Monday, December 17, 2012

Knowing and Not Knowing

By Kevin Murphy
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

The recent exposure of a high profile celebrity paedophile in the UK shocked British society. How did nobody know what he was up to? How could such a high profile person get away with the scale of abuse for such a long period of time?
These are valid questions. But looked at from the perspective of this country where we have had respected members of this community doing the same thing for even longer, it is a more familiar phenomenon if not equally shocking.
The central and simple question common to both jurisdictions is how did nobody notice? It’s a question that gets its power from the retrospective point from which it always gets asked. Looking back, with the knowledge we now have, it seems astonishing that abusers were allowed to do what they did without any hint of suspicion falling on them. And, equally, how many of them were so often nearly caught only for someone with the power to expose them deciding that nothing bad was going on. So the answer to the simple question is an equally simple word that is regularly used in psychoanalysis but rarely used anywhere else: disavowal.
The dictionary definition of disavowal is: To disclaim knowledge of, responsibility for, or association with something. That’s what the dictionary says but this definition assumes we disclaim knowledge and responsibility purposely or consciously. Not every one who looked away when abusers were in their midst did so knowingly. Not every one who failed to act, did so out of unconcern. Which brings us to our next question: How can this happen?

Psychoanalysis has long recognised that we can choose to ‘not know’ without even knowing we’re doing it. When the celebrity UK paedophile was abusing children, good people were not consciously turning away from what they saw; they were unconsciously doing it. Why? Because to acknowledge that they saw what they thought they saw would have been too real, too overwhelming, too much to bear. And because nobody else signalled any suspicion they felt justified in their judgement.
That’s why in psychoanalytic usage, which expands on the dictionary definition, the term "disavowal" is often translated as "denial". It denotes a mental act that consists in rejecting the reality of a perception on account of its potentially traumatic consequences. Note that in this definition the reality of a perception takes places first in order for it to be rejected secondarily.
But people will say to themselves, wait, there’s no way we could have spotted what that man was up to and walked away knowing he was abusing young girls. That’s true, but that is to assume that you would have consciously acknowledged what the person was doing. You would have needed a moment in which it was crystal clear in your thinking so that you could say, ‘Hey wait a minute, this man is not doing good things here and it must stop.’ These situations, in reality are never clear, so we tend to disavow them. We see something odd, but only partially, and so our instinct is to shove them out of our minds because we are not sure what it is we really saw. And when it comes to anything sexual that we don’t understand, it is usually the first thing to get shoved out.
The cleverness of nearly every paedophile is to play directly at this instinct in all of us to see, half understand what we are seeing, recognise the inherent unpleasantness of it if turned out to be true and then look other way, telling ourselves we didn’t really see what we thought we saw. All of this happens in a split second and is over before we’ve even had a chance to think about it properly. It is how we automatically defend ourselves against unpleasant things. Part of the paedophile’s pleasure, on the other hand, is gained, not just from what he does to his victims, but in turning the scrutiny of sensible others away from his actions knowing they are confused and uncertain of what it is they might suspect him of. The clerical child abuse over decades in this country is an illustration of this very thing.
While disavowal works at its strongest in areas of sexual matters, it is not confined to them. Every time you come across good people standing by while bad things happen and continue to happen, you will find some form of disavowal. In contemporary society, you’ll find it cropping up in the most unusual places; in government, in civil life, in relationships, on committees. A current but more extreme example that comes to mind is the recent mass killing in the US that has brought gun laws back into the spotlight. Yet the pattern there has always been one of consistently forgetting about the problem very quickly once the publicity has died down. These are all forms of disavowal.
We can even have it in terms of our relation to ourselves. We can know something needs to be done and yet it never gets done. We can understand that our lives might be better if we stopped doing this or started doing that, and yet we never seem to do it. To understand it, and to spend time coming to see it in ourselves, is an important first step in being able to ensure we in our own small way learn to deal with disavowal. That, in turn, means we can move closer to recognising it when it occurs in the wider world around us and allow us to maybe do something positive about it.