Abusive Families


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This is the aggressive, the attacking family. It can be emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive. It can be implicitly or explicitly abusive. This is the family in which shame goes deepest, for the abused person feels deeply she is a damaged “self” and that her injury has made her unfit to share in this life with others. This is the family which may abuse the child when she is very small, thus establishing a sense of worthlessness in her which, in her adult life, she can give no cognitive content to. She simply feels worthless and that there is no recourse but to re-experience it whenever she experiences a failing, a dismissal, or an aggressive act.

The emotionally abusive family uses ridicule, punishment, putdowns. This is the family where the old and strong intimidate the young and weak. Repeatedly, from her mother, Sarah heard this bedtime story: “You were the ugliest baby the Stork had, so, out of the charity of our hearts and feeling so sorry for you, knowing no one else would take you, we brought you home. You should be forever grateful.” In a strange city Rachel had this to cope with: “I can’t stand you. Get out of this hotel room right now.” And at 12:00 p.m. in a strange city, the teen-age girl is locked out of her parent’s room for the night.

The physically abusive family spanks, hits and uses emotional intimidation in threatening further spanking and hitting. It may also withhold meals or send the child to do a physically punishing tasks. Alfred’s jaw was broken by his burly father when he said to him in a moment of teen-age bravado, “Dad, I’ve got a right to stay out late like the other kids.” Thomas was made to carry bricks from one side of the yard and back again for a whole afternoon to demonstrate his acknowledgement that his parent was in charge of him. Janice, an eleven year-old, was beaten till welts rose on her buttocks because her “religious” mother could not stand the sound of her daughter blurting out a four-letter-word. Children do not separate their “self” from their body, and the physically abusive family is experienced as attacking and devaluing the core of one’s being. We are a violent culture, and the majority of persons in America have felt the shame–for we cannot feel of “worth” to another when we suffer his painful and debasing intrusions in our bodies–of physical abuse at some time in their lives.

The sexually abusive family goes deepest into the psyche of the person to evoke shame. (Though sexual abuse is usually carried out by a single person in the family, almost always there is complicity by the other parent or siblings, consciously or consciously, to evade the reality of the behavior.) According to some accounts, at least one in three women and one in seven men have been sexually abused. The sexually abusive family invades the body of the child, this center of one’s being: one’s sexual self. Sexual abuse takes many forms, from the overt to the subtle. It may be the father making “cute” remarks about his daughter’s developing breasts, or the mother bathing her son when he is eight years old. It may be enemas given on a routine basis or sexually explicit “educational material” put in the child’s hands before she is ready for it. It may be an older brother repeatedly fondling his sister and threatening her with recriminations should she “tell.” And, of course, it may be direct acts when the child is exploited for the sexual pleasure of the adult through genital stimulation and/or intercourse. The child-victim is mortified, loses the sense of her own self, creates a terrified secret with the offending parent, is fearfully anxious that it will happen again. (Indeed, it often does; one researcher reported that once sexual abuse has started with a given child it is repeated on the average of 83 times.) Often the child feels–because she is so young, she has little or no cognitive understanding of “why”–that she is worth nothing to her family, and hence to herself. She experiences the molestation as a violation of her feelings, freedom and the discrete reality of her body. She experiences it as though something is flawed about her. And she becomes, in her own eyes, the object of scorn and guilt. The scaring, the shame-making is acute.

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