Sunday, April 29, 2012

Discovering onself as guilty

A reflection on the discovering onself as guilty
 The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that the only way to discover oneself is through ones own despair. It is this "negative" approach I use in my reflection [1] anout discovering oneself as guilty. Here I will reflect on what sexual offenders have learned me about the existence of guilt and I have put this knowledge in a philosophical framework. The reflection is partly based on a review of an abuser's diary, written from the first day he was accused of his crime until he received his sentence.

Where can one find oneself?

Soren Kierkegaard's work Sickness unto Death (1849/1963) is considered by some to be one of his most mature work, a masterpiece and magnum opus of all his writings (Come, 1995, Kingo, 1995, and Krimmse, 1990). Kierkegaard himself has written that he believes the book's content is very valuable (1967) [2]. The book is about despair, understood as not being oneself or not wanting to be oneself. It all begins when the book's author, Anti-Climacus (one of Kierkegaard's many pseudonymous writers) asks what self is.


Man is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is Self. But what is the Self? Self is a relation, which relates oneself to oneself, or is it in the relationship, that the relationship relates itself to itself, the Self is not the relationship, but that the relationship relates itself to itself (1849/1963, SV, Volume 15, p .73). 

What is this self that relates itself to itself? Anti-Climacus translates this self to one's given life, that is the life you have lived, and the specific opportunities that life provides. Being oneself will say to take over oneself, in the sense that what one already is, the existence that is one's own and that one is oneself in relation to oneself. The task is to grow together with oneself. 

There are two conditions that are described here. First, the self is a relation, that is, the self is a relationship. The second is that the self is a process, i.e. the self is a subject that relates to itself. The fact that the self is a relation implies that man consists of a fundamental duality. 
The phrase "a relation, which relates itself to itself" is a description of an event, where the relationship chooses to become a self that is "there", but only as an opportunity that must be implemented. When Anti-Climacus speaks of the self to be itself, the question is what this itself is that you should be. It is the process (the self must deal with itself) that explains the relationship (the self is a self-relation). Ones conscience clearly shows that the self relates to itself and also to oneself.

Sickness unto Death is about despair. It is in despair that one finds oneself. What is the connection between despair and oneself? When the question of how one finds oneself to be answered, Anti-Climacus negative forward by talking about despair, it is not to be oneself. The self here is not only a relationship but also a process. Self is the relationship itself, not to relate to oneself, but that the subject relates to itself. This may initially seem undefinable and almost fluid, but the explanation is actually very specific and concreate. Anti-Climacus says in fact that the task is to merge with oneself.

Talking with sex offenders 

When I look back on my practice as a social worker, I would argue that the most difficult conversations I've had, have been with people who have committed sexual crimes. It has been about everything from groping to rape and murder. In one case the man killed his victim after having raped her. In another case it was about a man who had raped 16 young people. He knew them all from before and no one dared to report him to the police. That he was finally was caught by the police, was just a coincidence. I also remember another man who was obsessed with babies and became sexuall aroused when he touched them. He had worked as a babysitting for family and friends for many years. A woman had sexual intercourse with her minor brother, while her husband watched. In all, we are talking about 35 sexual offenders I have had conversations with. Five of these were women.

What these people told me, put me often in a shock-like state. Not in my wildest imagination could I have imagined what "these people" had done. The meeting with this reality was like standing in front of a cliff. I felt myself in a place with nowhere to go. How would I be able to communicate with "people like that"? Listening to their stories filled me with both anger and pain. I could not possibly have anything in common with "these criminals" who carried out such grotesque actions. In some countries in the world some of them would probably got the death penalty for their crimes. Here I was, trying to help them through conversation as a co-therapist under supervision of a psychiatrist.

A common feature of the sexual criminals I had conversation with was that they had admitted commiting their crimes. Another common feature was that they were not only guilty of what they did, but they experienced guilt. They acknowledged that their actions and this made them feel guilt. They had identified themselves as being guilty. This is what I will reflect further into here, guilt. Although I had not performed such crimes myself, I could also feel guilt. Guilt was a kind of framework conditions between us, which created a common understanding and made it possible to talk together. The conversattions focused on discovering oneself as guilty and to discover what the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls "the Other's Face" (1993, 1998). The Norwegian professor in ethics Paul Leer-Salvesen says:


When the perpetrator is guilty of having violated his victim, I interpret this as a proper sense of the vital reaction: He has seen the other's face. The guilt is his answer that he has hurt this face (1998, s.88). 

An abuser's diary 

Let me continue my reflection on guilt by re-telling a meeting with one of the abusers, one of the faces I met. He was around fifty years old, married and had three children. The economy was good, had a house, worked as a school supervisor, was an active local politician, and was for many years a scout leader. It was as a scout leader he committed his offenses against two underaged boys. Almost ten years after the abuse stopped, he was reported to the police by the boys who were now adults and had significant problems from the abuse. 

He was confronted with the report by the police and admitted the offence. Some time later he was found guilty of having committed hundreds of violations against the two boys and was sentenced to two years imprisonment by the court. Already during the first interrogation, he was recommended by a police detective to keep a diary and was further advised to contact help. This he did. The  perpetrator has given me his diary in the hope that I can tell his story to others. He has given me permission to use his diary. 

The American sociologist Anthony Giddens says in his book Modernity and self-identity that writing a diary can be an important maturation process of creating a self-understanding. The diary is a tool where you can develop an imaginary or real autobiography, and help to direct ones attention to the future. An important feature of the diary is that it is personal and you should write it for oneself, as an open conversation with oneself. Because of this, and that the content is very personal, I will not reproduce the text of the diary in verbatim here, but instead I use his text as the basis of a more general description. [4] 

The diary is written from the first day after the review and concluded when the sentence fell at the hearing, fifteen months later. It is recorded in many loose sheets, and reflects in itself something of the chaos and despair he was in. I have collected and systematized all the sheets in chronological order. The content is made anonymous. In the further presentation, I will highlight some reflections on how it can be to discover oneself as guilty. 

He writes shortly after the indictment that the message came as a shock and the body felt like falling apart. He feels fear, emptiness, despair, but also relief. He chooses to tell about police report to his wife and she decides to support her husband. The fact that this relationship was maintained, is the main reason why he did not take his own life. The day after came nausea, tingling feelings in the chest, restlessness, feelings of being dirty and feelings of having a contagious disease of falling apart. He was laid off from work. The days that followed was characterized by body aches, nausea, emptiness and suicidal thoughts. After five days, he writes that he has started to cry because he understands that he is guilty. He experiences grief. 

Paul Leer-Salvesen said that "Sorrow-pain is also a necessary pain. Sorrow-pain will bring new life, bringing the grieving from death to life "[5] (1998, s.93). And he believes that the same applies to guilt. Guilt can give one an inner sense of hope that there is a freedom in the future. But the future seems so far very far in the diary. He cannot go out the next day, he feels sick and wants to scream out loud. He writes about despair, feeling clammy, get sweating and shortness of breath. He is bothered by thought that what he has done is unforgivable, and asks himself repeatedly if there is forgiveness. Paul Leer-Salvesen said that this belief in forgiveness is important, because:


It is the belief in the possibility of forgiveness that gives one the right at all to speak of guilt. So it must be guilt: The test is to take it seriously, it is even regarded as a moral resource, and springs out from a belief that even ones relationships with others can provide the opportunity for reconciliation and liberation (1998, s.93). 

After a month he begins to dream about fishing trips he helped when he was a child. Dreams that makes him even more sick, gives him violent headaches and he feels exhausted. He thinks alot of the sea and that he nearly drowned as a child. The days pass with the same physical and mental pain. 
Two months after the indictment he gets another shock. He remembers all of the sudden the abuse he was subjected to as a child. From nine to twelve years old he went often on fishing trips with an older man who lived next door. What this man did to him, he remembers him as if he was struck by lightning. It's like being in a dark room and the curtain are drawn up with explosive speed, so that his eyes hurt because of the blinding sun. He remembers everything. He remembers having been bound, beaten and raped, and manages to write several pages from the memories flowing on. The abuse stops after three to four years after he jumped into the sea on one of the boat trips, to take his own life. He could take the abuse anymore. His attacker saved him by graping his hair while he was on his way down in the sea and pulled him up. He was then twelve years old. The abuse stopped and the memories of the abuse were "forgotten" for forty years.

He notices that the pieces are begining to fall into place because he can remember. He tells his wife about the atrocities that he himself has suffered, and they cry together. She said that she had a clue that something had happened to him in his childhood and was not surprised.

In the year following, he writes about a close family life, despite the fact that everything around them collapses. He loses his job and must go to the Social Services for the first time in his life and seek economical help. He was excluded from both his political party, football club and civil defense services, although he has not yet been sentenced for what he has done by the court. He was excluded from all parts of society. The year continues with thoughts of suicide. He cannot accept being forced into isolation. He thinks a lot of the boys he had abused and the suffering he has inflicted on them. Now he realizes that they will never forgive him, just as he is not able to forgive his perpetrator. The only forgiveness he's hoping to get is from God, and this he asks for often without getting answer. He also writes to a number of churches asking for prayers and forgiveness. None of the churches sends him any response back. He almost gives up now, but it turns out that his wife keeps him up and keeps the family gathered. She constantly says that they will get through this together and that together they will manage both the verdict and prison time. He does not understand how she manages to be in the situation with him over such a long time. This gives him strength and courage to continue living. But he worries about his wife because she does not herself have anyone to talk to about how she feels. Her care is the only positive thing in his life and she has probably saved his life. He begins to feel guilty also towards his wife. 

Existential guilt 

The offender, which I initially treated as "a case" and described as  "that kind of man", has come to be a face I now see. Now I am left with a closed diary, and notice that I have learned more about what guilt is. What he has told about guilt, makes it possible for me to reflect on my own guilt. My guilt is not linked to a specific event, but is related simply to the fact that I live a human life. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger calls this kind of guilt for existential guilt and writes about this in his magnum opus Sein und Zeit. Here he mentions guilt, conscience and death phenomena that characterize the human behavior. He writes: 

All ontological (what makes up the remaining being) studies of such phenomena as guilt, conscience, and death must begin with an interpretation of what everyday life 'Dasein' [6] (interpretations of human behavior) says about them (1977, § 58, s.372, my translation). 

Heidegger describes guilt as a phenomenon common to all people. No matter how different we otherwise might be, we are all guilty. I have above given a description of an interpretation of guilt from the "everyday life" as an offender sees it. Paul Leer-Salvesen has in his doctoral dissertation on Man and Punishment (1991) discussions with a total of thirteen men convicted of having committed murder, and received their descriptions of daily life including guilt. For all these is the question of guilt considered by the court, which is the body that assesses whether a person is guilty or not. The fact that he has had a difficult childhood, even been abused by other people or society, can sometimes work on mitigating punishment measurement, but it does not change the question of guilt. Paul Leer-Salvesen, however, takes guilt out of the courtroom and talk with the convicted murderer of this phenomenon. His conclusion is that guilt is an existential phenomenon, involving many more pages than the question of guilt the court treats. Guilt begins before the verdict and does not end when the sentence is finished. The thirteen that Paul Leer-Salvesen has had conversations with, tells the same way as the offender writes in his diary, of an unpardonable guilt and of lifelong guilt. They are concerned that the question of repentance and forgiveness is difficult. It is difficult to forgive themselves and receive forgiveness from others. Guilt is there all the time, as one of the convicted murderer puts it: 

There may be times when it fades a bit, but it is there all the time. It is there ... yes ... every time I see a man and a man looks at me, it there: The guilt ... And because there is no reconciliation and forgiveness for the type of crime I have done, then the bridges are burned down both front and behind me. The prison will only gets bigger when I come out of this prison. But it will be there. I will never finish with my guilt (1991, s.70). 

Martin Heidegger says that guilt is more than a damage beyond repair. Guilt is also something more than a deficiency that can be replaced. Guilt is something we are, and one says: "I am guilty," that is a constant and characteristic part of human behavior. This means that being guilty is something we all simply have and am by living a human life. We meet guilt in our conscience, and here we encounter the call to free the existence of opportunities so that we can live a true and good life. This is a call to care. He writes: 

By understanding this call, the human way of being (Dasein) under its outer existence possible. It has chosen oneself (1977, § 58, s.381-382, my translation). 

To discover oneselves as guilty, is to choose oneselves, and thus involves a call for care, which means as the Norwegian philosopher John Lundstøl calls to "serve human freedom" (1970, p.7). We are all condemned to be free and serve human freedom, and it is this judgment that makes our conscienceness possible. 


My conversation partner is talks about his guilt, but he has given me many reflections on the multiple forms of guilt. Common to them is that they all treat guilt a life's basic phenomena. By grabbing his guilt, has also chosen "the ultimate existence of opportunity", and thereby he is discovered and choses himselves. It is a timely warning Paul Leer-Salvesen provides in our meeting with guilt in others: 
"And here we are to guard ourselves so we do not treat people as objects rather than as individuals" (1991, s.383). 

I have here tried to look for a philosophical expression of one of the most challenging experiences in my professional practice as a social worker. In my quest for such philosophical terms, I have tried to come up with a unifying perspective that is both theoretically and practically relevant. It is my hope that the road through one's own despair to self-understanding which is discussed in the article, shows that it is possible to attach the concept of experience as a social worker does in the face of what Levinas calls "the Other's Face" (1993, 1998).
Kaare T. Pettersen


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