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.
” …For a boy or man in patriarchal culture, women are often not experienced as individuals separate from himself. First his mother, then his wife, and finally his daughters are experienced as extensions of himself and his own needs. While he must experience the frustration of inevitably partial gratification of his needs by his mother or her substitute, he is instructed by her, by his father, and by society that he continues to have the right to expect care taking and gratification from females. The male child fails to resolve this infantile grandiosity, but only transfers it from his mother to other women. He is the king of his domain, as was Oedipus, saved by his mother, although her own life and that of his father were thereby put in peril. Oedipus eventually loses her, along with his throne and his eyesight; however, he does not even pause to mourn her loss, so concerned is he wi his own fate as a man and a king. Oedipus simply transfers his sense entitlement to Antigone, who takes over from Jocasta as an extension of him and his fate. His fate becomes hers. Her mission is to serve him, to provide both sight and sustenance, yet still she is viewed as weaker than he. ” For who would borrow eyes to walk or lean his weight on weakness?” (Roche 1958, p. 92).
The oedipal complex in men rarely reaches resolution in a patriarchal society, as adult men typically continue to experience themselves in this grandiose manner, which includes a sense of entitlement to women. Thus, it is a complex neither of childhood nor nor of sexuality narrowly defined, but one that applies more generally to masculine psychology in a patriarchal system. It is characterised by extensive boundaries that subsume others, particularly females, who are considered to contain the feelings, conflicts, and meanings that men attribute to them. For Freud, this meant that the transgressions of the fathers were really the desires of the daughters. For fathers, this means that their daughters exist to meet their (the fathers’) needs. It is the right of the fathers to train their daughters to
please them in all ways, including sexually, the latter all too frequently through incest and through father’s perceived right to view and comment upon his daughter in a sexualised manner. This right is extended to all men in a patriarchal society, who have the right to view and evaluate, to sexualise any woman who falls within the range of their sight.
Gregory Zilboorg (1944) noted, as did Freud, that father-daughter incest was the last incest taboo to be introduced. According to Zillboorg, matrilineal inheritance made a mother and children one class and the father and children another. Since this taboo had to do with the preservation of property, it evolved as necessary. This analyses misses the obvious: if the inheritance or property of the father includes the daughter, then this is not as likely to be considered a necessary taboo and will be the most frequently violated. In a pamphlet published by Barbara Bodichon in 1854, she noted: “The legal custody of children belongs to the father. During the lifetime of a sane father, the mother has no rights over her children, except a limited power over her infants, and the father may take them from her and dispose of them as he thinks fit” (in Helibrun 1988, p. 85). Psychologically, if not legally, the contemporary father may not consider his sexual right to his daughter to be a violation at all.
It is by virtue of their gaze that men sin against women, that they objectify them, make them prisoners of appearance, of age and colour, of physical beauty, of their shape and size. Only through blindness blindness can such sight cease to oppress. Oedipus rips off Jocasta’s brooches and destroys his eyes, not his genitals, in an act of self-mutilation. No one is castrated or even threatened with castration. Blindness and not castration is the appropriate punishment for Oedipus’ sin. The prophet Tiresias, who revealed his fate to Oedipus, was also blind. Perhaps to be a wise man he must be blind, just as, in order not to continue to sin. Oedipus must also be blinded. Freud considered this blindness to describe the “strange state of mind in which one knows and does not know a thing at the same time” (Rudnystsky 1987, p. 21, from Strachey 1953-74, p. 117)- that is repression…”