From “Trauma and recovery” by Judith Herman
THE ABUSIVE ENVIRONMENT-part 1
Chronic childhood abuse takes place in a familial climate of pervasive terror, in which ordinary caretaking relationships have been profoundly disrupted. Survivors describe a characteristic pattern of totalitarian control, enforced by means of violence and death threats, capricious enforcement of petty rules, intermittent rewards, and destruction of all competing relationships through isolation, secrecy, and betrayal. Even more than adults, children who develop in this climate of domination develop pathological attachments to those who abuse and neglect them, attachments that they will strive to maintain even at the sacrifice of their own welfare, their own reality, or their lives.
The omnipresent fear of death is recalled in the testimony of numerous survivors. Sometimes the child is silenced by violence or by a direct threat of murder; more often survivors report threats that resistance or disclosure will result in the death of someone else in the family: a sibling, the nonoffending parent, or the perpetrator. Violence or murder threats may also be directed against pets; many survivors describe being forced to witness the sadistic abuse of animals. Two survivors describe the violence they endured:
I saw my father kicking the dog across the room. That dog was my world. I went and cuddled the dog. He was very angry. There was a lot of yelling. He spun me around and called me a whore and a bitch. I could see his face really nasty, like someone I don’t know. He said he’d show me what I’m good for if I think I’m such a great piece. He put me against the wall. Things went white. I couldn’t move. I was afraid I’d break in two. Then I started to go numb. I thought: you really are going to die. Whatever you’ve done, that’s the sentence.
I often thought my father might kill us when he was drunk. He held me and my mother and my brother at gunpoint once. It went on for hours. I remember the wall we were standing against. I tried to be good and do what I was supposed to do.
In addition to the fear of violence, survivors consistently report an overwhelming sense of helplessness. In the abusive family environment, the exercise of parental power is arbitrary, capricious, and absolute. Rules are erratic, inconsistent, or patently unfair. Survivors frequently recall that what frightened them the most was the unpredictable nature of the violence. Unable to find any way to avert the abuse, they learn to adopt a position of complete surrender. Two survivors describe how they tried to cope with violence:
Every time I tried to figure a system to deal with her, the rules would change. I’d get hit almost every day with a brush or a studded belt. As she was beating-I used to be in the corner with my knees up-her face changed. It wasn’t like she was hitting me anymore-like she was hitting someone else. When she was calm Id show her the big purple welts and she’d say “Where’d that come from?”
There weren’t any rules; the rules just kind of dissolved after awhile. I used to dread going home. I never knew what was going to happen. The threat of a beating was terrifying because we saw what my father did to my mother. There’s a saying in the army: “shit rolls downhill.” He would do it to her and she would do it to us. One time she hit me with a poker. After awhile I got used to it. I would roll up in a ball.