On Child Abuse

I hadn’t intended to write two posts back to back, or even to address the subject of child abuse any more than I already have in this lifetime, but now I feel compelled to. Damn these foibles of mine, and the unresolvable conflict I have about this subject. I don’t know that the person for whom I’m writing this wants to be mentioned, so I won’t. But hi there, person I’m not mentioning! πŸ˜€

I believe with every fiber of my being that how an adult who was once an abused child deals with his or her abuse is entirely a matter of which traits he or she was born with rather than a matter of will. If the child was born with sufficient resilience and empathy he or she might break the cycle, otherwise will perpetuate the legacy. It cannot be simply a matter of will, as if it were child abuse would be a rare thing and in steady decline. Every abused child repeatedly swears an oath that he or she will never treat his or her own children as he or she was treated. Every one of them swears that oath, many times over the course of a long and painful childhood. I know this: I grew up abused, and as a result my natural peer group was other kids who were abused, kids I could relate with. We all swore that oath, we all talked about it. NEVER would any of us abuse our own kids. We said it with deep conviction, sometimes even fury. We meant it.

But every abused child says it and means it, and many still go on to become abusive parents themselves.

So, gosh, it’s not a matter of will but is a matter determined by the genetic crap shoot over which none of us has any control. That almost makes it sound like I’m making excuses for the abuser, doesn’t it? In truth, that’s precisely what I did for about 46 years regarding my own abusive parents, but not for any others. I was born with that resilience and empathy, and I knew deep in my being that my parents were simply incapable of anything other than being abusive parents in the aftermath of their own traumatic childhood experiences. They didn’t have what it took to overcome it because they weren’t born with it. They couldn’t become resilient and empathetic by willing themselves so any more than I could go out and break the world record in the 100 meter dash just by training my ass off. I’m not built for it and nothing can change that. I wasn’t born to be a champion sprinter, and they weren’t born to be decent human beings in spite of their rotten childhoods.

But that doesn’t mean I’m making excuses for them. It means only that I understand them.

It’s probably true that the legacy of abuse that ended with me began in an ancient cave somewhere, perhaps even before the emergence of our species. Some Homo habilis kid got dropped on his head as a child and it fucked him up and made him violent, maybe. But that’s no excuse for what my parents did, because it wasn’t some long dead Homo habilis dude who beat me and psychologically abused me. It was two modern day humans, as much as I hate to refer to them as human, whose names I know and who are still breathing in and out. They are personally responsible for their actions, even if they were unable to control themselves because they’re fucked in their heads. They did what they did, and that’s that.

So there’s my conflict. I know they were incapable of anything different and they lost in the genetic crap shoot just as I did, but I still hold them personally responsible for what they did. It was not holding them personally responsible that was my downfall, and why it took until I was 47 years old to finally lay claim to my own life. Four years, seven months, and 29 days ago.


25 thoughts on “On Child Abuse

    1. erikamsteele

      I think we do have a choice, but for some people it is harder to choose to do the “right” things. There are days where I absolutely loathe the life I am living. I’d rather be doing everything wrong because it is fun and I get a kick out of it. There are days where these cravings are so strong that I feel like I’d rather be dead than to keep living a “lie”. I crave these things even though I know how much they hurt and damage everything about me. I honestly believe that my son is one of the only things keeping me from become the female version of the main character of Breaking Bad.

        1. erikamsteele

          I’ve never actually watched the show either. I only read about what other people have said, and I read reviews about Walter (the main character). I do mean my little guy is a life saver. I am not allowed to act on my impulses because I actually care about him.

    2. happierheathen Post author

      I hate disagreeing with people I respect and admire.

      If we have a practically unlimited ability to make our own choices, wouldn’t that mean that, say, a person with paranoid personality disorder can just choose to stop reacting to the world as if it’s very threatening? Or a compulsive hoarder can just decide to discard all of her loot and go on as if the compulsion is cured by the simple decision? I wish it were that simple but I’ve seen no evidence of it being so.

      1. promisesunshine

        a person with paranoid personality disorder could choose to get treatment. just like your parents (do i understand they both had crappy childhoods?) could have chosen to marry differently or chosen to get help. in this case, that would suck a bit because you are an awesome individual and the world would be less without you. i know it’s not as simple as i think, but i still believe it is possible to go against one’s nature and one’s upbringing. it’s ok that we disagree. i would go insane if i believed we were stuck with what we got dealt, so if i’m wrong, it’s a coping mechanism.
        and i know that it’s dastardly hard to make the “right” choices. i’ve fucked up plenty.

        1. happierheathen Post author

          Sure, that paranoid person *could* choose to get treatment, but they most often don’t because they believe themselves to be persecuted and conspired against, and their perceptions of these things are every bit as real to them as our perceptions are to us. They cannot trust a psychiatrist any more than they can trust anyone else — so they’re not going to walk into what they see as a trap designed to victimize them.

          Staying with my own experience: Psychopaths and pathological narcissists (though it’s a fuzzy distinction at times) don’t seek therapy because the world works just fine for them. They get whatever they want because they take it, and perceive folks like you and I was being just too stupid or too weak to do the same. Why fix a life that gives you everything you want?

          I wasn’t stuck with what I was dealt. πŸ˜‰ It just took longer to catch a decent hand of cards than I’d hoped it would.

  1. southernhon

    I’m sorry about your abusive childhood. I know that probably sounds really trite, but I truly am. You’re right about the past repeating itself. However, each and every one of us every second of our lives is blessed with the capacity to make conscious decisions about many things. Although I have learned (from reading Malcolm Gladwell’s books) that there are very brief moments of time wherein we act almost instinctively. That is no excuse. To repeat the cycle of pain and suffering is just inexcusable and to consciously choose that path over and over again is inhumane.

  2. erikamsteele

    I am glad that you have been able to reclaim your life. I think it must be an amazing feeling.

    I am finally starting to reclaim my own life and heal from my abuse. I know what you mean, my brother was not able to overcome the abuse my father gave out. To this day, he and my mother are still deeply heart by his actions. Whereas when I was a kid, I was able to say that it isn’t me it is him. I knew nothing I did was going to be good enough for him so it was pointless to try.

    I commented on another site that my friends and I vowed to never treat our kids the way we were treated and we kept our promises. I see my brother repeating the same behavior that my dad did.. It makes me sad because all of his kids are amazing kids. Their lives are filled with needless turmoil.

    1. happierheathen Post author

      It is at times pretty amazing. Every now and then something will happen that calls my attention to the fact that my life is now very much my own and I can’t help but feel some degree of elation, sometimes greater than at other times.

      Freakin’ narcissists, huh? “You’ve given me the moon but dammit it’s just a dusty rock. How insulting. Give me at least a star, if you’re too pathetic to grab an entire galaxy!”. The knowledge that nothing I could ever do would be good enough gave me significant trouble as a kid. A couple of times I went through phases of failing intentionally, and there were long ranging effects. I soon found that I didn’t get beat any more or any less for failing than I did for succeeding, and concluded that the point of it was the beating rather than the excuse given for it.

      My sister (who was the golden child) is now a micromanaging helicopter parent. It’s pretty sick. Being the golden child she didn’t get the physical abuse or the screaming, but was manipulated just the same though by a calmer voice. Now she manipulates hell out of her children and the adults around her in a cheery voice using mostly neutral terms, if they’ll suffice, and resorting to more concrete, forceful terms otherwise. Just as Mommie Dearest manipulated her. Last time I spoke to her on the phone she was telling her children which toys from the toy box to play with. “No, you’re not playing with the dump truck now. You’re playing with the front end loader now. Put the dump truck back and get out the front end loader”. I’m kinda glad I haven’t seen her in 21 years and have never met her husband or their kids. If I had to interact with her I’d put both feet down her throat for pulling that crap on those kids.

      1. erikamsteele

        I was the golden child as well, I didn’t catch flack like my brother and mother did. Still, and I have said this a million times, since I didn’t want to be a princess, I wasn’t his daughter.

        Your sister sounds insane. I can’t wrap my mind around telling your child which toy to play with.

        1. happierheathen Post author

          Sometimes I think it’s harder on the GC’s than on the scapegoats, but most of the time I think it’s just different. It’s a more insidious abuse, that’s for sure.

          My sister… yeah, insane is a good term. She’s the most uptight human being I’ve ever known, that’s for sure. She controls *everything* in her life, including which thoughts she’ll allow herself to have. And, of course, which thoughts her children are allowed to express. Sounds like some kind of insanity to me.

  3. blacktarheart

    I agree again. That is the conclusion I have drawn as well. It is borderline unacceptable because it can be generalized to society in the cases of any unacceptable behaviors, but I still think it’s true. And people who are less exposed or more naive hate how I see the world but I have not found much to refute the idea in my mind.

    1. happierheathen Post author

      πŸ™‚ I think the problem is that it’s far more comfortable to maintain a steadfast belief in free will in spite of the abundant evidence that it’s almost entirely illusory.

  4. solberg73

    I unfortunately have little wisdom on the issue, coming from a pastoral and largely supportive background. my wife worked many years in Child Protection and adjudication, but tried not to bring the horror tales home at night. When she even had nights free.
    you are lucky to have done the ‘click’. I remember thinking that even years ago when you first mentioned the issue.
    (I will say, facetiously, that the Reader shows this post’s tease directly over your bike photo from the following article.. Busy and difficult to parse, it’s tempting to ‘see’ everything in the garage-shot as a child-torture device.)

    once again, glad you could make it

    1. happierheathen Post author

      πŸ™‚ Thanks!

      Hmmm. Maybe it is a collection of child torture devices. It’s scary in there. There’s no telling what sort of critters they are that one hears moving about after entering, but whatever they are they’re bigger than rodents. And the property is popular with rattlers, as in mid-summer the only surface water in the area is just down the hill from the house. I don’t scare easily, but I really do like to know who’s in the room with me.

      1. solberg73

        IDK, my style, like my dad’s would be to adamantly restore the bike, if only to triumphantly re-mount the horse which threw you. My Father took the crumpled wreckage of a home-built plane he’d laboriously constructed, after a disastrous test-flight, and spent two years making it ‘all better’, Took it for a brief reprise spin, then parked it in our hangar. .
        Plus/minus budget, of course. My own prize Yamaha 750 is, (I hope) sitting in the basement in PA, awaiting the messiah.

  5. axiomatika

    i’m on the fence but more, really, on the side, of free-will. that is, we can decide to end the cycle. i was afraid it would continue with mine, you know, thinking i wouldn’t have any control either because, guess what, that’s what a lot of sociology and psychology textbooks suggested. but i stopped the cycle. i never beat my child with slippers, high heels, slapped her, kicked her, or anything form or corporal punishment. i dunno–maybe you’re right. others might not have it in them to break the cycle.

  6. digitalgranny

    All I know is that I was severely abused as a child, from birth on, and the abuse stopped with me. My children were never abused and were raised with manners and self respect for themselves and respect for others.
    They are grown men now in their 40’s and have children of their own who are not abused either. They are nice men and my grandchildren are well manner, and very nice young people also. The youngest grand child is 16 and the oldest 22.

    1. happierheathen Post author

      Indeed, the legacy need not live on. I didn’t abuse my children, either. Not that they didn’t sometimes think that I was being a mean old ogre for having stupid rules like keeping a clear path from the bed to the door in case of fire when they’d rather have had the entire floor covered with toys and clothes.

  7. g.

    I started reading this yesterday and came back today, wanting to comment because it’s an important discussion. But, honestly, I don’t know what to say. I, too, struggle with the ideas of free will vs nature and genetics. I like to think we can (mostly) choose to work ourselves free of lousy formative experiences, but to be incapable of that often seems to have as much to do with circumstance as character. (Humans are adapters and I think about people who have lived in shitty cycles, surrounded by others playing out the same scenarios and I think, how would you know to change it if you really can’t see there’s anything different?) And that never begins to take into account biology (as with your example of a paranoid schizophrenic).
    So I feel profoundly unqualified to judge.
    But I do think some people do have an innate capacity for self-awareness and the strength to use free will create new circumstances for themselves. And I do believe, if we can see our own flaws, we can (and should feel responsible to) struggle against them–even if we ultimately fail.
    I am heartened by your post, and by the many comments here, that this is happening all the time.


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