I recently read a very courageous blog on the subject of emotional abuse - although the writer didn't call it that, and I don't even know if the writer fully recognised what was being written about - and I was going to reply privately to this, out of my own experience.
Then I thought, partly because of some of the replies the writer got, that there are many, many people on the receiving end of this kind of abuse, and there are many of those struggling to know what to do about it. So I decided to blog about my own experiences, in the hope that it may help the original writer and readers in some way.
This is not an easy blog to write, so excuse the lack of my normal polished Augustan prose. And note also that I am going to employ some hard words, like "abuse", "sadism", "cruelty", "self-protection" and the like, which people who have never been there may think excessive, even unjustified; I don't think so. I said many blogs ago, about a mild example of sadism, that there may be differing degrees
but there is no difference in kind
. And there is no percentage, ever, in refusing to give things their proper names, least of all because it feels uncomfortable to do so, the perpetrator being a relative, a friend, a lover or whatever, who we feel ought to wish us well.
"My dear Sir, clear your mind
of cant. You may talk
as other people do: you may say to a man, 'Sir, I am your most humble servant.' You are not his most humble servant. You may say, 'These are sad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.' You don't mind the times. You tell a man, 'I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.' You don't care sixpence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk
in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society: but don't think
foolishly." (Boswell's Life of Johnson
I was only physically beaten once by my father, as a small child; I can still remember it nearly fifty years later, so it must have been something really special; in fact, I suspect that the fact of it was held over his head by the family, as some kind of threat, because he never laid a hand on me again. He knew a trick worth two of that.
My father was an abuser, of me and of my mother, till the day he died. Emotional violence. It took me years to recognise what he was doing for what it was, and I came to the realization mostly by listening to and reading about other victims' experiences: children bullied at school, people bullied at work, battered wives.... The symptoms are always the same, the difficulty is to force yourself to recognise them. The effect on my mother was the classic one: despite repeated opportunities and advice to get away from him, she never did - we build our own cages, the bars constructed out of the destruction of our self-confidence and sense of worth, our isolation and our sapped initiative. I left as soon as I could support myself, at just eighteen. And still I remember, a few months into that first year of freedom, a moment of epiphany when I thought: I have got friends! People like me, they fancy me, they are happy to be with me! I had never believed that before, my old man had convinced me other wise.
The scenario is always the same, too. You are talking about something that engages you: maybe a person you admire, a belief you have , an experience you have enjoyed. Or maybe you are happily absorbed in some activity: reading, watching a film, playing a game. Or maybe a third party is praising you for something. The abuser takes advantage of this. They break in on what you are doing or saying, not by attacking you directly - at first - they attack what is occupying you or giving you pleasure. "That belief is puerile - that activity is stupid - that person you admire is rubbish" and so on. If you attempt to engage with this on a rational level, then
the personal attacks start: "You are like a hysterical old woman - you have never known a days' hard work in your life - you can't take teasing - you are spoilt, immature, ungrateful, irrational" and so on.
This has achieved several things for the abuser. In the first place, all your attention has been diverted to them
; in the second, your pleasure, your self-confidence, your faith in your own judgement, has been destroyed; in the third place it is you
, the victim, who are on the defensive about your own reactions. Why they need to bolster their own sense of identity by destroying someone else's is beyond me and I leave it to the psychologists. Quite often, like a two-year-old who has had a tantrum, they then, satisfied, lose interest in the whole thing and happily return to what they were doing/saying before, while you, emotionally shattered, try to make sense of what has happened. And any attempt to pursure the matter is just brushed off: "oh, don't keep on, can't you take a joke/an argument, I am busy" and so on.
JB Priestley called appeasement "the victim's bewildered retreat towards the edge." You cannot appease them. You cannot please them, ever, because what is acceptable, even praiseworthy, becomes the focus of attack on another occasion when you are unguarded. You cannot appeal to their reason because reason is not the motive for their attacks. Sadism is.
Elaine Dundy, writing about her father's abuse:
"What I felt was not the fear caused by seeing a person spin out of control as a result of some physical ailment. My father was mercilessly in control and therefore far more frightening." (Life Itself!
It is very rare for onlookers to be of any help. Friends, relatives, lovers, partners, workmates, schoolmates, have stood by and watched people driven literally to suicide by this bullying without once comprehending what is being done. Often they deny, quite sincerely, that anything untoward has ever happened. You can't even convince them by saying "How would you feel if your
father/teacher/husband etc etc did that to you?" It's as if, never having been on the receiving end, it's just an incomprehensible experience. It is, however, one more nail in the cage of the victim and one more handle given to the abuser: no-one believes you, no-one will help you. It's all your
I suspect that the impulse to savagery is in all of us, even the holiest. In some people it's so deeply buried that they never have to recognise it; happy they. But I remember myself, when I was in my early teens, my father was having one of his jeers about my mother's literary tastes; poor woman, she had a shelf-full of Georgette Heyers. I wonder why she chose such escapist literature; no emotional cruelty there. And I, casually, agreed with him, comparing them to Mills and Boon pap or some such; not, be it noted, because I despised Heyer or indeed M&B that much, but to hurt. And seconds later I felt such a wave of self-revulsion, because I realised that I had done what he was always doing. For no reason, I had hurt someone who was emotionally vulnerable to me just because I could
I have never, I swear, done anything like that ever again. And it was my first step towards recognising the abuse we both were receiving for what it was.
It's nice to have emotional power over someone. Children and teenagers play with it, first with parents and then with suitors. Having sulks, promoting rows. But some people, and I really don't care why, keep on and never grow out of a taste for this. They have found something that excites them, gives them a dirty pleasure, even if they themselves wouldn't admit ever to this, and they get addicted
They have found something that works for them and they are going to go on doing it. Some people believe that you can change such fundamental character by an act of will, or with psychoanalysis, or religious conversion, or some such; I don't. The most a potential abuser can hope to do is recognise an impulse to cruelty and power and stifle it at birth. If they haven't that self-awareness, or don't see why they should stop, secure as they are in the emotional link with the victim, what does the victim do?
Don't forget - most abusers are fully convinced that they love their victims and that the love is securely returned. "I'm only saying this for your own good so you've no right to be hurt - I'm only stopping you doing this for your own sake so you've no right to be disappointed."
In my own case, all I could do to protect myself was withdraw. I think this is what most victims do. I never confronted my father; frankly, I was too scared of him. Tracks in the mind laid down in early life and constantly reinforced, can never be erased completely. So, in self-protection, I was in his company as little as possible. (This resolution was hardened when it became apparent that, given any opportunity, he would get up to his old tricks.) And when I was in his presence, I watched myself. As far as feasible, Do not admit to any admiration, any enjoyment. Do not arrange any social occasion that can be disrupted.
It's called behaviour modification. You don't open up to someone when they are behaving badly; you back off and refuse to engage. You only come forward when they are behaving well, and then you reward them for this by being extra responsive. Sometimes it works. Some people confront. Good luck to them. They say, "Do you realise how unkind you are being? Why do you want to hurt me?" Mostly this is met with uncomprehending denial.
But you have to do something in self-protection. Otherwise you will find yourself, years down the line, disappointed and isolated, with the abuser saying self-righteously, "I
don't know why s/he is lonely, can't make friends, hasn't made anything of his/her life, never married, had kids, a career, a serious hobby even.." Enduring the cruelty poisons, too, the relationships you do have. Dundy again, on her mother: "I couldn't trust her. She was his accomplice."
Just keep, right there, in the centre of your head, the uncomfortable truth that Rudyard Kipling, abused throughout his childhood, never forgot:
"....since most bullying is mere thoughtlessness - "
"Not one little bit of it, Padre," said M'Turk. "Bullies like bullyin'. They mean it. They think it up in lesson and practice it in the quarters." (Stalky & Co.