The biggest headfuck of emotional abuse, in my opinion, is that you never have the feeling of being witnessed or believed. In my case it wasn’t that I told people and they didn’t believe me: it was beyond imagining to actually try to say it to someone, as I was constantly hearing about how good a mother my mother was, in one way or another. That she cared almost too much, if anything, but you could hardly call that a bad thing: some of our neighbours in a largely Catholic area in the west of Scotland, where people had three and four and five kids, might have been a bit bemused about how or why someone would care if their kid played out after dinner, police their friends, and choose their clothes for them. But there were kids in our street with alcoholic parents, kids who smelled bad and didn’t always get fed. That was proper abuse.
And fair dos, I was physically well cared for – clothes were new and clean and expensive, hair was always brushed, that sort of thing. They do care for you narcissists, in their own way, which is to say as a trinket, something they adorn themselves with to attract more attention. The only thing narcissists really want out of life is positive attention, so I guess it’s not surprising that nobody notices you’re being abused, when the narcissist’s entire motivation for getting up in the morning is to pretend to people that they’re perfect. I mean they are putting a lot of effort into that fiction.
And the performance extends to the abused kid, in some ways. I mean, we probably saw them at their most authentic, because nobody can keep up the mask 24 hours a day, but they do also need to rule us and try to make sure that we don’t form our own view of their parenting, or anything else. We need to remain weak. Otherwise, we might leave, and as the narcissist knows somewhere in the deepest darkest recesses of their heart that they are fundamentally unlovable, the only way they’re going to be able to keep us close is by fucking with our heads. They do this in a number of ways.
The world is a scary place Back to Rapunzel again, in the Disney film, Mother Gothel does this to utter perfection. Rapunzel, she tells her, is a special child, more special than any other. And so, the world, which is filled with people far worse than Mother Gothel, is an especially dangerous place for this paragon child. Worse, Rapunzel is uniquely badly fitted out to deal with that world: Gothel points out her weaknesses, her shyness, her disorganisedness, and so shames Rapunzel for them that the girl never realises that the reason she’s never learned these life skills is because Gothel has prevented her from ever getting to practice them.
Call that abuse? When you first started to realise your parents weren’t actually all that good to you, what was almost the first thing you said (to others or yourself)? I didn’t have it as bad as some kids. It’s like, that phrase is the hallmark of an emotionally abusive childhood. My mother used to do things like tutting at the television and shaking her head in disbelief whenever there was anything on the telly about child abuse. “How could any human being do that to a child,” she’d say, and let the programme run on a bit longer. When all the stuff about child abuse in care homes broke, she’d watch it fascinated and tut and huff and express utter disbelief that anyone could be so cruel. But she didn’t look sad, she looked fucking delighted.
That never happened to tell the truth I don’t have much experience of this one, it’s more other people I’ve heard saying about it, because I never really confronted my mother. I did talk about it to my dad once, about my mother hitting me. “She hit you?” he said, bolting upright. Aye dad, she did, and you saw her do it, and you did too sometimes, and sometimes when I was older and she did it you would bundle me out the house on a pretext and then you’d ask me if I was all right. So fuck off with your looks of surprise.
Trying to keep these contradictory thoughts in your head is hard. You have to live in external reality day to day and keep in yourself the knowledge that what happened to you, actually happened, and it happened the way it did. It was because of this that I came to love science. Verifiable truth, truth not from authority: I loved it. I was 7 years old when I read in a Ladybird book in school that colds were caused by viruses, and not by getting cold, and my world got a little bit bigger and a little bit nicer. Every time I got ill my mother would be able to recall a recent instance of me not wearing the full set of hat, scarf and gloves, or of having got my feet wet, or walked too fast or too slow on the way home and caught the cold like that: it always resulted in the removal of one more small freedom, the addition of one more precaution. She really thought you could bully a kid out of illness. I didn’t tell her the virus thing, I knew how it would be received; I kept it warm inside myself, a glowing little light of truth.
And this is the way you can go on, as an adult, if you don’t ever really cop on. Rejecting their truth, you rely on objective provable facts, because you’ve never been allowed to believe your own version of events. There’s their view, you think, and yours: and neither are to be trusted, so you must rely on hard evidence.
So when you’re an adult, and you have kids of your own, there you are, being fair. You’ll say to yourself, OK, sure, she’s just gone and bought one of my kids a massive expensive toy and the other a tiny cheap one, but I can’t ascribe that to her being a massive evil cow who likes to create drama by picking favourites; I need to give her the benefit of the doubt. But there’s actually no doubt. You know how she was to you as a child. You’re perfectly entitled to use that past information in judging her current actions.
We act like we’re judges in a trial of our abusive parents. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that’s what we think we need: to be able to condemn them as the abusers they are (and take steps to protect ourselves and our children) we need to be able to show hard evidence and and external witnesses to all that went on. We’re acting like we need to be the judge, fair and impartial to both sides. But that’s not who we are. We’re the victim (or survivor, you know what I mean) and as we stare at them across the courtroom floor, no matter what they or anyone else say, we know what they did, and they know what they did, and we need to act on that knowledge and keep ourselves safe from harm.