“You don’t seem to like her very much”, or another way in which abuse victims can be disbelieved

I hope I haven’t talked about this already. But you know it actually bears repeating.

I was on my favourite internet forum the other day and I saw someone post a story about a fight she’d had with a family member. She mentioned a few things in the family member’s behaviour that gave her cause for concern, and alluded to some deeply unpleasant things that the family member had done to her in the past.

She got a mixture of replies but what stuck out for me was the ones that started “You don’t seem to like her very much, do you?” The implication was that if you don’t like a person, you’re biased against them – and that if you are biased against them, you’re not entitled to form a judgement about their behaviour going forward.

No doubt anticipating this sort of comment, other people on the same forum have tended to preface their report of their family member’s latest outrage with lots of mealy mouthed stuff about how they’re just concerned about them, they really just want to get along, they’ve long forgiven all those times when said family member called them a fat porker/threw them out the house/told them their boyfriend was only with them because he had a fetish for really unsuccessful ugly people. But that doesn’t work either. It comes off as disingenuous and false.

It’s a real double bind. If you go in nice, you sound too sweet to be wholesome. If you go in nasty, you get the side eye and the “you obviously don’t like her”. It’s such bullshit. Why would you like someone who was a total shit to you? Why wouldn’t you judge someone’s current behaviour in light of your past experiences with them? You know, I used to take my kids to a sandpit in the park when they were little, and there was this one little shit kid who took to dumping sand on my oldest kid’s head. He only ever did it twice. The third time we went there and she saw him coming towards her, she took the legs out from under him with a massive dumper truck. I was extremely proud. But when it’s family, it’s like you better get used to those sand showers because there is no limit to the amount of second chances you’re supposed to give.

The ironic thing is that if you’ve been in an abusive situation (for a while, or in childhood) it comes very naturally to turn the other cheek and give endless chances in the hope that the person will, this time, bring out some decent behaviour. We all at our core just want those relationships to be good, untroubled ones, and we still indulge in the magical thinking of early childhood, that there’s something we can do to affect it. Like cargo cult members we arrange our faces and our lives in patterns that resemble a healthy family relationship, time after time inviting these people back into our lives.

Every effort that an abused person makes to summon up their anger and see their abuser for what they are is something that we should celebrate, not condemn. All human beings are entitled to take steps to keep themselves safe and that includes anticipating abuse from people who’ve been abusive in the past. We are not Jesus. If they wanted to regain our favour, they could bloody well work for it.

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The asymmetry of parent-child relationships

I was stuck in traffic the other day and as I live in the country of radio stations that only play AOR and Robbie Williams, this came on the radio.

 

Cat’s In the Cradle, by Ugly Kid Joe and I’ve forgotten how to embed Youtube videos if I ever knew how to

 

You’ll have heard the song before. It’s a story of a father who’s never there for his son, and in the last verse, the tables are turned:

“I called him up just the other day.
“I’d like to see you, if you don’t mind.”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I could find the time.
You see my new job’s a hassle and the kids have the flu,
But it’s sure nice talkin’ to you, Dad.

And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me,
He’d grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.

Songwriters: Sandy Chapin / Harry F. Chapin
Cats in the Cradle lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc

 

He’s not though, is he? The boy. He’s not like his dad. The dad prioritised other things over his son. But the son is not making the same mistake – he’s in the house with the kids nursing them through the flu.

Dad thinks that in neglecting his elderly father, Son is doing the same bad thing that Dad did when he neglected his young son. But it’s not the same thing.

Neglecting a child is worse than neglecting an adult. Adults have patience, and can wait longer for a good thing to happen. Adults have the capacity to get their needs met in more than one way. And adults are capable of looking at someone else’s behaviour towards them and thinking “what a dick” and then moving on. Kids can’t do any of those things.

So if you go no contact with an awful parent and they plead equivalence with when you were a kid (“what if I’d gone and abandoned you the way you’ve abandoned me”), don’t listen to it, because it’s pish. The direction of responsibility – to be around, to make the decisions, to devote consistent and constant time and effort – goes from parent to child, and that’s it. The rest of us are adults, and relationships need to be based on mutual consent.

“People have pets because they failed at relationships”

This isn’t even a metaphor. I literally want to talk about pets.

I have heard this sentiment in various forms in my life:

“people get pets because they can’t hack other people”
“people get pets because they’re too immature to deal with the demands of an adult relationship”
“people buy a dog rather than get in a relationship because they just want unconditional love, even if it’s not from an actual person”

“people with cats are the absolute worst because they’re so emotionally stunted they can’t even cope with the emotional needs of a dog”

and I want to torpedo it.

I don’t have pets, but whenever I hear this sentiment being expressed I have this thrill of vicarious guilt. (I’m a recovering codepedent, what do you want? Feeling other people’s guilt is like codependency squared.) Oh yes, I think, what a failure I would be if instead of interacting with other people I bought myself a cat, an upgraded PS4 and a controlled entry for my fucking door. And I get distracted into a daydream for a minute, building in some sort of physically active, geographically isolated job – lighthouse keeper, gamekeeper, even postie because you do most of your round in the morning before anyone gets up – but then my inner critic slaps me on the head and tells me to be more guilty. You have to do relationships, that’s what proper people do! Successful people! They’re not scared! Are you scared? Be less scared!!

It’s fucking bullshit, honestly. If you’ve been abused as a child you can make friends with whomever the hell you like, even if the whomever is a grumpy princess who shits in next door’s garden and only comes near you when you ignore her.

Human relationships can be fulfilling, but only if you can be and feel safe.

If you’ve been abused you might have feelings of anxiety when people are physically or emotionally close to you. You might find it very scary and uncomfortable to share a house with another person. These feelings are totally valid. You might not trust your reactions and your reading of other people, and that will make it exhausting to be around other people. If you don’t want to interact much, that’s fine. You might not have learned how to recognise total bastards, as a result of having been raised by them, and as a result you might choose not to get into relationships because you don’t trust yourself to be able to tell the bastards from the good guys. This is a responsible and sensible decision.

There isn’t some arbitrary standard of success at being human that you have to live up to

If you were abused or neglected, you missed out on the childhood unconditional love that allows you to develop a sense of self. So, like me, you might see this as some sort of competition. “I’ve not become a successful human being unless I can be in a relationship! It is so shameful that I lack the skills to manage a relationship day to day [even though everyone else started learning them as children and I’ll always be catching up.]” This is clearly bullshit, and entirely the wrong way round – you should get in a relationship because you like it, not because you think you have to like it in order to be a proper adult.

There are a damned sight worse things you could do than be a good friend to a cat or dog (or budgie, or goldfish…)

Lots of people who had abusive childhoods go on to have wide circles of friends, get married and have children, manage people in their work and sing in the church choir. Some of those people are not the slightest bit recovered and some of them make the lives of the people around them a bloody misery, overwhelmingly most of all their children. Some of them are enabled in their dysfunction by the people around them, too. If it’s just you and the cat, honestly, that’s a perfectly valid way of breaking the cycle of abuse. And a cat will never enable you. You know this. If you’re being an arsehole – they’ll let you know.

Reasons not to have children

I didn’t have an entirely straightforward route to parenthood, so I had a lot of time to think about whether I actually wanted children, and I found that most of the internet chat I could find about it fit into one of two unhelpful categories.

  1. Oh yeah, well I’m 5 stone heavier and I get 45 mins sleep a night and I always have poo on me somewhere and the mind numbingly boring days are actually the good ones where nobody ends up in hospital or crying for three hours because their pancake was a funny shape but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I mean honestly, just do it, it’s so amazing, as soon as your baby is born you’ll feel such an overwhelming rush of love that your entire previous personality will be deleted and overwritten by that of someone who actually shares those fucking pink mommy memes on Facebook. It’ll be great!
  2. Oh my god kids no, they’re so icky, I would never have a kid, I mean like I have a brain, what would I do with my brain while I was looking after a kid? And babies, oh my god no, I could just never deal with a baby, I mean give me a kid once they’re about 5 and can talk, that I can do [always said as though this was the world’s most original fucking insight, as if every single person who ever had a kid didn’t also feel that yes, it does tend to get a bit easier when they can talk and they don’t shit themselves or have 45 minute long tantrums about socks], I don’t fancy wiping bums or being up all night or cooking boring baby food for boring babies and not using my awesome brain, I guess that means I must just not be that maternal.

Neither of these is much use to anyone who’s trying to make the decision, and they’re really no use if you’ve had an abusive childhood, because it’s hard to contradict either one of them by direct experience. How the hell would we know what was normal? Not only did we not experience a normal childhood, we also had to listen to the utter shite that our parents talked about our childhoods. We all had perfect childhoods and our parents loved us and were very happy, do you hear me? They were happy! It was perfect! It was a damned sight better than they had it! If we’d had nothing to eat on a Thursday night and had to share a bed and a PE kit with 4 siblings then maybe we’d have something to complain about!

Anyway, so my take on it is that kids are great. They’re incredibly beautiful, and they love you. They disappear into their rooms for 20 minutes when they’re 2 and you go in and all your dishcloths are now serving as teddy bear sheets, and all the teddy bears have one, even the ones they don’t like very much. They say “plobrem” instead of “problem” and “peapop” instead of “peacock”. You get to have lego again, and you’re really good at colouring in now, and everything from Christmas to getting a promotion seems more worth it because they’re around. It is good. It can be good.

It can also be bad, and especially if you’ve had an abusive childhood. Here are some of the rubbish bits.

  1. You are particularly shite at dealing with the stress that kids cause. You probably look really cool the whole time, but that’s because you’re good at dissociating and distracting yourself from your stress. Each time a normal person’s kid kicks off, their brain is going “aaargh” until it’s over, and then they relax again. Your brain starts going “aaargh” and doesn’t stop until way later, but you’re not consciously aware of that so you don’t take enough time out to relax until suddenly you’re punching the bathroom wall and angry crying.
  2. When your kids are playing up, you suddenly get access to the abusive parent smorgasbord of discipline.  “OK, my three year old has just called me a stinky weewee bum and is running away when I try to get her dressed. Shall I try a time out, or shall I ignore it, or… wait, no, I’m not going to hit her. Where did that thought come from?” Your brain’s looking for a way to solve this problem for you, and it turns to past experiences to see if there’s anything there. “When you used to do this you’d get picked up by the arm and dragged across the room till you were crying. That any good to you?” Constantly saying “no” to these suggestions extracts a certain amount of energy from you. It makes it harder than it ought to be.
  3. You are going to get emotional flashbacks the whole time. Before kids, you might have had emotional flashbacks (where a sight, sound or smell triggers a negative emotion from early trauma) when you saw someone who looked a bit like your mum, or if you were in your house at a time of day that you used to get abuse (lazy Sunday afternoons in the house are a horror for me for this reason). Now, you’re in the house all day, there is a kid, and all the stuff associated with them – toys, little mucky wellies, fish fingers – is all over the place. Your life is now one massive CPTSD trigger.
  4. Kids are way more badly behaved than you remember. I bet you never took your pants down in the supermarket, did you? Or went to a restaurant and cried for your dad to go back to the ice machine three times because you wanted to play with the ice but it kept melting. You never interrupted your parents on the phone or if they were talking to another adult. And if they said “be quiet” they only had to say it once. You kept your room clean, tried not to get holes in your trousers or lose your PE kit, and as you got older you spent a lot of time quietly reading or playing games in your room.  You were a piece of piss to look after. But you weren’t normal. You were trained to be like that. I remember my mother proudly saying to people “you could take her anywhere”. I also remember the way her fingers would dig into my arm as she snarled in my ear “just you wait till we get home”. I wasn’t a kid, I was a prisoner who got an occasional pass to go to the shops or up the park. Normal kids make noise, lose shit, and don’t look where they’re going. They’ll hang around you talking utter mince and they ask you for ridiculous things like it’ll be 10 minutes past bedtime and they’re in bed with the light off and they’ll start arguing about wanting an ice lolly. This is just part of having little kids. It’s incredibly charming at times, and it’s a privilege to be part of a kid’s life in such a way that they know implicitly that your love for them is strong enough to weather a ruined pair of school shoes or a shocking chocolate-related tantrum in the supermarket. But it is a lot, lot more work than you would think if you look back to your own behaviour as a kid.*

I think what I’m trying to say is that if you want kids, just be prepared that it’s going to be harder than for your friends. This is the point where an abusive childhood comes back one more time to bite you on the arse.

And if you don’t want to have kids, honour that decision. It’s hard, because people like us are used to feeling that our wants and needs are not important. So if you want to do other things instead, or if you find you need peace and quiet to operate, or you just don’t fancy it, or whatever – any and all reason not to do it is enough reason, if it’s enough reason for you, but hopefully that list above will help you if you want to swing the argument and have something to come back with when people tell you “you can’t imagine it until you’ve tried it” and “but you’d make such an amazing mum!” and all of that. There is fuck all wrong with breaking the cycle of abuse by choosing not to have children.

*I know not everybody responds to abuse in the same way, it’s different for kids who developed a fight-type response to abuse, and kids who grew up in more chaotic households. You might find that your kids are charmingly easy, who knows?

Not the judge, nor the jury

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.

The effects of abuse: looking for the spaces between things

Anyone who’s read my previous posts will be coming to the conclusion that most of my cultural consumption consists of watching Richard Grannon videos on youtube and overthinking Disney films. And this post isn’t going to do anything to change that.

I was listening to Grannon talking about healing from childhood abuse, and how it takes a fundamental change of view of the world, almost like a religious experience for some people, and it reminded me of that bit in Tangled when Rapunzel looks around at all the things she’s painted in her tower over the years and realises that while she’s been painting, she’s been leaving gaps between the paintings – gaps that look exactly like the stylised sun that is the flag of her kingdom, and that makes her realise that she’s the lost princess and that Mother Gothel has been keeping her prisoner, not to keep her safe, but to keep her prisoner – that the world isn’t as scary as she’s been led to believe, and that she’s been in more danger in her tower than she ever would be out in the outside world. It’s a great scene.

 

And I was also thinking about what I posted yesterday, about the way that most of the abuse we suffer is plausibly deniable, and we are gaslit into thinking that it never happened or it was just normal life or whatever it was, it wasn’t abuse.

And if you’ve just come out of a situation like that – or if you came out of that situation 20 years ago, and then someone acts like a dick towards you in the supermarket carpark, and you emotionally flash back – how hard it is to pin it down, to point to it, what it was. It slips from your grasp, reduces itself down to one or two events that, taken in isolation, don’t seem to explain anything. Maybe she was having a bad day that day. And what about all those other days? What were they like? They can’t all have been that bad, could they?

And so what I came to is that the thing we carry around with us that is a record and a testament to what happened to us, is ourselves. The way we think, the things we do. Absent of a fundamental emotional realisation that you’ve been abused, the evidence that you can point to is the broken way in which you relate to the world. That’s the space between the pictures.

Some examples.

1. When someone is rude to you, and rather than think “what a dick”, you spend the next two days going through a cycle of thinking

That guy was such a dick
Why would someone say something like that to me
Did I do something to justify him being like this?
I did a thing, and it annoyed him, so maybe he had a point
But if someone did that thing to me I wouldn’t be annoyed
But maybe he’s allowed to be annoyed even if I wouldn’t be
Would someone else be annoyed in that situation? No, I’ve seen lots of people do that before and nobody ever reacted like that. He must be a dick. *Brain reluctantly accepts explanation, gets on with other things*
*10 minutes later*
That really hurt me when that guy said that thing though. I’m really good at that thing he slagged off. Why would he say something like that?
Did  I deserve that?
*repeat until bored to shit*

2. How do you react to boring people? Like if you’re at a dinner or a party or something and you get sat next to a boring person, do you let yourself look bored, or try to change the subject? Or do you feel mortified for them that they are so boring and try to make it better by pretending to be really interested?

3. How do you do with shit onerous tasks that nobody wants to do? Do you find yourself getting lumped with looking after other people’s children “as a favour” that never gets returned? Does your office have a communal resource that everyone’s supposed to look after, but somehow you seem to be the only one who ever does it? You worry, don’t you, what would happen if nobody did it. Nobody else worries about that, because they know you’ll do it.

4. Do you have lopsided friendships – where the other person seems happy enough to meet up, but you have to do all the running? Are you friends with people who you’re not sure why you’re friends?

I’m going to think of some more later.

 

Answers

1. That guy was definitely being a dick and who even cares if your parking was shit. What is he, a fucking traffic warden? 2. Don’t enable boring people. They either don’t know they’re boring or they don’t care. Either way, allowing yourself to look bored and/or moving away is fine, and may actually help them learn how to be more interesting, not that that is your job. 3. Practice saying no. “No, that doesn’t work for me.” “No, I don’t want to.” Remember that if someone is asking a favour, you don’t have to justify your refusal: “no” is a complete sentence. So is “fuck off.” 4. You’re used to thinking that if you put enough effort in, you can fix any friendship. Fuck that noise. If someone’s not being a friend to you, they’re not your friend. Sack them off. You’ll find better people. And until you do there’s tons of great stuff you could be doing. Get a hobby. Have a go at No Man’s Sky – it’s amazing. I just landed on a planet whose animal life consisted entirely of bouncing mushrooms. They’re a lot more entertaining than half arsed friends.

 

 

Some stories only have one side

I was on an online forum recently and I saw someone reply to a poster’s testimony of having been emotionally abused by their parents with

“There’s two sides to every story, and the truth is somewhere in between.”

This is utter, gaslighting pish. Don’t fucking say this to people.

About 90% of the abuse that my mother doled out to me would sit under the heading of plausible deniability. Physically, I was looked after: my clothes were always neat and tidy and in good repair, I had everything I needed for school. I was trained to be polite and quiet. When she stopped me from going out to play with any friends I ever made, there was always a good reason for it, some aspect of their behaviour or some unheard comment, a drama with the mother, something gone missing in the house and blamed on the kid. When she hit me or shouted at me (her yelling sessions could go on for an hour or more, 2 inches from your face, being poked and pushed) she did it in the house, when my dad was out. She only ever slapped me with an open hand, and when Esther Rantzen was on the telly talking about parents who know how to hit their children without leaving a mark, my mother would tut in disapproval as if she really believed that she wasn’t one of those parents.

Like most abused children I hang tight onto the instances I can remember where someone else witnessed it, or it was so clearly abuse that you couldn’t see it any other way. Like the time I was rubbing my nose (she didn’t like it when I rubbed my nose) and she grabbed me by the hair and threw me onto the floor. My dad was there that day, I don’t know what came over her, she would normally have controlled herself till he was out, but he was off work that day and I was going out to visit my gran with him. Afterwards he asked me if I was all right, once we were outside. And it sticks in my mind because of that.

My mother is an abusive nutter and if you’d been a fly on the wall in my childhood you’d know that for a fact. But that wasn’t always apparent to me. Like most abusers, she spent a great deal of time and effort projecting an image of being a loving parent. It was partly the NPD – appearances were all she cared about, it’s how she’s built – but it was also the conscious act of an abuser. They hide in plain sight. They take steps not to get caught. It’s a piece of piss to make someone else’s life an utter misery if they live with you and they can’t (or don’t think they can) get away. You don’t have to do anything illegal, anything that can definitively get you into trouble. I bet my mother regrets bitterly every time she ever raised her hand to me. Not because she wishes she hadn’t hurt me, but because if she’d had more restraint, and stuck to the psychological torture, it would have been that bit harder for me to recognise what she was doing to me. And I might still be there, listening to her pish and subjecting my kids to it.

So don’t tell us there are two sides to every story. You can get the wrong end of the stick if it’s you and your flatmate arguing over whose turn it is to take out the bin. But nobody fucking imagines an entire childhood full of abuse. Our abusers used every trick in their evil bastard powerful adult book of being an abusive arsehole to try and make sure that our stories of abuse would never be believable, to others but especially to ourselves. And every abused adult child who cops the fuck on and distances themselves from their abusers has had to fight so hard, has had to show guts and determination in the face of primal fear to finally allow themselves to know the truth. If you want to disbelieve us, go ahead. But in that case, please do us the courtesy of calling us liars. I’d much rather have you call me a liar and I know you’re wrong, than to have to experience one more time the feeling of a well-meaning idiot accepting my mother’s well crafted lies and requiring me to call my own memories into question.

How Disney started arming their little fans against emotional abuse

When it came to recognising and defeating emotional abuse, Disney films were not always very much help. I am an 80s kid, and so it’s the second wave of Disney princesses that I grew up with – Ariel, Belle and Jasmine . Let’s deal with them in turn.

Ariel was a 16 year old who had an interest in a foreign race/culture. When she met someone from that culture, she was attracted to him and wanted to meet him again. Her father had prejudices about these people though, and when he found out about her feelings he destroyed her collection of artefacts from the other culture and asked a member of his staff to follow his daughter around to ensure that she couldn’t see the boy any more. But in the end it was all OK because after spending 3 days with the boy unable to speak, he decided he loved her and they were immediately married and she was reconciled with her father.

Belle was 17 when we met her. Her father was abducted and held captive by a man who owned a large castle. Belle agreed to become a prisoner in exchange for her father, who was dying from untreated pneumonia. Belle remained a captive until she “fell in love” with her captor, at which point he let her out briefly to see her father. Soon after they were married.

Jasmine was only 15 when we met her, but the race to marry her was already on. Having turned down a large number of princes, her father was making preparations to have her marry his middle aged vizier when as luck would have it, she ran into a boy she’d briefly met a few days ago on her one and only trip out of the palace where she was born. In the nick of time she agreed to marry him and then they fought the vizier and won and lived happily ever after.

What lessons can we take away from the fate of the three princesses?

  • It’s right and normal that fathers should control, or want to control, who their daughter dates and/or marries even to the point of spying on them and doing violence to their things e.g. trashing their room as a punishment
  • If you fall in love with someone, you should totally marry them, even if they have treated you badly
  • If you fall in love with someone, you should totally marry them, even if you’re barely 16 and you’ve only met them twice and that was the first time you were ever alone with a boy your age or spoke more than 5 words to one. Oh and you’re a princess and he’s so poor he has to steal breakfast.

It’s not great, is it? I admit I’m being a bit unfair. The original stories are all pretty old, and values have changed. And the age thing is a bit of a red herring – as a kid, there’s nothing more compelling than stories about people not much older than you doing stuff that adults do. And lastly, you could argue that Disney didn’t expect girls to really see any of the three protagonists as direct role models. I mean, one is a mermaid! Who can see themselves as a mermaid? Or Arab? Or French? Oh wait no, I don’t think that’s what I meant…

But let’s not bother making excuses. It wasn’t great. It’s got much better. My kids  were born in this decade, and we’ve had Tangled, Brave and Frozen. Let’s deal with them etc, etc

Tangled is one about an emotionally abused daughter of a mother who so typifies NPD that there should be a picture of her next to the definition of it in future versions of the DSM. She comes to understand that her mother is abusive when she goes out into the real world and deals with all sorts of situations that she thought would be scary, but turn out to be OK when she realises that you have to judge people by their behaviour and not by their appearances. She does all this with the help of a handsome thief and although, yes, they do marry, they wait until they’ve got to know each other properly.

Brave is basically Aladdin, but Scottish. And with no bad guy, or at least not a bad guy who wants to marry a princess who’s barely of age. Because in 2012, the idea of a middle aged man wanting to marry a 15 year old girl is significantly creepier than Disney or anyone else wants their bad guys to be getting. Oh, and it introduced the world to the word “geemy”, which is just awesome in itself.

But Frozen. Frozen is the one.

Anna, as the sister of a princess with scary ice powers, experiences a lonely and cloistered childhood, followed by the early death of her parents. Starved for love, she jumps at it the first chance she gets, with a handsome prince whose emotional abuse is so standard that you could believe that when Richard Grannon made this video on the red flags of emotional abuse he was babysitting someone’s 4 year old girl and being made to watch Frozen on endless repeat. Grannon makes 5 points in his video. They’re all in the film.

  1. Whirlwind romance – this arse goes along with everything Anna says in order to make it feel like they are cosmically matched. It’s  beautifully sent up in  this song. “I mean it’s crazy, but we finish each others’ – sandwiches – that’s what I was gonna say!
  2. Too much, too soon – the guy proposes on the same day they met. Kristoff takes the piss out of this beautifully. “You got engaged to someone you met THAT DAY? What’s his second name?” “uh… of the Southern Isles?” “Favourite food?” “Sandwiches” “Eye colour?” “Dreamy
  3. Button pushing – at the end of the coronation party, after Elsa’s powers have been revealed, Hans is… a bit off. First he says to Anna “did you know?” and she says “no” and the next thing, he gets this little pleased look on his face. And then later in the same scene Anna gets on her horse to go and save Elsa and she says “I leave Prince Hans in charge.” And then he says a thing. He goes, “can you trust her?” And the first time I saw it I was like what was that? Trust Elsa? What about trust you? She met you fucking 5 hours ago and she’s just made you the regent! But he draws focus away from himself using this piece of information he’s just gained – that Anna didn’t know about Elsa’s powers, and is therefore probably feeling a bit betrayed. It’s the only chance he really gets to push any buttons like that, as the next time they meet, he unveils himself as the bad guy in a way that has to happen in a kids’ movie and would never happen in real life. But I feel confident that had the marriage panned out, he’d have been a skilled button pusher.
  4. Isolation from support network – when Anna is sick, he takes her from Kristoff and Olaf, and literally locks her away in a room.
  5. Erosion of values: you see this more with Elsa than with Anna, where before trying to kill her out on the ice he convinces her that she has killed Anna, when actually it was his later action of putting out the fire and locking her away that almost does for her. Up is down, in is out – the victim is invited to examine herself to find blame in her own (accidental) actions and give the real villain the benefit of the doubt.

To top it all off, when Anna finally gets it together with the guy she’s supposed to fall in love with – Kristoff  – he completely breaks with Disney prince/ fairy story convention and actually asks her if she wants to kiss him. Consent! And cute, as well.

I love this shit. I love love love it so much. Disney comes into people’s houses with very little filter. This shit will be playing on terrestrial telly on random bank holiday mornings for the next 50 years. Kids in the shittiest setups – and kids like me, physically cared for, involved parents, high achievers, but who’re gaslighted and controlled and fucked in the head – are going to see this shit, they’re going to see Prince Hans playing his mind games and being marked the bad guy, they’re going to see Mother Gothel playing her mind games and being marked the bad guy – they’re going to see it when they’re 4, it’s going to furnish them with a view of a world out there where people who love you don’t make you unhappy, and people who say they love you and then fuck with you are bad guys and end up turning to 500 year old dust or getting a smack in the teeth and then put in jail. It is brilliant.

The false relief of knowing you’re the best-behaved person in the room

If you came from a crazy-ass toxic family, then you were programmed with guilt really early, and you make shitty decisions to avoid feeling that guilt again.

Here’s how it works. As a kid you hung around with parents who had CPTSD from the abuse they suffered, only they didn’t call it that, they called it something like “my dad used to knock seven shades of shit out of me every time I was disrespectful and it didn’t do me any harm”. Because of the CPTSD, they would have lots of frightening and unpleasant feelings of guilt and fear and shame every time they experienced anything that reminded them of their childhood abuse, and as you were there, being a child, they were reminded of it a lot. Because they never learned to take responsibility for their own feelings, and because you were small and easy to shout at, they would look around at this moment and find something you were doing wrong and fix on that as the reason for their overwhelming bad feelings.

You, standing there holding the paint brush, or sporting the dirty socks, or staring at the broken glass you had just sent skiting off the table as you barelled into the room playing chases, would be having a really shit time at this point. Scared, confused, and guilty. But you at 3 or 4 or 5 or 7 or 10 were an awesome little dude, and you were full of hope and dedication and enthusiasm for life and you would try desperately to learn the lesson of how not to get shouted at like this in the future. Only you would be fucked, because the next time you dropped the glass/dirtied the clothes/repainted the hall you wouldn’t get the same response, or you’d get no response, or they’d be angry about something else, or fuck knows what. Because it was never really about you.

Fast forward to your life as an adult. You’re in a job. You’re at school. You’re in a relationship. You’re just at the bar with a bunch of friends.

Are you good enough?

Do you work hard enough? Are you cool enough to hang out with these people? Smart enough, attractive enough? Talented enough? How can you ever know? You might be shit. These people are so nice. These people are so good. Why would they like you? How are you going to fit in? Life is hard, happiness is fleeting, and there’s a million reasons why everyone might reject you.

And what about when they aren’t nice? When your boss lands you with lots of work and takes the credit. When your other half never helps with the housework. When your friends spend hours and hours complaining about all their problems but never listen to yours. How does that actually feel?

It feels like a relief, doesn’t it? I mean at first you are a bit discomfited, but that’s only because you’re thinking something negative about someone and you don’t know if you’re allowed. Is that person taking the piss, you’re thinking. The amount of work I’m doing is far more than them! Isn’t it? You count it up. If it’s just one or two things you’ve had to pick up the slack on, then you mostly feel guilty. But if it’s a significant margin more, like they are really taking the piss – what you feel is relief. Someone is being a bastard hereyou think. And you’re used to someone being the bastard. And it’s not me.

My wee dad never got past this point. He would save up my mother’s injustices and pour them out to me over the phone. “You’ll never guess what she said to me now” he would say, and I’d say to him “you don’t need to take this shit. You could leave.” And he’d say “you’re right. Nobody would blame me.” Nobody would blame him. And for him, that was enough. The rush of not being to blame was heady, for someone who’d been to blame for everything.

Don’t settle for being not to blame. Don’t let yourself get comfortable in the pit of being hard done by. Instead, learn to be jammy. If you don’t know what jammy means, it’s a Scottish word – it means lucky – but it’s undeserved luck.

Every life has good luck and bad luck, deserved and undeserved. You had undeserved bad luck if you grew up in an abusive household. See now, it’s time to embrace undeserved good luck whenever you find it. Enjoy the company of friends who just seem to like you, just because. Go out with people who make you laugh. When it’s 4pm on a Friday, and there’s no more work to do – leave. And go and do stuff you like, because you like it. Because nobody deserves a bit of undeserved good luck more than you do.

Jane Eyre and being believed

I was rereading Jane Eyre. If you’ve not read it, here’s the background: when she is orphaned, she’s taken in by her aunt and uncle – the uncle’s the blood relative, and his kindness balances out the emotional abuse from her aunt. The uncle dies, having extracted a promise from the aunt to keep looking after Jane – thus the kid is set up in a situation where someone who has no love for her and much resentment is nevertheless obliged to look after her. She eventually farms Jane out to a charity school where they freeze their arses off and don’t get enough to eat. Nevertheless Jane starts to make a go of it – she moves up in her class, and makes a good friend. But all her progress seems to be torn down when the charity school owner comes in and tells everyone that Jane’s benefactress has told him she’s a liar and not to be trusted.

I think this is a situation that will be familiar to a lot of adult children from abusive families. The only thing that is probably different in real life is that you don’t often get to hear what your abusers have been saying about you. It’s usually done behind your back. For me, I only picked it up once or twice, as an adult, out on the piss with cousins I hadn’t seen for years. You’re so normal, they would say. You’re so down to earth.

I can imagine what impression my mother had made of me: this child prodigy so packed full of scary intelligence that she could barely relate to normal people. I guess it served the twin purposes of discrediting me in the event I should ever tell the truth about her, and allowing her to bask in the reflected “glory” of a kid who did pretty well at school. “I feel as if I’ve sat these exams myself” she said to one of our neighbours during my GCSEs, hinting at a level of effort and worry she’d put into helping me pass my exams that was entirely in her own head. I spent that exam season and all others in the library, safely out of her way.

As part of my recovery I’ve accepted that I can’t control my mother’s behaviour, and one implication of this is that if I was to tell the truth to the family and family friends, they might never be prepared to believe me, because of things she’s said about me in the past and is no doubt saying about me now.  I am at peace with that, and I haven’t told any of the family anything. But I am starting to wonder if I’m too at peace. I like some of those people. Is it really the best thing to write them all off, assume they’ll have heard her version of events, and that they’ll believe her? That none of them can see through her? Is it right not to even try?

In the story, Jane gets the chance to tell her story to a sympathetic listener.

I resolved, in the depth of my heart, that I would be most moderate — most correct; and, having reflected a few minutes in order to arrange coherently what I had to say, I told her all the story of my sad childhood. Exhausted by emotion, my language was more subdued than it generally was when it developed that sad theme; and mindful of Helen’s warnings against the indulgence of resentment, I infused into the narrative far less of gall and wormwood than ordinary. Thus restrained and simplified, it sounded more credible: I felt as I went on that Miss Temple fully believed me.

I feel angry on my behalf and on Jane’s that you have to give such attention to how to tell your story in order to be believed. But she’s right. There’s lots of things people would rather do than believe. They might try and normalise it – it was the 70s, we had it worse, never did us any harm. They might try to “respect your point of view” while assuming that it was all a misunderstanding and your abusive parent acted out of the best of intentions. Or they might just not believe you, and listen along to what they think is your attention-seeking slander of a perfectly nice person.

So how to be believed? Well, again, I have to say – you can’t control whether someone will believe you. But you can have influence – both over how convincing you are, and over who you tell, and what it costs you to do it.

 

  • Start small. If the opportunity arises in conversation, mention something in passing. Watch their reaction.
  • See if they respond appropriately – in other words you want them to look angry on your behalf. If you get the impression they are uninterested, or too interested – stop. It’s hard for people like us to have boundaries and stop ourselves from oversharing. But you absolutely should protect yourself if the other person is not prepared to meet your revelations with kindness.
  • Do like Jane says – if you can, tell the story without much emotion and with only the main points included. It makes it easier to dismiss you if you add details of small slights that they can focus on. Some people will be told “she hit me forcefully and repeatedly for coming home with wet winter boots, and I hadn’t even wanted those boots, I wanted the cheap wellies” and they’ll come away with “I think I was abused because my mother wouldn’t buy those cheap wellies I wanted when I was 7.” Don’t let them away with that.
  • Monitor your own feelings. Stop if you feel like it. Trust your intuition.

We’ll see if I end up taking any of my own advice. In Jane Eyre, Jane’s great friend Helen tells her that it doesn’t matter if not a single person believes you:

Besides this earth, and besides the race of men, there is an invisible world and a kingdom of spirits: that world is round us, for it is everywhere; and those spirits watch us, for they are commissioned to guard us; and if we were dying in pain and shame, if scorn smote us on all sides, and hatred crushed us, angels see our tortures, recognise our innocence… and God waits only the separation of spirit from flesh to crown us with a full reward.

I don’t believe in God, but reading that, I hope she’s right.