Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Here's a passage from this book I've been reading, "Trauma and Recovery" by Judith Herman:

This malignant sense of inner badness is often camouflaged by the abused child's persistent attempts to be good. In the effort to placate her abusers, the child victim often becomes a superb performer. She attempts to do whatever is required of her. She may become an empathic caretaker for her parents, an efficient housekeeper, an academic achiever, a model of social conformity. She brings to all these tasks a perfectionist zeal, driven by the desperate need to find favor in her parents' eyes. In adult life, this prematurely forced competence may lead to considerable occupational success. None of her achievements in the world redound o her credit, however, for she usually perceives her performing self as inauthentic and false. Rather, the appreciation of others simply confirms her conviction that no one can truly know her and that, if her secret and true self were recognized, she would be shunned and reviled.
This is almost verbatim something I've talked to my therapist about and now, because it's in this book and is so precisely accurate to one of my biggest issues, I've spent a lot of time thinking about its roots. This is in the context of child abuse. What other roots can cause this intense a complex? When I was a kid, were my parents' behaviors abusive?

I know they love me, and I love them. They've been there for me, at least financially and in terms of bringing me to therapy and such. But they rarely show affection or pride for me, and often seem very emotionally distant. Because they treat affection toward me like it's something awkward, limited or even shameful, I have a hard time reciprocating anything. Both of them remind me now of another few passages in the book:

The abused child is isolated from other family members as well as from the wider social world. She perceives daily, not only that the most powerful adult in her intimate world is dangerous to her, but also that the other adults who are responsible for her care do not protect her. The reasons for his protective failure are in some sense immaterial to the child victim, who experiences it at best as a sign of indifference and at worst as a complicit betrayal. From the child's point of view, the parent disarmed by secrecy should have known; if she cared enough, she would have found out. The parent disarmed by intimidation should have intervened; if she cared enough, she would have fought. The child feels that she has been abandoned to her fate, and this abandonment is often resented more keenly than the abuse itself.
... In her desperate attempts to preserve her faith in her parents, the child victim develops highly idealized images of at least one parent. Sometimes the child attempts to preserve a bond with the nonoffending parent. She excuses or rationalizes the failure of protection by attributing it to her own unworthiness. More commonly, the child idealizes the abusive parent and displaces all her rage onto the nonoffending parent. She may in fact feel more strongly attached to the abuser, who demonstrates a perverse interest in her, than in the nonoffending parent, whom she perceives as indifferent.

... In the course of normal development a child achieves a secure sense of autonomy by forming inner representations of trustworthy and dependable caretakers, representations that can be evoked mentally in moments of distress. ... In a climate of chronic childhood abuse, these inner representations cannot form in the first place; they are repeatedly, violently, shattered by traumatic experience. Unable to develop an inner sense of safety, the abused child remains more dependent than other children on external sources of comfort and solace. Unable to develop a secure sense of independence, the abused child continues to seek desperately and indiscriminately for someone to depend upon.

...Thus, under conditions of chronic childhood abuse, fragmentation becomes the central principle of personality organization. Fragmentation in consciousness prevents the ordinary integration of knowledge, memory, emotional states, and bodily experience. Fragmentation in the inner representations of the self prevents the integration of identity. Fragmentation in the inner representations of others prevents the development of a reliabe sense of independence within connection.

... The sociologist Patricia Rieker and the psychiatrist Elaine Carmen describe the central pathology in victimized children as a "disordered and fragmented identity deriving from accomodations to the judgments of others."

I think that in a way, I thought of both of my parents as how this book describes the 'nonoffending' parent, though I certainly spent my entire 20 years of living with them in constant fear of offending my dad, who was prone to flying into fits of rage over the tiniest things, and when his anger was even remotely justifiable he really lost it. One time I recycled a box of something, and the bag of recyclables was next to the stove, which had a burner on boiling water. It was maybe a foot away from the flames. My dad screamed, "Everybody, wake up!" at the bottom of the stairs, stomped up them two at a time, and I remember being so scared to admit it was me, but I did and he was absolutely furious. We went downstairs and found that the bags had been ripped apart and tossed all over the kitchen. At first I thought the dog had done it and found it a little awkwardly funny, but I was horrified to find out that my dad had done it in a rage, and that the mess was my fault because I had been so irresponsible. He made me clean it up. My mom helped, I think. Anyway, that's one of my clearer memories. I also remember him wrenching the keys from my hand after I tried to get in the back door once, and locking the door on me, locking me out of the house. I walked several miles in the rain without a coat or my purse, to a friend's house, who wasn't there, so I spent the afternoon crying in a sub shop, Kastore's. They gave me tea and a jacket while I was there, free. He was mad at me because he and I got into an argument, I think over how he had been drowning squirrels in the back yard, and I was too upset to handle it so I said I needed to take a walk to collect myself. He saw it as disrepectful. I can remember a lot of times that he would be screaming at me over this or that and he'd hold my shoulders and force me to look him in the eyes, which I often couldn't do. He was rarely physically violent, but that one bothered him enough to throw me into a door once.

Reflecting on this, I'm reminded of how much I admired the trees in my back yard. I used to talk to them, and saw them as living beings, as friends. I guess they were the idealized people in my life. They just constantly grew and were so strong, and I was the only one who could climb them all the way to the top, a hundred feet above everything. I'd climb up in them and read, or just relax and appreciate how it felt to be rocked back and forth by the wind in the summer. I knew, deep down, that they would always be there - they had been there before I was born and would be there long after I died.

One of them, the biggest and strongest, died because the neighbors put a salt pile next to it, so we had to cut it down. Another died after a big gust of wind blew it over and it crushed half the back yard - I can remember the sound, I was bolted awake by it and instantly found myself in the doorway of my room by the time it hit the ground. Several others were cut down with it because they had been damaged by the fall, or because .. my dad wanted to? I'm not sure. They must have been damaged by the fall, or were otherwise dangerous, or he wouldn't want to waste the effort and money cutting them. Although I remember we had to fight to convince him not to cut down the last beloved maple tree, one which Kim had particularly liked and which I had spent a considerable amount of my childhood sitting in. It was damaged, but not severely.

Our cherry trees died of fungi or rot, two more trees died probably because they were too close to the street and our town salts too much and cuts away indescriminately branches that go near the phone lines or over the street.

The latest tree to go was the Mulberry tree. It was like my last childhood friend. The other maple tree has always been more Kim's friend than mine, though I like it too. My dad decided one day that it had been bothering him for too long - the birds that ate the berries pooped purple on his car, and the berries fell in his swimming pool which he never uses and never cleans but takes care of the chemicals and the equipment. So he tried to force me into helping him girdle it. I didn't realize what he was doing until I was outside, and I freaked out. I was sobbing pathetically about it to him and of course he couldn't understand what made me so upset. I didn't even really understand. This was just a few months ago, and it still hasn't been cut down. He just girdled it so it would die a slow death. Earlier that day I had been thinking happily about how the berries were just starting to come in, and I was so excited for when they were all ripe. Most of them were green, but a few were purple and I had eaten a couple. I guess what excited me brought dread to my dad.

Sometimes I think I'm just too sensitive, too emotional, too this or that, but that's just putting the blame on me. I shouldn't try to take responsibility for what bothers me. That's a whole other post, though.

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