The injustice of it all
When talking to my psychiatrist one day, he highlighted a notion that I’d been ignoring. I’m not just depressed. I am angry. I am angry at my mother for her abusive behaviors. I am angry at my stepfather, grandmother, family members, and neighbors for covering for her. I am angry at the other adults in my life whose responsibility it was to look for signs of abuse and report them. These people include my pastor, my teachers, my doctors, and my babysitters. Most of all, I am angry at the loss of opportunity to be a different self.
What would my life be like if someone had intervened? Would I be suffering the way I am now? Would I have the coping skills to live a much better life? I have spent many hours contemplating, “WHY?” How could these people just ignore what was happening to me? While the answers do not satisfy my anger, perhaps they can help someone from making the same mistakes.
Reason #1 Misconceptions resulted in people not recognizing the abuse.
People often look for obvious signs of abuse. Violence leaves cuts and bruises; neglect may appear in dirty clothes, or an appearance of being underfed. They also look for inappropriate behavior, low grades, and substance abuse. These are certainly warning signs.
However, some abused kids go to the opposite extreme. They are meticulous in their work. They get good grades. They are well behaved and seek approval from teachers and other adult mentors. They’re very anxious about doing something wrong. This may give the overall impression that you’re dealing with a “good kid,” and there’s nothing to worry about.
That was me. After I ran away from home, many of the adults who dealt with me as a child admitted they felt something was wrong. I was just too good, unnaturally good. If they’d been more perceptive, they would have noticed hyper-vigilance; I was always “on alert” and ready for something bad to happen. They would have noticed that I flinched or startled easily. They would have noticed that I severely overreacted to discipline. The smallest word of disapproval would have me in tears and throwing up in the bathroom.
Reason #2 They were part of the “bystander effect.”
The bystander effect is a psychological phenomenon where an entire group of people witness a crime or emergency and do nothing to help. The term was coined in the 1960s when a young woman was stabbed to death in her apartment, and her neighbors heard her cries but did nothing to stop it.
The bystander effect occurs for many reasons. People may fear they will be attacked or harmed in some way themselves if they act to intervene. They expect someone else will do something. They create reasons not to do anything such as, “It’s not right for me to interfere with someone else’s family.” The cynic in me says no one wants the inconvenience of filling out paperwork and talking to police.
One Halloween, my mother took me to a downtown event, a sort of street party where businesses were also giving away candy to kids. Weeks ago, she had given me a ring to wear, a blue sapphire. At some point, the ring slipped off my finger and was lost. When we pulled up in the driveway, I realized it was missing, and when my mother found out, she went crazy. She said the ring had sentimental value and started slapping me, clawing me, pulling at my hair, screaming at me, and calling me names, the usual.
When her fury started to escalate, I did what I often had to do growing up. I got out of the car and ran. This time I thought I’d be smart and ran to our neighbor’s house, an elderly couple, and begged for sanctuary. They took me in, and at first, they showed the appropriate alarm, but as they were discussing whether or not to call the police and what to do about the situation, my mother knocked on the door.
She was calm, playing the role of the exasperated mother who has a naughty little girl. She could win an Oscar. She told our neighbors that I was spoiled and wasn’t used to a good old-fashioned spanking. They all laughed about it together and exchanged stories of being in trouble as a kid while my heart squeezed tighter and tighter in dread of what was coming. I was forced to go home with her, and I’ll leave the results to your imagination.
Those people KNEW. I had just described to them in detail what had happened as I have here. They knew I wasn’t an ordinary “kid in trouble,” yet they were more than willing to accept my mother’s explanation because they didn’t want to get involved.
Reason #3 Keep it in the family. It’s nobody’s business but ours.
Another psychological phenomenon that causes people to ignore abuse is the enabler. The enabler is a person who cleans up the abusive parent’s mess and makes everything look normal. They actively keep other people from finding out and intervening in the abusive behavior, so the abusive cycle continues unimpeded. Enablers may also be victims of the abuser themselves, but they think what they are doing is “love” and protecting the family.
My grandmother was an enabler. After one of my mother’s fits, she would try to calm me down with treats and soothing words. She emphasized over and over that I shouldn’t tell anyone. Telling people would only embarrass the family. Authorities would come and break our family apart. My mother would be hurt, and I would be responsible. Sometimes she even went so far as to rewrite the script. What I experienced didn’t really happen. Instead she would paint a portrait of a much less scary and more understandable scenario. As long as I kept quiet, everything would be okay.
My grandmother was determined to protect my mother even though she was in danger many times herself. One time, I had to wrestle with my mother to keep her from beating my grandmother with her own cane, yet when I overheard my uncle speak with my grandmother after that incident about “getting my mother some help,” she refused outright. My uncle didn’t push the issue, so he carries some blame in my eyes.
When I was 12, my mother married, and my stepfather also protected her. Instead of denying what happened, we would sympathize with each other in the aftermath, and he convinced me that he WAS getting her help…next week. Over and over. He kept me from taking those final steps to protect myself much sooner.
It’s All So complicated
Yes, I’ll go ahead and say it. I’m angry. I’m pissed. I’m FURIOUS! All it would have taken was ONE PERSON to stand up for me!
However, it’s more complicated than my anger would like to admit. Human beings are complex and fallible. I loved my grandmother. I can put myself in the shoes of some of the people who thought there might be something wrong but were afraid they’d make a mistake if they did something about it. Maybe I’m partially to blame for not consistently trying to get help. One of my former students privately told me that she was a victim of abuse. I was horrified that I didn’t catch it while she was in high school. She told me she was very good at covering it up. I share in the guilt. Also, it does only harm to hold onto all that anger. I have to work at forgiving these people and myself too.
Notes from the Author
I’m grateful that blogging has brought me into contact with other survivors of abuse such as Just Another Person and his wife. It helps knowing your experiences aren’t freak incidences. It helps knowing there are people who can empathize as well as sympathize with what I went through.
Pay attention to the kids in your life, not just what they say, but their body language and other behaviors. Ask the hard questions if necessary. You might be the one person who notices and takes action to rescue a child from an abusive situation.