The Dichotomy of People

At times I find myself amazed when I hear about the wrongdoings of one celebrity or another. If the crime was committed by someone I particularly admired, I seem to initially find myself thrown in the throes of that back and forth, push pull, What a bad person! No, did (s)he really do that… it doesn’t seem possible, (s)he’s so great! More recently my interest comes less from the action of the celebrity and more from the public’s reaction to it. As the media reports on public outcry, there usually seems to be a split: condemn or defend. Our tendency to either idolize or vilify others can be so strong sometimes, but is there ever a time when it’s appropriate to do both? Think Woody Allen, Pablo Picasso, James Brown, and Roman Polanski – even John Lennon, and Nelson Mandela are not above reproach. So what do we do? When we consider something like child molestation, surely we can agree that the action in itself is bad, so why not hold the perpetrator accountable? Even if we happen to love the perpetrator? Is it possible to love someone and also instill appropriate boundaries? Can I admire Woody Allen as a film maker and also want to see him go to trial for accusations of sexual molestation made against him by his daughter? Is it possible to dance along to “I Feel Good” and still want to see James Brown pay retribution for spousal abuse? Can I hang a copy of Picasso’s Hands with Flowers on the wall in my living room and still want atonement for the emotional abuse incurred by him on his loved ones? We’ve been faced with this dilemma throughout history. Are we afraid of giving up the things that we love by acknowledging the dark side of those we love? To condemn or defend – Is that the only question?

I think we see this all the time in our personal relationships. When someone we love does us wrong, and it’s not simply a matter of finding the strength to forgive; when it’s about putting necessary boundaries in place as a form of protection. How easily we fall into the pattern of labeling this person good or bad. When this person has done something hurtful/harmful, who benefits when those around him or her enable the behavior to continue simply because some may consider him or her to still be a good person? At the same time, who benefits when the punishment far outweighs the crime? We see it on a global level as well, when governments that we want to believe in make terrible decisions, should we abandon them altogether or do we turn a blind eye and let harmful actions continue?

As a human race, our tendency to either condemn or idealize others can be really unhelpful in the long run. It’s easy in the movies or when you read a random article in the paper about someone you don’t know. The bad guy is always clearly the bad guy and the good guy is so clearly wonderful and great. But in reality, life is not like that. We all live in the gray area and it can be quite messy. I think that’s why this post comes right after my writings about trauma and pointing out that we’ve all experienced trauma to some degree. In 1968 Stephen Karpman wrote an article titled “Fairy Tales and Script Drama Analysis” where he first describes the relationship between persecutor, rescuer and victim, or what is now called the Karpman Drama Triangle. While I can’t claim to have studied this extensively, I think it’s helpful to understand how each of us might glide seamlessly between each of these scripts, perhaps more accentuated when one has experienced significant trauma. Maybe this falls right in line with Stockholm Syndrome… When I think of Patty Hearst, her kidnappers acted as persecutors when they stole her away, then as rescuers when they began to alleviate her imprisonment and give her privileges, then they must have presented themselves as victims in order for her to fully join their cause, no? A wise person once pointed out that Cinderella must have suffered from Stockholm Syndrome. Let me try to apply the Karpman Triangle here… The stepmother first entered Cinderella’s life as a rescuer, possibly offering solace to Cinderella’s grieving father and after his death the stepmother quickly became the persecutor as she condemned Cinderella to years of hard labor and was this done out of… jealousy? Because her own daughters appeared rather gruesome by comparison… were they the victims of a narcissistic society? Haha! I get it now. It all fits together. You see, we are all victims. We are all rescuers. And yes, frightening as it may be, we all have it in us to be the persecutor as well. While I’m not the most devoted follower of Carl Jung, lately I’ve become more interested in his concept of the shadow side. I found this helpful blog online about how to integrate both positive and negative aspects of the shadow. Awareness seems to be a key factor. If you don’t have awareness of your dark side, it will sneak up on you in disruptive, manipulative ways. But when you have that awareness, you can make choices on how to manifest that energy in a positive way in the world. 

I remember back during the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal when the former New York governor was forced to resign. A supervisor pointed out that this is what happens when one is unaware of one’s shadow side. Here is my favorite quote from his wikipedia page: “Governor Spitzer made his rise to victory in New York City politics promising ‘ethics and integrity to be the hallmarks of [his] administration.’ He had prosecuted several prostitution rings in his career, and his connection with a prostitution ring was felt as a betrayal by some women’s rights and anti-human trafficking groups that had previously worked with him.” Hehe. Is Spitzer good or bad? He worked with anti-human trafficking groups. Was his inability to resist being drawn in by the forces he condemned a sign of malice or weakness? Perhaps it was the lack of awareness of his shadow side that enabled Spitzer to prosecute prostitution rings in the first place. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that people who do bad things have such repressed awareness of the negative aspects of themselves. What about Woody Allen – surely someone who seems to be as brilliant as he must have some awareness of the darkness within. Maybe it’s not the perpetrators who are being tested, maybe it’s us. Maybe they want to be held accountable and maybe it’s up to us to figure out how to do it. There must be at least a few people in the world who understand this. Some judges perhaps, and some parents. Isn’t this virtually the same thing as setting boundaries with a toddler, just obviously on a much larger scale? 

Maybe the real question here is not whether or not to hold someone accountable for their actions, but rather do we punish them or reform? I think it’s an interesting question since it seems that an original intention of prisons was to rehabilitate, but my hunch is that the general public would view prison these days as punishment alone. I find it fascinating that so many celebrities appear willing to stand up in defense of Roman Polanski – perhaps he is a genuinely likable person, despite his horrendous act of drugging and raping a minor. Surely people like Tilda Swinton, Wes Anderson and David Lynch can’t be advocating rape, but it certainly appears that way doesn’t it? Do these people stand in his defense because they fear that he may be sentenced to 50 years in prison, which was Polanski’s fear when he fled the states just before his verdict? Wait… according to the Karpman triangle are these supporters acting as victims, rescuers or perpetrators? Victims… in that they are being denied the opportunity to properly honor one of their artistic heroes? Rescuers in the sense of wanting to save Polanski from seemingly eternal punishment? And perpetrators because they inadvertently seem to send the message that it’s ok to drug and rape a minor? I’m no genius here, but I can’t help but to  think that trauma just seems to generate more trauma when it’s not properly addressed. The victim in the Polanski case, herself, has indicated that the expected sentencing was too harsh and that the judge’s actions condemned both she and Polanski to live out this trauma for the rest of their lives. And how would the judge pan out in the Karpman triangle?

What about John Lennon, did the hateful actions he committed during his youth somehow help to sculpt the peaceful icon we all came to know and love? While it’s nice that he fessed up to his crimes in the song “Getting Better” was there ever really any retribution for his victims? I can only imagine the silent suffering that victims of these people must have endured when their perpetrators were so famously known and loved. What kind of retribution is appropriate for crimes such as these?  We all have a dark side; we are all capable of committing a crime. And wouldn’t even the best of us want to be held accountable for harm we incurred on another? What if, like adolescents, these people are practically begging for attention and appropriate boundaries?

If it’s true that we all experience trauma to some extent, won’t trauma just continue to be handed down from generation to generation until we bring both compassion and justice to the mix? I’ve always loved Gandhi’s quote: “an eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind” (Gandhi being yet another not without critics). But his use of passive resistance seems to indicate that he would agree that appropriate boundaries need to be in place, regardless of how much we may love someone. I think we can all relate to a time when we were wronged and identify with the desire for retribution. And we might even be able to have compassion for the perpetrator if given enough about background and circumstance. But still, it needs to stop, doesn’t it? People need to be held accountable for their actions, no matter how much we may love them. Maybe it’s when we learn to embrace our own shadow sides that we will begin to stop splitting people in two; good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust. Gray area feels messy and it may be a hard place to find ourselves in, but perhaps it’s better to wallow here for awhile until we find better solutions. How much of our lives are we avoiding simply because it’s too difficult to feel love and hate at the same time? Such strong ambivalence seems to lead us away from doing the right thing at times. My point is that we all know we have consequences for doing the wrong thing, or for even simply making unwise decisions. To me the problem seems to be twofold: Yes, we need to hold those we love accountable when they do the wrong thing, and it’s also essential that the punishment – or better yet, the discipline – not outweigh the crime. 

VA Teen Gets Six Life Terms & 118 Years for Stealing 60 Bucks and Three Joints


Copyright 2014 ©  Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.

Rachel Braun, ATR-BC  Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA

Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders.