When Perpetrators are Victims: Noah's Story

When I think back to my experiences working in the criminal justice system as a psychotherapist and forensic evaluator, I am reminded of this quote by Carl Jung: “The healthy man does not torture others - generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers.”  

As you may know, a basic tenet of psychotherapy is to listen empathically, which means that we suspend our own beliefs and feelings in order to hear and feel someone else’s experience. What I quickly realized when I sat in the room with murderers, rapists, armed robbers was that I had what I am going to call “an empathic conflict.”

Hearing atrocities committed toward other people – stories oft told with cold, detached gazes, flat voices and an absence of emotion, my first inclination was to feel empathy for their victims. But I was there to hear their stories. I was there to listen to them, to try to reach the few inmate-patients that I could.

Soon I learned that many of the inmate-patients I worked with were victims too. I heard awful stories, stories I wish I could erase from my mind. Histories of abuse and neglect: people being burned by their parents, people being raped by one parent while the other one watched, people being offered for sex in exchange for drugs.  

Some didn’t have any history that would explain their criminality, but in situations where they were a victim turned perpetrator, I wondered: Who were they to me? Were they victims or were they perpetrators? My empathy swung back-and-forth between their victims and them. Sometimes I would be so angry at them – my own patients, while listening to the crimes they committed. I stopped doing clinical work in forensics because of this, but continued with my research.

I used my experience, both as a clinician and as a researcher, to write my Close Enough to Kill series. Each of the characters taught me something, and the stories weren’t always easy to write. Before writing the series, I had only written non-fiction. I had no idea how much fiction writing was like being actor. When I’m deeply engaged in my characters’ minds, I feel their feelings, all of them, like a roller-coaster – up and down, good and bad.

My forthcoming release is a story told from the perspective of Noah Donovan, whose betrayal (in Circle of Betrayal – book 1) inspires the entire series. Writing Noah’s Story was painful, exhausting, disturbing, eye-opening. A few times I stared at the computer, my jaw hanging, wondering what the hell just went from my fingertips onto the screen. What really happened to Noah Donovan? Perhaps he wasn’t simply the cold, manipulative man I had thought. Perhaps Noah was also a victim.

Noah exploits women. As a woman, I felt furious with him. And yet, as the story went on, it became clear that he was the greatest victim. A few times I felt sick as the story of how he became who he was unfolded.

Being inside the head of someone while writing fiction is more intimate than psychotherapy; I am not listening empathically, I am (through the characters) telling the story. I become them. They tell their story through me. The experience of writing through Noah created an empathic conflict.  One that was more intense than what I had experienced in a clinical setting. Fascinating and disturbing.

Another thought I had after finishing Noah’s Story was that I had met and even dated a few men like Noah Donovan. Maybe if I had written the book while I was still single, I would have recognized the inner conflict and saved myself some heartache.

 Live (Write) and Learn.

Noah’s Story will be available Tuesday July 18. For a chance to win a signed copy, please sign up for my newsletter at the top of the page.