My initial reaction to a recent article on salon.com was fairly visceral. And also a little conflicted. Then everything shifted and my response was more conflicted than it was visceral. Let me explain.
The article is written by a woman who survives a pretty horrific childhood. She was brutally abused by her father and sexually abused by a neighbor. The focus of her post, however, is on her anger towards her mother, who seemingly “let” all this happen and did little to protect her daughter, who is now unfortunately a survivor of physical and sexual violence.
My visceral response was mainly to the manner in which Salon posted this article. Salon taglines it with “In the typical abuse narrative, the man with the belt is the beast. But what about the woman who watches it unfold?” And while they put this statement at the head of the article there is no information on domestic violence (DV). Further, there are not even links at the bottom of the article to DV resources, despite the fact it seems pretty clear that the mother was also experiencing abuse by the father. In fact, the author even says her mother was a victim too. So why wouldn’t there be mention of power and control? Why wouldn’t there be any mention of the ways that survivors of partner abuse are often paralyzed to the point of inaction and unable to leave? Why is there no mention of the many ways that survivors do protect their children, even if in ways that may seem counter-intuitive to the outsider, sometimes even to the children themselves? For instance, is it possible that the mother in this story told the daughter not to tell her father of the sexual abuse because that might make things worse? I mean, the father was abusive and people who are abusive often blame victims for their abuse, whether perpetuated by themselves or others.
Of course, when I hypothesize about this survivor and her mother, I am inferring a lot. I certainly cannot speak for the author about the day-to-day of her childhood. But as someone who’s worked in the DV field, I can speak to what happens more often than not, which is that usually in such narratives the mother is abused and coerced and abusers are good at both wreaking havoc and pitting everyone else against each other in the process. I also can speak to how hard it is for survivors to not blame themselves for everything done to them and their children when really, they were doing everything they could just to survive. People in the DV field have to tell parents, often mothers, over and over, “the only one responsible for the abuse is the abuser” and “you didn’t do this to your children, nor did you expose them to violence, your partner did.” And we say these things to survivors because they are the truth. No one but the abuser causes the abuse. And abusers make it very, very difficult for their partners to leave them. In addition, survivors do not want to be abused nor do they want their children to be abused or neglected. Yet people who are in abusive relationships are put in situations where the vast majority of their self-control and autonomy has been seized. If there was an easy, imaginable way out, they would have done so. But it’s not easy to get out of an abusive relationship. Leaving takes time and planning, particularly safety planning and sometimes survivors aren’t able to access needed resources to even begin to make a safety plan. And when an article like this is published without any links to info on DV, what messages are sent to survivors? How much work is undone for survivors and justice for survivors? And how much harder is it then for survivors to leave?
I don’t say all that imply that the author is responsible for all the terrible ways our society would respond to her account of her own abuse. She is not. The fact is that our society has a real problem with mother-blaming. And there are real consequences for that. Women can face extraordinarily harsher consequences for so-called “failing to protect” their children than the people (often men) who committed the actual abuse. I absolutely empathize with this woman’s experience and again, she is not the reason we punish women and mothers so unfairly. Societal misogyny is the reason we treat women and mothers so terribly. For a variety of reasons, I can understand why this young woman has the feelings she does. And I empathized with her immediately when I read her piece, even as I began to have anger towards Salon for the manner in which they posted the article, or rather for their negligence in not including on the complexities of intimate partner abuse.
When I spoke with a friend about my initial reactions, including the anger, she pointed out that both women (mother and daughter) are survivors and both survivors need an opportunity to share their experiences without judgment. I wondered, ‘Is that what I am doing? Am I unintentionally judging this survivor?’ I don’t know… maybe I was. And that is shitty. I certainly don’t want to judge or criticize her. And I believe she has the right to her feelings and to express them. And there are some things she says about her mother that seem unthinkable, on the mother’s part. Like when the daughter talks about it now with her mom and her mom tells her to stop living in the past. It seems unimaginable for a mom to say that. And yet I become conflicted again because I can see how it still may not feel safe for this mom to talk about this, she is still with the dad and likely enduring his abuse. While the author says her father apologized later, it’s worth noting that abusers often apologize only to resume the abuse later, which the author may not see if she is no longer living at home. In fact, I’d even wonder if he did that intentionally to widen the divide between this mother and daughter. Again, I’m inferring a lot here.
I guess what I come back to, and this is terrible thing to have to say but I feel it must be said, is that I’m not sure our society is ready for such accounts. At least we’re not ready for such accounts without some sort of preface about power and control dynamics that are at the core of abusive partnerships. I wish all survivors could be free and safe to say however they feel, even if their feelings are complex and hard to understand (which undoubtedly some are, since trauma causes so many mixed feelings). But when I read narratives like this and then read the comments section which include such reactions-
“Brilliant. You ought to send this to her.” (her being the mother)
“They’re both Abusers; one wields the anger and self hatred that’s removed them from Humanity, whether as a result of their own childhood victimization or other traumas, and the other turns a blind eye to reap the benefits of the marriage, whether its the ongoing sex life they cannot live without (even with a Monster), the steady paycheck, or fear they might be blamed if the marriage goes sour. It went south sometime ago, but they’re willing to sacrifice their children for the simple reason they have no self respect, they have no consciences, and quite often, they use their religion to make sacrificial martyrs of themselves, rather than admit they’re profiting from the sacrifices of their abused children.”
That last one, in particular, scares the shit out of me. Marriage is no benefit when you’re married to a batterer. Anyways, such sentiments coupled with stories of women being sentenced to decades in jail for “failing to protect” their children while the perpetrator gets a couple of years in jail make me think our society is not yet ready to sit with and respect both the accounts of mother and daughter and recognize both as valid. Assuming the mother is a victim, they both likely have valid feelings and their actions are valid. They both were surviving a tremendous ordeal. But our society isn’t educated well enough on partner abuse to understand this. I also wonder if we were better educated, if some of these author’s feelings would cease to exist. Given how things are now, it’s important to consider why so much of her anger is directed at her mother and there is little focus on her father. The dynamics of intimate partner abuse explain a lot. Adults being abused by their partners often are desperate to leave but don’t know how. Our lack of societal support, as evidenced by friends and therapists asking the article’s author “where was your mother?” only highlight how quick we are to judge survivors, which further isolates them, making leaving that much harder. In addition, by asking such questions we (unintentionally) collude with the abuser by creating more divisions between the abused family members, who need each other to survive. And finally, perhaps the author is so angry at her mother because her mother is a safer person to be angry with. Her father is still the man who abused her terribly and I doubt there is much safe space in her relationship with him for her to express or even feel that anger and so it is instead directed towards her mother.
In the end, I’m still conflicted. But I think that it’s worth publicizing such stories of survivor’s children and acknowledging that their feelings are valid. But we also must publicize the accounts of the other parent, the survivor parent. And while we certainly can’t speak for this individual, it is worth considering how children can develop such hostility towards their mothers through no fault of their own but through the adeptness of societal misogyny and victim-blaming are at co-opting our feelings.