Perhaps one of the most unnerving experiences I’ve ever had in my life came during a stint I did establishing treatment programs for some of the most seriously disturbed characters among us. Many of these individuals had served time for criminal offenses. I overheard one such person (whom I’ll call “Ed”) bragging to several others about how many women he’d been able to take advantage of sexually over the years in his position as a “duly ordained minister.” And as he bragged further about a wide variety of exploits, he provided me with firsthand instruction on the very nature of malignant narcissism and psychopathy.
Ed had figured out early in life that everybody has their vulnerabilities. And he had nothing but disdain for those vulnerabilities and the people who had them. To Ed, vulnerability means weakness, and weakness is a sign of inferiority. Now, one could speculate that his despising of weakness might have its origins in a traumatic childhood from which he “learned” the hard way that it’s not safe to show weakness (Traditional psychology paradigms always assumed something like this to be the case.). But Ed had come from both a nurturing and a privileged background. Still he’d long harbored an innate distaste for the weaknesses he perceived in others and a strong sense that he was inherently superior to others. And harboring this attitude, this unsavory future “minister” felt entitled to prey.
Ed found that certain women, especially inherently trusting, kind-hearted women who had undergone some rough times or had been poorly treated in in the past and were therefore both hurting and hungry for love, were particularly vulnerable, and he set out on a plan to stalk these prey. He found a less then reputable outfit that offered ministerial courses online and conferred valid degrees, paid the bargain price for his brief training and credentials, and set up shop in his neighborhood. And he was very good at all the rubrics of ministerial life: From preaching an inspiring message (He made it a point to memorize a handful of the most potent passages in the Bible and could give one heck of a sermon) to saying just the right comforting words when someone had suffered a loss, to providing outreach to those in need, he knew how to cultivate a devoted following. But what he was best at was scouting out the most vulnerable women who’d come into the congregation and then slowly, methodically, seducing them and otherwise manipulating them into sexual relations. He “groomed” them by appearing to afford them an understanding ear and by stroking their severely damaged egos. He was also good at other forms of manipulation, especially getting them to part ways with whatever financial resources they had managed to secure (all for the “glory” of God and the honor of “doing His work”). Over the years, he satisfied his sexual appetite and his lust for material things quite handily, always at the expense of those most vulnerable. Ed is a classic psychopathic predator – a true “wolf in sheep’s clothing” manipulator. But he was perhaps too grandiose for his own good, and as some grandiose predators sometimes do, he finally went far enough (and became brazen enough) to attract the attention of the authorities and ended up getting put out of commission for awhile.
When I first wrote In Sheep’s Clothing, I hadn’t yet met Ed or I might have included him in one of the altered exemplifying stories (There are a few stories in The Judas Syndrome, however, that depict predators as seriously malignant as Ed.). Ed and others like him have made big impressions on me, to be sure. But as tragic as the more egregious cases like the one involving Ed are, my experience taught me that the greater tragedy is the extent to which scenarios similar in character but which play out at milder and subtler levels occur in relationships every day. People use and abuse others with alarming frequency these days. It’s an outgrowth of the culture of narcissism – a culture that promotes at least indifference to if not outright disregard for the welfare of others. And largely because most exploitation and abuse occur so subtly and because the folks on the receiving end of such behaviors are, for various reasons, unsuspecting (I address the reasons for this in Character Disturbance), the victims (like whiplash victims) rarely see it coming or realize the degree to which they’ve been mistreated until long after substantial damage has already been done. And that’s why I was inspired to write In Sheep’s Clothing.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting about the subtle ways abuse and exploitation gets played out in relationships. I’ll be talking about the inherent malignant narcissism at work in all such relationships. I’ll also be talking about the personality types most prone to such behavior and the types of abuse and exploitation each type seems to prefer. I’ll also be talking about the damage the various forms of abuse do to a person’s sense of self and why the road to recovery and empowerment for victims can be so challenging. And toward the end of the series, I’ll be devoting some special attention to those cases where abuse gets taken to a physical or emotional extreme. About that time, I’ll also be featuring a special guest on the Character Matters program – an abuse survivor who’s become both a true hero and champion for other survivors. I’ll have more to say on this in the coming weeks.
A special note about the Character Matters program: As many of you already know, technical difficulties have plagued the program the past several weeks. I’m happy to report that one of the major sources of the difficulty has been isolated and corrected. Hopefully, there will be no more problems with audio dropouts or dropped calls. And the producers will continue the quest to improve not only the technical aspects of the program but also the programming itself.