Thursday, January 04, 2007

Ghosts that haunt you until their story is told

Just when I was starting to doubt Lundy Bancroft's assertion (in the book Why Does He Do That?), that childhood abuse does not cause men to be abusive as adults (how could it be a myth that abusive men were abused as children? Everyone believes that.) I read this in Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, M.D.-

"Survivors of childhood abuse are far more likely to be victimized or to harm themselves than to victimize other people...Perhaps because of their deeply inculcated self-loathing, survivors seem most disposed to direct their aggression at themselves. While suicide attempts and self-mutilation are strongly correlated with childhood abuse, the link between childhood abuse and adult antisocial behavior is relatively weak...Contrary to the popular notion of a "generational cycle of abuse," however, the great majority of survivors neither abuse nor neglect their children." (pages 113-114)

I have believed for so long, because my mom and dad told me this repeatedly and I had to believe it to sympathize with and care about my dad, that my dad was somehow less responsible for his abuse because he had been abused. Now I realize no one, not his dad, his mom, my mom or, and especially, me, is responsible besides him. He chose, and continues to choose to be abusive, and his refusal to take responsibility for his behavior only vindicates my concern and warnings about how he was treating my step-niece.

If Why Does He Do That? Inside The Minds of Angry and Controlling Men is about my dad (and it is), the chapter on child abuse in Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence-- from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror is about me. I bought Trauma and Recovery because both The Courage to Heal and Lucky refer to the book. I have mentioned The Courage to Heal before- it is "A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse" and I have been working on it for the last 6 weeks. Lucky is a memoir by Alice Sebold about her rape, the trial, and the aftermath. More than 10 years after the rape, Trauma and Recovery quoted Sebold about the difference in how she saw the world. She bought the book (because she was in it) and it made her realize for the first time that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I read Lucky a couple weeks ago, and had a hard time putting it down. The way she describes how some people shunned her and did not know how to treat her or talk to her after the rape, and the discomfort and hostility some expressed towards her anger really resonated with me. There is this idea that you should be meek and mild in order to be sympathetic, so if you are angry and outraged, and you fight back, you lose credibility with some people and they just want you to shut up. Maybe when you act like a human being instead of some caricature of a victim, it makes them realize that you were not asking for it, and we do not always have control over what happens to us. Most people do not want to acknowledge that. You do not want to relate to a victim because no one likes living with the uncertainty and paranoia of feeling like a potential victim. We do not want to think something like that could happen to us, something out of our control.

I also related to how, years after the rape, she felt more comfortable with people who had experienced violence, and living in dangerous neighborhoods. It reminded me of my experience on the streets. The danger was out in the open- I knew whom to avoid, I knew what to worry about and had ways to deal with these possibilities, and I knew the people around me were in the same boat. It felt much more honest and real than pretending the world was safe and supportive. For those of us on the streets, that was not our reality. People who had never experienced violence did not understand us, and we did not understand them. There is a lot of bravado in being a punk, and all these years later I still feel exposed and nervous walking down the street without my shitkicker boots and tough girl act. When you see the world as unpredictable and dangerous, you never feel safe.

Rape is especially good at convincing you that anyone (male) could be a threat, and that is just made all the worse by the implication that women and girls who are raped should have done a better job protecting themselves- shouldn't have walked down that street, gone to that party, dated that man. Apparently, all women should be in a constant state of paranoia, i.e. thinking like someone with PTSD, or they are "asking for it".

Back to Trauma and Recovery, Dr. Herman captured my psychology amazingly well when describing how children experience and cope with abuse. She talks about how children adapt to an environment of unpredictable attacks and constant danger by adopting a constant state of alertness. They are always scanning for warning signs, recognizing seemingly imperceptible changes in body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. They become highly attuned to their abuser(s), but "unable to find any way to avert the abuse, they learn to adopt a position of complete surrender" (pages 98-99), or try to be as inconspicuous as possible. "The arbitrary enforcement of rules, combined with the constant fear of death or serious harm, produces a paradoxical result. On the one hand, it convinces children of their utter helplessness and the futility of resistance...On the other hand, it motivates children to prove their loyalty and compliance. These children double and redouble their efforts to gain control of the situation in the only way that seems possible, by "trying to be good"" (page 100)

"Many abused children cling to the hope that growing up will bring escape and freedom. But the personality formed in an environment of coercive control is not well adapted to adult life...As the survivor struggles with the tasks of adult life, the legacy of her childhood becomes increasingly burdensome. Eventually, often in the third or fourth decade of life, the defensive structure may begin to break down." (pages 110, 114)

Yes, the legacy of my childhood has become increasingly burdensome, here in the third decade of my life. I am also reading a lot in the third decade of my life. It is truly helpful to identify and read about what has been happening to me. I do not feel alone and isolated anymore, and now I know about the possibility of recovery. I am breaking out of the feeling of "utter helplessness and the futility of resistance."


Anonymous said...


I have also read Lucky by Alice Sebold.

It is amazing her point-by-point description of her rape account. The trauma not only of the rape, but the ongoing "abuse" she endured by the court system. I wish to read it again because of its poignancy.

I think she is very brave in reading a detailed account of her experience and publishing it. Most women don't even mention it to anyone when it happens.

Your blog is amazing. You are a very interesting person with many deep insights into the psychology of the abuser and the abused.

I have dated two abusers. It is hard to describe the manipulation and abuse I endured since they both went on to marry other women and had children with them.

I still feel guilty and worthless because of what they did to me while dating. They would lie, cheat, abuse and then play the victim. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde persona. Constant, manipulative drama.

After sleeping with them, each called me a "whore", "easy", and told me "I was only good for one thing."

The first one I loved deeply and wanted to share my life with. It hurt me beyond words when I found out within months he married another.

The second one I knew was going to be like the first and too ended up marrying another woman and also having a daughter with her.

I only am the one who saw how they abuse and when they got married knew exactly how to present it in a way that would devastate me.

Luckily, a counselor pinpointed exactly the abuse before it even happened. Sadly, I knew this even before I dated them and I still chose to play along, hoping that somehow I could change them.

I am still healing from those relationships that are haunting me. They used me for their egos and sexual gratification.

However, they use every women to some extent. I realize that now.

I have to repeatedly tell myself it isn't my fault. That they are just as abusive to their wives as they were to me. Maybe their wives just know how to hide it better because they have issues that are of the same drama.

It always felt like they had "won" over me. And for many years, with the first, he did. He controlled my emotions for years without even having to be with me.

Knowing I got out when I did helped me move on. I cringe to think that if they allowed me into their "world" for longer than they had, the abuse I would endure.

I have prayed many times for God to let me go of them. To heal that part of my soul that longs still to be with either of them.

Just from reading your posts and viewing your photos, you seem like you have come a long way in maturing and dealing with some raw, painful feelings that many people would not even be able to survive.

I again look forward to reading your posts. It is like reading comforting words from a friend.


Tealrat said...

Hi Leslie,

Thanks for your comment. I enjoy your feedback. Have you read "Why Does He Do That?" I highly recommend it. It has helped me understand and be at peace with what happened in abusive relationships I've been in. It helps to know just how I was manipulated, and how to avoid going through that again. Abusive relationships are incredibly painful and difficult to move on from. I feel much better after reading this book.

Take care,

Anonymous said...

Although some people might be turned off by your confessional style in a public forum, I find that you have taken a blog to create a place where women with similar histories can find not only a sense of belonging, but a resource for finding books, websites, and other sources of help.

Thank you.