Evil Knows No Gender ~ Understanding Violence in Women

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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Evil is unspectacular and always human and shares our bed and eats at our own table. ~ W.H. Auden, Herman Melville

In the realm of gender wars perpetual debates often concern how social, cultural, psychological, and biological variables influence who we are. We seem to fundamentally agree that one’s sex is biological and gender is socially constructed, with the caveat that sex and gender can converge or diverge in multitudinous ways. Hence, men and women are both different and alike, although the expression of identical traits may differ. One such identical trait is aggression.

Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead pointed out, “human nature is potentially aggressive and destructive and potentially orderly and constructive.”

Aggression is not specific to one’s sex, but its expression is dependent on how our inherent and learned tendencies and ethics converge with the quest for power. How we harness personal authority and strength can either destructively conflict or constructively converge with ethical tendencies.

Accordingly, how men and women respectively express aggression varies more in method than degree.

Nevertheless stereotypes obscure human variability by characterizing women as exclusively peaceful, nurturing, and empathetic. This suggests that the female part of the species is inherently virtuous and non-violent. While this might seem empowering it is quite the opposite. Disowning the dark side of human nature results in projecting it out into the world in the form of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ polarizations. Hence women are regarded as either all nourishing or malevolent. There are no gradations.

What is perceived as threatening is denied. Consequentially, this tenacious need to maintain a one-dimensional conceptualization of women as soft, sweet and selfless interferes with differentiating healthy expressions of aggression in women from egregious amoral behavior.

Preserving an archetypal image of a maternal woman cloaked in virtue blinds us to the complexity of ones humanity. From this place we are conditioned to see either an idealized depiction or a debased projection. We cannot accurately assess who one is when we are locked into polarized depictions of good and bad.

An example of this split is revealed in the figure of the witch. Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz, renowned for her psychological analysis of fairy tales said, “the witch is an archetypal aspect of the Great Mother. She is the neglected Mother Goddess, the Goddess of the Earth in her destructive aspect.”

The mother who deviates from perfection and shows a dark side falls from Grace and becomes the witch, an evil supernatural being. Moreover, this vast divide between the Great Mother and the Dark Witch clouds our ability to assign appropriate culpability to mothers who actually do ruthlessly harm.

Undoubtedly, this bifurcation complicates society’s acceptance of the notion of violent women.

Characters such as Delilah, Lilith, Medusa, Clytemnestra, the Harpies, and the Femme Fatale are exemplary of how mythology, theology and literature are rife with stories of dangerous women.

So is real life.

Gertrude Baniszewski tortured and killed sixteen year old Sylvia Likens.

Ilse Koch was known as the ‘bitch of Buchenwald’ concentration camp.

Elizabeth Báthory aka ‘The Blood Countess’ was a Hungarian noblewoman who tortured and killed hundreds of young women.

Amelia Dyer was a midwife and baby farmer. She killed up to four hundred babies through starvation and strangulation.

Griselda Blanco was a Columbian drug lord who was responsible for up to 2000 murders while transporting cocaine from Colombia to New York, Miami and Southern California.

The aforementioned five women are but a mere fraction of the legion of women who throughout history have committed diabolical atrocities. Indeed, in my professional life as a trauma therapist I’ve encountered countless stories of women whose behavior exemplified evil. From a religious martyr-like mother who mercilessly beat her children to a mother who simply closed the door when she walked in on her four year old daughter being raped by the father. Severe domestic abuse, gaslighting and sexual violence in a lesbian partnership. An adult female babysitter who sexually abused a ten year old boy. A teenage female babysitter who sexually abused a ten year old girl. Then there are countless examples of emotional incest and debilitating gaslighting perpetrated by mothers, sisters, aunts and grandmothers.

Yet for many, the ingrained concept of women as the ‘fairer sex’ thwarts victims recovery, when even clinicians fail to validate the reality of victimization at the hands of female caregivers. In fact, the majority of men and women I treat for complex trauma were victims of maternal narcissism. Although they had been in therapy before, even memories of calculated deliberate sadistic cruelty were typically interpreted as the misguided unintentional abuse of a mother beset by mental illness.

It is tragically rare to find a clinician who will understand and illuminate the full traumatic ramifications of maternal narcissism. Perhaps this is because it is frightening to consider that the mother embodies capacities as creator and destroyer, protector and offender. The taboo of hating one’s mother, of casting aspersions that assign calculated deliberate malevolence to one’s mother is considered akin to sacrilege.

Again, this speaks of the collective one-dimensional stereotypical portrayal of women as nurturing pacifists. The archetypal mother is lauded as the embodiment of benign tenderness and selflessness. This narrow fixation makes it impossible to tolerate the darker dimensions of the mother, and in turn, those feared parts of one self and in others. Hence, when a mother is a perpetrator of terror, horror, and agony we resist confronting this paradoxical truth. We desperately hold onto the ‘positive’ representation, irrespective of irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

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Although we largely consider violence to be an attribute of the virile male, clearly violence is not a domain monopolized by men. The aptitude for violence and abusive behavior in women is a stark reality, although it receives little recognition from the social sciences and when it does it is viewed as exceptional behavior. That women can have a connection to violence, other than as a victim, is still viewed as obscene as it violates the image of the beneficent female and the Good Mother.

The facts reveal what we choose not to see. Women vying for male attention redirect aggression through what researchers dub as intrasexual competition, resulting in the rampant slandering and slut-shaming of women perceived as rivals. Mean girl cliques, girl gangs, maternal narcissists, and women with Munchausen Syndrome are harsh realities. Terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda, the Black Widows, and Hamas involve women in all their operations. The perception of women as nonviolent suggests deploying female operatives is a smart tactical approach. It is easier to evade security forces if you are viewed as benign.

Perhaps the solution resides in a principle known as enantiodromia. Borrowing from this principle Father of psychoanalysis Carl Jung postulated that the merging of opposites leads to transcendence and actualization, as it reflects the higher possibilities contained in the acceptance of things as they truly are.

To allow opposites to unite, the ego is challenged to let go of its infantile need to identify only with those polarized parts considered safe and up-lifting. It is only by merging polarized depictions of women can we come to accept the reality of women’s capacity for cruelty and violence. From this place of acceptance humility can potentially replace stereotypes so that women, with all our ambiguities, can be accepted for the many paradoxical truths we contain.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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