17 February 2007

Pattern Recognition, Awareness, and Escape From Abuse

This concept has been on my mind a lot lately.

If you Google 'pattern recognition', by itself, you'll get a lot of hits about computer programming, and one hit for a spy novel - today, anyway.

But pattern recognition is a lot older than computer programming. And it's about a lot more than being able to tell circles from squares and sawtooth waves from sine waves.

Patterns don't just occur in the carpet, or the linoleum, or in sets of numbers, or on maps. Patterns also occur in behavior, and in time.

In fact, much of the stability of our lives depends on patterns.

We live to a circadian rhythm, to a seasonal rhythm, and to a lifetime rhythm.

If we are women, we live to a 28- to 35-day rhythm for much of our adult lives [and if we are men, our lives are profoundly affected by that rhythm as well]. We expect a normal pregnancy to last nine months, give or take; a normal childhood to last 12 to 13 years; adolescence, physiologically at least, to end by age 20. We know when 'middle age' and 'old age' typically begin, and we know that, if we are lucky, we should see at least threescore years and ten.

Variations in these patterns aren't considered 'freedom' or 'individual expression'; a child who has the physiology of an elderly man at age six has a terrible disease, progeria. A forty-year-old man who still prefers thirteen year old girls isn't considered highly individualistic, he's considered unwell, if not predatory.

We eat, sleep, bathe, work according to patterns that exist in our own bodies and in time. And the pattern of the seasons affects us profoundly - some of us emotionally as well. Passover, Easter, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year, Ramadan, Eid... all follow cyclic patterns. Planting, cultivating, harvest, wintering over... patterns are fundamental to our lives.


Learning to recognize other patterns can be fundamental to our wellbeing; and it's strange, that with patterns as pervasive in our existence as they are, so little attention is paid - directly - to the concept of pattern recognition as a part of psychological literacy.

We humans are both mysterious and predictable. You may not know what I think of a particular brand of tea [although by observing me closely, you can probably make a very good guess], but you can be absolutely certain that, if I drink X amount of tea at time Y, I am going to be making a trip to the bathroom by time Z. Depending on how strong the tea is [and how weak my physiology is], you may even be able to predict that I will be making multiple trips; depending on how well you know me and my circumstances that day, you may also be able to predict whether I'll be blase about the inconvenience, if I do, or annoyed with myself over it .

As humans, we all have some 'hard-wiring' in common. Paul Ekman, famously, has studied the range of human facial expressions in response to fundamental emotions, and has developed an incredibly accurate ability to read emotions from the microexpressions that flicker across our faces - regardless of culture. Disgust looks the same whether you are a two year old in Bali, a four year old in Cairo, a twenty year old in Stockholm, or an eighty year old in Kenya, it turns out. And so do anxiety and fear, and rage. [Here's a link to some information about Ekman and microexpressions: Ekman Article ]


Beyond microexpressions and the known effects of diuretic beverages, there are patterns that are incredibly important to recognize. These are behavioral patterns. If we are willing to believe that they exist, and to learn about them, they can literally save our lives.

Here is one example: abuse, when unrestrained, escalates.

Abusers generally perform 'tests' to see if they can overstep our boundaries, physically or emotionally, without consequences. When the 'test' abuse is not resisted, the abuse level is increased, and if that abuse is not resisted, the level is increased further.

Patricia Evans describes one specific domestic violence situation, in which the wife was first subjected to escalating verbal abuse, then physical abuse began. Looking back, the wife realized that her husband had 'tested' her. He began with accidental-looking things, like standing on her foot. Over and over. He began 'stealing' her favorite chair, if she was sitting in it, reading, and got up to get coffee or use the bathroom - when she returned, he'd be in that chair, and would refuse to move. [See "The Verbally Abusive Relationship" for more on this.] He derided her when she objected, and claimed that she was 'imagining things' [gaslighting]. Ultimately, he began to hit her. Evans points out that this type of escalation and gaslighting is a very common phenomenon in domestic abuse. Domestic violence doesn't just emerge full-blown, in every case; sometimes it grows.

Patterns also exist with purely emotional abuse. Abusers often seek to be alone with their targets, so that they can act out with impunity and no witnesses are present. Then it's your word against the abuser's, and the abuser knows that most people DON'T know enough about patterns, or abuse, to realize that the insane behavior you are describing isn't 'insane' at all - it's characteristic of abuse!


Unfortunately, survivors of extensive abuse - both physical and emotional - especially, but not only, if it happens in childhood - have the deck stacked against us in a very crucial way. Our ability to recognize patterns can be hampered or hindered by two things:

[1] As part of the overall 'grooming' to accept abuse and tolerate intolerable behavior, abusers actively condition their targets not to think about recurring events so that we do not make connections between them. - For instance, if we point out that every time we call them long distance, they put us on hold to take incoming local calls, and keep us waiting for minutes at a time; yet they become furious when we take a break in call ourselves - we will immediately be accused of 'overreacting' and 'dredging up the past'. [It's a pattern. They can't resist it. Watch for it.]
This is almost always a red flag for abuse: when you attempt to discuss a single, specific past event with someone, watch how they respond. Fury, denial, criticism of you for 'dredging things up', and a refusal to even look at the event together are dead giveaways. And watch even more how they respond when you attempt to discuss a series of nearly identical past events!

[2] Abuse involving betrayal, especially abuse of a child by a parent involving betrayal, often triggers a form of self-protective, defensive amnesia that is even stronger than denial. Jennifer Freyd has studied this phenomenon extensively, and she describes this 'amnesia for abuse' as 'the distortion of information for the purpose of preserving a relationship'.

This is a perfect example of an essential childhood strategy that is maladaptive in adulthood. We depend on our parents for our very survival, and if they betray and abuse us, we must be inordinately strong within to be able to hold the truth of that fact in conscious awareness while also holding and accepting the truth that we are stuck depending on them until we are old enough to rely upon ourselves. Few children can manage this; most of us 'reframe' the situation by 'forgetting' the abuse. And each time the abuse is repeated, our ability to forget, or to entirely avoid seeing, behavioral patterns becomes stronger.

'amnesia for abuse' is discussed at greater length here: Abuse and Memory


With these two memory-inhibiting factors operating against us, the situation can seem pretty bleak. But it's not. Every one of us has pattern recognition skills that can be applied behaviorally. Every one of us can learn to recognize 'grooming' and 'preconditioning', and not let it influence how we look at the behaviors in question.

The single most important thing to remember is that it's what a person does - repeatedly - in situations you have witnessed - that tells you the most about them. Not what they say, not what they tell you they have done in situations where you were not there. What they actually do.

The second most important thing to remember is that remembering past events is not 'wallowing' or 'dredging' or 'catastrophising' - especially if someone who behaves abusively towards you tries to convince you that it is!

Remembering past events is the absolutely essential prerequisite to learning from experience. And anyone who does not want you to learn from your experiences - no matter how charming their pose - does not have your best interests at heart.

And the third most important thing to remember is this:

Abusive behavior follows patterns. Batterers behave in highly stereotyped ways - the tension, the battering, the apology, the honeymoon, the tension. Emotional abusers behave in similarly patterned ways - ruin the holiday; ruin the birthday; spoil the accomplishment; demand all the attention at the wedding/funeral/bar mitzvah.

If you learn to see the patterns, you will learn to see the abuse. If you see the abuse, you see the abuser. Once you see the abuse and the abuser, you will find that you can actually predict how the abuser will behave; once their behavior becomes predictable, you feel less helpless, have more of an opportunity to control your responses, and can then become free.

It can be done.

Walking With Lulu In the Wood -- Naomi Lazard

The wood is a good place to find
the other road down to that hollow
which rocks a little with the same
motion as my soul. Come on, Lulu,
follow me and be careful of the rain
washed leaves. But you were always gentle.
I'll be quiet too, and we won't disturb
the raccoons or any of the other animals.
I want to talk with the god here, Lulu.
This is a grove where he must be hiding,
and here is a pool for a small water god
to swim in. Let's talk with the god, Lulu.

The sun makes a great splash and you
are the one who is hiding in the tall grass
just the way you used to. Lulu,
you are the color of sand in a certain light,
like the shadow of light. The sun
is embracing me; the shadow also
means death. It is the god's word
in the language he speaks. He says
you are small again, that you have chosen it.
He says your reflection will be in the pool
forever, a blue resemblance, a startled joy.
He says this is your world now, this night
of tall trees, this cave of silences.
He says he loves you too; he watches you sleep.

Is the grove real? Is this your heaven, Lulu,
that you have let me enter? This glade,
the winter ivories? - the season you missed
by dying in the fall. Are these your jeweled
stones, your curled-up animals, your grass?
And your god, the secret splash in the water
that you always seemed to be listening for?
Is it the god's way - the mouth in the wood,
the opening to paradise?

God of animals and children, separations, loss.
Goodbye. Goodbye, sweet girl, again.
The days pass like oranges tossed
from hand to hand. Then one will drop
and it will be my turn. Wait for me here.
I hope to be fortunate, to come back and share
this winter wood with you, the dark hollow,
the snow-dusted face of the god.

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The Face of the Lion -- Loren Eiseley

The moth-eaten lion with shoe-button eyes
is lumpy by modern standards
                                                and his mane
scarcely restorable.
                              I held him in my arms
                                                  when I was small.
I held him when my parents quarreled
as they did often while
                                     I shrank away.
                                     My beast has come
down the long traverse of such years and travel
                                                                 as have left outworn or lost
beds slept in, women loved, hall clocks that struck
                                               wrong hours,
in years forgotten, notes, lovers' quarrels, dear God
                                                           where go
our living hours,
                           upon what windy ash heaps are they kept?
Down what sepulchral chambers must we creep
who seek the past?
                                   I who have dug through bones
and broken skulls and shards
                                      into the farther deeps
such efforts now.
                             I cannot practice
         the terrible archaeology of the brain
                                                     nor plumb
one simple childhood thought. I want no light to shine
        into those depths forever
                                                  but the lion
sits on the shelf above my desk
                                                   and I,
                                                   near-sighted now,
take comfort that he looks
                                   forthright and bold
                                           as when
my hands were small,
                                   as when
my brain received him living,
                                   something kind
                                   where little kindness was.

The mirror tells me that my hair is grey
but the wild animist within my heart
refuses to acknowledge him a toy
given by someone long ago
No, no, the lion lives
                                and watches me
as I do him.
                      Should I forget
the hours in the blizzard dark,
                                                the tears
spilled silent while I clutched his mane?
He is very quiet there upon the shelf,
as I am here, but we were silent
                                                 even then,
past words,
                   past time.
                                   We waited for the light
and fell asleep when no light ever came.

                                                     I do not
delude myself.
                        The lion's face is slowly changing
               into the face of death
                   but when I lie down
                                            upon my pillow
                                                      in the final hour
I shall lie quietly and clutch
                              the remnants of his mane.
                                                        It happens we have known
a greater dark together
                                                 he and I.
I am not terrified
                           if he has come
                                          wearing another guise.
To him the watcher I will trust my sleep,
                               shoe-button eyes, the lion on the shelf.

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