Type: interview with Shirin Shokouhi
Summary: Psychotherapist Shirin Shokouhi discusses the various parallels and patterns commonly seen in violent relationships - between individuals and also between nations.
Shirin Shokouhi is a psychotherapist in New York. We first became aware of Ms. Shokouhi's work through one of her essays, Mandating America to Treatment: a Counselor's Perspective. Today Pinky speaks to Ms. Shokouhi via telephone in order to learn more about some of the parallels between interpersonal violence (for example, domestic violence) and state violence (wars, etc.).
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Pinky: Good morning, welcome to The Pinky Show.
Shirin: Hi Pinky.
Pinky: Ms. Shokouhi - or do you prefer Sherry, Shirin... Shirinak?
Shirin: Shirin, thank you.
Pinky: Okay thank you. Shirin, can you please tell me something about what you do in your work as a psychotherapist?
Shirin: For my particular job I work mainly with Afghan refugees who generally have had multiple serious traumas. In one sense it's bearing witness to people's lives, the losses and the pain, and trying to find in the midst of that where their strength is, where their successes have been, and to use that to help them get through different crises points or stuck points. It's ongoing crisis that they're dealing with - horrible flashbacks of war scenes, and not really being able to function. I also work with families, domestic violence and substance abuse issues. We'll do many different kinds of things depending on who's coming to us for counseling.
Pinky: So with these Afghan refugees or victims of domestic violence, it sounds like you do a lot of listening.
Shirin: A lot of listening, yes. Actually I'm glad you brought that up because even though what we do can look very different across different groups and the many reasons why they might come to us for counseling, the listening part is always key. That is one of the constants. People don't really get listened to anywhere else. Listening helps them feel validated, that somebody gets it, just how bad it really was. Most of the time in our lives you talk about something that was upsetting to you and people just want you to move on: "Okay we heard you, let's move on." And sometimes our, souls, let's say, don't want to work that way.
Pinky: You're working with a lot of people who have been severely victimized by violence. Has this given you any insights into, maybe, the causes of violence?
Shirin: You know, it depends on the type of situation we're talking about. For example, if we're talking about domestic violence it's never easy to pick out a single cause. We can have a lot of different theories. But I would say my working definition these days has to do with domination and sexism going together, men having this sense that they are entitled to dominate their family. "A man's home is his castle" - there's a saying like that right? Men feeling entitled to be being in charge and completely controlling and dominating their partners, their families.
And we can tie this together with political and international issues. The same domination and group ideologies of oppression like racism and sexism comprise a similar driving force in society and the world at large. Some would say America feels entitled to dominate and completely control what happens in the rest of the world. Violence is used as a tool for establishing and maintaining power and control - between individuals or between nations.
Pinky: When we make the connections from one level to another, from domestic violence to state violence - and as an American I'm interested in America in particular - where does this sense of entitlement come from?
Shirin: I think it's pretty commonly discussed, the issue of American exceptionalism. There's a sense that we're special and that the rules that hold true for the rest of the world don't have to apply to us. And I'm saying 'us', and 'America', I'm using a lot of general terms here. And this is sort of trite to say at this point, but you know, European settlers came over here and how did they establish this country? Through domination, through destruction of native people. How did they build it up? Through slavery, subjugating a whole other race of people. So that's been part of the American tradition. I'm sure that other people who are more expert in thinking through these issues could work it out even further but I think what we do see is the result. It's permeated our culture.
Pinky: In your work as a psychotherapist, as a counselor, are there predictable patterns of how you see violence being expressed in a relationship?
Shirin: Yes definitely. That's actually the thing that started me thinking about state violence versus 'relationship violence'. One thing that all psychotherapists do is look for patterns in behavior. And this is a known pattern in violent relationships: first there's an escalation of tension. Followed by an acute period where there's violence; there's battering that happens. Then afterwards there's a deescalation. Sometimes they call this the 'honeymoon period' where it's sort of a cliche that the abuser will show remorse, he'll bring her flowers, he says, "It'll never happen again." Although sometimes we don't really see much remorse; even the remorse is tinged with blaming the victim, you know, it's one sentence of "Sorry that happened; you know how much stress I've been under...", et cetera. But that's the pattern: escalation, then an outbreak of violence, then deescalation followed by the next cycle of escalation, violence, deescalation. At this point he may try to instill hope in her by saying it's not going to happen again, but inevitably it always happens again. That's one of the things I really try to get across to the victims of domestic violence that I work with. It will happen again.
This basically also describes what we see happening between the U.S. and its treatment of other countries. It occurred to me when I was thinking about what we saw in the lead up to the Iraq war and now seeing it again in terms of Iran. Suddenly Iraq was enemy number one. And I think a lot of people, most Americans, were made afraid from what they were exposed to through the media, the sensational reporting. The hysteria and fear was built up into hatred - this is the escalation of tension. Then of course we know what happened: the war. The rage gets acted out and then that tension gets released and there's a deescalation. Deescalation to the point where it's now, "Iraqis - why aren't we letting Iraqi refugees in?" Now we feel bad for the Iraqi people. Whereas 3 years ago, 5 years ago we were scared of them, they were our enemy, just as so many others who are now seemingly harmless allies, were once seen as our very dangerous enemies, till we acted out the urge for war. I think it was [comedian] Chris Rock that I was watching, one of his stand-up routines, and he was saying "Soon my friend is only going to be dating Iraqi girls." And it's funny until you realize that this is something that really happens - this cycle.
Unfortunately, just like interpersonal situations, the pattern just repeats itself. In terms of relationships between nations or peoples, we just go from one usually non-white group or country to another. And racism and a feeling of entitlement to being number one, that we are good and only mean to do good have something to do with that. How often I hear a batterer saying his partner is stupid or doesn't know how to do anything...like the so called 'white man's burden'.
And for me personally its devastatingly frightening, beyond frightening. At this point, you know, I have a lot of family in Iran. It feels like they have all been sentenced to death. And the only person who can commute the sentence is George W. Bush. And that's not a good place to be because we know his record on commuting death sentences was not very encouraging in Texas. So I think the parallels between interpersonal and state and the wider culture at least for me are striking and it resonates with other people who have responded to this. I'm sure I'm not the first person who has talked about it.
Pinky: What other kinds of parallels exist between 'interpersonal violence' and state violence?
Shirin: I was just thinking about this today, anticipating your call. I was thinking about our diplomatic tools. What are our diplomatic tools? Well, common ones are our government might impose economic sanctions on another nation, or isolating a country from the larger family of nations. Basically we try to coerce them into doing what we want and this is what we call diplomacy. How are these related to domestic violence?
If you look up the definition of domestic violence it doesn't just say 'one partner physically beating another'. It's about a pattern of coercive behavior. There are relationships that we would call abusive or fall under the purview of domestic violence that don't even include physical violence. Other forms of abuse would include, for example, total economic control. So a husband saying (and this often happens) you know, "Turn over your paychecks" or "Sign a blank tax form" or "Don't work, you need to be at home to take care of the kids."
Another tactic used in domestic violence is to maintain power and control over the victim by isolating her from family and friends. A lot of times women don't fully recognize that they are in a violent situation partly because they are so isolated. The batterer doesn't want her to be out there seeing how other people's lives are. He doesn't want her to be out there talking to others about what's happening in her relationship because most people, if they hear it, they'll recognize it as abusive.
So what we call diplomacy is actually other tactics of coercion and control - never a negotiation based on equality and respect.
Pinky: Oh wow, you know what this reminds me of? This reminds me a lot of how there's always a big struggle to control the flow of information coming out of a nation under attack. Like, in Iraq or Afghanistan. Or even like in Burma. It seems like the abuser will always try to make an informational blackout regarding what's going on on the ground in the countries being attacked or occupied. I mean, I guess from the abuser's perspective it's better to keep a war floating in the realm of the abstract, right? Like even now, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been going on for such a long time already but most Americans still don't know what's going on in the lives of the people who live there. It's like you say, we're not going to be able to connect ourselves to the abuse our country is dishing out if the reality of that abuse is constantly being disappeared. Sorry, maybe I'm going off on a tangent. But I'm sitting here listening to you and there's like a million parallels popping up in my head!
Shirin: I know, I know! There are!
Pinky: Maybe I can ask this - is it common for individuals who are involved in a violent relationship to have difficulty recognizing their situation as a violent situation? That they are being abused, or from the other side, that they are being abusive?
Shirin: Absolutely, yes. Usually if a woman - and I will say 'woman' because 98% of the time that's the case - a lot of times a woman will call and say, you know, "I want to come in for couples counseling because we're having relationship problems." At that time she's not really seeing it as an abusive relationship. So it really depends on at what stage of awareness and recognition she's in. If you're familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, they say that just becoming aware of what's happening is a major step. As for the batterer, I think they always know what they are doing, even at the height of violence. But they only come to recognize that there is something wrong with what they are doing when there are enough negative consequences for them.
Pinky: You know, one of the things we are trying to do with The Pinky Show is to help raise recognition of our collective situation, especially among American people. But what comes after recognition? How do you send an entire nation to therapy?
Shirin: At this point, personally, I'm desperate to think of practical and maybe realistic ways of dealing with this. Usually when you are in power you don't spend any time trying to understand what's happening to other people. And you don't just 'give up power'. If I look to, 'what works with stopping domestic violence?', from this perspective it's really been about accountability and negative consequences. So if I draw that out in terms of the responsibility of us living here in America, the question becomes how do we hold people accountable for starting wars? I don't think people are just going to stop. Nobody gives up power just because suddenly they've seen the light and decide 'that's not a nice thing to do.' That doesn't happen. The way that it happens is through people being held accountable. So one way is through a world justice system, so there could be prosecutions and restitution hopefully. And for the rest of us - for the media, for the community - our responsibility would be to support that. You know, we have the world court, it's not really been... it hasn't been able to enforce anything relating to U.S. wars of aggression. We need to actively work towards that. We also have to stop buying into 'blaming the victim' in many ways: "Well Iraq should have never done this" or "Iran shouldn't be talking that way to America", you know? None of this gets the violence to stop. It actually perpetuates it.
So the first step has to be stopping the violence. The perpetrator needs to recognize that no matter what, he can't do this. He can't hit her no matter what. And he usually doesn't get that unless he's gone through facing some major negative consequences. It's a relatively recent thing that an abuser will get arrested, he'll have to go through the court system, that he'll be mandated to different kinds of programs. Before it was more about "Okay, well it's a family issue; deal with it." There was no accountability. The same thing needs to happen at the state level, where the leaders of nations are held accountable for what they do. I think that if Bush and Cheney had been held accountable for the Iraq war they certainly wouldn't be starting another conflict right now. But that never happened. At most people said "Okay, they made a mistake" or "They're incompetent." That's not accountability.
You know, I'm not so optimistic that we're just going to transcend and rise above it and connect, although that would be beautiful and I would love to be part of that. From my perspective, working towards accountability is the only thing that I've seen work on a small scale. For the domination to be able to not work anymore, there has to be consequences. Even that, I think, may be too optimistic these days but... but that's where my head is at the moment.
Pinky: Thank you Shirin. I think there are lots of people who are trying to understand the current situation. And judging from much of the feedback we receive, it's pretty obvious that people are really struggling right now, there's a feeling that they don't even know how to think through the problems. And you've just given us a new way to relate to this at a more personal level, at a level that I think is much easier for individuals to understand. So thank you again.
Shirin: Thank you. Take care Pinky.
Pinky: Bye Bye.
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Additional reading: Shirin Shokouhi, Mandating America to Treatment - A Counselor's Perspective (March 2007).