Denial: The Perpetrator’s Evil Accomplice

By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

“I think my husband is sexually abusing our baby,” a counseling client confided.  The young mother reported disturbing observations including: mysterious abrasions on her daughter’s rear end, the child screaming every time the dad approached, and the kicker, “I saw him naked with an erection in the babies’ room last night!”  I told her I needed to file a child abuse report.  She agreed to a safety plan to protect her baby.

The next day an investigator called me to discuss the case.  I repeated what the mother told me including more details than reported here.  “She told me you exaggerated what she said. She denies ever telling you she thought her husband was abusing the child,” the detective said.  As we talked, the detective described the mother as “cagey, guarded, and highly protective of her husband.”  The detective stated, “Unfortunately, it is our policy not to pursue these cases when the only witness recants.  Unless you have other evidence, there’s nothing I can do.”

The mother never returned my phone calls.  Several months later I ran into her in a public place.  As is my practice, I don’t talk to clients in public unless they choose to speak to me.  This protects their privacy.  She approached me and said “Hello.”  I asked, “How are you?”  “My husband and I are great!  Things have never been better,” she said with a stiff, non-Duchenne smile.

Denial, the rejection of a truth too uncomfortable to accept, really sickens me.  It keeps kids in abusive homes, allows pedophiles to serve communion, and enables killers to get away with murder.  Sometimes denial serves a positive function.  In a New York Times article, Benedict Carey  describes how denial can allow us to idealize our loved ones, by overlooking flaws and exaggerating strengths.  This serves as a way to preserve family relationships and it fosters loyalty and healthy attachment.  Understanding and empathizing with our loved ones encourages forgiveness and domestic harmony.

Often a couple comes into therapy with what they call “communication problems.”  After 25 years of experience I’ve learned that the problems often have nothing to do with communication and everything to do with denial.  Many couples, who reported “communication problems” in the first session, eventually exposed their denial of problems like:

  • Drug/alcohol addiction
  • Family violence
  • Extramarital affairs
  • Child abuse
  • Criminal activity

The real therapy doesn’t start until clients begin to tell the truth.  The truth remains invisible under the haze of denial.  Author Richard Bach writes “The worst lies are the lies we tell ourselves.  We live in denial of what we do, even what we think.  We do this because we are afraid.”

How do you know when you’re in denial?

  • You are 5 feet tall and weigh 250 pounds (yes you eat too much).
  • Your friends and family hate the way your boy/girlfriend treats you (yes s/he’s bad).
  • Your friends and family fear for your safety (yes your behavior is risky).
  • You were arrested for DUI (yes you have a drug/alcohol problem).
  • Your son violates his probation (yes he’s resumed his criminal activity).

As an anger management expert, I work to help people lower their levels of hostility and increase empathy for others.  Empathy helps us understand and forgive.  We can empathize with an abuser who suffered brutal treatment in childhood.  Empathy for the abuser does not mean we should excuse abuse.  We teach people healthy ways to cope with strong, uncomfortable emotions so they don’t need to rely on denial to get through the day.  But as any criminal profiler will tell you, many crimes of violence stem not from the heat of rage but from the cold calculations of a psychopath.  And for every psychopath moving through the world looking for a victim, there’s a denying enabler looking the other way.

(This post originally appeared in Women In Crime Ink, Sept. 16, 2010).