If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.|
-George Bernard Shaw
Being open about my violent childhood means tampering with the system. That's okay; the system wasn't very good to me.
Nine years ago, I used a pseudonym for my first published piece about my violent childhood. I believe I did so for three reasons: guilt, because exposing our identities might destroy the last fragile bonds holding my family together: shame, because I felt abused because I was bad: fear, because I was just plain scared that if I exposed him, my father would kill me.
I'm still taking a chance on the third.
My father abused me physically, verbally, emotionally, and sexually. He also beat my mother and two older brothers. My mother vented much of her rage on us. Nor did she protect me from or report my father. Virtually every day I was abused in some way: I was kicked around the house, punched without mercy, whipped with a belt, threatened with a knife, suffocated under a bed pillow, mocked and humiliated, molested under cover of darkness. It sounds melodramatic, but it was all too real. I've been told it's a miracle I survived.
That makes me uneasy, probably because I never allowed myself to think I might die. I felt I had no choice; I had to make it. And by some combination of character and circumstance, I have.
Twenty years ago, when it was happening to me, child abuse was not recognized as a social problem. Incest and other forms of sexual abuse were shrouded in secrecy. Victims were considered scarred for life, guaranteed to perpetuate the cycle of violence, given slim hope for recovery.
That I have any hope at all for myself stems in large part from the new openness toward these problems. When I say I was a battered child, people have heard that term. No longer am I in "the worst kind of prison," as one friend observed, "because everyone outside thought you were free."
Similarly, therapists are learning how to help people like me. My symptoms-daytime anxiety and nighttime terror; feelings of grief anger, shock and fragmentation; flashbacks-have been identified as posttraumatic stress syndrome and I'm getting proper treatment. Now I have someone who listens and believes me and can serve as my champion. She sets me straight: "It was worse than being tortured by an enemy -- you were beaten by people who were supposed to love you, and expected to be cheerful about it!"
Cheerful, indeed, is what I tried to be, because that is what my crazy parents wanted. But their insanity aside, I have often felt compelled to be cheerful by the people around me. Loving, generous, sophisticated people...who are just so damned uneasy about this part of my life.
It makes me wonder if things have really changed that much. As Alice Miller writes in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, "victimized children in our society must contend with the knowledge that they will be protected but will be blamed and humiliated while those who abuse them will be defended." That frustrates me endlessly, because I'm finally getting over blaming myself. I'm in no mood to deal with blame from any other quarter. This second layer of victimization weighs me down. It makes me feel, still, somehow, that I did something wrong.
Indeed, by talking about it I am doing something wrong. I am violating the fourth commandment: Honor Thy Father and Mother. I am a nice Jewish girl who hates her folks.
This seems to have turned me into an accusatory figure. As such, unintentionally, I make people feel guilty. Victims are like that.
Until I was 5 (I'm 31 now), I was isolated in the madhouse my parents created for me and my brothers. We lived in middle-class Bronx neighborhoods, first in an apartment building, then a row house; my parents were schoolteachers. When I started school, I was so small and withdrawn that I was placed in the slowest first-grade class, far below my capabilities. For the same reasons, and because I didn't know how to defend myself, all the bullies beat me up. My clothes were torn and dirty, for which a teacher shamed me publicly. I could have told her they were all I had to wear, but in my humiliation, I didn't.
My parents' cruelty, starting when I was too small to understand or articulate my feelings, robbed me of my self, of my personal power, of any sense of safety, security, or spontaneity. In short, I lost my voice.
I saw and heard and felt and knew a lot of damaging, dirty things, but they were without form to me. Some still are appearing in dreams and unexplained fears, lurking at the edges of my consciousness. I had so deeply repressed my profound shame, rage, and confusion that I've only recently begun to remember my father's sexual brutality. That combination of being too small to put pain into words, too powerless to have a forum, and too wounded to admit that I was hurt, made me a somber child. I was called shy, and I was often alone. Other children didn't seem to like me very much. I was too ashamed to tell them what was happening, and anyway they were kids too.
At least once I told someone. My childhood best friend has told me that one Saturday afternoon, when I was a small girl, her mother found me huddled outside our apartment's front door, sobbing uncontrollably. She gently asked me what was the matter.
"I don't mind so much that he hits me brother," I told her, gasping, "but it really makes me sick when he hits my mother."
The neighbors knew. Of course they knew. Awed and intimidated by my father's rage, convinced of the sanctity of family privacy, they only tiptoed around the subject of his "terrible temper." Outside our neighborhood circle, doctors and teachers might have recognized the signs of child abuse in me. I certainly exhibited them all, being unwashed and shabby, timid and easily bullied, frail and constantly fatigued. One doctor asked, "Don't you water her?" My mother didn't tell.
One night when I was 10 or so, my father beat me so savagely that my mother called the police. By the time the officer came to the door, my father's fury was spent and I was crying in my room, inspecting the red welts and purple bruises all over my body. My mother spoke through the door and sent away the policeman, telling him, "Everything is all right."
I still hear her voice, breathy, frightened, falsely sweet. Because she didn't tell, I was not rescued. At that moment I realized there was no hope for me. My spirit was broken.
All because none of us could tell.
Had I been able to tell, I certainly never felt anyone would listen to or believe me, including my aunts and uncles. Some of them surely sensed the truth from watching my father's tyranny, his slow degradation and isolation of my mother, the rough progress we three children made in life. And, early in my parents' marriage, some aunts and uncles tried to persuade then to get psychological help. My parents refused, and after that these relatives apparently felt they had done all they could. From then on, they sighed with resignation and called it a tragedy.
No one talked. Relatives asked us how school was going. They told us their travel plans. And they appeared to genuinely love us. But there was no sense of protection, and none offered a place to run and hide. As a result, when my oldest brother ran away-starting as a young teenager-he was viewed as a problem child and always returned home. Then, in rapid succession, he drifted in and out of the Marines, mental institutions, and jail. Troubled, neglected, and impoverished, he died of pneumonia at 21. Yet no aunt or uncle can make that dread connection between my parents' cruelty and P.'s death. Even the premature loss of a precious life was not enough to prompt someone to act, when there were two endangered children still at home. This I find shocking.
But no one wants to talk about P., either.
It took nine years to dissipate much of the guilt and shame I felt when I used a pseudonym; nine years to feel strong enough to override the fear. They were years filled with introspection, therapy, and major changes in my life. Finally, this year, I decided to write openly about my family. Then I discovered I could expose myself to a possible lawsuit by its members. Obviously, I would not be portraying them in a warm light. I was incensed to learn, after years of feeling I could not--and should not--tell anyone, that the taboo was backed by law.
In other words, the law protects my parents more than it ever protected me. Alice Miller: "The victimization of children is nowhere forbidden; what is forbidden is to write about it."
It seemed unfair and outrageous, a sardonic repetition of my childhood. Finally, I had transcended the situation sufficiently to be open about it--and walked into that familiar wall of secrecy.
I am determined to find a way around that wall. That I feel at all comfortable is thanks in part to the counsel of an attorney and the encouragement of my friends. Now, perhaps, my words will break down that wall of secrecy for other victims and encourage them to talk.
This past year, as part of my odyssey from victimization to autonomy, I have reacquainted myself with various members of my extended family and told them everything. Now I'm watching the fallout. Here's one example:
A relative is planning a party for her infant daughter. She calls to tell me she will invite both my father and me. "Fine," I answer, "but you know I won't go anywhere my father will be." She patronizes me, tells me I should confront him. I tell her I don't want to confuse a birthday party with a therapeutic milestone. I haven't heard from her since.
Like her, many in my generation treat me as the prodigal cousin. Unlike my father, I am ostracized. I'm not invited to weddings, Thanksgiving, and other special occasions. Exclusion from The Family is, in the Jewish culture, the most extreme punishment. My sin? I have told the truth. I'm a troublemaker. I can say only this: better a black sheep than a lamb led to the slaughter.
I watch the protective net around my father being drawn ever closer, and hope for eventual justice. I wish some courageous aunt or uncle or cousin would stand up to him and say, "You beat your wife and children. You are not welcome in my house."
But in reality both parents, now separated, are made welcome. What they did is tolerated, it is not bad enough. And I am punished for dissenting. I'd be defended if I were mugged on the street; the fact that my tormentors were my parents changes everything. My family (like the neighbors, like society-at-large) has granted them, in effect, an owner's right to hurt me. In so doing, they deny me my right to my emotional pain.
"You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family." By and large my friends have been terrific. They've watched me emerge from my shell of shame and powerlessness and cheered me every step of the way.
But it hasn't always been easy. For example, for the past 10 years, one friend has invariably asked the same tentative question when I raise the subject: "So what did he do, hit you or something?" I sense it pains her to see me--adult, robust, often laughing--in that grim and ugly picture.
Still, it's hard to describe it again. "Yes, he beat all of us up. He kicked me across the house all the time...he would punch me in the car...no, it wasn't discipline, I was never spanked...everything made him angry...they cursed at me, called me names, idiot, moron...they laughed at me and told me I was crazy...they screamed they hated me." It hurts like hell to relive that miserable past.
When I'm pressed to elaborate, it's hard not to snap at my friend's faulty memory. It's hard not to feel defensive, that I have to prove I know the difference between being smacked lightly on the rear a few times, and being beaten to a pulp all the time. It's hard not to think I am not being believed on some unconscious level. I want to scream in frustration, "Why would I make this up?"
Come to think of it, most new friends and boyfriends phrase their delicate questions in the form of a denial: "Surely they didn't beat you?" "He didn't hit you or anything?" Because they care, they're wincing at the slightest chance of pain. That's how tough this is to comprehend. "People don't want to listen, " says Alice Miller, "because they are not yet ready to bear what they can hear." This makes it that much harder to tell.
Still, I've persisted, and my friends have learned to listen and accept, providing me with abundant sympathy and affection. They are a major part of why I am so healthy; in many ways, they are the family I should have had.
The outlines of my life have been so stark that while I've had very few real choices to make, survival has hinged on each one. My current decision to use my real name is based in emotional survival. I have chosen to be truthful to myself and speak up -- with the consequences I have been describing. The lesson for me is this: there is no such thing as a good victim.
It's easier to say that in the second World War the Jews were passive. It's easier to say that the homeless bring it on themselves, that rape victims are asking for it, that molested little girls are too seductive and children who are beaten are most likely hard to handle anyway. The paradox is, as a result of our very blamelessness, people just don't like us -- or rather, what we as victims represent.
In Blaming the Victim, William Ryan looks at the way American society blames poverty on the poor, rather than on inequality. He argues that people blame the victim to maintain the status quo. They're concerned, but they won't take action. To do that, they would have to give up something.
I'm no social scientist, but I can see how this works for child abuse. To take action, people would have to acknowledge that most child abuse is committed by relatives and family friends. We would have to admit the vicious reality that people who are supposed to love can act as if they hate. This violates everything we want to believe about ourselves and stains our vision of the family. But the fact is, if we honored our children, we wouldn't beat them. What's more, we wouldn't let others beat their children. Instead, we have a form of slavery in which parents -- especially fathers -- have near-absolute power over their children. We respect ownership rights, and call it respect for privacy.
Yet we know that child abuse is horrible. We know it's a blight upon our social landscape. Perhaps because we know just how bad it is, we work hard to shut it our -- by interpreting that scream down the hall as high spirits. That thump overhead as an accident. We seek culprits outside the family -- most recently at day care centers. No one wants to point a finger at the real perpetrator.
William Ryan says people "reconcile their self-interest with their humanitarian impulses" through an artful compromise--blaming the victim. It's a tidy and convenient solution: no real systematic change is called for; the roots of abuse and injustice go untouched. To admit how many children are violated in the garden of family love would be to admit the soil is poisoned.
Everyone has a stake in the system. My relatives want me to forgive and forget and go back in the fold. They never will confront my father. My friends, at gut level, need convincing that my grievances are legitimate and profound. To acquaintances, it can appear that I'm going through a delayed adolescent rebellion.
It's impossible to be a victim with any grace. As I wrote in my earlier article, social encounters continue to puzzle and defeat me. I find it painful to talk about my family in my circle of acquaintances, among casual friends, at the synagogue and the office. People ask me innocent, well-meaning questions. Truthful answers often lead to stunned silence. I must answer evasively if I want to keep the conversation light.
I've tended either to tell all too soon, or to hold back and seem mysterious; there's never a "good time" or a "right time" for discussing feelings this painful or violence this extreme. If the social climate were different, more supportive of the victim, more likely to find the voices of women and children credible, I would definitely feel better.
By writing and being open about my situation I am tampering with the system. That's OK. I've learned through years of struggle that the system, wasn't very good to me. I'm not looking for pity; I want support and I want justice--for me and the thousands of other victims. I'm telling so that others can tell.
There's a price I pay for my honesty--a measure of rejection by my extended family and some strain to overcome in my friendships, not to mention a large debt in my privacy. Yet, I am willing to pay this price because I hate the fact that I'm not supposed to tell, I hate the fact that I am shunned because I suffered.
Thousands of children are abused or neglected in the U.S. every day. Like me, those who survive grow up scarred, exhibiting the damage by hurting others (an estimated 30 per cent repeat the cycle), or internalizing it by hurting ourselves (suffering from anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, often selecting violent partners).
This sizable population of adult survivors has not yet organized and is barely recognized. Much can be done to help us; little is, reflecting individual and collective inability to face the truth. To quote Alice Miller, "How is anything ever to be changed in a society if cruelty is not seen for what it is?"
I find it helpful to talk about the past and how much I have suffered. I want other victims to know that not only is it possible to tell the truth, it is indeed necessary. What's more, we have an absolute right to be believed and helped.
Yes, there is tremendous apathy in the face of children's screams, a moral passivity that is nothing new in human nature. The Talmud asks this: "To look away from evil: Is this not the sin of all 'good' people?"
"Under the best conditions, small children depend utterly on their parents for survival," writes legal scholar Susan Pouncey. "under the worst, their dependency dooms them." I want to help change that. In hope of inspiring all good people to act, to intervene, to notice and report, to change laws, to listen to survivors with belief and sympathy and outrage, and above all to assume the responsibility of protecting all our children, today I use my name.
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