Mimetic Theory and de Becker on Domestic Violence

As I was reading Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear (see also here and here) last night, I came across this, which felt strongly like something I had read before but not quite:

Talking about why many women don’t leave abusive relationships, de Becker says:

“Like the battered child, the battered woman gets a powerful feeling of overwhelming relief when an incident ends. She becomes addicted to that feeling. The abuser is the only person who can deliver moments of peace, by being his better self for a while. Thus, the abuser holds the key to the abused person’s feeling of well-being. The abuser delivers the high-highs that bookend the low-lows, and the worse the bad times get, the better the good times are in contrast.”

Today, I knew what this excerpt had reminded me of. It’s Rene Girard’s central description of how the victim is perceived both as bad — someone the community can justifiably scapegoat and kill — and as good — someone to be revered, because the scapegoating and killing of the victim brings a temporary feeling of peace to a previously chaotic community.

This, I think, is the flip of what de Becker is saying. de Becker says that the abuser is viewed by the victim as both profoundly bad — he abuses, torments, hurts — and profoundly good — he brings relief, peace, when he stops; Girard says that the victim is perceived by the abuser(s) as both profoundly bad and profoundly good. Here’s what Girard says in The Girard Reader (substitute either the word ‘marriage’ or the word ‘abuser’ — or both — for the word ‘community’):

“The crisis has been long; it seems the community is splitting or disintegrating. Then all of a sudden it’s over, and it’s over because of the scapegoat. Who or what is responsible for ending this crisis? Who or what provoked the crisis? …[S]ince the community is not aware of the mimetic nature of its scapegoating, it must look for a cause outside of the community. At this stage, the community is humble. It does know its own violence, although it does not understand its source. Indeed, the conflict anf violence are so overwhelming — so seemingly ‘interminable’ — that the community does not believe its powers alone could have ended it, just as it does not know how it began. The only convincing answer in this situation is the victim: the victim brought the violence about; the victim ended it. The victim is bad, but the victim is also good. Bad because he or she is blamed for the crisis, but very good because her or his death [or withstanding of abuse] ends the crisis. This is experienced as so effective that the whole chain of events becomes a mechanism repeated in ritual.”


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