Empathetically Explaining Weinstein: A Counter-Intuitive Necessity


Prison is where Harvey Weinstein should be, because, for one thing, there is zero guarantee that he will stop preying on women. He has said that he’s been trying for ten years to deal with his assaultive behavior, but he couldn’t stop. And although he said he’s seeking help from therapists, therapy can be a lengthy process for sexual predators. Perhaps if he had some compelling self-understanding, expression of remorse, and plan to repair the damage done to his victims, we might believe him. But his explanation of his disgusting behavior and his expressions of remorse have been trivial, as is his plan to repair the damage. He set up a scholarship for women directors at the University of Southern California. At this point, what woman would want to take his money? He doesn’t get that they’d feel that he’s buying them off, a practice he has used with some of his victims.
Perhaps it seems that I’m condemning him. But I’m only trying to be realistic about the damage he’s done and how oblivious he still is despite having been caught. I have to if I’m to be taken seriously when I advocate imprisoning him, as well as when I try to empathetically understand him. But empathy? Isn’t punishment what’s needed? And that is being done to him. He’s been paraded out in front of the entire civilized world and humiliated. Victims and their supporters are righteously angry at him, as well they should be. In their angry words is much needed detailing of both what he did and the harm his behavior caused. Without that, the public and our leaders would be less motivated to solve this problem. But there’s a problem with this reaction to any level of any harm.
The abject pain of public humiliation is, many therapists believe, the most unbearable punishment. It can break people without changing them. And what’s much worse, it can drive other perpetrators further into the shadows where they can more deftly ply their domination.
Whereas if we empathetically understood Harvey Weinstein, we’d be much more likely to reclaim him than we now are. And because he is widely known, the revelation of his eventual transformation would have broad impact. His example would enable other sexually assaultive people to seek help more than our current method does. That’s because the standard method is degrading, whereas empathetic understanding is not. So, it’s more inviting, making it more possible for a perpetrator to face his problem. And if a perpetrator also knows he will be treated with compassion and get genuine relief of what’s driving him to rape, he is much more likely to seek help and eventually make amends with his victims. These ideas apply best to people like Weinstein, men who are reasonably well educated and not severely mentally ill or lacking in genetic empathy.
Ron Sanchez, the Supervising Psychologist at Utah State Prison, works with convicted rapists. His view represents the most widely used method. In a NPR interview, he said that therapists try to “help them [rapists] realize the impact they’ve had on their victim.” Therapists present videotapes of victims’ sobbing, enraged, and telling how their lives have been damaged. The therapist breaks “down the perpetrators defenses” to enable rapists to empathetically understand the victim’s plight.
Slightly hidden in this standard view is an ancient method for correcting behavior. The therapist unrelievedly shames, or humiliates, the rapist by focusing on how harmful was his offense. That’s how we shame people. We degrade them by focusing on how bad they behaved without consideration of the abuse that drove them to desperation. The point is to goad people with the psychological pain of humiliation to stop behaving bad. This is the bottom line enforcement tool of prevailing morality, the self-responsibility ethic. And Sanchez is explicitly committed to this belief system. He said, “Therapy is ultimately designed…to demand and teach responsibility.”
Alternatively, in an empathetic understanding of problems, humiliation is the cause of, not the solution to problems. Almost nothing is known of Weinstein’s history of being humiliated, and both he and his brother, Bob, probably would find this alternative idea incredible. Most people do until they are helped to empathetically discover what happened to them to cause their problems. But a simple principle of the cause of emotional and physical violence applies. We often do to others what was done to us. We act out our humiliation by humiliating others. Perhaps the best way to describe Weinstein’s behavior is that he humiliated his victims. He treated them like things, like they were unworthy of ordinary respect and concern. He did to women what was done to him.
This explanation is difficult to accept unless you see detailed evidence of it in the lives of troubling people. It’s especially difficult to accept if the perpetrator is “in denial,” as Weinstein is. I don’t mean denial of his offenses and the seriousness of them. I mean he’s in denial of his feelings of abject humiliation. He acts like he doesn’t feel appropriately intensely bad about himself. Notice in his public confession how he trivialized the cause of his sexual assaults. He said, “I came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.” The culture made him do it. Could he have offered a less personal, less revealing explanation? He just doesn’t know what’s going on inside of him. Most people don’t.
There’s a good reason for that. It’s that people are almost completely against feeling bad. This isn’t just my theory. As highly credentialed psychiatrist, James Gilligan, details in his book, Violence, repressed shame is the root cause of even much worse violence than sexual assault. It’s at the root even of serial murder, much less the psychological part of addiction and less obviously psychically violent problems like depression, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive behavior.
Gilligan makes a good case that there is nothing more shameful than feeling ashamed. Because of that second layer of tormenting shame, we do everything we can to forget that we feel bad about ourselves, to hide it so well that we no longer know we harbor it. And buried shame is like a buried infected wound. It can only devastate the sufferer and drive him to desperation. Internally trashed by self-hating thoughts, rapist rape to get a shred of respect and therefore relief of self-denigrating feelings. They desperately, confusedly imagine that the victim’s submission means that she thinks he’s worthy of her attention. This irrational illusion of belonging is like a finger-hold on a sheer rock cliff. Sufferers sense that if they don’t do their desperate thing, their inner solid floor of protection from torment will split open, and they will fall into an abyss.
We have no evidence in Weinstein’s life with which to back up this minority understanding of all levels of violence. And again, this buried torment view may seem far-fetched to the Weinstein brothers. Perhaps they think that their parents were plenty supportive. But either subtle or blatant abuse is at the root of all assaultive behavior. Even in cases of low or zero genetic empathy, the outcome of a person’s life depends on how they are treated. Not all zero genetic empathy victims become perpetrators.
The only clue I can find of torment in Harvey’s early life is that, as a teenager he was, according to his brother, Bob, an overbearing person. That would be a starting point for asking him what did his parents and/or other authorities did that, however subtly, made him need to be overbearing. A detailed history would help the therapist and Harvey to discover what happened to him to cause his dominating behavior.
In the lives of some troubling people, the abuse can be as subtle as ordinary discipline. Consider the story of a five-year old who too often harassed his younger brother. The parents tried explaining how harmful that was. Their discipline escalated gradually, sometimes involving sending him to his room for a time out. Sometimes in frustration, they angrily spanked him. Nothing they did worked. He only seemed to get worse.
I advised them what to do, and they told me the result of my suggestion. Kenny, the older boy, was chasing and hitting Bobby, and his mother said, “Maybe you’re hurting Bobby because you feel like we don’t love you as much as we love Bobby. Kenny stopped in his tracks, started crying, ran to his mother’s arms, and said, “You don’t love me.” A sensitive, bright boy, the discipline implied to him that she thought he was unworthy of respect and love. And her empathetic understanding of him enabled him to feel his torment and express it. Her receptivity to how he most deeply felt changed him. Thereafter, Kenny’s parents more routinely expressed admiration and love for Kenny, and Kenny completely stopped harassing Bobby. Inevitably, had they continued to imply that he deserved to be humiliated, he would have become a more troubling person.
If Harvey was enabled to discover his inner torment and use it to develop an empathetic understanding of his behavior, he would automatically feel what the standard therapy has to grind on men to make them feel. He would feel for his victims. As prominent marital therapist, Daniel Wile explains, there is an obvious-once-you-see-it principle at work here. To feel for people, someone must feel for you so that you can feel for yourself. And self-empathy is the basis of empathizing with other people. So rather than focus on the plight of victims, therapists working within this alternative point of view focus on the plight of the perpetrator. As Nicholas Cage explained in National Treasure, “It’s upside down.”
Perhaps it will help to include the precursors in religion of this unconditionally compassionate therapy. But there’s a problem in doing so. The moral outrage we feel—me included—about rape makes unconditionally compassionate ideas seem equally outrageous, as though unconditional compassion means appeasement or, God forbid, condoning. Unconditional compassion for violent perpetrators is etched into most people’s minds as a do-nothing and, therefore, outrageous method. But the following forerunners of an intellectually credible compassionate therapy help us grasp that unconditional compassion is powerfully effective in the ministries of special clerics struggling alongside especially troubling people.
Only because I only know Christianity well, I focus here mostly on St. Patrick. Perhaps Patrick’s historically validated ministry most convincingly displays that compassion is not just an inspiring word. It also is powerfully transformative. Within five years after he and other clerics began their ministry, the Celts stopped human sacrifice, slavery, and the subjugation of women. In Patrick’s abbeys, talented women were elevated to the top positions. The humanizing effects of his transformative ministry predated by decades the life-saving changes we now take for granted.
Many other historic stories tell us that there is power in unconditional compassion to transform even the hardest of hearts. Consider some Native Canadian tribe members that deal successfully with child molesters by relying on members’ and leaders’ empathetic soul searching rather than on punishment of offenders. In their tribal circle, they don’t crush the offender as Weinstein’s peers are crushing him. They ask themselves, “Where did we go wrong.” Every major religion has strains of this kind of unconditional compassionate in it.
This same reflection of unconditional compassion is echoed in many pockets of many prisons, general and mental hospitals, local government service agencies, and non-profits. There is an unrecognized community of the compassionate throughout the world. I know this partly because I have witnessed enough of these kinds of people in my service as a chaplain and social worker in child protective services, prisons, parole, hospitals, and various non-profits, including local religious congregations. There are plenty of people who share profound levels of responsibility rather than expect perpetrators to accept all of it.
This is tough duty, mostly because anyone who practices it is vulnerable to career-threatening judgment. Consider the plight of Tom Hanks, who is one of the most open-hearted men in the public eye. He’s a Christian who often seems to believe in unconditional compassion. At least he did say regarding his briefly troubling son, Chet, “You love your kids unconditionally.” And in a BBC interview, he seemed to imply the same idea. He said, “America’s a place of…of a…relentless ongoing chances. You don’t just get second chances in the United States. You get third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh chances. You get to remake yourself in the United states.” The interviewer then asked, “Is there any chance for Harvey Weinstein to come back.” Tom replied, “No. No, I think we’re at a watershed moment. This is, this is a…this is a sea change.” I imagine he was struggling with his belief in unconditional compassion for his son as he haltingly reiterated his condemnation of Weinstein. He said, “I don’t…no, not, not at all. I mean, no.” The pressure on otherwise compassionate people to condemn Weinstein unequivocally is overwhelming. Again, within prevailing morality, if Hanks, Meryl Streep, and other thoughtful people were to express intense concern for Harvey and avoid condemning him, they would have been condemned. It’s a tangled web.
Nevertheless, aided by a reasonably compelling explanation of his behavior and the relief of hidden torment it would enable, Weinstein could do much to repair the damage he’s done. A before and after story would be enlightening.
I also recommend that he take a page from the life of Augusto Odone, the father of the stricken boy depicted in Lorenzo’s Oil. Odone gathered leading experts regarding the illness from which this boy suffered, and their candid, noncompetitive conversation enhanced by an excellent relaxing meal helped advance the relevant science. He could in other creative ways dedicate himself to solving this grievous problem.
John McFadden is an ordained Presbyterian clergyman and a CA State Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in San Francisco. Responses are welcome at johnhughmcfadden@hotmail.com  Dignity Press has contracted with McFadden to publish his recently completed book, Empathetic Explanation: A Solution to the Psychological Part of Any Problem.

5 thoughts on “Empathetically Explaining Weinstein: A Counter-Intuitive Necessity

  1. After forty years as a psychologist/psychoanalyst, devoted to understanding, I want to agree. But I am also reminded here of the phrase, perhaps coined by Claude Lanzmann, „the obscenity of understanding.” Weinstein is the tip of an enormous iceberg that we women, trying to break into the arts, politics, academics, business, have been living our whole lives. Enough already!

  2. I appreciate this author’s courage to stress the vital importance and healing power of Empathy.
    Also his connecting all crime to Shame and the havoc it wreaks in our lives.
    Shame, even more than Empathy is hiding deep inside all of us and causes irreparable damage by being hidden and ignored .

  3. The ” Weinstein Revelations ” have made society healthier because it gives strength to many to say “ME TOO!”
    Like pus coming out of a wound the body is in a better state to heal.
    But we must be alert to false and vindictive acusations that may neutralise this very good trend.
    The same can be said for Donald Trump and his “Fake News”.
    A lot of the media is now checking itself and others.
    Investigative reporting has been given a new lease.

  4. I welcome this current creator’s valor to push the essential significance and mending energy of Empathy. Additionally his interfacing all wrongdoing to Shame and the ruin it wreaks in our lives.

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