Breaking the Silence on Child Abuse can break the Pattern of Violence in General
So Can You
Did you know that April is Child Abuse Prevention Month? Me either. A month of what, exactly? More ‘awareness’? Please. Prevention? Riiiight. And, yes, that makes me kinda pissed.
I was hoping that with the allegations of child abuse by Adrian Peterson the outcry and public discussion about child abuse would mirror the response to the Ray Rice domestic violence case. Admittedly, I’ve been hanging out in a sweat lodge for four days so I may have missed some public discussion but I have seen some of it. The comments in response to Charles Blow’s On Spanking & Abuse and other opinion pieces, it’s clear we’re aware of child abuse. We’re aware of negligence, sexual molestation, hitting, socking, and those other words that more pleasantly hide violence against our smallest & most vulnerable. We’re plenty aware yet say things like, “I just didn’t know” or “I didn’t know what to do” or “It’s really not my business” or “she seemed so quiet” or “he just looked to have it all together” or “that’s what she learned as a child so she didn’t know any better”.
We have a dastardly habit of excusing and perpetuating violence in that way. We even regale others with the stories of “I remember when my grandmother broke out the switch” or “My first grade teacher…” or “That belt…” Not so much as a way of commiseration but a way of celebrating the ‘old ways’ or sharing battle scars. We also fail to register (how the fuck this happens really does escape me) how one form of violence easily leads to another. Think those who knock around their wives don’t do the same with their kids? Or didn’t experience the same as youngsters? Or that that abuse can easily morph into self-abuse? You’re saying, “Well, duh, Ingrid” but read this on Adverse Childhood Experiences (in fact, read everything they’ve posted to be a well-informed citizen of the world). It’s an eye-opener, especially the bit describing professionals’ responses to a little bit of knowledge.
I’m convinced that one of the reasons I try to stand outside the boxes people want to shove me in and why I will never fully speak the truth of myself is that for my first seventeen and a half years my mother attempted to stuff me into one that would fit nicely six feet under. It wasn’t until about ten years ago that my father openly shared that she began trying to kill me even before I was born. He just happened to walk in on the act before it could be completed. (Oddly enough, it was in that same red naugahyde chair I was later to begin the process of being born. Too bad that didn’t exorcise the demon.) That began a pattern of physical, mental and emotional abuse that continued for nearly two decades and is replicated today through the behavior of my brother.
On any given day, I could have been one of the four & a half children who die at the hands of an abuser every day. As could my brother (although he long ago said he didn’t remember anything). Despite the fact he can’t remember, I can. I can remember the times I lied to take it for him & the times I didn’t have the courage to and my heart broke with each blow. And some folks were plenty aware. Including my father in spite of his intentional blindness. And some folks could have prevented it. But, “It’s Dr. Oliphant…” and “I’m sure it didn’t happen that way” from Ms. Yates in elementary school and “Are you sure?” from the nurse in middle school.
And most people do just that. “It’s not my business…” or “But, it’s so-and-so. I mean, they wouldn’t. Right?”
How many people interrupt goings on in the grocery store that are escalating toward abuse? How many whisper to a friend or text their husband when I neighbor’s child has an obvious bruise that can’t be excused? How many stop an abuser in the act? How many call CPS or probation officers or school counselors or police or pastors when they see a young person in trouble? Not many enough.
I forgave my mother long, long ago even though there will never be a relationship. Once my father began explaining things to me the Shoney’s of Salem, VA, parking lot in 1996, the anger vanished. The “why are you doing this to me” and “why have you done this to me” simply vanished. What didn’t vanish, though, was the knowing that I would never have children because I was afraid to be like her; what didn’t vanish is the search for physical safety while at the same time moving through the world as if I’ve forgotten to be afraid; what didn’t vanish is my role in the family as the liar, the one who made up stories then and as an adult–because I was just being overly dramatic when my brother became violent with me; what didn’t vanish is my impatience with those who choose to ignore the obvious–be it individuals or organizations; what didn’t vanish is my lack of trust and the awareness–always in the back of the head–that the opposite of being disappeared or ignored is being painfully reminded you exist. What didn’t vanish is the visual of my father laughing in amusement at my brother “taking the piss out of” his wife or attempting to convince me that blood is thicker than water. The blood that he knew his then wife drew from his children somehow perhaps bonding us? The blood that flowed freely and blossomed into bruises and grew into torqued psyches was ‘thicker’, stronger & created some sort of connection greater than friendships?
Let me say this now, though: My mother came by her crazy righteously. Not only was it a pattern of learned behavior for her, what she survived in addition to physical abuse may have actually killed someone less strong than she. This I know. I also know she did not do the best she could. That response to child abuse is one I do not accept. Ever. Adults have tools available that youngsters don’t. Youngsters learn the tools they do have aren’t very useful. Those fists are tiny, those words like “please don’t” bring a swifter, harder blow. The truth to other adults often begets a type of empty response accompanied by an unfilled space of expectation & disappointment that is worse than the immediate wounding. That is one of those ‘lessons’ that don’t ever vanish as well.
Last autumn, a young lady I adore asked a question about violence. She said, “I’m wondering if you have some wisdom on violence. Why does it have to exist? Why must we spend our lives hurting each other and being hurt?” My answer was this: because it works for people.
Violence and the threat of it work. And we begin teaching it to our wee ones, our weakest ones who, although small and not very strong, learn very, very quickly. And they replicate it. On the playground, in the classroom, at home and in war zones. And as the violence becomes ingrained in the body & psyche they grow older, wiser to the ways of getting caught, more easily able to forget, and more skilled in the ways of manipulating it to make it the child’s fault.
How many times have you raised your voice or your right hand with the tone and facial expression that says, “I’m going to knock the shit out of you if you don’t shut up/do it my way/stop crying…” Have many times have you seen it and not intervened? If anyone had ever seen my brother and I practicing what we’d learned? oh. holy. christ. They’d have surely locked us away (but not the one who taught us those skills). However, even my brother and I knew it was wrong because we sure as shit didn’t do it in front of our parents or any other adult. Oh. Hell. No. We kept that as much of a secret as we did sneaking in afternoon TV time.
Except when we did tell. Well, I did. I don’t know if my brother ever did. Of course, not what we did but what my mother did and what my father didn’t do (intervene).
Again, forgiveness came easy for me. Forgetting is neither necessary or healing. I use what I felt, what I learned, what I now know as an adult that I didn’t know as a child to heal those adults who managed to make it through something similar, to publicly intervene, and to educate those I see moving into the same patterns as adults.
Early intervention and prevention don’t have to wait for police officers, clinicians, and the headline news.
It can start with you. It should start with you.
It is your business. They are your business. They are your neighbors, your co-workers, your parishioners, partners on the tennis court and their children. And they need your help.
Intervene and educate. Stop violence in your own field of influence and we’ll spend a lot less of our lives hurting each other and being hurt. Turn those unforgotten lessons away from a legacy of violence. You can do this as well as anyone else.
Remember, Ms Yates and the school nurse from above? Well, their more courageous contemporaries were Ms. Gibson, my third and fifth-grade teacher and Mr. Kilpatrick (I think that was his name). Despite the fact that Ms. Gibson made me memorize and recite The Charge of the Light Brigade in front of my third grade class, she had this thing about her. She knew and she offered what love she could. I’ll never forget the day when, quite some time after we’d moved to Annandale, VA, from Prince George’s County, MD, that there was a knock on the door. And, there she was. She had looked up the address and just showed up. Just showed up to make sure I was okay. I’ve shared before the story of my first seeing an angel in the manner others describe them. In the moment I opened that door, she was the first angel I’d ever seen. And I felt safe in that moment and I felt that someone was watching out for me. You have that power, too. To bring a since of safety, to offer relief for those who may abuse and those who have been. It doesn’t take much to help a youngster hang on or an overwhelmed parent gather some breathing space.
I never told Mr. K about my attempts to kill myself but I’m pretty sure we spend loads of time talking about my desire to die. However, I spent enough time in his office bawling, shaking asking why, what to do, that as he listened he saw past all that into me. And he asked questions that brought me out of myself and into myself, if you know what I mean. He was the one who helped me start Students Offering Support (SOS! Funny how he knew some stuff about me even then, huh?), helped me recognize that my straight As were for me, not for my mother’s attention, and patiently walked me into being a young adult. You can do that, too.
You can be like Ms. Gibson and Mr. K. It doesn’t take much. Only a little bit of open-hearted courage to participate in the lives of others, in the world.