Why a crime cannot end well, and guilty verdict does not heal.
No-one likes to be known as the victim of a crime. It carries a helplessness. Because it makes you a victim. You didn’t seek it out, you cannot fight against it. At least not at first. It takes a while to get over it. The first step to moving beyond being a victim, is to acknowledge it. Because, How can you get over something if you never get on it? Although that is mostly an internal process, it does need public recognition, a community that can build up a certain dynamism.
In my case, for decades it was definitely not seen as “my case”, but that of my father, so it took a public forum in the shape of the readers of my two books, to acknowledge my own victim status so I could then to set it aside. I felt the acknowledgement of my own victim status and the resolution, or absolution of it, would have to take place on the same stage as the aftermath of the abduction, the media coverage of 1996 and the years of various court hearings had already occurred, all without my involvement.
I worked hard for this victim status. I have written two books about it, and wrestled within myself and against dismissal from others insisting I wasn’t really the actual victim, trying to work out whether the trauma I felt was really justified. As everyone says, all’s well that ends well.
But can a crime end well? Or has it already ended badly from the moment it is committed?
I once read at an anniversary event for the Weißer Ring (a German victim support organisation), in which the moderator said “Thank God that it all ended well.” It made me uneasy, so much so I couldn’t sit comfortably in my chair, turning and squirming in every possible direction trying to find balance, before finally saying that, for years, I absolutely have not felt like everything ended well. I was surprised, when the audience before me which was made up entirely of victims of crimes, quietly nodded their understanding and agreement. This was when I first realised that the people before me were all victims of crimes who had sought and found support from the Weißer Ring. Of course they understood.
Encouraged by their empathy, I answered more completely, emphasising that I have heard “Thank God it all ended well” many, many times over the last 20 years, but that that sentiment had never resonated with how I felt. And of course, it had never occurred to me that it was not my feelings that were wrong, but the statement itself.
Just as a war cannot end well, because from the very first moment bombs start falling, guns start shooting and tanks start rolling, people start to die and remain dead; no crime can ever be said to end well. Because makes light of the victims. Even attempted murder carries a life sentence, because of the trauma inflicted on the victim. Because part of the crime lies in the intent, and that intent already inflicts damage. It doesn’t matter what the result was. Because having things ‘end well’ is not that easy. Just because the bullet wasn’t fired. Or because it narrowly missed all vital organs. To stay with this simplistic image, the moment a threat is made using a weapon, a crime has already been committed and cannot end well. The traumatization, the multifaceted feelings of guilt in the victim who may survive or be the only one to emerge “unhurt,” are all based in this first moment of the crime. And it is difficult, (sometimes lifelong) work to see oneself as a victim, even while being constantly told that everything went well, thank God, was alright in the end.
And as they say “It takes a village to raise a child”, so it also takes an entire community, or at least a series of relationships, to work through trauma. Because the trauma of one person is also the fear of another. The fear of asking the wrong questions, reacting the wrong way, going too far, and ultimately, perhaps even causing more trauma. This fear, of perpetrating further damage, leads to the relativisation of this victim status to such an extent that it allows the appearance of normality, which also seeks to put a positive spin on everything. Being lucky is, of course, much better than being unlucky. Relativisation of this victim status is all about relieving the burden of the other party. It is a communicative act, a need to take away the mutual horror at the event and thus remove the need to comfort or console the other person. Ultimately, it’s probably also about the inability to mourn, and an abduction, an accident, an attack are clearly reasons to grieve.
But the best way of avoiding the whole issue is to simply flip the perspective, the victim was, in the end, lucky. This makes the whole thing easier – one does not have to acknowledge the victim as such, nor does one have to behave accordingly, and thus avoids the whole stress of the situation. But… we should ask ourselves whether this effort – empathy, tact, time – might not in fact be worth it.
A while ago, while trying to do a backflip, I managed to break three vertebrae in my neck. They screwed it back together, I‘m fine. My neck only has about 90% of its previous mobility, and the bones are now fixed to my thoracic spine with a metal plate and six screws. Braced. Hardened. This metal doesn’t really restrict me in any way at the moment, but I never forget that it is there. Every time I tell the story of the accident, someone always tells me how lucky I was. Even when in the hospital, after the operation, talking to friends on the phone, it was always “you were so lucky!” and then mention of wheelchairs, paralysis, or death. “You could so easily have ended up in a wheelchair, you are so lucky!” And of course, I agree.
As the doctors were doing their rounds, and adjusting my pain medication again, I turned to the doctor who had operated on me for 6 hours, smiled as said “I was really lucky wasn’t I?”. But his face twisted into wry smile, and he said “In this case, you are also allowed to speak of bad luck. It is ok if you say ‘I was really unlucky’.”
Now, 2 years after the accident, I can say that it was this sentence that helped me the most when working through the physical and psychological trauma of the accident.
Recognition of victim status. Recognition from others, and the acknowledgement for myself that I had had bad luck.
This perverse reversal of bad luck into good luck, just because the worst possible thing didn’t happen, only further traumatises those who have suffered a life-altering experience, an accident, a crime.
Those fleeing western Ukraine are not lucky because their city has not (yet) been bombed to oblivion and they can flee in peace, and now are safe. No, they have been really unlucky, to be the victims of a war. Period.
There is no hierarchy of victimhood.
The categorization of victims is really only relevant for jurisprudence. For the victims themselves it is totally counterproductive. Placing a crime on a scale from minimal to maximum ‘bad’, may… or actually, will feel completely different for the victim themselves.And now Thomas Drach, the man who abducted my father, is coming before the court again.
There will be a verdict, and Thomas Drach will, most likely, be sentenced again. Maybe to disappear behind bars for the rest of his life, because he chose a way of life that seeks to inflict suffering on others for personal gain. Maybe he will one day be released. Just like after the last conviction. And the one before that. What difference does it make?
When Thomas Drach was last sentenced, for the abduction of my father, he was sentenced to 14 years 6 months. Not 15 years, the maximum sentence, because he did not murder my father. This was supposed to send a signal to everyone out there that not killing the victim is worth it. Applying the logic and the understanding of assessing punishment, the efficacity (and proven lack thereof) of deterrence and mitigation; from the perspective of this (WARNING) “victim of the second degree”, this prison sentence is at least partly based on the presumption that everything turned out well.
And a part of me, which is not sitting in a wheelchair today agrees: yes, it has all turned out well, again. But another part of me, that with every stumble has a momentary flash of mortal fear has to shrug his shoulders and ask, “Really?”
There is another element to ‘grading’ victim status – the idea that “that which does not kill me, makes me stronger.”
I am confronted with this again and again in my job as a music producer. But the idea of using pain as a driving force for producing art or anything else is absolute nonsense. A hideous cliché. That pain somehow makes art better or more profound is a myth invented by the entertainment industry. Pain brings nothing good. And whenever an artist says, “I have suffered pain in my life, and it brought me to where I am today,” it is romanticism in the purest sense. Nothing is achieved because of pain. It is achieved despite pain. Everyone who has ever been through tough times would get through them more easily if they were not suffering. Pain destroys. That is all it does. It has nothing to do with creativity. It creates nothing. To say that pain has influenced my art means that the person who made me a victim has influenced my art. I do not accept that. I am my own driving force, it is not pain that drives me. And it is definitely not the man who inflicted this pain upon me.
I once knocked two teeth out of someone because I thought he deserved it. But afterwards, shaking and crying at home, I was pained to realise that revenge does not bring satisfaction. It just makes it worse. In my experience, hurting someone only means multiple pain. Something always goes wrong. Tthe dream of revenge in an unrealised form can bring some healing. Which is why, in weaker moments, I appreciate films like Ransom or Tarantino films like Kill Bill, or Deathproof, that help slake that thirst for revenge somewhat.
But in the real world, revenge needs a judge who then passes it out with a verdict and sentence. But that is another subject altogether which my father has already comprehensively addressed.
I believe in the rule of law. Even though I know it is not perfect. That it does not bring satisfaction or healing. One of the reasons I believe this is because I know that nothing else works, the rule of law is the best of a bunch of bad options and provides an empty closure. Trauma is something that must be worked through, beginning with the external acknowledgement of that pain. Finding actual closure is something that you can only do for and by yourself.