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Of Victims, Persecutors, and Rescuers

by Steve Vinay Gunther



I imagine you have at some point in your life been subject to being bullied, oppressed, suppressed, or persecuted. Maybe a playground bully forcing you to his or her will. Perhaps even getting bashed up. Or maybe more subtle - the long promised promotion that somehow never eventuates; or being consistently gossiped about but never spoken to directly. There may have been an experience of being excluded by a group - a clique who don't tell you what they are going to do; or a company throwing their money around to deliberately overpower your wishes as a local resident.


Then, you, being a progressive-type person, have certainly been in a position of helping any number of unfortunate people, whether they be the down and out at soup kitchens, the subjects of domestic violence, or perhaps a friend who is being unfairly picked on.


As for having stood, however briefly, in the role of the perpetrator of such pain, well - few like to admit that. Particularly those who consider they have a modicum of virtue and morals. Still, each of us can find a moment, even several of them, when we have rode roughshod over someone else's wishes; have not listened to cries of pain; or maybe even struck out physically. Then there are the nobler reasons - 'for their own good', or 'I have a better understanding of what needs to happen'.

The Carousel

For some of us, the experience of these roles has been very sharp: prolonged periods of abuse; violations such as rape; or the inhumanity of the police force. These experiences are formative, and the pain can run very deep. The results are almost always being drawn into a pattern that involves the three above roles.

Which role one plays is not at all fixed. I may burn with the memory of the injustice, and dedicate my life to seeing that others do not needlessly suffer. Or that burning may rage stronger, strong enough to actually take on the role of Persecutor myself; so strong in fact that the fire obliterates memory of how much pain I felt being on the receiving end. Or my strength may be shriveled up in the fire of the pain, and again and again I end up in positions of being one down, drawing the short straw of humiliation in life's offerings.

And, very likely, I will find myself moving between one place and another, depending on how the internal fires are burning, and who's turn it is for which role.

For this seems to be part of our human patterning when it goes awry - this cycle of Victim, Persecutor, Rescuer. Or perhaps these are in fact part of the lessons we all have to learn as human beings, and a good part of the drama of life is the process of discovering who I am outside of these straight jacket roles.

The real McCoy?

But are there not 'real' victims - of war for instance; or the innocent children who lose their lives to starvation in third world countries? They are not 'playing' at these roles! True.

And sure as hell, I never wanted to be bullied constantly on the playground.

And, sometimes people need a good blasting, to wake up to their laziness. Sometimes people need limits spelled out and enforced, especially if they are taking more than their share.

And, the Good Samaritan did a great service, supplied a spiritual parable that went down through the pages of history.

Chicken and Egg

So what is all this about 'playing' these roles?

This seems to be a result of the patterning that is a consequence of the pain of abuse. It starts with being a 'real' victim, with having one's boundaries transgressed, or never having been given the essential certainty and consistency of boundaries that children need. This sets up a chain of thoughts, feelings, and actions, that manifest with a certain blindness. The pain is submerged, is too much to face, is too hard to face. Yet every experience of intimacy, of closeness, or of oppression, irritates the wound, leading to greater submerging, more blindness . . . . . and somehow we end up caught in, you could say 'playing' those ugly roles.

Forever Damned?

Two out of every five girls are sexually abused in our society; one out of every five boys. In the US, the most affluent society in the world, the crime rate is the highest in the world, and ever climbing higher. Domestic violence is rampant, rape is a widespread phenomena, alcoholism, drug dependency, sex addiction . . . . on and on goes the list of the patterns of Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer that occur at almost every level of our society. Is this a spreading virus, a downward cycle that will eventually engulf us all?


The past ten years have seen a burgeoning of the '12-step' programs, a direct response to these seemingly impossible-to-escape-from patterns. These are spiritually based and guide individuals towards living lives outside of the 'dysfunctional' roles they originally learnt as children. Some believe that we are all affected, we all come from 'dysfunctional' families, and therefore all need to do some work of this sort.

Whatever the truth of this, I know that in my own life I have found awareness of these archetypal roles very useful. Developing the discrimination to know when someone really needs my help, and when it is better to let them stand on their own; being careful not to force others against their will; and not agreeing to being put down.

Because of this I have felt progressively freed of such patterns. Nevertheless, there are many times when I experience, 'somehow', getting caught up. For instance being labeled a Persecutor when not only is that far from my intention, but when the person doing the accusing (and the claiming of Victimhood) is themselves Persecuting in an indirect way (not following agreements, asking for help and then getting resentful and angry). Or seeing friends in distress, trying to help, but finding they not only somehow like it as it is, but in fact get angry (turn Persecutor) at attempts by anyone to bring about real change. Or being let down by other members of my team who don't pull their weight, and just come around to reap the rewards.

These are intensely frustrating situations, and I continue to look for ways out of the mess, both theoretical and practical. I have found systems theory to provide an excellent perspective on how these patterns work, and what can be done about them. I have found therapy to be enormously useful in terms of identifying the thinking that keeps me trapped, moving through the emotions that continue to ensare me, and changing patterns of action that hook me right back in. So I continue to deepen my understanding of just how it all works.

Not always obvious

There is a logic that is maintained by a person playing each of these roles, as to the necessity, appropriateness, and ultimate rightness of whatever position they happen to be in, including Persecutor. 'He drank all our money away [I was the victim], so I am justified in throwing him out of the house'.

This reactive thinking always obscures the pattern itself. Husband: 'My wife's nagging sends me to the bottle.' Wife: 'The more he drinks, the louder I have to shout to get through.' See the circularity? What is obvious to each of them is everything except the pattern itself.

There is a danger in seeing Persecutors in terms of overt, bullish actions. No doubt there are such obscene displays of power which frequently occur and can spell gross forms of abuse. But it is equally true that Persecutors can use subtle, sometimes very subtle means of manipulation, 'crazy-making', and emotional abuse.

A classic story illustrating this is called The Gaslighter. A man wanted to get at the money of the beautiful young wife he married, but it was hidden in the house and he didn't want her to suspect him. So he would dim the gaslights at different intervals, and when she commented about the light being less, he would make out it was a problem with her perception. In this way it got so that she distrusted her own sense of reality. Though this is a particularly cold blooded instance, the same process occurs when one partner is being unfaithful, but if questioned, constantly denies it and queries the other partner's trust and perceptions.

One of the repercussions of these subtle forms of Persecution is that they are not necessarily visible to others either. So when the Victim finally works out that something is going on, and strikes back, they look like the Bad Guy, and the original persecutor becomes 'That Poor Fellow' in everyone's eyes. This can happen in small ways on a daily level in a relationship, producing much confusion and ensarement, exacerbated by the opinions of others who do not understand what is going on.

I have seen this happen so clearly with people who become identified Victims. 'Poor so-and-so, really gets the raw end of the deal all the time' and Rescuers - like moths to the flame - consistently jump to their defense. What remains unseen are the short, sharp jabs, emotional barbs that are flung out, or vicious unfettered attacks; unseen because the Victim immediately withdraws into the 'look at what these nasty people are doing to me' stance, and holds it so convincingly.

Apart from my own direct experience with this, I have gained some fascinating insights by talking to individuals who have been perceived publicly as persecutors (e.g. running off with someone else's partner). As the story unfolds, it soon appears that it is not at all clear cut as to who belongs to which role, and almost inevitably the identified Victim has often played the other roles with equal dedication.

Individual or Social truths?

There is a danger in all this that the reality of society as Oppressor - a real one - can be ignored at the alter of the concept of personal responsibility. For the very structure and fundamental values of our society are anti-life, anti-spirituality, and certainly support and exacerbate the kind of experiences which turn real victims (e.g. of rape) into people caught in a Victim role.

The relationship between forms of social persecution and personal ones can be seen in the response of prisoners convicted of violent crimes who were asked to view a video of people walking down a crowded street. They were asked to pick the ones they would identify as possible victims of crime, and there was 90% agreement in their (separate) choices. So while not excusing our society, there is no question that the patterns manifest individually. Some conservative sources use this as a method of blame - even of rape victims - that they somehow invited it.

The painful reality is that there is a grain of truth in this - in the sense of patterning. For although no one in their true being wants to be hurt, on a level of patterning we may invite it in all sorts of ways. This however does not justify blame - for that is one of the ways that patterns get continued: blame the Persecutor, or in this case the Victim, or sometimes the Rescuer (for instance Social Workers and the way they perpetrate an unjust system). A more appropriate response is at the level of pattern, in which we are all implicated. Persecuting the Persecutors does not work - jails simply strengthen Persecutors by giving them a spell as Victim (often in a very real sense at the hands of the prison system).

Break the Cycle

What does work is to somehow break the cycle. Maureen Watson, aboriginal activist and poet, in her talk at a recent festival, spoke most eloquently on this point. For such triangular cycles get played out on a racial level, and the only way to really make a difference is to do something outside the pattern. In systemic terms, this is known as a Meta Statement. This is too a large topic to go into here but the reader can find much on this in the literature, either on NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), on Systems Thinking, or in any of the works by or about Milton Erickson.

The original concept of the 'Rescue Triangle' was developed by a Transactional Analysis therapist, Steve Kaufman, and expanded on by Claude Stiener (author of the well known 'Warm Fuzzies Tale'). In his excellent book, The Other Side of Power, Steiner gives both theoretical and practical explanations of the way the triangle works, and how to get free of it. He summarises this in the dictum, 'No Power Plays, No Lies, and No Rescues.' What this means is firstly, not to force anyone do to do anything against their wishes; working with others by agreement. Following this principle results in stepping out of the Persecutor role. Secondly, lies are used in the sense of not asking for what you want. That is how the Victim racket works - you don't ask for what you want (or in a way you will be heard), and complain like anything when you don't get it (and build up a store of resentments). This also means, you understand you won't get everything you ask for, but you are at least honest with your needs. Of course, spiritually we are trying to reduce our selfish desires, but if someone pretends to do this when their needs still remain the same, the results are disasterous and eventually lead to leaving the spiritual path (with a great deal of resentment). Thirdly, is the straightforward, No Rescues, not doing more than 50% of the work. This is not a prescription for walking around doing time and motion studies with hand held calculators on who is doing their bit. Rather it is about being careful to encourage participation rather than dependency. These three principles have held me in good stead and are useful reference points in times of difficulty.

Spiritual Perspectives

In order to gain deeper perspectives on this topic I have found particularly helpful the writings of the Indian philosopher, P.R. Sarkar. He takes a traditional eastern cyclic view, which can be useful if divorced from western religious notions of punishment for sins.

The concept of karma attributes the good and - germane to the above discussion - painful experiences we have as children to unexpressed reactive energy from past lives. Though this may be too esoteric for some, it certainly holds explanatory power: a Persecutor in one life turns up as a Victim in the next, and as described above, the cycle restarts from there.

This awareness can be used as a tool to cut through; the original wound in childhood was not done to me as an entirely innocent entity, but rather is part of the balance inherent in life's lessons. And recurring cycles I get caught in from there on in are at every point an opportunity to break free. This means breaking free entirely of blame, and of reactivity. It is extremely important that this kind of transcendence is not to be confused with even greater suppression (which can happen with spiritualists) which only ends up in increasing blindness to destructive cycles.

Another perspective Sarkar offers relates to the traditional spiritual requisite of unconditional service. He points out that service, devoid of insight, can lead to the Rescuer/Victim cycle.

"A rich miser approaches you with a tale of woe and entreats you to give him relief. Being moved to pity if you do what is needed to relieve him of his suffering, the very purpose of Tapah (selfless service) will be defeated, as it is without any knowledge of reasoning. The first result of your service will be that the rich man whom you have served will become more miserly and more selfish and will, in the future, try to deceive, in a greater way, people who dedicate themselves to the service of humanity. Secondly, as you will, to some extent, know his inner motive, a depression will follow in your mental sphere and you will also have a hostile attitude towards him."

This is a very interesting observation, and is highly pertinent to the field of social work, renowned for its Rescuers-turned-burnt-out-Victims.

Ethical notions associated with spirituality have always incorporated the practice of non-violence, in some form. This has of course often been highly distored, and can lead to a Victim mentality rather than real mental peace. The issue of violence is an enduring theme in the Victim triangle, and the dogmatic application of 'forgiveness' or 'non-violence' can in fact perpetuate the cycle. Sarkar departs from traditional Christian notions when he says, 'To pardon the aggressor before correcting his nature would mean encouraging injustice" . This dilineation between transcendent forgiveness and down to earth social justice is not always addressed by religious insitutions. Similarly, non-violence expressed as passivity in the face of violence can clearly play into supporting desctructive cycles. Thus Sarkar calls for a spiritality that empowers people rather than renders them accepting of their 'fate'.

Ultimately this can be translated as plain good common sense: don't be a Persecutor, but act with personal power; don't be a Rescuer, but give good service to the suffering; and don't be a Victim - stand strong against injustice. This echoes closely the brave words of the liberation theologists.

However, beyond helpful ethical guidelines, or empowering philosophies, what the spiritual arena probably has most to offer is in the most difficult of all challenges: to develop the capacity to be non-reactive. This is a common theme of all spiritual practices: developing an ability to be in the world in a way which is charactarised by internal centredness and harmony; the unflappable balance of the Aikido master. Without this, even the best therapeutic techniques eventually leave one bound in some way. This hunger for something more potent than 'psychological adjustment' is undoubtedly behind the enormous and increasing popularity of 12 step programs, which unabashedly speak of the place of the spiritual.

I have found that the practice of sitting for meditation on a regular basis has gradually helped me to develop the ability to step out of the sticky cycles that can entrap me. This combined with therapuetic tools, and some of the insights I have shared in this article, have provided me with a sense of empowerment. I at least have an idea what to do. Whether or not I do it is subject to the mysterious uncertainties tied up with being human.