Monday, October 12, 2009

From Emily: Surviving Stereotypes about Domestic Abuse

We promised some first hand accounts of survival, and ever since we announced this month's focus I've been debating the best way to bring in my own survival account. You'll probably hear more from me on this topic in the next couple weeks, but for now I want to describe my own experience with false stereotypes about abuse. In a later post, I'll also give some practical advice to keep in mind when you're working with a victim of abuse.

I was a victim of physical, verbal, emotional, and non-physical sexual (yes, that does exist) abuse from my father when I was growing up. My father is in fact schizophrenic, so my mother tended to make excuses for his behavior, and she once even admitted to wondering if I was responsible for the abuse. Shocking, I know, but true. Incidentally, she doesn't remember saying that.

Another thing that may sound shocking is that it has been just as hard for me to get over the way others responded when I went to them for help, as it has been recovering from the abuse itself. While I was still suffering from the abuse, I spoke to licensed therapists, ecclassiastical leaders, immediate and extended family members, not to mention a wide array of friends. Few of them took me seriously, many accused me of lying or exaggerating, and some even accused me of causing the abuse. Here's a brief outline of my experience trying to seek help as a high school student:

1. First I spoke to a family doctor. She recommended I go to a counselor since "the only thing I could control was my own attitude." She said the way my father treated me might be my fault, but not my father's mental illness. She then interrogated me about whether I ever heard and saw things nobody else did, since schizophrenia is sometimes genetic. Needless to say, I did not confide in her again.

2. Next I spoke to a school counselor. She said she couldn't help me out with the situation with my father, but then asked if it was hard for me to be Mormon and have to go to school with people who didn't share my beliefs. I told her of course not! and wondered where the question had even come from.

3. Next I went to a church youth leader. She said she felt bad about what I was going through, but that there was nothing she could do to help me. She compared what I was going through to her experience working on her family's farm when she was growing up. She said it would make me stronger.

4. I spoke to my Bishop (the equivalent of a pastor or priest in other branches of Christianity). He spoke to my mother, referred us to a counselor, and decided, upon counsel from the church, not to report the abuse.

5. I went to the counselor with my mother. He told me I could do nothing about the situation, that it was between my father and mother. I said he made it sound like I was helpless, and he said, "well, you are." He said he was afraid there wasn't enough evidence for a social worker to do any good, so he didn't report the abuse. He kept asking how my grades were. I told him I was at the top of my class, and he seemed to take it as evidence that I was truly ok. I asked him if he'd have done anything if I'd been cutting myself, and he said he'd have put me on anti-depressants.

6. I told family members in my extended family on my father's side, who either told me it was my fault, or that I was lying.

7. I told friends, all of whom were supportive, but some of whom later admitted to thinking I was making some of it up. One friend said "either do something about it, or stop complaining!"

8. I spoke to another church leader, who told me that God must have a reason for letting me go through something like this. She seemed to be pressing for me to confide in her, and she in fact was the one to bring up the subject.

9. One of the friends I told convinced me to go to a feminist organization through UNH. The people at that organization told me they couldn't help me, but that the police could. They all but made me promise that I would indeed go to the police.

10. I went to the police and told them everything. The officer I spoke to asked if I'd feel safer with my father out of the house. I said, "of course!" and he said he'd pull up a restraining order immediately. Then he called my mother and said the state would take action against her if she didn't help protect her children from her husband. She was more than willing, and I later learned she had originally told my father to leave several months earlier. But when he laughed at her, she assumed she could do nothing.

11. When my father's family learned what I had done, they were irate. They accused me of lying, and they accused my mother of conspiring against him with me. My grandmother (who was Christian, but I don't know what branch she belonged to at the time) called and said my mother and I would answer to God for what we'd done. My father's brothers and sisters all blamed me. One of my cousins, whose father was even more abusive than mine, called in tears to find out if it was true. He had always seen my father as a very good man, as a role model even, and was crushed to learn it wasn't true.

12. My mother's friends and family were excited when they learned she was getting a divorce, but they told her they disapproved of my decision to go to the police without first consulting her.

The saddest thing about it all is the number of people who told me God was letting me go through it for a reason. Some people were so caught up in the stereotype that a victim blames herself for the abuse, that they assumed I couldn't be suffering through abuse if I recognized it as such. By the end of those years I spent reaching out for help, I too believed it was my fault. Not because I thought my father was without blame, but because I was convinced God was putting me through it for a reason. I thought I must be too arrogant, or confident, or bad in some other way, and that God was using the abuse to make me a better person. Crazy sounding, I know, but many of the people I spoke to expressed that belief. They just didn't recognize how disturbing the logical progression of those kinds of beliefs truly would be.

Later, after I was out of the abusive situation, some people even discouraged me from discussing what I'd been through. A few months after I went to the police, my grandmother tricked me into having pizza with her and my father, by promising he wouldn't be there. My older sister got mad when I refused to come out of the bathroom. When I left for college, one friend said, "Come on, your father can't be all bad," and told me I needed to forgive my father. It was less than a year since I had gotten out of the abusive situation, and I was still suffering from a subsequent fear of men at the time. Another friend told me she didn't want to hear about any of it. To this day, I've never said a word to her about it. And many, many others simply acted (and act, because all of this is still ongoing) as if I'm committing a social taboo if I mention the abuse.

To this day, nobody in my extended or immediate family understands why I'm so averse to my father's presence that I refuse to even speak to him. About a year ago, he attacked his own brother and nearly strangled him to death. My uncle refused to press charges, so my father wasn't arrested or committed to a mental institution even then. Even after witnessing this happen, my mother allows and even encourages him to visit and come into the house while she and my siblings are home. Last Christmas, he came by the house every single day I was home with my family. There were days that I spent hours closeted upstairs because he was downstairs visiting the rest of my family, and they "didn't know how to tell him to leave without being rude." They even let him go upstairs while I was up there, because someone was already using the downstairs bathroom. One year he asked for my phone number, and my older sister gave it to him.

The problem with the way others responded to my situation, is that after hearing and seeing all those reactions, it was (and still is, at times) very hard for me not to wonder if I indeed over-reacted and exaggerated about the situation, like so many people have accused me of doing. But, let's be honest - when a father throws a kirby vacuum at his daughter, frequently threatens physical violence, makes sexual comments to her and about her, and even steals her underwear and keeps it in a paper bag in his garage... that's a pretty serious situation.

Bottom line, be careful about how you respond to victims and survivors of any form of abuse. In a few days, I'll post a list of things to keep in mind if you're trying to help out a victim or survivor of abuse.

1 comment:

  1. Something I've heard from several survivors of abuse whose families and/or communities are religious is that many people, leaders included, told them that it was a test or punishment from God. Since most of them were being abused by their partners/husbands, they were also told that leaving would be a breaking of their marriage vows and would be a sin.

    A Christian pastoral counselor who worked at the same shelter as I did used to respond this way: the marriage vows were broken the first time your spouse did anything to hurt you. God isn't making your spouse or partner abusive; your spouse/partner is making that choice on their own. She used to tell her clients that she had never met a God who would punish people with abusive partners.

    I think there's a movement beginning, particularly in monotheistic Western religions, to speak to intimate partner abuse and how religious leaders can respond to it more productively- most of the outreach programs we did with religious leaders were in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities. I'd be surprised if the same outreach weren't happening in more religious communities as well.

    I'm glad you raised these issues, though. It's a lot easier to understand the complicating factors of leaving an abusive situation with a first-hand account.