“Imaginary Crimes”: a book recommendation

Hidden guilt – hidden even from the self – afflicts ordinary people in everyday life, with costs uncounted and uncountable, according to a book by Lewis Engel, PhD, and Tom Ferguson, MD, titled Imaginary Crimes (Houghton Mifflin, 1990). The thesis of Imaginary Crimes is simple: many adults suffer from a version of “survivor’s guilt,” a guilt not over wrong done but over the mere fact of having come out ahead in some situation or even over just having lived when others died or were harmed.


Survivor’s guilt has long been recognized in Holocaust survivors and their families, combat veterans and their families – this kind of guilt, with a virus-like knack for camouflage, can be transmitted to relatives – and prisoners and their families.


Engel and Ferguson apply this concept to less disrupted lives, even to ordinary lives. To a surprising extent, according to the authors, millions of us are liable to one or another form of this hidden guilt, of which we ourselves are unaware.


I cannot recommend the prose style of this otherwise valuable book, and regrettably the authors have to disguise individual case studies so much that the anecdotes come out garbled and difficult to relate to. But the basic categories of imaginary crime are lucid and informative. “Most of us believe ourselves guilty of one or more of the six common imaginary crimes described on the following pages”:

  • Outdoing – “The crime of outdoing can result from surpassing a family member in any way . . .”
  • Burdening – “If either or both of your parents seemed weighed down by life, or drained by parental responsibilities, you may suffer from the imaginary crime of burdening.”
  • Love theft – “Love theft is the crime of receiving the love or attention that another family member seemed to need in order to thrive.”
  • Abandonment – “Abandonment is the crime of wanting to separate from your parents . . . simply distancing yourself from them – physically or emotionally – can make you unconsciously feel as if you are abandoning them.”
  • Disloyalty – “The crime of family disloyalty can result from breaking family rules or disappointing parental expectations.”
  • Basic badness – “Most of us have suffered to some extent from bad messages. As a result, we sense that we are somehow inherently flawed . . . not important, not worthwhile, not lovable, not attractive, not caring, or not intelligent.”


The authors explain some of these categories better than they do others. “Basic badness,” for example, is less coherent than other illusory crimes but seems reminiscent of the “We’re not worthy” scene in Wayne’s World. It’s also probably widely spread among offspring of the Greatest Generation, who often received a message, however unintentional, that “Whosever wish or pleasure or convenience is consulted, it won’t be yours.”


This book is not pessimistic – the good news about guilt, after all, is that it indicates a conscience, a capacity to regret that better things didn’t happen to other people, especially the ones we loved.


The book is therefore a useful reminder and clarification of some fundamentals. Good bedside reading, a little at a time.

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