The Dark (Guardian) Angel Descends
[T]he traumatized psyche is self-traumatizing. Trauma doesn’t end with the cessation of outer violation, but continues unabated in the inner world of the trauma victim, whose dreams are often haunted by persecutory inner figures. . . . Most contemporary analytic writers are inclined to see this attacking figure as an internalized version of the actual perpetrator of the trauma, who has ‘possessed’ the inner world of the trauma victim. But this popularized view is only half correct.”
— Donald Kalsched, The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit
As an adolescent seeking an identity, I had an older brother who was hostile towards me and who bullied me in my early childhood. Probably as a result of that, I imitated his tastes and dress-style during adolescence and even into adulthood. This wasn’t really conscious behavior, and it wasn’t really safe either (he didn’t even like me singing along to his music). David Bowie was probably my first conscious role model, but there was another who captured my imagination in a very different way. When I was twelve or thirteen, I was watching a movie on TV with my brother called Where Eagles Dare with Richard Burton (an English actor) and Clint Eastwood. For the first half of the movie, I kept asking my brother which actor was Eastwood. By the end of the movie, I had figured it out. Clint Eastwood was everything I wanted to be. He was cool, attractive, powerful, invulnerable. My obsession with him was total, immersive. I bought myself a .44 Magnum replica. On a school form, I put “New York police detective” for my chosen career. I was deluding myself, of course. I was skinny, awkward, introverted, androgynous, and artistic, so Bowie, and later David Byrne, was a far better fit for my psyche than Eastwood would ever be. But for several years, I nurtured an identification with the “anti-hero” as if my life depended on it.
At fifteen, my favorite movie was Dirty Harry, a Hollywood revenge fantasy released in 1971. Harry is a shooter (in the first scene he stops a bank robbery single-handed while eating a hot dog!) who in the film’s climax saves a group of school kids from the villain (Scorpio, played by Andy Robinson) when Scorpio hijacks a school bus. The children are incidental to the plot, however, and Harry doesn’t waste an instant to see if they are OK after he causes the bus to crash. He is concerned with one thing only: stopping the villain. Harry is the hero, and Scorpio is his mirror image, his shadow. Scorpio (loosely based on the Zodiac Killer) is a hippy-type with a peace sign stitched into his trousers. Superficially, he’s Harry’s opposite number: he’s sneaky, sniveling, nerdish, and of course, psychotic. Yet the two are more alike than any of the other characters in the film, and, as has been pointed out about many western heroes, Harry is only really good in contrast to, and opposition with, the evil of his adversary. In the absence of a villain to fight, Harry would be the bad-guy. It wasn’t Harry’s goodness that I identified with. It was his power.
In the real world, there are no dragons to slay, no unequivocal villains to define us and make our armor shine. In the real world, an expression of violent force is unlikely ever to be in service of goodness. The world presented by films like Dirty Harry is the world of a mediaeval fairy tale. Eventually, as critic Pauline Kael pointed out about the film’s sequel, Magnum Force, the fairy tale devolves into “a nihilistic dream world.” (And isn’t this the world that school shooters are said to live in?) In a world of mimetic violence, there’s very little difference between the hero and the villain, martyr and scapegoat, because both are part of a single mechanism. Transposed onto the real world, it makes little difference if we identify with Harry or Scorpio, because both of them use force to get what they want. They are individualists, and force and individuality is the American Way.
Harry & Scorpio, Abuser & Abused
The point I’m illustrating is that, however poor a fit Harry was for my own nature, identifying with him made me feel powerful. The desire to feel powerful is really a desire to be safe, and the desire to be safe stems from an experience of the opposite, of being unsafe, threatened, endangered. That was how I felt much of the time growing up. When a child is threatened or oppressed by another person, whether a parent, sibling, or whoever, one primary (unconscious) defense is to try to match the oppressor and become like them. The abuser is experienced as overpowering, and power is what the victim is most desperately in need of, so there’s a natural desire of the abused to identify with the abuser. At the same time, matching the person doing the abusing, becoming like them, is a way to be accepted by them. I speak from experience. The only time I got along with my brother as a child was when we ganged up on our sister.
 This is the quote I found online. I don’t have my Kael collection handy so I can’t confirm it. But it’s a great quote if accurate. “The strong quiet man of the action film has been replaced by the emotionally indifferent man. He’s the opposite of Bogart, who knew pain. Perhaps the top box-office star in movie business, Eastwood is also the first truly stoned hero in the history of movies. He’s inhumanly tranquil, controlled and assured, his gun power makes him the hero of a totally nihilistic dream world.” This next quote is definitley accurate: “It’s the emotionlessness of so many violent movies that I’m becoming anxious about, not the rare violent movies (Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, Mean Streets) that make us care about the characters and what happens to them. A violent movie that intensifies our experience of violence is very different from a movie in which acts of violence are perfunctory. I’m only guessing, and maybe this emotionlessness means little, but, if I can trust my instincts at all, there’s something deeply wrong about anyone’s taking for granted the dissociation that this carnage without emotion represents. Sitting in the theater, you feel you’re being drawn into a spreading nervous breakdown. It’s as if pain and pleasure, belief and disbelief had got all smudged together, and the movies had become some schizzy form of put-on.” – from “Killing Time,” a review of Clint Eastwood’s Magnum Force; The New Yorker, January 14, 1974
I can definitely confirm that what you’re saying as true. I have an ill history of being an Inverted Narcissus: where you experience the narcissistic high of another through (seemingly less guilty) association (because you’re not the one being narcissistic, you’re just hanging around). I think it’s fairly common, acknowledged or not. When I was adopted by a criminal, I noticed that I unconsciously emulated him in an attempt to ‘get what he had’, that power, even though he was the most abusive person (not physically to me or the family) I’d ever met. I felt vulnerable and weak around him, but would never let it show and strangely enough, there was always this drive to get the approval of this jerk no matter how impossible that really was. He was condescending to the extreme, to me and the wife more often than not. The frequent niceness acts were merely formalities. I noticed how we would tilt our heads like him and act and speak like him, it was really strange considering his rudeness. I also notice a lot of women are attracted to subtle (non physical) abusers, aggressive males as well. That is strange. I know I have a habit of identifying with role models I guess to make myself feel bigger than it is.
So it’s good to examine yourself and situations, because we are driven by unconscious impulses. I think self confidence and independence, having a good relationship with yourself, and a sober sense of humility is a good way to be if you want to avoid sticky relationships or emotional dramas.
I really enjoy psychology, it’s important!
perhaps imitating an abusive type and thereby feeling safe is the flip side of the mimetic violence coin, the other side being when two people are too alike and wind up in competition. In the first instance, the violence leads to a sameness; in the second, the sameness leads to violence.
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