Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.
— John Wooden, Hall of Fame UCLA basketball coach
As we reach the end of this series, I wanted to take time to reflect on how much Deeks has overcome in his life. He’s still got some demons, but things could have been so much worse. The deck was stacked against him from the start. Remember his ACE score? He scored higher (worse) on questions about adverse childhood experiences than more than 94% of the population. After writing these seven installments, I feel overwhelmed at the number of hurdles a child abuse survivor might need to overcome in their life, at the sheer number of possible negative effects they might face as adults. Today we’ll take a look at some of the positive factors from Deeks’ childhood that might have helped his life turn out as well as it did.
Throughout prior installments, I sprinkled in self-assessment questions from a child abuse survivor’s recovery guide. Deeks would no doubt answer many of them with a Yes, meaning he still struggles with issues that potentially go straight back to his childhood trauma. Things like self esteem, health, and anger and violence. Yet even as an adult, and even within the timespan of eight seasons of NCIS: Los Angeles, Deeks has made positive strides. He is better off now than when we first met him back in Season 1, and we’ll look at some of the factors that have contributed to what I see as a better adjusted, happier man.
|Before we get started
This is not an article infused with happiness (although – spoiler alert – it is ending pretty well for the hero of the story). I feel it necessary to issue a warning to anyone who might be triggered by discussions of child or domestic partner abuse, alcoholism, or their aftermath.
But before you stop reading, let me add that there are an astounding number of organizations, in the U.S. and other countries, which can help those needing to escape a currently abusive situation or trying to recover from a past one. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has a wonderfully thorough list of places where victims and survivors of domestic violence can get help, including resources for children, teens, men, women of color, the disabled, and the LGBTQ community. In addition, mentalillnessmouse on Tumblr has compiled an equally thorough lists of mental health hotline numbers and on-line resources. If you need help, take a look.
Just a few other disclaimers: Keep in mind that just because children growing up in dysfunctional homes are more likely than others to experience certain outcomes, it doesn’t mean they all will. Every child is unique, with unique experiences that affect them uniquely. Most survivors of dysfunctional families grow up to be happy, well-adjusted adults. Also: Lots of speculation ahead.
Control and Comfort
What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
There are a couple aspects to Deeks’ personality that may have made it easier for him to handle, or to recover from, his traumatic childhood. The first is something called an “internal locus of control.” This is psychology-speak for someone who believes his own actions determine the rewards and punishments he’ll experience in life- in other words, that he can control events that affect him. It’s the far end of a spectrum where the opposite state, an external locus of control, belongs to people who believe that their own behavior doesn’t matter and that rewards in life are generally outside their influence, that they cannot determine their fate because it’s simply a matter of chance.
Has anyone else here gone to law school? Hmm? No? Anyone here pass the bar exam in the state of California? Anyone? Anyone?
— Deeks to the team in “Cyber Threat”
Research has shown that adults who were exposed to intimate partner violence as children and did not go on to become abusive partners themselves share certain protective factors, among them being goal-oriented, obtaining academic success, and having an internal locus of control. We see evidence of this in Deeks’ academic and career achievements.
In your childhood, were you independent and a go-getter?
Did you believe that life is what you make it?
— Questions on the Southern Kennebec Healthy Start Resiliency Questionnaire, designed to measure ability to cope with adverse childhood experiences
I do think Marty Deeks believes he controls his own fate even if I’m not sure an internal locus of control seems all that likely to come out of a chaotic childhood environment like his. Living in such unpredictable conditions seems tailor-made to lead someone to believe they control nothing. In fact, a state called “learned helplessness” can actually be the outcome in these scenarios. I could see Deeks’ mom suffering from learned helplessness, feeling powerless to control her destiny or protect her child, and accepting that it was simply her fate to live with an abusive man like Gordon John.
I let a terrible thing happen to him once.
— Roberta to Kensi in “Internal Affairs”
It’s unclear whether one’s locus of control is the result of genes, environment, or both, although many seem to think it’s at least partly learned. As we covered in a previous installment, Marty Brandel could have very easily blamed himself for the abuse he (and his mom) suffered. This guilt might have been triggered by explicit words from his dad, such as, “If you weren’t so bad I wouldn’t have to punish you.” Regardless, that very blame might have reinforced the notion that his bad behavior was the direct cause of his fate. Believing he was being abused because he was bad could have actually reinforced an internal locus of control.
I could also see little 11-year-old Marty’s shooting his dad as an act that would not have been possible without an internal locus of control. In that moment he took his and his mother’s fate into his little hands and seized control of the household. And like we talked about in the last installment, that act might have felt quite empowering. This in itself could have actually reinforced his understanding that he controlled what happened to him.
No such thing as a bad day in the water.
— Deeks to Nate in “Impact”
Regardless of one’s locus of control, an important skill for survivors of child abuse to learn is how to soothe themselves emotionally. Most of them fail to learn these techniques as children because their parents are bad at it themselves. Healthy soothing can involve a warm touch or reassuring words or an activity that is physically, intellectually or sensorially nourishing, like taking a walk or reading a favorite book. Or, it could involve spiritually uplifting practices like meditation.
Kensi: Lance is a surfer… So where did he go?
Deeks: Where every surfer goes when he wants to escape his problems… He took his board.
— Deeks and Kensi in “Skin Deep”
For Deeks, surfing has long been his refuge. In “Angels & Daemons” he makes a reference to the Venice he grew up in, so I think it’s safe to assume he’s been surfing for most of his life. Surfing would seem a perfect activity to nourish the body and the soul, and he’s had it to lean on for a long time. It’s likely provided him a healthy outlet when other survivors might have turned to alcohol, drugs or other less healthy self-soothing activities.
As a child when you felt really bad, could you almost always find someone you trusted to talk to?
— Question on the Southern Kennebec Healthy Start Resiliency Questionnaire
Research on the protective factors for child abuse and youth violence include economic opportunity, organized community programs for youth and families, and mentors and role models. It’s tough for children to grow into healthy adults without some sort of safe environment and safe relationship, even if it’s outside the home. We don’t know a lot about the Brandels’ economic situation except that Deeks was able to attend college and law school, albeit by taking on part-time work as an “exotic dancer.” But we do know about one special friend Deeks had, and that’s Ray Martindale.
Hetty: Your loyalty is admirable.
Deeks: When I was 11 years old, my dad was one drink away from killing my mom and me-
Hetty: Until you shot him in self-defense.
Deeks: The .38 revolver that I used? Ray’s the one that gave it to me.
Hetty: You know… some might say you paid that debt.
— Hetty and Deeks in “Plan B“
Ray giving Deeks that weapon may have saved his life. That act, along with his words of wisdom like, “Never shoot back… Always shoot first,” would seem to have reinforced Deeks’ internal locus of control.
On the other hand, this relationship seems to have had its downside. Ray wasn’t always the best influence, as indicated by their arrest together after stealing a car. Deeks’ unwavering loyalty despite his friend’s misdeeds is actually a common trait among adult children of alcoholics. They grow up loyally sticking with the addict no matter what transpires. Misplaced loyalty might also be a reason for Deeks’ refusal to leave LAPD.
I’m a Capricorn… stable, steady, loyal, connected with the earth.
— Deeks explaining his astrological sign to Kensi in “The Livelong Day”
Marty and Ray’s childhood relationship might even qualify as a “traumatic bond.” These are bonds created in families where there is significant fear. Siblings and other children will often form a close bond with each other in these situations, much as soldiers or prisoners do. The phenomenon is known as twinning. These lost or frightened children may cling to one another, increasing their sense of loyalty and bonding, even if the bond becomes problematic or dysfunctional. Marty and Ray didn’t grow up in the same household, but they shared the same terrifying experience of having an abusive father. It’s no wonder they became so close.
Roberta: I let you down Marty… I should have protected you.
Deeks: You did…
Roberta: I don’t know how, but man, I raised a good one.
Deeks: You did good.
— Deeks talking to his mom in “Internal Affairs”
Deeks’ strong relationship with his mother apparently had profound effects on his life. That internal locus of control he seems to have developed (or been born with)? It’s associated with growing up in families that model internal beliefs, meaning they emphasize effort, education, responsibility and thinking, and that parents usually follow through on rewards they promise their children. That does not sound like Deeks’ family life in his first eleven years, but it’s quite possible that once dad was out of the picture, his home life improved dramatically. Maybe Roberta was finally able to be the strong mother she wanted to be.
It’s a really interesting reflection on why Deeks chose to work for Hetty and why he fell in love with Kensi. His mom represents a really strong female role model in his life. His mom has a blue collar job and worked her ass off to give her son the opportunities that she obviously didn’t have. He loves her. He knows what strength is because of her. That dynamic is going to be explored through her and now we see why he fell for the people he did in his life.
— Eric Christian Olsen giving a pre-Season 7 scoop to Entertainment Weekly Spoiler Room
So while fans and Eric Christian Olsen [interview here] may have originally been under the impression that adult Deeks did not have a relationship with his mom, ECO’s interview above along with Deeks and Roberta’s talk in “Internal Affairs” seems to indicate they had a very strong one. Studies have indicated that children in single parent families headed by women are more likely to develop an internal locus of control, as are children who receive warmth, supportiveness, and parental encouragement. It would appear that Deeks’ father disappearing from his life likely brought about some pretty dramatic – and positive – changes.
When you were little, did you believe that your mother loved you?
Did someone in your family care about how you were doing in school?
— Questions on the Southern Kennebec Healthy Start Resiliency Questionnaire
And it’s not just locus of control that his mom might have impacted. One of the most important protective factors to mitigate the effects of witnessing domestic violence as a child is the presence of adult family members who are nurturing and provide consistent, structured supervision. A loving parent can make all the difference in a child’s ability to be resilient and to heal from the trauma of domestic violence.
And if I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t do it sooner. Because after he was gone, this- you and me- that’s what makes me who I am.
— Deeks talking to his mom about shooting his dad in “Internal Affairs”
Deeks doesn’t see his decision to shoot his dad as a key determinant of his personality. Instead he sees everything that happened after it as impacting the man he would become. Being loved and nurtured without ever-present fear must have helped him learn how to deal with the impacts of his father’s rage, like how to control his own anger and inclinations towards violence. For me it calls to mind the Showtime series Dexter, about a serial killer whose father taught him as a child how to channel his impulses towards killing only bad guys. Of course, I’m not seriously suggesting Deeks would have turned into a serial killer, merely that his time with his mother might have helped reset whatever track he was on and maximize his chances of becoming a successful and happy adult. Having seven or eight years as a young adult free from that abusive environment could only have helped his development.
Yet another way his positive relationship with Roberta might have impacted Deeks as an adult has to do with his physical health. In Part 5 of this series, we examined how the stress of child abuse affects the brain’s ability to deal with stress later in life, and how this handicap actually affects physical health and makes it more likely for child abuse survivors to suffer from an array of chronic health conditions.
It turns out that having a loving parental relationship might be the antidote to this particular problem. One UCLA study looked at different biological markers of health risk like blood pressure, heart rate, etc. in a group of adults, and how they were affected by adverse childhood experiences and positive childhood relationships with a parent. It asked them how often they received physical affection and how often they felt loved.
It found that adults with the lowest levels of love and affection (something it termed “parental warmth”) and the highest levels of abuse in childhood had the highest health risks in adulthood. But for the adults with the highest amount of parental warmth and affection, there was no relationship to health risks regardless of the amount of child abuse they had experienced. In other words, a loving parent can completely protect against the health risks of child abuse.
Do you have any idea how much I love you right now?
— Deeks to Kensi in “Cancel Christmas”
And how can we talk about key relationships in Deeks’ life without mentioning Kensi? Now we know that, unlike in “Impact,” Deeks’ acknowledging his feelings for Kensi wasn’t the cure to his insomnia or PTSD. On the other hand, for survivors of child abuse, falling in love and learning how to trust another person is a big accomplishment. It challenges the basic rule learned as a child of Don’t Trust. It contradicts that rule’s implicit warning that people are dangerous.
Kensi: You’re not still thinking about my undercover op, are you?
Deeks: No, well, yeah, maybe. A little… I was actually just thinking about the fact that you spent the last week in a world where money was no object… You know me, I could care less about money, whether it be cars or clothes or watches, I don’t know, it doesn’t matter to me.
Deeks: But, I don’t know, sometimes I think, you know, maybe I wanna get those things for you.
— Densi in “Command & Control”
And being successful in that relationship by learning how to break the other rules of Don’t Feel and Don’t Talk– figuring out how to talk about one’s insecurities, to feel love and share that feeling – is another key step forward. Being vulnerable with another person, sharing fears and hopes, builds that trust. Accepting comfort from others is healthy.
Deeks: Just if, uh– I don’t know, if you ever want to talk about it, I just… I know a thing or two about fathers, so-
Kensi: You shot your father!
Deeks: One time, alright? It’s not like I killed the man.
— Deeks and Kensi in “The Watchers”
Even before they were together together, Kensi’s friendship seems to have helped Deeks feel safe enough to talk about shooting his father. Just look at the difference between Season 2 Deeks’ shame when he reveals to Hetty (at the end of “Personal”) that he shot his dad, and the Season 3 example quoted above, where he can actually joke about it with Kensi. That’s tremendous progress. He must have felt ashamed of his actions since he was 11, and he may never have told anyone else about it until Hetty found out. Then within a single year, Kensi has him feeling comfortable enough to joke about it. To me it shows a huge level of trust between them, long before they became a couple, and it would seem to indicate that they had discussed it on more than one occasion post-“Personal.”
Bates: You’ve got a home with NCIS, I see that now.
Deeks: I’ve gotta be honest, I think it’s where I belong.
— Deeks talks to his LAPD boss in “The Debt”
Although Deeks’ struggles to be accepted as part of the NCIS team have been an ongoing source of frustration for many of us, there’s no doubt he feels at home there in a way he never did at LAPD. I’d like to think that despite the endless teasing, his success there has in some way aided his self-esteem and given him a sense of security that was likely missing for a good part of his life.
As a youth, did people notice that you were capable and could get things done?
— Question on the Southern Kennebec Healthy Start Resiliency Questionnaire
And, while it’s not easy for me to write this, I’d also add that Hetty’s support and her faith in Deeks, going right back to when she first offered him the liaison job, has to have made him feel worthy.
The only thing that matters is this isn’t healthy, and you know that… This is manipulative and destructive. These people are using you. You know that.
— Deeks to David after a round of sadistic Simon Says in “An Unlocked Mind”
The Marty Deeks I see today still struggles with many challenges resulting from his childhood experiences, but he’s made so much progress. I almost see him like one of those brainwashed members of the Church of the Unlocked Mind, needing to deprogram himself of some of the negative lessons he learned from his father. He does still seem to expect the worst from life, but why wouldn’t he given Kensi and his experiences the last few years? But he also seems to have hope for his future, to have allowed himself to think that he could be happy, and to take steps to make himself happy. He finally seized the moment on that hilltop in “Descent.” And even though it took them quite awhile, he actually semi-proposed in Season 7, and proposed proposed in Season 8 (twice so far). He’s allowed himself to believe that he is worthy of happiness, and that’s not something I necessarily think was always the case.
I always find that it helps me when I talk about things that are bothering me… Come on, partners don’t keep secrets… You just gotta let it out. You gotta make peace with it.
— Deeks giving Kensi advice in “Praesidium”
Deeks has also vastly improved his communication skills, which has strengthened his relationship with Kensi tremendously. He’s bared his deepest secrets, shared his insecurities, and supported her through great hardship.
The only person to blame for what happened to Dad, is Dad. And I can’t tell you how long it took me to realize that.
— Deeks to his mom in “Internal Affairs”
And finally, he’s gained perspective on his past. He’s no longer ashamed of what he experienced or what he did to protect himself and his mom. I do think he’s followed his own advice and made peace it.
The Best Character on TV
…I look at my character… that was so much of a clown at the beginning… was brought in for kind of comedic elements, but then became a fully realized human that’s deeply flawed, with I think significant emotional scars and repercussions from his own milestones in his own childhood, that’s really fun to play.
— Eric Christian Olsen at London Comicon
There are many fantastic characters on television. But Marty Deeks is my favorite, and I think he rates right up there in terms of lovability and complexity. Of course, we haven’t had perfect canon consistency (there’s that whole “next of kin” thing for example), but overall, the showrunners, writers, and Eric Christian Olsen have given us an amazing three-dimensional man who’s as endearing as he is deeply flawed. The overall characterization of Deeks has remained remarkably consistent over the years. Even though he has served up a lot of comic relief, right from the start – by “Human Traffic” anyway – we knew he had a dark side. At the time we just didn’t realize exactly how dark it was or how that darkness came to be.
So let me wrap things up by taking a moment to express my appreciation for this great character, and for all of you who have followed this series. I’m sure many of the connections I’ve made along the way were really the result of random decisions by random writers or editors, or random performance decisions from Eric. But in researching the issues covered in this series, I was surprised time after time by what seemed like incredible consistency of character development given this character’s backstory. That’s a tribute to Eric, the writers and the showrunners.
Thanks to all of you who have followed this series. I appreciate the thoughts you shared along the way, especially those who reached out via private message to share a personal story.
Want to Read More? Want to Help?
Between 3.3 million and 25 million children experience domestic violence in their home each year. (The number is greatly under-reported.) If you’d like to know how to help those who need it, check out The Pixel Project’s “16 Ways to Stop Domestic Violence in Your Community.”(5)
- Or, go back to the previous post in this series, Always Shoot First.
- You can read about the UCLA study on parental warmth in this Psychology Today article or here. Or go to the actual study published by the National Academy of Sciences.
- Read more about locus of control here.
- Here’s a great website that talks about the ACE Study as well as the Resilience Quiz.
- The HelpGuide has a great overview of child abuse and neglect.
A huge Thank You to my fellow wikiDeeks collaborator Brenda for her assistance with research and editing of this article. Brenda is a nurse practitioner with more than 25 years of experience in caring for individuals experiencing significant trauma, and a PhD student whose research focuses on communication, conflict and ethics in human interactions. I’m very grateful for her input and review of this series.
And thanks to Hannah AKA Divergent338 for her own special contributions, with fan fics inspired by these analytical articles, designed to illustrate the topic in a very different way. I’m so happy to have her partnership on this series.