society, we treat the symptoms of this sickness by throwing perpetrators and victims in jail, instead of trying the much simpler path of prevention. It makes way more sense to help children than to try to patch together broken adults. Thanks again for your work.
Time: June 29, 2017 at 6:42 pm
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Tagged as abuse, addiction, Childhood sexual abuse, healthy sexual relationship, mental illness, perpetrator, perpetrator of violence, perpetrators of violence, sexual, sexual abuse, survivor, survivor of childhood sexual abuse, victim, victims