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Guilt, Blame, Understanding, Responsibility, Apologies and Forgiving

I write as someone who has damaged all five of my children (by leaving two marriages – or should it be called abandoning?). And this in spite of my ‘absolute’ determination not to put my children through what I went through with warring separated parents (aggravated by wartime evacuation). I write also as someone who has worked with ‘high security’ prisoners who have done lots of ‘very bad things’ including murders.

My starting point is a belief that our early childhood experiences strongly influence our subsequent lives. At one level, this is common sense. Having myself had 11 different carers by the age of 9, I know what it is like to experience absence of safety and of unconditional love. Only in my 70s have I first found the joy of fully trusting and loving. Earlier attempts all resulted in reproducing the failures of my childhood. (I acknowledge that the primary deficiency was in me rather than in my partners.) That is my personal perception in a nutshell. But here is a glimpse at a tiny fraction of the scientific evidence which I consider relevant to the imprisoned people I work with.

“The roots of violence and damaging acts are in child-rearing” as seen from a psychoanalytical perspective . A sociological study  shows that violent parenting results in violent children, and a study of the impact of ‘childhood deprivation’ shows resultant anatomical changes in brain structure. Finally in this ultra-brief review of evidence, I refer to the crucial so-called ACE studies – Adverse Childhood Experiences – in which responses to 10 questions about childhood predict various future health and behavioural problems. For example people with 4 or more  “ACEs” (‘positive’ answers) have a 15-fold increase in the number of suicide attempts, a 62- fold increase in illicit drug use, an 84- fold increase in problematic alcohol use and a 51- fold increased chance of being a victim of violence. These are hard facts from studies of thousands of people. If you have any doubt of the impact of childhood experiences, look up these few references. About half of people imprisoned (study in Wales) have a 4+ ACE score compared to 9% of a British population.

This tallies with my experience in a high security prison (where I work as a chaplaincy volunteer). How many thumbnail sketches would give you a flavour of what I hear?

i) “Father belted me and left. Mother beat me with an eggpan. I ran away to woods aged 10, was taken into Social Services ‘care’ where I was sexually abused and beaten.” He turned to drugs to survive. He recognises that he is hostile to ‘all’ including himself.

ii) Survives trauma by writing – self taught – never attended school - lived rough aged 5-14. Father a drug dealer – murder: ‘too dangerous to stay at home’. When taken into care, he promptly ran away. Trusted no one except his fellow rough sleepers.

iii) Regular beatings + occasional sexual abuse. Taken into ‘care’ aged 4 but sent ‘home’ some weekends where the abuse continued. Younger brother remained at home but suffered similar abuse and eventually hung himself.

iv) “Father used to beat and whip me. He was a military man and thought discipline was important. I used to do bad things to defy him and finished up in prison in my teens.”

And there are lots and lots more!

My ACEs were nothing like theirs but I can identify with their struggles to survive. Many of them turned to drugs to get brief periods when they could have good feelings inside. And we know the sequence of ‘needing’ more drugs and having to find more money to fund what becomes a survival habit leading to all sorts of criminality.

So who is to blame?

Am I to blame for not trusting my fellow human beings (especially in personal relationships)? Are ‘my’ prisoners to blame for finding a way which made their lives tolerable, even if just for a short time? (How many of us enjoy the relaxing effect of alcohol while recognising the potential dangers of addiction?) There is a common perception that suicidal behaviours in prison follow imprisonment but ‘nearly all’ have a pre-existing pattern of attempting suicide, as predicted by the ACE studies.

So are our parents to blame? Speaking for me, I believe I understand the impact of her own broken upbringing on my mother’s parenting, and recognise my father’s obsession with academic achievement knowing his struggle to overcome the prejudice against his humble origins. They were who they were and I do not doubt their good intentions whatever the dire outcomes for me. And if violence begets violence, are ‘my’ prisoners’ parents to blame?

What would it mean to blame myself? That I am weak, misguided, inconsiderate, selfish – in a word the ‘useless’ creature I was told I was as a child. What I do know is how hard I TRIED to be a good husband and father – I really did try in every way I ‘knew’.  I failed utterly in the husband role but I learnt much about loving through being a father. And each time I failed in my adult relationships, I felt like the unlovable creature of my childhood. On both occasions of leaving my family, I had every reason to believe I would stay in close contact with my children but ‘others’ colluded in enforcing drastic separation.

But I still have to acknowledge that it was me who had felt unable to remain in a situation which perpetually reminded me of being ‘useless’ and unlovable. Whatever I did was not acceptable to my partner and I neither knew nor could hear what might make a positive change. To say that I was devastated by the subsequent enforcement of separation from my children would be a gross understatement. I have wondered a million times what I could/would have done if I had known that I would lose contact with them.                                                                                                                                 

I believe that our (aware) intentions are fundamental to ascribing ‘blame’. I was responsible for my actions regardless of understanding now why I acted as I did. One alternative at the time was to accept that I was a failure, useless and unlovable and to end my life. And that comment is not made lightly. I was suicidal aged 9 when life felt too painful to want to go on living. And I was suicidal again when, aged 17, I had an illness which affected both my brain and my heart. So I envisaged being a useless mouth for the world to feed. 

After separation from my children, I was kept alive by hope and belief that I would eventually be reunited with my children. And I did make material sacrifices to support them, resulting in being close to homelessness on each occasion.

For those much more damaged than me, the choice is more often about finding a reason to stay alive. It is often stated that we all have a wish to stay alive. I believe that very many of us (at least half of us) have had suicidal feelings at some time in our lives but this is a taboo subject often portrayed as representing someone who is weak, selfish and mad. I hear ACE sufferers talking openly about staying alive. There is the 15-fold increase in attempted suicide, and this figure rises to 30-fold increase in those with even higher ACE scores. Death is an entirely real alternative. This is not the place to enlarge on ways people find to try to survive but the drug scene is one obvious alternative with criminal consequences.

Listening both to prisoners and to callers to Samaritans, those looking at suicide almost always believe they are so useless that the world – and their families – would be better off without them. So self-blame leads only to yet more feelings of uselessness, guilt and humiliation from those who constantly remind us of our failings. Yet we are still responsible for our actions. We do have choices.

Is there someone out there who would care for our pain and offer some understanding of the suffering which both led to and resulted from our mistakes?

Was the Jesus of the Gospels such a person? ………………..

I know the opportunities I have had in life to move forward – in particular through psychological support in various ways - and how fortunate I have been to be able to access such support. Only in the recent past have I felt truly able to trust someone. I at last know that I can make mistakes but still be a worthwhile person. That is liberation beyond my dreams.

But what of ‘my’ prisoners?

They are so often punished for the way they found to survive.  A brief story: a man sentenced to 26 years when aged 20. Not the most popular prisoner in segregation (alias punishment) block. He indulged in a ‘dirty protest’ (remember the IRA) and learnt how he could flood the unit by blocking his toilet and repeatedly flushing it. One day I went to see him but was told I could only speak to him through the narrowest of metal grills because he had spat at a prison officer that morning. He was in tears. He told me that the officer in question had spat in his breakfast. Regardless of the facts, how ‘should’ he have responded to the perceived act? To have accepted this perceived insult would be further humiliation which was a strong feature of all his previous life. (I can also understand if the prison officer was fed up with that prisoner!) So more punishment for him, more resentment, more determination not to be dominated by ‘authority’ and continued ‘bad behaviour’. And if he ever gets out of prison, yet more anti-establishment actions in revenge for such humiliation.

What works in Norway (evidenced by greatly reduced rates of being readmitted to prison after release) is to work with the prisoners. Similar evidence is available from a Scottish study and a further study  showed very great reduction in violence while reducing psychiatric medications so often used to ‘quieten’ violent prisoners. Treat and support them as hurt, damaged people and they respond.

One prisoner who had committed murder and was determined to kill himself told me that “God will understand”. He was not afraid of God’s judgement. My understanding of causes of criminal behaviour means that I feel compassion for the suffering which so often preceded the crime. I so often see a beautiful and caring side in people who have committed murder and I attempt to reflect this back to them.

Understanding the people who have hurt me has enabled me to ‘forgive’. Dropping the bitterness of my long-term anger against them turned out to be a gift to myself. Apologising to those I have hurt comes naturally. Only those so damaged can decide whether or not to accept my sorrow and apologies.

                                                                                                                                 Hugh  McMichael

 

 
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