The well-intentioned folly of the perfect victim

Theresa read me a quote from Anne Frank this morning: “No one has ever become poor by giving.” Frank sure recorded some profound wisdom in her journal, made all the more amazing by the fact that she was only 15 when she died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945.

For decades after its publication, Frank’s diary was edited by no doubt well-intentioned people who wanted her wisdom to shine over her teenage anger, angst, and budding sexuality. She was wise, yes, and she was also completely human. I’m guessing that you were also full of vim, vinegar, and desire when you were 15. I was.

Throughout history and within our psyches is also a driver less shiny than simply wanting to show the best angle on a teenager who had a challenging life before a brutal death; we also want perfect victims. By removing Frank’s imperfect humanness, we further highlight the brutality of the Nazis, the (subconscious) thinking goes.

A more talked about example these days: I frequently hear the activist commentators I follow talk about all of the wonderful qualities of innocent people who were killed by police, particularly young black men. I have no doubt each and every one of them had wonderful qualities, as do all people – and I have no doubt that each and every one of them had some rotten qualities, as do all people. When I hear these commentators sanitizing the humanity of the deceased, I hear a desire for a perfect victim that highlights the deadly recklessness of the police involved when, for me, the real message is: It was unjust – it was horrifying – for these people to die at this time and in these ways. Period.

A deeply personal example: Roughly 10 years after I was attacked, I was describing the preceding unhealthy relationship to a friend and shared a piece that I held with particular shame. I was the one who hit first, not my then-boyfriend. On two separate occasions, he called me a whore and both times, I slapped him, my hand flying faster than my thoughts. And in his own reactive way, he first slapped me back and, the second time, gave me a black eye. My friend, in learning of the imperfection of my victimhood, stopped making eye contact with me in that moment.

The shame I held was due to the imperfection of my victimhood, too. I was a participant in that abusive relationship and, in our social norms, that somehow lessens the compassion available to me. Think about how that plays out for people in abusive relationships: Each time their imperfect humanity leads them to participate in the abuse – as it often will – they feel more and more deserving of being abused.

These are all hard example, heartbreaking examples, examples that may well be – I hope are – outside of your experience. So how about one more?

Last week, a woman I know through networking got very angry at me, angry enough to yell at me on the phone and then block me on LinkedIn at the end of what was supposed to be a straightforward conversation about various career paths. I have never had that happen before. And it was temping to make her a perfect villain to my perfect victim except she was right about something: I had come on the call with an agenda, and it was an agenda that not only frustrated her but, I think, hurt her feelings. I only had clarity about that after the call, of course – after the damage was done.

People who are victimized are still multifaceted humans. People who victimize others are still multifaceted humans. When we try to erase the imperfection inherent in humanity, we block our flow of compassion, we block our connection to others, and, yes, we also block that flow of compassion and connection to ourselves.

Not only that, but we also block our ability to explore the complexities of life’s causes and effects, feedback loops, and unintended/unexpected consequences; that is, we block any possibility that we can navigate the sticky, icky murkiness of imperfection in order to uncover those illuminating moments of clarity.


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