Thursday, August 18, 2011

Key Characteristics of Abuse

Today has been day 2 of my period, and my pain and cramps have been unbearable.  My period is always painful because of the emotional stress involved in leaving my abusers behind, and I think it used to be even worse when I was still living in captivity.  While I was still under the control of my abusers, I felt an endless source of despair and hopelessness.  I felt trapped.  I felt like there was no way out because I knew that as long as I remained in that situation the abuse would never end.  There was clearly no hope for my abusers to ever really change.    

Yet I was afraid to  leave them behind because I was afraid I couldn’t support myself financially.  I was like a lot of women who refuse to leave their violent partners because they are financially dependent on their partners.  My mother is in this situation – she is afraid of having to look for a job and so she prefers to stay with her abusive partner (my dad) rather than face the risks and responsibilities associated with becoming financially self-sufficient. Every time my abusers would assault me, it would further reduce my self-confidence.  And every time I was fired from yet another job because of my profound social and emotional skills deficit, my self-confidence would be shattered all over again. 

The most powerful emotion created by a legacy of a lifetime of intentional, calculated, and planned emotional abuse is simply fear.  The abuse is deliberately designed and intended to instill fear in the heart of the victim, whether the target is a child or intimate partner.  The more systematic and organized the abuse is and the longer it goes on, the more frightened the victim becomes.  Instilling fear in the victim is necessary to keep them under the control of the perpetrator and to insure that the victim will remain under the abuser’s roof.  I spent a lifetime living in fear as a result of my history as a survivor of horrendous emotional child abuse, and so I know first hand just how paralyzing the abuser’s fear can be.     

In fact my mother has lamented that she raised me in fear because she herself was also raised in fear.  When I made my phone call to her to tell her that I had left her behind, she was mildly pleased when I told her that I was not afraid for the first time in my life.  She was however naturally upset about the departure of her perceived co-victim because she knew it meant my dad would now concentrate all his wrath against her.  I wish I could say I feel sorry for my mother, but I don’t because I feel she has chosen the life of a victim and refused to free herself or her children from her abusive partner.  I also feel enraged at her for having deliberately sacrificed my emotional safety by allowing my dad to terrorize me.  She has preserved her marriage at the unacceptable cost of sacrificing my emotional safety.   

And also the more family members that are colluding with the abuser against the victim, the more dangerous the victim’s situation is.  I gradually came to realize that by refusing to stand up for me and prevent my dad from abusing me, my mother was part of the problem and not part of the solution. I recognized that my mother’s collusion was as much part of the problem as my father’s abuse. 

And gradually I came to understand that my whole extended family was actively colluding with my father against me.  I felt trapped because gradually I recognized that I had literally no reliable allies at all in my extended family of origin.  And this realization drove me to my eventual decision to sever all contact with my immediate and extended family of origin for the time being.  My mother’s late sister, my aunt, aided and abetted my dad’s abuse against me during the 2008 cruise to celebrate my grandmother’s 90th birthday.  And by allowing my dad to abuse me and also by abusing me herself, my maternal grandmother is sadly also part of the problem.  So I now recognize that I have suffered from three parental abusers- my mother, father, and maternal grandmother.  And I have suffered from the collusion of my mother, grandmother, aunt, and cousins against me. 

My aunt played a very sinister and cruel game against me on that cruise in 2008.  She sent her oldest daughter, who was 18 and whom I trusted most, on a mission to lure me back to the dinner table so she could enjoy the spectacle of watching my dad terrorize me all over again.  My pain and agony was basically the main form of entertainment for my extended family of origin.  It was like a play where I was assigned the role of victim and family punching bag for the pleasure of not only the abuser but also his supportive audience.  And while my social skills are on the weak side, I am not so blind that I don’t recognize this brutally obvious ploy.  My mother and late aunt both denied their roles in this particularly cruel game and never apologized to me for having aided and abetted my father in this endeavor.  My family of origin wanted to restore the fantasy image of a reunited family at the expense of my emotional survival. 

It is a wonder that I did not suffer a total emotional collapse in response to being assaulted and terrorized in that terrifying week-long incident of continuous abuse.  Even thinking about it over three years later gives me the chills.  Because it is hard to come to terms with the fact that the people whom you trusted to love and take care – intended to destroy you in mind, body, spirit, and financial aspects.   It is hard to face the fact that my parents never loved me – that they have always sought my destruction as a human being, that they have resented and hated me from virtually the moment I was born.  Society says that the parent’s role is to love and nurture their child.  But what do you do as a child when you recognize at an early age that your father actively seeks your destruction and is in fact the most dangerous person in your life?  It is hard when the person whom society assigns to raise you and care for you is in reality the greatest source of danger to you.

Many times I would read stories of American POWs in Vietnam in order to seek consolation from my abusers.  When I told my mother why I was reading these stories, she said,”So you think you are living in a POW camp.”  I said,”yes.”  Apparently this had no meaning for her because it didn’t change the vicious way she treated me.  I read the inspirational stories of numerous American POWs in Vietnam, including John McCain, the late Admiral James Stockdale, and Everett Alvarez.  Don’t you think that there is something very wrong with an adult child who is so terrorized by her emotionally abusive parents that she relies upon the horrifying stories of American POWs as a source of comfort and hope? I do, and now that I have finally left my abusers, I no longer need these stories anymore because I am not trapped any longer. 

I could particularly relate to the story of Mr. Alvarez because he grew up in a Mexican-American household where his father had emotionally abused his mother.  So he grew up in a very similar family environment to mine.  And in addition he recounted how his father had severely emotionally abused his sister in an unsuccessful attempt to control her – and how he had helped to provide his sister with the funds to enable her to leave her father’s house and escape  his abuse.  My brother was somewhat helpful to me in this regard but could not help me escape for two reasons.  One, I was not emotionally ready to escape for a long time.  Two, he was too emotionally and financially dependent upon our parents to be able to help me liberate myself from them.  But I could definitely relate to the attempt of Alvarez’s Hispanic patriarchical father to maintain absolute control over his sister.   My father also sought to retain absolute control over me as a daughter as well.

Mr. Alvarez was one of America’s longest-serving POWs in Vietnam.  He was shot down in 1964 and was not released until 1973.  He recounted how his Catholic faith gave him the strength to survive his 8 year captivity under horrendous conditions that included constant starvation, beatings, interrogations, and psychological abuse.  He had married five months before leaving for Vietnam, but the couple failed to conceive a child.  His wife left him for another man while he was still in captivity, an incident which left him devastated and traumatized.  When he returned home from Vietnam, he sought a divorce from the Catholic Church.  But in accordance with its no-divorce policy, the Catholic Church refused to grant him a divorce.  So he ended up converting to Eastern Orthodox Christianity so that he could remarry.  His second wife was I believe Lebanese or Greek, and he recounted his immense joy and liberation when his two sons were born from his second wife.   I highly recommend Mr. Alvarez’s amazing and inspirational book Chained Eagle which can be purchased here

The other story which greatly inspired me was that of the late Admiral James Stockdale and his wife Sybil.  Admiral Stockdale graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in I think 1946 and devoted his whole career to the military.  He was a philosophical warrior who believed in using the brain as a major weapon in war.  He also took absolute responsibility for the lives and safety of the men under his command.  When he was captured, he became the senior ranking officer who was considered responsible for all the imprisoned American POWs.  At one point, he risked his own life to preserve his men from being beaten or killed by their Vietnamese captors.  He took a razor to his head and a stool to his face –and he battered his own face and cut his head with a razor so that he would be too injured to appear on propaganda videos that were distributed by the Vietnamese Communists as false ‘proof’ that American POWs were being well treated in Vietnam.  His emphasis was always on raising the morale of his men in captivity, and he taught the men not to berate themselves when they broke under pressure from their captors.   He tried to always give orders that would allow the men under his command to retain their dignity and that he felt would not be too difficult for his men to follow. 

In addition to being a very compassionate military commander for his men even under the horrific conditions of POW life, he was also a loving husband and father to his wife and four sons.  He treated his wife like a queen and never verbally or emotionally abused her but rather loved and respected her as his partner in life.  When his wife had a miscarriage, he consoled her.  And when she was having a difficult pregnancy, he followed the doctor’s instructions to allow her to regularly leave the car and walk for exercise so she could have an easier delivery.  He was the kind of husband and father that I could only dream of having.  He and his wife had four sons: James, Jr., Stan, Sidney, and Taylor.  His sons were around 15, 12, 8, and 3 when he was captured.  And he addressed individual messages to each of his sons while he was in captivity.  Knowing how deeply he cherished his family, his Vietnamese interrogators tormented him by showing him a picture of his oldest son James Jr. and telling him that he had to follow their orders if he wanted to ‘ever see that boy again.’  And one of the hardest aspects of his captivity was that he could not be personally present when his father died. 

After he came back to the States in 1973 following his release from captivity, he became head of the then all-male military institution the Citadel.  He was alarmed and appalled by reports that the older cadets were physically abusing the younger cadets and subjecting them to dangerously high levels of physical exercise without proper hydration.  He tried to put a stop to this problem by encouraging the first-year cadets to come to him directly with their complaints.  He also personally taught a course for the older cadets that involved studying the best Greek philosophers in order to help these cadets develop a philosophy for war.  Unfortunately his efforts were in vain, and he left the Citadel in sadness after only a short time there. 

When I read his story, I felt a great sense of happiness and inner peace knowing that there were such loving men in this world, even if I had not been privileged to be raised by one.  It filled me with great inner harmony to know that other men respected and loved their wives and children and that some children had the wonderful privilege of growing up with a loving father.  I ended up actually giving my copy of this book to one of my male middle school students who was contemplating a military career.  I highly encourage everyone to read the book here.

I knew clearly that my case of emotional abuse is severe because it was, as characterized in the Survivor to Thriver manual for adult survivors of child abuse on page 43, the “acts are frequent, absolute and categorical.” 

Some examples of the categorical abuse that I was subjected to include:

·         my grandmother describing me as a ‘parasite’ and a ‘sicky’ on two separate occasions involving yelling episodes lasting over an hour each time.   
·         Threatening to throw me out of the house
·         Threatening to stop paying for my food.

The incidents of abuse became very frequent in the weeks before I left my grandmother, occurring roughly every other day and up to 4 times a week.  On some days multiple incidents would occur on the same day.   Threatening to expel your grand-child from  your home or to stop paying for your child’s food can only be described as ‘absolute and categorical’ examples of abuse. 

When I was a teenager, I would estimate that I suffered incidents of severe emotional abuse at the hands of my father roughly every week.  These incidents involved extensive yelling and screaming, being called names such as ‘idiot’ and ‘moron’, and occasionally being cursed at.  Once again you see a pattern of actions that are ‘frequent, absolute, and categorical.’   And once I became an adult, the abuse incident would be somewhat less frequent but still quite often enough to be recognized as a regular pattern.  I would guess that my father or mother assaulted me once a month once I returned to their home after college.  And I don’t think I can recall a single month without one or more severe abuse incidents except for a short period in early 2011 after my abusers threatened to throw me out of the house and take away my food and before I finally left my abusers.   

The other key element of abuse is secrecy.  Maintaining the veil of secrecy over the family pattern of abuse is essential for the perpetrator to isolate his or her victims and maintain control over them.  The abuser seeks to limit his victim’s contact with the outside world because any friends that the victim makes will empower the victim and increase the chances for the victim to find the support that she needs to escape from the abuse.   The perpetrator isolates his victim so that he can more effectively control her.  It is easier to instill fear in the victim if she is isolated from her family, friends, and faith community.  The perpetrator will try to prevent the victim from ever speaking to members of the outside world about her true situation – so that she does not receive support and help from outsiders.   And if the parents are abusing the children, then both parents will also seek to instill secrecy and fear in their children in order to better control them.

I remember how angry my family would become every time I dared to speak truthfully to the outside world about the abuse I was facing.  I remember one year around Rosh Hashanah time (Jewish New Year), I told my grandmother’s neighbor about how my dad was terrorizing me.  My neighbor confronted my grandmother and demanded to know why she did nothing to protect me, her granddaughter, from her abusive father.  My grandmother said nothing to the neighbor and sat there in stony silence without ever acknowledging her concern.  Once my neighbor left, my grandmother berated me severely for having revealed our secret to the outside world.  She said it was none of my neighbor’s business how my dad was treating me and I had no right to say anything to her about this.  She wanted me to handle this within the family.

Also I began speaking to some of my grandmother’s neighbors about how I was being abused.  As it happens, my dad is a physician specializing in geriatrics, and some of my grandmother’s neighbors are also my father’s patients.  And one woman in particular confronted my father in his medical office about how he was abusing me emotionally.  In response, my mother called me up and said that I should not tell any of my grandmother’s neighbors about how my dad is treating me because she feared it would endanger his business.  So obviously protecting my dad’s career and earning power as a phyisician is far more important than protecting his daughter from his abuse. 

I took the following survey of Adverse Childhood Experiences and found that I had faced four of the ten stressors listed.  One was a severe pattern of emotional abuse.  One was being sexually abused even briefly as one of my male child neighbors did to me when I was 7 years old.  One was having one or more depressed or mentally ill parents (both my parents are depressed, and so am I.)    One was feeling that no one in your family loved you.  And you wonder with four major stressors as a child why I have struggled so much emotionally.  Gee…I can’t imagine what the problem might be…The survey is listed here.

I am glad to know I am not alone in having this many stressors.  According to the survey on,, on page 9, I am one of the 19% of females and 13% of males who have had four or more major stressors in their childhood.  Just 31% of women and 34% of men had no stressors in their childhood, compared to 24% of women and 27% of men who had one major stressor.  Roughly equal numbers of men and women, 16% of men and 15% of women, had two major stressors., compared to 10% of women and 9% of men who had 3 major stressors.  7% of women and 5% of men had four major stressors like me, and 12.5% of women and 8% of men had five or more stressors, or even more stressors than me. 

These childhood stressors are also sources of lifelong problems for adults. Overall, 35% of people like me with four or more stressors married an alcoholic (page 10). I recognize myself in the category of the 50% of people with four or more major childhood stressors that have depression (page 12).  I am truly saddened that 18% of people with four or more childhood stressors have attempted suicide although I never have suicidal thoughts and have never attempted suicide.   I recognize myself in the 22% of people with 4 or more stressors who have serious financial problems and 20% who have serious job problems (page 13).  I have both serious financial and serious job problems, and naturally financial and job problems are closely connected.  If you cannot get and keep a job, you cannot be financially self-sufficient.   I am also among the more than 90% of people with 4 or more childhood stressors who is on prescription medication (page 13).

A related study showed that 11% of surveyed individuals suffered severe emotional abuse as a child like me, and 19% had a chronically depressed family member on page 4. Also 22% had occasionally faced sexual abuse.  I could identify with the people in these statistics because I saw myself in them.

I am so glad to be finally in a safe environment where I can freely explore these issues without fear.  Every time I visit Web sites on domestic violence and child abuse and see the warning “don’t visit this site in front of your partner”, I am reminded once again how lucky I am to be in a safe environment with HOEF where I am not going to be punished by my parents or grandmother for looking at the ‘wrong’ web sites.  I thank you all again for your support: Julia, Gisel, Marie, Bev and Kristin, and C and R.

I am also glad to be in Miami.  I feel really very much at home in Miami because almost everyone here speaks Spanish.  I am fluent in Spanish and very comfortable with Latino culture.  It is strange how I feel more at home in Miami among the Latinos than I ever felt during my visit to Israel in 2007.   I was raised as a Zionist and I remain a committed Jewish Zionist, and I continue to believe that Israel is the national Jewish homeland.  Yet I did not feel welcome or embraced in Israel in the way that I feel embraced by Latinos here in Miami.  Everywhere you go, the signs are in Spanish and everyone is speaking Spanish.  And I have met people from Cuba, Chile, and Colombia just among the staff and current and former residents in this shelter.  To be honest I miss not having any other Spanish-speaking residents at the shelter right now although I dearly love C, R, and R’s daughters. 

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