s. e. smith's wonderful "Dear Imprudence" series at FWD/Forward is one of my favorite things in my (ridiculously extensive) blog reading habit. Part of it is just that I find hiring incompetent and uncompassionate advice columnists fucking reprehensible. For example, the "Love Connection" column in the Maroon Weekly is a train wreck. (My inside information tells me that this author doesn't work for MW anymore. Let's hope they don't scrape the bottom of the barrel and finally get someone better.) And smith is great about calling all the shitty, shitty advice columnists out. Which is hugely important, I think, because no matter how bad the advice author is (see: Maroon Weekly), people will continue to write in to them. So we need to hold these authors to a high standard, because their bad advice will continue to affect people's lives.
Anyway, one of smith's posts really resonated with me recently: Dear Imprudence: Just Toughen Up Already! In it, smith criticizes the Ask Amy column for refusing to take verbal abuse seriously. The letter to Ask Amy is from a lady in high school who wants advice on how to deal with her verbally abusive brother. Amy's response is to tell this lady that what she is experiencing is not abuse, and basically that she shouldn't let it bother her. From smith:
Let’s be clear here. Hurt Sister is saying that what her brother is doing is actively hurting her. She cites that it’s a blow to her self esteem, and it makes her feel bad. She’s writing to ask for help. It’s worth noting that all over the world, every single day, people experiencing verbal abuse cry out for help, and they often get responses exactly like Amy’s.THIS. This all over the place. Had I read this Ask Amy column without smith's commentary, it would have been triggering. Growing up, I experienced verbal abuse from my father. It took a long time for me to take it seriously, because I actually got the least of it in my family, because it never slipped into physical violence like it did for my other family members, and because when I talked about it, my friends pretty much gave me the same advice Amy gave this young lady. smith again:
You know what is verbal abuse? Something that someone identifies as abuse because that person is experiencing it. There are definitely degrees of verbal abuse, but they are all abusive. This is a short letter. We don’t know all the details. But it seems to me, reading between the lines, that her brother is constantly hounding her, is constantly making her feel small and worthless, is constantly saying that he is better than her, is constantly reminding her that she is ‘not doing things right’ and, you know what? That can become highly abusive when you are hearing it over and over.
Especially if you are aware of how it is impacting the way you feel about yourself. Hurt Sister is not writing in to say ‘this is annoying and it bugs me,’ she is writing to say this hurts me and I want it to stop.
Amy’s response is the equivalent of the old ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ adage, with a side of ‘you shouldn’t let the things that other people say about you affect you.’ Well, guess what. Words hurt people. The things that people say about (and to) you affect you, whether you like it or not. It’s not always possible to make a ‘healthy choice’ to ignore verbal abuse, especially when you are a high school student, in your own home, a place that should be safe, and your family member is subjecting you to it.
There’s a prevailing and extremely dangerous attitude that verbal abuse isn’t ‘real’ abuse, despite ample evidence to the contrary. That attitude manifests in the way that people at all levels deal with abuse, from teachers handling bullying to human resource directors in offices with hostile work environments. If an abuser uses words alone to harm people, that abuser is far more likely to get away with it, and the responsibility for dealing with it will be placed solely on the victim. It’s the victim’s fault for being ‘too sensitive’ and not ‘toughening up.’So, personal story time. This is not actually something I talk about much, because I've gotten the "you're being too sensitive" reaction a number of times. While most friends I've told about my abusive home growing up did not come right out and say "toughen up," most of them did act like I was overreacting to what they saw as normal parent/teenager conflict. It's taken me a number of years to get comfortable calling it abuse because of this. When I was a teenager, my father was abusive. Verbally to all our family members (my mother and my brother). That became more physical with my brother as he got older. I have reason to believe that his abuse of my mother was well beyond verbal, but we haven't really ever talked about it. We had a code of silence when I was growing up, which I think is fairly common in abusive homes. While we all hated Dad, there was an understanding that it was not okay to talk about it outside of the family. And even within the family, it had to be framed a certain way. Calling it abuse was not okay, because that word indicated a seriousness that would force us to tell someone else. If Dad shoved my brother, it was a "fight." If he yelled at us until he was red in the face for mostly imagined crimes, or told us that we were to blame for him and Mom constantly fighting (and, eventually, for their divorce), or when he basically told us we were (and made me feel) worthless, he was an asshole. But it was still not abuse. And my mother, because she was getting the worst of it, and didn't really want us to know (but of course we knew some, and suspected more), didn't talk about it at all. So breaking that code of silence after their separation when I was 16 was a huge breakthrough for me. But when I talked to my friends about it, I was silenced again. (I was the only member of our family that didn't go to therapy at this time, because we were broke and Mom and my brother clearly needed it more.) According to my friends, what I experienced wasn't "real abuse," and my talking about it downplayed the real abuse suffered by my mother and brother. I was just being too sensitive and exaggerating what really happened because I didn't like my father. For years, I thought those friends were right.
It's still rare for me to talk about this with friends, despite the fact that I'm a fairly well-adjusted adult now. But even as an adult, it's still rare for my friends to take me seriously. The other day, I was telling Adrienne about how my father would remove my and Justin's bedroom doors for days at a time when we were pre-teens and teenagers as punishment, usually for not ratting each other out. She was horrified, and sadly, I was actually surprised by her reaction, despite the fact that it's mine as well. But the taking-off-the-doors punishment usually elicits nothing more than, "Wow, your dad was an asshole." Well, yes. But he was also horrific and abusive. And sometimes I need to hear that from my friends. (Thanks, Adrienne, for being awesome!)
I still have certain family members that think I'm overreacting, or that don't understand exactly why I won't speak to him. It's hard to talk about with them, so they don't know everything. In fact, they know very little, and most of what they do know actually comes from him. They're his family, and he's supposedly turned a corner, so there's been a lot of reconciliation on their end with him. Which means they think a number of things, namely that his chief crimes to his children were being sort of absent and cheating on my mother. He's manipulative, and their distrust of me, when they are good people and when they know me to be a perfectly reasonable and very smart lady, is plenty of evidence for me that he hasn't changed a bit. Whatever he's told them, it's probably mostly bullshit, and it sure hasn't been admission of abuse. I wish that I could tell them all this, but I can't. They're too sympathetic to him, and I can't talk to people about this when they've been trying to get me to reconcile with him for years now. But, honestly, I think they should at least suspect. As I noted, I'm clever and driven and reasonable, not a whiny child. They know this, and they also know I haven't said more than pleasantries to him in over 3 years. That should indicate that this is not just a temper tantrum, but a defense mechanism, one I only need because something really fucking bad happened.
But I'm also afraid to tell them, because they might react the way that so many have: by telling me that it's not "real abuse," by thinking I'm overreacting, by thinking that I'm too sensitive. And, frankly, I can't handle being told all that again.
(Fun story: I was forced to invite my father to my undergrad graduation because of a guilt trip from this side of the family. Before this, when discussing it with them, I burst into tears and couldn't talk about it anymore. A side effect of this whole damn mess is that when older men make me feel threatened or patronized, I verbally shut down and can't stop crying. Can't do it. The male family member then said, "I'm kind of glad you're crying. It means you still care about him." I've never wanted to punch someone so much as I did at that moment.)
My father scarred me with words. He's made it nearly impossible for me to control myself when male authority figures patronize me (that was not the first or last time I've cried uncontrollably in front of older men, and the other times were much more embarassing, since they were university-related). He's made my relationships with the rest of my family strained and difficult. And he made me feel useless and unworthy of love for years. And the advice of Ask Amy, the advice of most adults when something like this happens, enabled him to scar me.