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Scum Kind Of Wonderful

My friend, "Claire," 21, has been dating an older guy, 29, since July. Last week she told me he was in jail. She wouldn't say why, but seemed determined to stand by him. Then, it came out on the news that he was engaged in some stomach-churning attempts to pick up 13-year-olds for sex in Internet chat rooms. I can't, in good conscience, get behind her loyalty to a disgusting man whom, by the way, she still wants to marry and have babies with. I'm also afraid to express this to Claire because if she gets mad and refuses to have me as a support system, she's more likely to stay with the creep.

--Between A Rock And Somebody Else's Hard Time

That happy family fantasy of hers has a few snags; for example, dinner. Let's see...there they all are at the table, Mommy, the pervert, and their two beautiful children, and then Mommy leaves the room to get more mashed potatoes...turning Daddy into a parole violator. And then, even if Daddy is, for some wildly insane reason, allowed around his own children, it'll be a bit hard for him to drive them to school if he isn't allowed within 1,000 feet of the place: "You girls look both ways as you're running across the highway!"

Perhaps not surprisingly, my first inclination was to have you ask "Claire" who stole her brain and replaced it with Fluffernutter. My second and wiser inclination was to call Dr. Stanton Peele. Peele, an addiction treatment specialist, is the guy I think best understands the psychology behind self-destructive behavior and what it takes to pry yourself or somebody else off a compulsion. He told me your hunch was right -- the least productive thing you could do is slap your friend upside the head with her pedophile boyfriend. He explained that people don't change because you tell them they should, but because they realize "what they're doing violates what they are most about, and what they want most for themselves."

Chances are, Claire wasn't looking to end up with Chester The Molester. When she started dating this guy, she probably saw him as her ticket to white picket fence-ville. In time, a few pesky facts got in the way. But, never mind them! Like a lot of people, she simply pretended away the disconnect between what she has and what she wants -- which, in turn, left her standing by her man as if he's coming back from the war instead of the kiddie diddler wing in some prison.

To get Claire to face the contradictions, Peele recommends a non-judgmental, non-confrontational technique called "Motivational Interviewing." (See Peele's book, 7 Tools to Beat Addiction.) Start by becoming a double agent of sorts: Convince her you're behind her no matter what so she'll be free with facts and feelings, which you'll tuck away for later use. In Peele's words, "You need to be there as a support system and look for a teachable moment." Instead of telling Claire she's got her head on backwards, get her to answer questions that will make it obvious to her; for example, "So, you say family's important to you. What do you think your family life will be like with this guy?" If you sense resistance, back off. "The key," Peele writes, "...is to push the ball back to the other person (generally by asking questions)." Eventually, this should lead Claire to a question or two of her own, such as, "Did I seriously consider having a family with a guy who'd celebrate becoming a father by handing out cigars announcing, 'It's A Girlfriend!'?"

Posted by aalkon at March 3, 2007 9:05 PM


Damn, Amy, you're so good I'm speechless. That cigar line alone is priceless.

Posted by: soleil at March 6, 2007 10:57 PM

Thank you so much!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at March 6, 2007 11:34 PM

Excellent advice, Amy!

Personal anecdote about me having been "Claire's friend" (sort of) a very long time ago: Someone who was thinking about doing something extremely stupid wanted my support for it. In one of the few quick-witted moments of my life I replied: "I will support you in this. I promise to visit you in jail whenever I get the chance, no matter how many years it's going to take." I don't flatter myself thinking that this promise alone did the trick, but I do think that it can help to offer support, but making it very clear that this support only happens within the bounds of your own moral standards.

Good luck to Claire and her friend.

Posted by: Rainer at March 7, 2007 12:33 AM

As for moral standards -- far too few people have them or are willing to stand up for them.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at March 7, 2007 5:50 AM

Maybe she should get Claire to watch that Dateline show "To Catch a Predator". It's revolting what these men say to young children. Maybe if she can get an idea of how disgusting his behavior is, she'll come around on her own. Just a thought.

Posted by: Renee at March 7, 2007 6:27 AM

One of your best columns of all time. Excellent work!

Posted by: Melissa G at March 7, 2007 9:18 AM

"Between" needs to Peele herself by asking "Do I want to stay Claire's friend at the cost of exposing myself and my current or postulated children to El Creepo?" not to mention that Claire herself may also become a problem. She should ask herself how likely Claire is to lose the predator or how likely the predator is to seek retribution for losing Claire. Not that deviants are necessarily violent people.

Posted by: Dave at March 7, 2007 9:59 AM

I'm willing to bet that "Claire" isn't quite as dumb as she seems, but perhaps naive. Dollars to dognuts that "Chester" is denying the whole thing. I doubt she's actually deciding to "stay with a child molester" so much as she is trusting a guy she believes is wrongfully accused.

Hopefully, assuming he's found guilty, he'll be spending enough time behind bars for her head to clear.

Posted by: Morbideus at March 7, 2007 2:30 PM

Wow. Are you sure you're not talking about my eldest sister?

Having dealt with a scenario almost identical to yours (I mean, even the ages of the people involved are spot on) I can tell you this: Nothing short of shock therapy is going to snap your friend out of realizing how idiotic this man is.

As women, we get attached, and we act foolish. Blame Oxytocin and all it's effects, it's entirely true.

Posted by: Gertie at March 7, 2007 7:39 PM

Bravo Amy - Truly sound advice (as usual!).

But a question to the LW: I agree w/ the person above - has Claire seen To Catch a Predator? It's truly sickening (albeit, entertaining. A modern day freak show of sorts. Not sure if that makes eager viewers, like myself, a freak, too?).

Last time I watched, a man sent pictures of himself from the neck down - dick pics. The necklace he wore in the pics was also worn by the perv when he arrived at the house. This was rather incriminating b/c he could not disclaim ownership of the pictures of his erect penis. Chris Hansen also read a few lines from the AIM "convo." I MIGHT talk that way to my boyfriend after I down a glass or five of wine.

He was put in jail for a few nights. His wife came and picked him up in their Jeep. But don't worry, she covered her face up when the cameras swarmed the vehicle. Too late. The neighbors already know.

Posted by: Gretchen at March 8, 2007 6:31 AM

I 100% agree with the advice by Dr. Peele, the addiction specialist. If “Between” truly wants to be of support to her friend Claire and to help her out of this situation, she should indeed stay in the role of reality checker. Doing this via asking probing questions at teachable moments is the best way to arrive at this point. Besides, “Between” will probably also learn a great deal about her own self in the process.

I have a female friend who was emotionally totally hooked into an emotionally and mentally abusive, cheating, stingy, self-centered jerk. This relationship dragged on for four long years, which was around three and a half too long. For the first two years, however, my dear friend of 20 years WOULD NOT accept the reality that was glaringly obvious to me (and everyone else who mattered to her), which was that their relationship had no future. None.

Eventually dawn broke on her futuristic fantasies, but it wasn’t over yet. For two more long years, she kept hanging onto desperate shreds of hope, attachments, and Hollywood-conditioned romantic fantasies that “Pete” would change and see the light that she was the perfect one for him. She secretly hoped that he would show up (proverbially at least) with heart-shaped candy, bushels of roses, and a ring and declare undying love for her as he admitted he was wrong for being a world-class dickhead. She clung to this faint seed of hope like a shipwrecked castaway clings to a piece of flotsam from the sunken Titanic.

She knew damn well by the time two full years of abuse had passed and his true colors were on display that it didn’t make any logical sense for her to keep hoping for romantic rescue. You know, the cinematic sort that ALWAYS arrives in movies like “Pretty Woman”? The type that leaves the hero and heroine riding off into the sunset as the credits roll and the music swells? But of course no one ever sticks around for the aftermath reality series, when the rich white savior realizes that he did, after all, marry a hooker, and that that line of work entails some issues of intimacy and commitment on BOTH of their behalves. I mean, just look at how they met!

I digress. The point is that my friend stayed trapped in a vortex of emotional involvement for at least two more years, well after her logical mind had accepted the fact that Pete was never going to be what she hoped for in a relationship. It took her four long years of intensive emotional work with me and other loved ones to finally get unstuck. It was a difficult process to have to listen to her run over the exhaustive wherefores and whatnots of their relationship, to the point in fact that most people didn’t want to discuss the topic anymore. The turnip was bled dry for everyone but my friend.

There were times after several hundred hours of free therapy that I wanted to quit the topic myself. But I took my role as a friend seriously. I considered it my duty, like it or not, to stay by her side several times a week at two in the morning, hearing out what was amiss. I asked those probing questions at teachable moments, and gradually helped nurse the tattered remnants of her self-esteem back into something resembling healthiness.

Like I said, this took four agonizing years. It’s finally over. She won’t be seeing Pete again, and she won’t be picking a guy like him again. She learned a lot about what was driving her detrimental choices in men, and I think she actually did a great deal of healing as a result of it all. We both are confident that we pulled this problem out by its roots. The problem was one common to so many people, which is “Why do I hang onto relationships that don’t serve my needs for so fucking long, even when they are totally dead?”

The short answer is frequently: Emotional Addiction.

Emotions have biochemical equivalents in the brain. This is part of why people feel better when they think happy thoughts in an effort to cheer up. It is why you can work yourself up into anger or sadness over past injustices and sorrows simply by thinking about them, even when they are ancient fossils decades old. The biochemistry of thoughts and feelings matters to our brains, and it is entirely possible to get addicted to those chemicals our own bodies secrete. Ever hear of the term “adrenaline junkie”?

Negative emotions done to excess can become highly addictive. No, feeling angry on occasion does not make you an addict any more than having a glass of wine or beer makes you an alcoholic. It is some toxic cocktail of the regularity, the excess, and/or the underpinning motivations that separate out the addicts from the recreational users.

Emotional addictions to feelings like anger, fear, sexual compulsion, victimization, martyrdom, blame, self-pity, self-righteousness, and the like are usually deeply rooted, longstanding, and not necessarily easy to access or cure. They are in fact seldom recognized as addictions in the first place. Addictions are classically defined as either physical or behavioral; but there is a generous body of evidence to support the notion that addiction to negative emotions is not only possible, but rampant in our culture.

Moreover, they are equally difficult to overcome, if not more so, than “traditional” ones like drugs and alcohol. You can eventually abstain from heroin use. Just Say No to Coke. But how do you manage a naturally endemic emotion like anger or fear? How does one healthily relate to powerful urges like sexual drive? How do addicts to food learn to satisfy the inevitable need to eat, non-addictively? Learning how to walk those tightropes is something we all must learn to do.


My friend is not stupid. She is an intelligent, bright, attractive, loving woman with a ton to offer the world and the right man, as long as the man can also offers her what she deserves. But this type of difficult subconscious and unconscious emotional programming that drives addictive behaviors and wretched choices that happen even when we “ought to know better” is really not a trivial thing to overcome.

We all would do well to have compassion for our friends and to stand by them in their times of difficulty. Even when their blindness is hurting them and driving everyone around them crazy.

Note that standing by a friend does NOT, in any way, mean you excuse dysfunctional behavior, shift blame, whine about being victims together, or do other enabling BS. You sound the alarm in the right ways at the right times, and support them when true progress is being made. It does most surely mean having compassion for and commitment to a person who might indeed need your help in their hour of darkest need.

Claire’s immediate self-preservation instincts are kicking in when she says she intends to remain with pedophile boyfriend. She is ignoring the truth that is staring her in the fact as a tool to bridge the sudden crevasse that swung open between her perceptions of life with this boyfriend and this unpleasant new reality. These psychological coping mechanisms seem inexplicable and baffling to those of us who have less to lose by facing their implications, perhaps. But they are effective enough for people like Claire, who use them to temporarily numb the shock and pain of finding out you’ve been emotionally suckered in by a child molester. Cognitive dissonance is a bitch!

“Between”, if you are reading this, please do try to stand by Claire and her “stupid” choice in a man while still remaining vigilant to the need to tell her some hard truths in a tactful yet unvarnished manner when need be. This will require some delicacy on your behalf. I’ll bet that reading Dr. Peele’s addiction book as recommended by Amy will help you to better understand the nature of why we get addicted to things that are bad for us, and why otherwise smart folks act idiotically.

In retrospect, I can see that I did exactly several of those things with my friend that Dr. Peele indicates. So you must too. Encourage open honest sharing of facts from your friend, keeping judgments minimal, but knowing that you’ll file said facts away for later use at an appropriately instructive time when the context is better. Push the ball back into Claire’s court, generally by asking her to think about “what about if and when x, y, or z happens….” Back off a bit when necessary to give her latitude for emotional processing, and step back in when she needs your help or if/when things truly get dangerous. Allow time for this process to work its magic, and be there always as a support system and a reality check.

Claire will eventually wake up. Denial may be strong at first but it’s brittle and has a short shelf-life in the face of persistently applied truth in the form of leading questioning. Eventually it will erode away, at which point realism and the sensibility of self-preservation instincts will seep in. Your job, as her friend, will be to facilitate this process.

Be glad she isn’t already married with kids to the creep and is only 21. She’s more than young enough to have a productive relationship life ahead of her.

Good luck to you both!

Posted by: Jon at March 9, 2007 1:08 AM

Here's Stanton's book (which he wrote with Archie Brodsky) on the stuff you're talking about above: Love and Addiction

Posted by: Amy Alkon at March 9, 2007 5:41 AM

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