The first time I met the Psychopath, I froze. I was so alarmed I couldn’t speak. In the next few seconds, I experienced a trauma bond.
He wore faded jeans, and a tan, sheepskin, bomber jacket unzipped halfway — and no shirt — on that cold, blustery, November afternoon. I noticed the curly hair on his broad chest blended into the jacket’s brown wool lining. Fine, shoulder-length, blonde hair and wispy bangs failed to minimize the large brow ridge of his sizable forehead. I thought, Wow, I’ve never seen a brow ridge so pronounced except in pictures of Neanderthals; he looks German. I knew from his penetrating gaze that he was there for me.
He placed a glass vase with a single red rose on my desk and dramatically announced, “By unanimous decision, this is for the loneliest secretary on Broadway.”
Then he walked out. A white German Shepherd had been waiting outside the gallery window. It followed him obediently.
I felt a rush of relief that he was gone and I chastised myself, The man was harmless. There had been no cause for alarm. But what a strange thing to say.
Psychopaths have a trick for numbing us to danger. Like a parasite before it injects its venom, psychopaths use an anesthetic to make the host more pliable. I call it the danger-safe trick. It’s also known as a trauma bond or Stockholm Syndrome. It’s part of the whipsaw on your emotions. First they create a danger and then they save you. There are a myriad of ways to do this.
It can happen like it did with me. This pure psychopath, knowing that some people can sense a predator, was already prepared with props: a single flower and the loyal dog at his heels. Most of all, he made me feel safe by leaving quickly. If you think this has never happened to you, think again. It can be an event as innocuous as bumping into you and then apologizing.
As usual, a trauma bond always involves crossing boundaries. First they enter your space to give you a feeling of danger. It might be so fleeting that you don’t notice it. Perhaps they touch you, bump in to you, or comment on something personal. Immediately afterward they’ll retreat to make you feel safe. They might apologize or flatter or they could feign some vulnerability of their own.
The trauma bond happens so quickly you wouldn’t be aware of it until later when you notice that the person is still on your mind. The psychopath gave you a hit of endorphins and you’re primed to want more. Then you write it off, unaware that you’ve been contaminated.
Those are some simple examples. The boundary-crossing can be any of a million behaviors. They can range from rude to mildly alarming to hair-raising.
- It could be a joke that you thought was real before the prankster laughs and reassures you.
- It could be an obscene remark and a wink.
- He might dangle you off a bridge before pulling you back to safety.
- He might threaten to take away your health insurance before approving the bill in the next legislative session.
All of these are examples of ways that a psychopath exerts power over you –not necessarily physically, but over your emotions. Once they’ve done that, they have space in your head. They have your attention, which is what they wanted all along. Psychopaths will even tell you that they can’t get enough attention, they crave it. When someone tells you that, believe them.
How the Instant Trauma Bond Works
This quick foray through your boundaries followed by retreat, is meant to instill that they have the power to make you feel safe. They want you to feel that you need them – like a drug. They become the poison and the anti-dote. As Rene Girard explains, the god is both malevolent and benevolent. They giveth and they taketh away.
You aren’t supposed to notice that they created the fear in the first place. You only notice how they made you feel when they quelled your fears: happy and blessed in their presence.
If we could examine the sequence of events in slow motion it might look like this: The psychopath makes an offensive comment or movement, for a split second you feel a twinge of alarm and some adrenalin. Next, he innocently retreats and you feel safe again, then you laugh to expel your anxiety. Rather than acknowledge that you were afraid, you feel the opposite: this person just made you laugh or smile. He relieved your anxiety, which you blame on yourself. You interpret the offender’s boundary-crossing as familiarity and then as a charming audacity. You might even find the psychopath fascinating.
If you do notice your fear, you never blame the psychopath for your feelings, you blame yourself for misinterpreting his intentions, for being too sensitive or too quick to judge. You convince yourself that there’s nothing to be afraid of.
The adrenalin coursing through your body adds a dimension of excitement to the encounter with the psychopath. Not only is he perfectly safe, he’s exciting to watch and to be with. Never a dull moment.
This process is how the psychopath trains you to numb yourself to fear. The more times it happens, the easier it becomes for you to go numb when you experience fear. You’re learning to become like the psychopath himself, fearless and out of touch with reality. He wants you to mirror him so you’ll follow him to his 2-dimensional cartoon hell where the truth bends to his lies.
Why it Works: Fear Creates Willful Blindness
There are times when willful blindness is a survival mechanism. We learn to be willfully blind as children when we’re vulnerable to the adults in our lives. We trauma bond to ensure that we are pleasing to the abuser and we survive our childhood.
Even as adults, we don’t always have control over our environment. A predator can cut off all escape and the only way to survive is to pretend you don’t notice. If he suspects that you might escape, even for an instant, your life is in danger. The only option is to become willfully blind. The error occurs if we default into this mode when we could have chosen to safely escape.
People of the Lie
Soon after meeting him, I noticed that the Psychopath lied constantly and blatantly. Naively, I asked him point-blank, “Why do you lie so much?”
I still remember the liar’s exact words and how he raged in response, “I AM NOT A LIAR! DON’T EVER CALL ME A LIAR! I AM NOT A LIAR! AND I AM NOT A THIEF!”
WTF? Moment. The rage had a familiarity. It reminded me of my father, in my childhood, when he’d been disobeyed. Again, I was speechless.
I never questioned the Psychopath’s lies again but I still wanted to understand why he lied. It was before the age of the internet, so I went to the library to research why people lie. The only book on the subject was People of the Lie, The Hope for Healing Human Evil. I checked it out and kept it hidden between my box spring and my mattress where the Psychopath wouldn’t see it.
It was too late, I had already become willfully blind. I read the book but I couldn’t understand it. Subconsciously, I was working at cross purposes: to understand without knowing that I knew. In order to fool the Psychopath, I had to fool myself into believing that I was safe.
It was also during those weeks that I took my diary, which I’d kept since I was 15 years old, and ripped it to shreds. Then I found a dumpster across town and threw it away. Inexplicably, I felt terrified that he would read it and know my vulnerabilities.
My cognitive dissonance began to dissipate twenty-five years later when the stranger in the sushi bar said, “There’s a book you have to read.” and even though I hadn’t thought of the book for twenty-five years, I immediately responded, “I know the book, People of the Lie”.
How did you know?” the man asked incredulously.
Twenty-five years after I’d read the book, I was free from my willful blindness. It was safe to see evil because I’d left the Psychopath.
A psychopath knows that we use our feelings to trust we are perceiving reality. Fear is the numbing agent he uses to separate us from our feelings. When the truth is too terrifying and we’re too frightened, we sometimes prefer to numb them.
It’s ironic that a victim is even more controlled when they can’t feel the fear. That’s because when we refuse to feel danger, we can’t see it either. Whatever we deny has the most power over us. Blind, deaf and dumb we become disconnected from reality. Disconnected is exactly how a psychopath wants his victims. It makes it easier to insert his false reality if we already don’t trust our senses, if we lack grounding. When we don’t know what to believe, he’s there to tell us.
I’m reading People of the Lie again, for the third or fourth time, and I’m astounded by how much more information I’m learning from it. I literally do not remember having read entire chapters. It’s as if I was unable to comprehend and remember what I had read before, until I could give up my willful blindness and accept the pain of the truth. The book describes my family, my upbringing, several people I’ve known. Yet, I don’t remember having read those passages or having that revelation before.
Dr. Peck states,
“As I defined it in The Road Less Traveled, “Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.” “
― People of the Lie, the Hope for Healing Human Evil, page 162
Reading this book and failing to understand it, has made that statement fundamentally clear to me. Dedication to reality is an ongoing process. The book is so revealing that I couldn’t — I wouldn’t — accept it, or even remember it until I was ready to face my fears.
I highly recommend the book and I also recommend to anyone who hopes to survive an encounter with evil, to commit themselves to the higher power of reality. It’s not easy when everything in our culture conspires with us, to blind us. Willful blindness is a deal with the devil.
How does one commit to reality? Be on the alert for fear. The following quote may help:
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.”