Category Archives: abuse



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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JAN 20, 2004

I grew up in an abusive household, but I’m determined to be happy. Am I capable of it?

Dear Cary,

I grew up in the home of a raging alcoholic, drug abuser and emotionally and verbally abusive father. For the first 18 years of my life every encounter I had with any man was abusive and violent in some form. I spent my entire 19th year of my life crying, every day, all the time. It finally occurred to me that it wasn’t fun being so depressed and that I could change it. I spent the next few years reflecting on all that had happened and even- tually taking action to change my situation. I was determined to have a normal and healthy sex life, and good or bad I went about this by a series of love ‘em and leave ‘em “relationships,” the longest of which lasted three weeks. I barely passed high school but started to read quite a bit, kind of a self-education.

At first I faked being happy, and started doing things to make myself healthier. Eventually I didn’t have to fake any- more. I made a lot of progress over the years and really broke free of my past when I moved to a small college town out west when I was 22. I rarely even think about how bad things used to be. I am incredibly happy with my life and feel that I am very healthy. I am in college and making straight A’s; I snowboard all winter and hike and backpack all summer. I am sure you have heard that you can see the face of God in nature; I am not religious but I found that to be true for me. I don’t want to load

you down with too much background, but I feel that some of this is likely to still be with me.

I had my first real relationship this year. I dated a man for 10 months; I ended it this October because after 10 months all he could see was that I was great fun outdoors, a blast in the sack and fun to drink with. I wanted more, the whole package, and I couldn’t believe that after 10 months this was all he could see. So I ended it.

I started to date a new guy in November. Perhaps that was too soon but it is what it is. This man is wonderful; he’s caring, sweet, really good-looking, smart, funny, fun and goofy, a lot of really wonderful attributes. He works in violence prevention and is very involved in the women’s movement. He’s giving me all the stuff that I couldn’t get from my first relationship. It’s small stuff but he cuddles, and stays the night, and holds my hand. There are problems, though; the sex is too sweet and car- ing, he asks me every time if I am sure I want to do this, and then follows up during to make sure I am OK. It makes me uncomfortable and unsure if I do want to do it. I suppose we started being intimate rather fast but I know no other way. I find myself comparing him to the guy I used to date. I want orgasms but he seems unwilling to go down on me, which is the only way it happens for me. It seems that for him sex is about connecting emotionally, for me it is about pleasure. It’s strange because he’s very affectionate except when we have sex. He has started to be more comfortable with me going down on him, but says that I shouldn’t have to deal with that. Will this just get better with time? Have I rushed this? Can I talk to him about it? I’ve tried talking to him a little about it and he usually says that I am the most open and to-the-point woman he’s ever known. Is it too soon to talk about sex?

We went skiing the other day and I found myself comparing him once again to my ex. He’s not as playful and it just wasn’t as much fun. However, later that night we had dinner and I had a great time and was reminded that I could really like this guy. I am still friends with my ex and we ski together on a regu- lar basis and always have a blast. Is that being unloyal? Can

I give my time and joy to my ex and still date this man? Did my relationship with my ex last so long because he kept it so very casual? Am I capable of a real relationship? Should I even worry about any of this?

I hope I wasn’t too long-winded. Thank you for your time; I’ll appreciate your thoughts on any or all of this.

Finally Having Some Fun


Dear Finally,

Congratulations. You’ve done remarkably well.
You know, a person could linger on your first sentence for a long

time: “I grew up in the home of a raging alcoholic, drug abuser and emotionally and verbally abusive father.”

A person could figure, that’s all anybody needs to know every- thing about you. And indeed, while I’m trying to concentrate on your questions and think about your present, I am strongly drawn back into myself, to the dark, heavy center of memory, not because I was abused but because I share some ineluctable consciousness of the Fall.

I’m glad you’re having a good time, and I think you’re doing all the right things. It’s great to be skiing. I’ll bet just flying on the snow could keep you happy forever if you could just keep flying down the mountain.

But perhaps because I have a cold, which also keeps drawing me into myself, it’s taking everything I’ve got to stay focused on you, there in your bright and shining ski suit. Regardless of what specific advice I can offer about these men, I want this encounter to be about the rest of your life. I want to give you something, in this chance meeting, that you may think back on years later. And that is this: What I have observed is that the effects of an abusive child- hood never seem to go away completely.

I don’t know the statistics. I just speak as an observer. I don’t even know if it’s possible to make statistics on how the immortal phan- tom of abuse lingers, how much it weighs, what electrical charge it

carries, what kind of light it emits. I don’t know if the phantom of abuse has any measurable reality at all; perhaps its footprints can be found in an altered brain chemistry. And against what control could we measure it, anyway? Would we not need a duplicate you, raised by a duplicate father except without the alcoholic tirades, the unpredictable departures, the simmering, acid explosiveness?

I don’t want to be a downer, and I don’t want to condemn you to a lifetime of therapy groups and self-doubt, like a cancer survivor always fearing it might come back. So I can only say what I have observed: Even though you feel you have banished these episodes in your early life forever, you need the courage to always bear them close to your breast, where you can see what they’re up to. Because they may be working on you as you age. As surely as early musical training, the early traumas of chaos and abuse are there, a kind of language eager to be spoken again.

If you don’t pay attention, in odd moments of stress and over- whelm, you find yourself speaking this strange language without realizing it at first. It’s already installed, and there’s no tag on it saying “this is your bad experience, don’t replicate this.” It won’t even feel like abuse, because it’s such a part of you.

Darn. I don’t mean to scare you. I forget what your question was. OK, the new guy: He’s obviously not your true sexual mate. You don’t click. You need someone rougher, more self-assured. He’s too tentative for you. But the first guy probably did not have the com- plexity you seek. So keep having fun, and keep looking. You obvi- ously have a lot of depth, and a lot of energy to take on the world. The only thing that worries me is what I’ve seen so many times — how you can overcome these early events by staying active and alive, but if life takes a bad turn, the only model you have for coping with adversity is this age-old raging father figure.

I’m sorry I got caught up in all this, but that first sentence speaks so loudly to me. Because I assume that you and I belong to a quiet society of secret sufferers, that we recognize each other on the street like an underground, that we know each other to be differ- ent because we don’t react like others do. We’re more driven, more crazy, more desperate, hungrier, touchier, louder, always breath- lessly skating on thin ice above the dragon; we know better than to

stop skating and sink into the water.
Visualize a loving childhood. Visualize what it would have been

like if your father had been a strong, stable, loving, sober man who never left you waiting in a dark parking lot, who never slept the whole day through when he was supposed to do the grocery shop- ping, who never told you anything but the sweetest words a girl could hear.

And then, regardless of how well things are going, pay atten- tion to how your reactions differ from those of people who were not abused. Watch for signs that this first ugly language you were taught is calling out through you to be spoken.

And if it has to be spoken, speak the vehement words on paper, speak the cruel glances in drawings, play out the tirades in loud guitar chords.

You can be perfectly happy. But the past never goes away com- pletely.

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Mad about him

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 21, 2003

Our love makes me feel part of something bigger, but his anger scares me.

Dear Cary,

I’m in love. Hooray! This is a good thing. It’s beautiful. There is mutual honesty, caring and affection. This man encourages me to think and to explore, and he makes me feel beautiful and loved. Our love makes me feel a part of something bigger, some biological necessity. He’s the first person with whom I’ve ever considered starting a family.

I know all the joys that come with love, and I know that love involves risk and vulnerability. But, we’re fighting. I’m not a good fighter. I am learning to be a good discusser of feelings, but a fighter I am not. My beloved is a fighter.

Rarely (maybe three times in the last year) he gets really angry and blows off steam through a kind of violent stream-of-consciousness spoken fantasy. I’m not frightened or threatened personally; I know he uses those words to let go of anger, and he would never act on his violent thoughts. But I never know how to react to these outbursts. The first time it happened, I tried to talk him down immediately. But after we both calmed down, we discussed it and he said that he doesn’t want to be talked down, he wants to feel that anger in the moment and then let it go. This sounded fine to me. (Does it help to know that he is an artist? The only time I’ve ever seen him like this is when his art is attacked — not just a critical review, but really scathing remarks.)

Recently he had a temper tantrum at my house. His violent stream of vocabulary was really unnerving and disturbing to me. So I told him that if he needed to talk that way therapeutically, that he had to go talk to someone else, because I just couldn’t handle seeing him that way. So, of course, he left.

When we discussed it later I found that he wants me to fight for him, with him, next to him, to be on his side — to be angry at whomever has wronged him. He thinks that it’s him and me against the world, and he doesn’t feel like I “have his back” or support him emotionally.

I want to support him, but I don’t want to be “against” anyone. I just don’t deal with things the way he does. I’d rather sit down and discuss something with someone than tell that person to shove off.

My roommate heard his recent outburst and doesn’t really feel comfortable with him around the house. I think she’s overreacting, but if that’s the way she feels, there isn’t really anything I can do. My boyfriend sees my acceptance of her feelings as a betrayal to him. He thinks I should have told her off and stood up for him. He’s really disappointed.

Is this simply one of those fundamental differences that can’t be overcome? I feel like I would be compromising myself to fake an empathetic anger if I don’t feel it. But on the other hand, I don’t want to leave him stranded, feeling embarrassed and ashamed of his anger. I know that relationships involve introspection and that lovers can teach you things about yourself and help you grow. And I see his point about me needing to “butch up” in certain circumstances. I’m at an impasse. I don’t want this to be a deal breaker, but I’m not going to become an angry person. I don’t want to be one.

Trying to Stand by My Man


Dear Trying,

What makes the dramatic display of anger frightening to onlookers is the worrisome sense that bones are going to get broken if it keeps up much longer. If you don’t know the guy who’s stringing together a sputtering symphony of profane threats, making withering allusions to sexual dysfunction and raising questions about the phylum and genus of one’s parentage in an often alliterative and sometimes surprisingly musical — if hardcore — way, you might be justified in assuming that the next step is going to be the breaking of facial bones or some kind of epileptic seizure. Especially if you’re in the next room, it’s hard to tell if and when the police are going to be pulling out their tiny notebooks and talking in that strangely repressed monotone that the most violent of public authorities seem to think lends gravitas to their mien. The whole thing is to be avoided if at all possible — as no doubt you’ll agree.

But since you’ve latched onto a man who isn’t stuffing and holding onto his anger like a good citizen but instead sees life as some primal battle that must be fought, us against them, as loudly as possible, you don’t have the option of avoidance.

Feeling as I do somewhat hemmed in by our undemonstrative public culture, I do sympathize with this guy. But, heck, it’s your job to be hemmed in, buddy. Because, look, the rest of us are hemmed in. So what makes you think you can pop off while the rest of us are meekly submitting to the rules of polite society? Because you’re an artist? Ah, go fuck yourself!

That’ll get me in trouble, won’t it? But you see, that’s how I feel, and it’s healthy to just let it out, isn’t it?
Well, no, it isn’t healthy really, because already I’m filled with remorse for my little outburst, as perhaps your boyfriend is, in a mild way, when he realizes that his outbursts aren’t going over in the heroic way he would like.

I think the most important question is: Can he control when and where he has these outbursts? There seems to be an element of conscious choice in your boyfriend’s outbursts. Perhaps he knows where the line is; perhaps he can bring himself to the brink of losing control and then back off, and feels cleansed and powerful afterward. Perhaps, like an actor, he conjures up frightening emotions and directs them for artistic effect. But there is also an element of loss of conscious control, perhaps allied to a longing for primitive power.

The fact that he frightened your roommate suggests that he either is not in control of these outbursts, or that he does not use good judgment. If he can control this, perhaps he ought to find some theatrical environment where he can take it as far as he wants to, without frightening your roommate. If he cannot control it, then he and you have a problem. An outburst could get him in trouble if it happens at the wrong time. He could get shot. Besides, nice people will get the wrong idea.

I’m really curious: Where did your boyfriend learn to talk that way? Did he pick up this stream-of-consciousness angry-man act from his father? Is there a library of tantrums in the closet of his mind, passed on from father to son like a box of porno tapes? Or did he think this all up on his own? Did he grow up rich or poor, on a farm or in the Bronx? Is he Italian or Norwegian? I’d love to know where he comes from, where he learned this.

But the bottom line is: 1) He doesn’t get to dictate how you choose to express yourself; you’re both free to express yourselves in the manner that seems true to you. If he thinks that because you don’t yell, you’re not on his side, then maybe he can’t hear well. 2) He needs to know that under certain situations his yelling and screaming is way out of line and is going to have consequences. 3) You need to look into whether he’s got a history of violence; the yelling and screaming may just be an outlet, but there may be a history of violence, or abuse, behind it. If so, that’s a serious matter. He could be dangerous. If you feel really frightened, there may be a reason.


My brother abused me — now our parents want us all together again!

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Cary’s classic column from Friday, May 23, 2008

I would like to help them celebrate their 50th anniversary, but I dread being in the same room with that man.

Dear Cary,

When I was a teenager, I was sexually abused by my older brother. I’ve been through three different therapists trying to work this out. Three must be a charm because through talking to the third one I found a way to confront my brother and come to peace with this issue by forgiving him. Forgiveness in the C.S. Lewis sense of wishing him well in the rest of his life but not feeling that pursuing a relationship with him is part of the deal. Consequently we haven’t spoken or had any contact for years. I don’t wish to see him or have him anywhere near my children. I don’t want to be near him. He lives on the other side of the country so it has been pretty easy to avoid him.

Here’s the catch. My parents’ 50th wedding anniversary is coming up. We were discussing what kind of a celebration my parents would like over dinner the other night with my parents and my other brother and his wife. My mom said that her wish would be for the whole family to be together and, in fact, if this couldn’t happen, that she would not want any sort of celebration at all. She knows what has happened between my brother and me and knows that I have no contact with him.

It really bothers me that she is trying manipulate me into spending time with him by threatening not to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary unless we all get together. She has never handled this issue sensitively and wonders why I can’t just get over it so we can all be one happy family again. I feel that she is being selfish and inconsiderate by forcing the situation. I feel pulled in two directions. I want her and my dad to have a happy celebration. Getting to 50 years is no small feat in our world today. But I also want her to understand that it is important to me to not be expected to spend time with my brother. I know that it hurts her that her family is torn apart, but having us all show up together in the same room for a party isn’t going to magically create the perfect family that she so desires.

The biggest downer in all of this is that the responsibility for the family celebration and whether it will happen or not rests on my shoulders. I didn’t ask to be abused. It was no picnic coming to terms with the abuse and I don’t see why I should be the one who has to make the decision to make or break the party. I’m not the bad guy here. But if I don’t concede to spend time with my brother, it will look like I am. It won’t just be the two of us in the same room for the first time in eight years; it will be family pictures and forced hugs and conversations and … UGH!

So, do I stay true to what I want to do for my own sanity and personal emotional safety? Or do I give in and spend my parents’ 50th having one of the most hellish days of my life? How much does one need to sacrifice to honor and love one’s parents, or mother anyway?

Forgave but Did Not Forget


Dear Forgave,

I cannot resist the idea that you might, by seeing your brother once more, finally extinguish the remaining embers of power he holds over you. For to know finally, with deep unshakable certainty, that the person who hurt you can never hurt you again — that would be a good thing, no? To know that you can be in his presence safely in any place, at any time of the day or night? And to know that you had a safe place to go and a way to extricate yourself should the trauma of contact prove too uncomfortable, this might make any such contact more bearable, might it not?

That he still renders pieces of the earth’s territory uninhabitable for you: Isn’t that a circumstance that should be finally laid to rest? Would you not like to be able to walk anywhere with impunity, even into his own house — not that you would want to, but simply that no place on earth ought to be walled off from you, since you have done nothing wrong?

You need to know in your very bones that he can never hurt you again. I may be wrong; it may be too much of a magic trick; but I am thinking that seeing him in the midst of the family, in a setting from which you have a pre-planned exit, having prepared adequately, might finally extinguish his hold on you forever.

When we still feel a person holds the power to hurt us, we live with residual fear, and our movements are restricted — through our own choice, we say to ourselves; we’d simply rather not see him. But a choice made in fear is not really a choice but coercion. If in fact this person can no longer hurt us, and yet we continue to live in fear of contact with him, then simply knowing is not enough; we need to experience, firsthand, that he has no power over us. We need to feel it vividly. In such a case, we may need to have contact with him even though the prospect fills us with cold fear.

I can see how it would bother you that by participating in this party you are fostering an illusion — that he never did what he did, or that it didn’t matter as much as it mattered. But this is not about the perceptions of others. It is about reinforcing a truth for you.

This must be said also: You do not have to do this. It is your choice. You are not living for other people. They can celebrate if they want to. They do not have to include you. It is not your fault if your mother persists in being rigid. She is trying to control you. You do not have to let her.

But if you can see it as a test of your own capacity for remaining in the flame and not flinching, if you can see it as a test of your humility and your distance, then perhaps you can take this event like a trophy. You can set it on your mantel. You can say quietly to yourself, I did this just to see if I could do it. And I could. So he no longer has any power over me. So if I can do this, what else can I do? How I must have expanded! I am so much stronger than I thought!

My reasoning is that the risk is worth it. If you find you can be in the same room with this person you will have acquired a new power. It won’t mean that you have a relationship. It will only mean that your sphere of free movement has expanded. It will mean that you need not fear this person any longer. It will mean that you can gaze upon him as upon a stranger.

Of course, this is a magic trick and there is no guarantee that you would perform it flawlessly. Dragons may sprout from his head and threaten to attack. Spirits, stinking, vile spirits may surround him. There may be a force field of evil around him such that you find yourself propelled out of the room into the yard. You may have to go to a hotel. But you will have tried it. You will have made an approach to the physical manifestation of this awful evil, this monster of the past. And for that you may count yourself the hero in this drama.

The choice is yours, but as I look at it, I feel you have more to gain by approaching the fire than by staying away. Just be sure that you have someplace safe to go, a hotel room that you control, and that you have someone to report to at a specified time. Make appointments to call, and to limit your exposure. If you will be there with a partner, have a signal with the partner so that you can excuse yourself if you want. Have that choice.

Because choice is what this is about, in a way. In being abused, you were deprived of choice. You were deprived of choice and personhood. It may be that in some small way you could now retrieve some of that choice and that personhood by standing in the fire and seeing it can no longer singe you.

That is what it is: It is a test of fire. But you will have a net. You will have a watch you can look at and say, I’m sorry but I must leave for an appointment. You will have a rental car to get in. You will have a hotel room to go to. You will have a plane to catch.

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What do I owe him?

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUL 21, 2003

My abusive husband is dying and I have a lover. How good do I have to be?

Dear Cary,

Last year I went to visit a divorce lawyer, having finally got up the nerve to end a 29-year marriage (I’m 49) to a physically and emotionally abusive man. I had been seeing a wonderful man for some time, and we wanted to make our relationship public and formalize things. My only child was grown and launched, I have a satisfying job, and I ceased to love my husband many years ago. Just a few days after my initial visit to the lawyer, however, my husband was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, with brain metastases. The doctors have refused to speculate on his remaining time, but my research says he will likely have anywhere from another six months to five years.

I have continued to see my lover, but he and I are both tired of “sneaking around.” My husband continues to be abusive, though in his weakened state I think I could outrun him. My question is, how long must I stay with him and how saintly must I be? My job is the one that carries the medical insurance, which he would lose. And what would happen to my good name if I abandoned a dying man? Thanks for any advice you can give.

Adulterous, but I Have Several Excellent Excuses


Dear Adulterous,

Painful and ill-timed as your husband’s illness is, it’s also an opportunity to put your life on a new footing. It is no time to give in to vengefulness or impatience. The life of the man you married is nearing its end; your child’s father is dying; the man you once loved and spent a lifetime with is leaving this world. Take the high road.

If there is any time in a person’s life when he ought to know the unvarnished truth about how he has conducted himself, how he has affected the lives of others, now seems to be the time. It’s a chance for you to be frank with him but also to forgive him. Tell your husband the truth, both the good and the bad. Seek some kind of reconciliation with him. If you have a minister, rabbi, priest, therapist, spiritual counselor or trusted confidant, talk this over with him or her. Struggle to understand what his death means. If he has tormented you, be grateful that the torment will soon be over. As he approaches death, he may become reconciled to his wrongs, and he may want to make peace with you. Be ready to make peace with him.

But the peace you make with your husband should be kept private. If you start parading around with your lover while your husband is gasping on morphine, others in your community will be outraged and feel that he’s being tragically mistreated. They will suffer for him by proxy. They will feel the pain and outrage that they imagine he feels or would feel if he knew. Your actions will cause gossip and scorn. People love a drama. It might be none of their business, but they’ll make it their business if you give them the chance. Don’t give it to them. Don’t pretend it’s just about your life. This is about your husband’s life too, and the lives of those who have loved him. Hold your head up and do the right thing.

Why divorce a dying man? For one thing, cutting off his health insurance would cause problems for the doctors and nurses who are trying to care for him. Your child might find it unforgivably heartless. And his uninsured medical costs might eat into his estate, leaving less for you and your son or daughter to inherit. Divorce would also mean possibly acrimonious dealings with him. If he were near death or heavily sedated, questions might arise about his competence. If he wanted to contest the divorce, he might simply wait it out until the end, and then you’d have a complicated situation where you had filed for divorce but it wasn’t finalized, and that might affect aspects of the execution of the will. I don’t know, I’m not giving you a legal opinion; I’m just using common sense to imagine the ways in which trying to divorce a dying man could complicate things. At the very least: Why spend the money? Why not just make sure the will is in order and let nature take its course?

It may seem that your years of suffering are being neglected in this, and that is the privilege of the dying: They do get all the attention. At the same time, I think you deserve some support of your own. It’s not right what happened to you. You deserve some help. Why don’t you seek out a psychotherapist you can unburden yourself to while you go through this? It’s going to be pretty tough on you. You ought  to have somebody in your corner while you fight the last rounds.

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Strong and weak

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I’m involved with a married woman who has been abused by her husband. What should I do?

Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, Feb 3, 2004

Dear Cary,

I recently got involved with a married woman. We had been good friends for quite some time. There was an immediate emotional connection upon first meeting, and a deeper physical attraction than we cared to admit at the time. Aside from some casual flirting, I never expected anything to happen. Boy, was I wrong. Everything was fine at first. It doesn’t feel all that different from a normal relationship when we’re together. I’ve never done anything like this and never thought it would be this easy to accept, but the more I found about her marriage, the more I became distressed at her situation.

I know both her and her husband, who are from a small town. I knew that they had a pretty loveless marriage. Lately though, I’ve found out that things were much worse than I had imagined. In addition to the emotional neglect, there is plenty of emotional (and earlier physical abuse). She tried to leave once unsuccessfully. After a while she decided to stay to save her parents from the embarrassment of the gossip about leaving such a “successful” husband. He married her because she’s pretty and came from a wealthy family — certainly not for love: He said as much at one point. They’ve talked about divorce before and he said he wouldn’t mind it. (I don’t care much for the concept of marriage obviously, but the casualness of the remark is shocking even to me.)

I didn’t have any moral qualms about getting involved. Now my amorality has gotten me in a fine mess. I’m worried about her safety should he ever find out. It also pains me that an otherwise beautiful and vibrant girl put up with such a miserable life. I feel that she deserves more than I can give her, like commitment. On the other hand, the last thing she wants is probably someone who falls in love with her and makes things even messier.

We have cooled things down to give her time to decide what to do, which so far has meant nothing. I’m annoyed with her acceptance of her situation. What is it about people that makes them incredibly strong yet weak at the same time? I understand that she has a difficult choice to make, but it’s ridiculous to throw your life away when you’re so young! There are times when I feel like pushing the envelope, like threatening to make public this whole thing or, more satisfyingly, beating the guy up, but I realize how stupid and counterproductive that is, so it ends up just being frustrating. I’m not expecting enlightenment, but some insight would help.



Dear Frustrated,

To understand why people remain in situations that look intolerable from the outside, why they fail to fight back when they’re being oppressed, why they acquiesce to the demands of their torturers, is to understand much about the history of oppression and genocide.

To understand why others acquiesce, it is best to start with our own behavior, which, presumably, we understand at least a little better than the behavior of others. So let us consider your own actions. First, you gradually became enmeshed in a situation that you never imagined. Remember that: We do not walk through a door marked “oppression.” We do not face two doors, one marked “morally acceptable” and the other “morally questionable.” We follow a long, convoluted trail past minor indignities, minor transgressions, subtle insults. We see a freedom removed here, a freedom removed there, and often for good, rational reasons — to protect us from an outside threat, for instance, a threat that we, being simply wives, or citizens, or outsiders, do not understand. We are now fighting in this country a “war on terror” in the interests of which we have tolerated much violation of freedoms once held sacred.

But such things happen gradually; there was no clear choice offered to us. No one said: OK, Americans, we’re all a little shaken up now, so what do you say we abrogate the Constitution? We don’t make a conscious, rational decision to trade eternal freedom for a temporary and illusory feeling of security, but we do it just the same. We call it something else. Because we are afraid, we go against what we know is right. We know what is right. But we also sense that to follow our instincts might threaten the welfare of the crowd. What if she left her husband and became impoverished, scorned and unhappy? We go against our gut instincts all the time because it’s always possible that we’re wrong, that someone else knows better, that we’re being foolish and: Acting like a child!

Do you not feel this yourself? That if you did what you feel is right — if you stood up in a room and said, This woman is being psychologically tortured by her husband! that you might simply bring greater harm to yourself and to her, that you might invite only shame and reprisal? Besides which, you are not without sin, are you? You who sinned with this woman! So it’s not without a certain sense of grievous cost that you contemplate exposing what you sense. There is also the wall of privacy around the marriage, and the still operative sense that a husband is a king, that he rules over his wife, and that anyone who interferes invites his righteous wrath. Do we not all carry vestiges of feudalism in our hearts, and does not social progress fight that every day?

Consider also how desperately a child will cling to even the cruelest of families. Why is this so? Because the family is not just a social unit: It is the source of life itself. What courage that takes! And to what entities do we transfer this allegiance when we become adults? To our new family, of course, and also to the state, to institutions, to all those powerful figures in society by whose actions we are fed, clothed, sheltered and reassured: bosses, presidents, governors, CEOs, even newscasters and actors! Consider how much of our lives are led instinctually, how few rational choices we actually make, how craven we are, how rote are our actions, how predictable, how programmable, how meek and contemptible are we, the masses. And consider whom we admire, who our heroes are: Our heroes are not those who lead lives of great moral courage and clarity of perception, such as Noam Chomsky, Alice Miller, Ralph Nader and Ingrid Newkirk (the founder of PETA), who, for all their own shortcomings, their failure to see how strangely misguided they appear, can at least see through cultural bias to the clear ethical contradictions of our everyday lives.

They ask of us too much! They ask that we ignore our own emotions, that we risk offending our group, that we risk being not cool, we risk even upending our own emotional structure. So we turn against them for their “extremism,” their lapses of taste, their idiosyncrasies, their lack of common sense. And yet it is people like them who are telling the truth at any given moment; they are the ones who sound the alarm of atrocities long before the rest of us have the clarity of mind and the courage to see how dreadful it is what we’re doing. We turn against them because they offend us.

As your community will turn against you if you stand up and say that this woman with whom you are having an affair is being abused by her husband.

It is finally a private matter for her. Granted, such “privacy” can be yet another tool of oppression in the hands of abusive husbands and abusive parents. Nevertheless, as the interloper, and as a man who is not willing to commit to her, you have no standing. So you can only urge her to embark on the long, slow process of understanding the roots of her willful powerlessness, her willing enslavement. You can give her books to read. You can find a therapist who understands the complicated machinery of willing subjugation. You can do much to understand. But you are just a man among men. You have no godlike power to inject her with your understanding, or to move her like a chess piece across a mine field.

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I seem to be repeating patterns of abuse

I’m a well-educated and intelligent woman, but childhood trauma has brought me to the edge of madness.

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 10, 2005

Dear Cary,

Ostensibly, I am a relatively well-educated, intelligent woman. I had a rough childhood. I was abused as a child; my usual punishment was caning, but my mother also pulled my hair and boxed my ears.

I grew up minimizing the abuse. I was weirdly adult about everything. I would carefully explain to my older siblings that our mother had a difficult childhood and she still loved us, she just wasn’t in her right mind. There is a picture of me with a hand-shaped purple-and-green bruise on my arms. I am on a merry-go-round. I have a smile plastered on my face, painful and artificial.

I have never felt safe. I was molested by a teacher when I was 4, raped by a teenager when I was 12 and raped again when I was 19. I turned to drugs and alcohol; I was self-destructive. I have been in a series of relationships that ranged from unhealthy to severely abusive. I overcame my addiction through sheer willpower. I moved home and stopped associating with my drug friends. I maintained rigid control over whom I associated with and did not allow alcohol in my presence.

I am in the process of ending my current entanglement. I was involved for 10 months with a man who had spent seven years in prison for, among other things, kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon. No one, not even I, understood my attraction to this man. He became increasingly unstable, stopped taking medication he took for a mental problem, became an alcoholic, and developed a drug problem that escalated into using crack. This happened over the course of six months or so.

I was his caretaker. It was a process of systematically destroying my support network by isolating me from friends and family, and destroying my self-esteem with regular insults, spitting on me and humiliating me. He never hit me — he would cock his fist back and threaten to hit me, or punch holes in the wall. He was charming and manipulative. He would be abusive one day, and I would take him back the next. Sometimes it was a matter of hours. I don’t understand this. I don’t understand myself.

I have started having flashbacks from the rapes. I remember very clearly that I froze. I became utterly still, and silent. I remember thinking, if I don’t move, he won’t hurt me, he won’t kill me. If I stay still I will live. So I stayed still. I lived. I survived. I feel that way now — paralyzed with fear. I am afraid of him. He leaves messages on my phone, saying that he would never lay a hand on me, that he will kill himself if I leave him, that he only feels “safe” with me. Ironic.

Is my comfort zone a place of constant terror? Why did so many of my friends and family withdraw from me? My choice to be victimized must have hurt them, I know — but now I feel so alone, so terrified.

Two days ago he pounded on my door, smelling of liquor. I asked him to leave; he kicked in the door and threw me into a wall. I had a friend over in the living room, one of the few I have left — a neighbor who is very protective and a “big brother” kind of guy. My ex knocked him down and tried to choke him to death. Luckily, I own a pit bull. He did his job well and attacked my ex, chased him out the door and stood guard, with his ridge up. My ex was only recently bonded out of jail for possession and robbery, so he ran when he saw that we were calling the police.

I was pregnant by him, and lost the baby two weeks ago. I had left him already because of his escalating substance abuse, but because of my pregnancy he continued to contact me, occasionally to harass me, occasionally to beg me to come back to “be a family.”

I have prided myself on being relatively successful in life, despite the abuse and sexual assaults from my past. I am somewhat brittle, and extremely passive in my interactions with almost all men, especially men I am romantically involved with. I used to be strong, compassionate, intuitive, thoughtful — I worked to earn a degree in psychology and worked for a time at a forensic mental hospital. I enjoy being in a profession where I help others. I know that I am a strong person; I have fought to live my entire life. I don’t want to die; I don’t want to kill myself. I WANT TO LIVE, so badly that I taste it with every breath I take. But I have, instead, chosen merely to exist for so long.

I started therapy recently — this is where I was diagnosed with clinical and postpartum depression. My therapist said that I was, most likely, depressed before I lost my baby, but that the postpartum depression has pushed me to the point of being nonfunctional.

I feel as if I am doing this to myself in some self-destructive way. I won’t allow myself to consider suicide, so I choose passive methods, like “death by abusive, mentally unstable, crack-addicted boyfriend” — my sister accused me of this. Beyond all else I wonder why I still care for this man, why I worry for him and hope that he one day receives help and gets better. Why can’t I hate him?



Dear Traumatized,

Did you ever have a string that was very tangled, perhaps so tangled you didn’t even have words to explain it? You just held it out to your mom, wordlessly, on the verge of tears. You were so frustrated you could hardly even say, Please untangle this. You just held it out to her, hoping something would happen.

Maybe she would help untangle it and maybe she wouldn’t. If she was going to untangle it, she wouldn’t be able to explain to you how she was going to do it. She would have to simply sit down with it and begin. There would be hours of concentrated effort, trial and error, struggle with string. She wouldn’t have any words or symbols for the intricate topology. She couldn’t say, Oh, here, dear, here is the mathematical expression that describes this particular knot. She couldn’t say, Here, you just push the button. Or, here, I have stronger hands, I can snap your snaps. She just had to sit down and start worrying it.

That is how I feel about your story. I feel as though you have handed me a tangled string. I feel that it is important, surely; I could hardly ignore you standing there, trembling, bruised and afraid. So I will sit here and tug at it wordlessly while you wait. Images will eventually come to me; they always do; but they may not make sense to anyone but me. The images are cryptic; they are my private language. Sometimes I need to translate or you think I’m speaking gibberish, or that I’m playing with you. I’m not playing with you. I’m doing my best to respond. But the responding is often tangled like the string. So I will speak as plainly as I can right now, in the beginning, before the images take over. For there are certain things that are certain.

I think you need to make a whole new life pretty much from scratch. How is that for startling clarity? Your new life will have strict rules, like in a recovery house. The rules are there to keep you from getting hurt. You need some rules, or you might wander into traffic or into a crack house; you might fall off a cliff or a curb. So you get a set of simple rules and live by them. You sit at the feet of your therapist as she works to untangle the string, offering help as you can, but mainly staying out of trouble and being patient, because it’s going to take at least all afternoon. And you spend time with others like yourself, listening to their problems and trying to help.

You need the strict rules because you’re in the grip of a crazy machine that wants to repeat the injuries. You don’t need to know why yet. You just need to follow the rules. But here is sort of why (the images are starting to come now, as they always do):

It’s not just the ball of string. It’s you. You’re all beat up. Your mom looks at the string and then looks at you and suddenly she sees you’re bleeding. How did this happen? she screams. And you say, You did it, you did it.

Maybe she did it and maybe she didn’t, but you need help and she patches you up. But some of the cuts don’t heal; some of the bruises remain, glowing under your translucent skin like stigmata. Remember that bruise on your arm in the shape of a hand? Remember how strange you found it, as a child, that bruises persist as they do? Cuts and bruises are our early journal entries, written on the child’s body; long before we learn to think and remember our injuries, they persist in the muscles and on the skin where we can observe and touch, as though touching our own memories. So we understand very early the persistence of injury. And we learn early on, too, that the sites of our injuries are strangely alluring.


When you get bruised, you’d think you’d try to protect the injury, hold it aloft, maintain the bandages, wouldn’t you? Why do we pick at scabs and test our bruises against hard surfaces, as if remembering were a pleasure, even when it hurts? Why that peculiar interest in the wound itself, in its persistence? We rub the affected region. We replay the injuries, as though there were pleasure in remembering the pain. There seems to be a pleasure in simply remembering. If not a pleasure, then what? A drive, a compulsion, an urge: the urge to rub the affected region.

So we rub the affected region. We rub the affected region with abusers and pimps, with cops and prisons and whores and needles, the way a child tests a bruise against a sharp tabletop. We return to the source of our injuries, and we get injured again! Why can’t we learn?

At the source of our injuries, strangely enough, there are people hanging around the street corner with medicine. Isn’t that interesting? You rub the affected region with the pimp who bruised it, and the pimp’s got some rum, or some heroin. Here’s a houseful of people all rubbing their affected regions — rubbing them with each other, rubbing them with hammers, rubbing them with money.

In other words, again trying not to be so cryptic, you bring your story to somebody who will be like your mommy — your therapist — and you bring it like a humble and baffled child bringing a tangled wad of string. And then your job is just to stay in your seat until the thing is untangled. It may take years. But you keep to your routine. You stick to the basics. You eat well and stay out of the old neighborhood. You avoid rubbing the affected region. You stumble and fall and get up and keep going. One day you notice the stigmata are gone. The air smells fresh.

Something breaks and the lump is free. All that untangling must have weakened the fibers. You don’t even mind that the string is broken. You didn’t need the string anyway.

When it’s untangled, you have a new feeling. You take your first deep breath in centuries. Suddenly you have to get away. You jump in a car and head for the desert where there’s nothing, no scrap of memory, no parolees and no junkies, no men who remind you of your teacher, no men who remind you of your dad, no lures, no tripwires, no three-card monte games, no crap shooters in tiled elementary-school bathrooms, no blood on the walls: just desert sand and cactus.

You get out there and build yourself a lean-to and watch the horizon.

You have a long life yet to live.

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My sister’s stalker

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He accosted her on the street and forced her into his car. She went to the police and they did nothing

Cary’s classic column from Thursday, May 24, 2012

Dear Cary,

My younger sister is a 21-year-old college student who is “trapped” in an abusive relationship with her ex-boyfriend, who is 35 years old. She first met him when she was 19, fell in love with him and eventually moved in with him. After they started living together, she discovered that he was emotionally and verbally abusive, to the point that after six months, she had had enough, broke it off and moved out. The problem now is that for over a year, he refuses to accept that their relationship is over. Although he has not physically abused her, he has “forced” her into his car, screamed at her in public, in front of her professors and classmates, snatched her cellphone out of her hand to see if she has been talking to/texting other guys. He stalks her, physically, following her around town, staking out her apartment, and electronically, constantly checking her cellphone, email, Facebook, Amazon accounts, etc. (During the time that they were living together, he managed to get access to these accounts, and somehow manipulate the password access such that he continues to have access, despite my sister’s attempts to change passwords, etc.)

At one point things became so bad that she went to the police to file a report. She told me that the police were very unhelpful, reluctantly took the information, and seemed very unlikely to do anything unless/until he threatened her with physical harm. She says that she feels powerless to escape. At least that’s what she claims. I say this because she is by her own admission “not 100 percent certain” that she never wants to see him again. She is certain that there is no romantic future for them, but she claims she still has enough of an emotional tie to him that she is not entirely sure she wants him entirely out of her life.

Because they both live in a small college town, she cannot avoid him. He has no problem causing scenes in public which, to avoid, causes my sister to yield to his demands to talk, which often lead to screaming, crying fights, including threats on his part to commit suicide if she does not maintain contact with him.

She has told my parents and me about his abusive behavior, but because she attends school across the country, none of us have seen or can physically confront her “ex.” We are also hindered by the fact that she seems unwilling to do whatever it takes to get this psycho out of her life. It seems like during the time they lived together, he almost brainwashed her into thinking that she will never be able to fully escape his hold over her. We cannot be entirely sure that she is doing her utmost to escape his clutches.

What can I do to convince her that she needs to do whatever it takes to get him completely out of her life? And, assuming I can get her to see the light, what practical things can she do, without jeopardizing her safety, and, as much as possible, avoiding public humiliation and drama, which he has been all too willing to turn to in his efforts to control her?

A Concerned Older Brother


Dear Older Brother,

One thing that will help is to impress upon her how dangerous her situation is.

As the group AWARE points out, “Stalking is a serious, potentially life-threatening crime. Even in its less severe forms, it permanently changes the lives of the people who are victimized by this crime, as well as affecting their friends, families, and co-workers. Law enforcement is only beginning to understand how to deal with this relatively new crime.”

Send her to the website for AWARE — “Arming Women Against Rape and Endangerment” and talk with her about what she finds there.

Also,, a project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, has a good explanation of the state-by-state variations in restraining-order law.

The fact that the police were initially unhelpful should not deter her. She will need to be persistent and thorough, and follow the often maddening and apparently senseless procedures outlined by the courts.

An understanding of how women have been historically denied their rights and mistreated by the courts will also motivate her. Perhaps it will make her angry. Anger may be what she needs. The consciousness-raising that women did in order to gain rights and public understanding took time and involved much conflict.

Perhaps I can also provide a little personal history to show how difficult it can be to disentangle the personal from the political.

When women first started talking to men about our abuses of women, many found it hard to accept that the behavior we had been taught by our older role models was in fact harmful and hateful.

It was hard to change.

Many of us men did change. Some resisted loudly. It was not easy for us to give up behaviors that we had worked hard to master in the first place. What I mean is, when you’re an adolescent boy, you turn to your dad and other older males to find out how to treat women. You ask them what women want, how to treat girls, and in my case, my elder male role models were all sexists.  So they taught us, their sons and nephews, to be sexists also. They didn’t call it learning how to be sexists. They called it “becoming a man.”

And then, after practicing what they had taught us during the sexual revolution in which sexual mores were loose and women were often compliant, we suddenly had to change. Women were suddenly demanding not only equality in the workplace but in the intimate spheres of romance and social life. Suddenly we were supposed to do the dishes and cook.We had not been taught even these elementary tasks of domestic maintenance! We were taught that there would always be women to do it! How crazy is that? And yet it’s true. There were degrees, of course. Some families were less sexist and more sensible than others. But for many, many men, this much was true:

We had to throw out what our fathers and uncles had taught us about how to treat women. We had to defy our fathers and uncles in this very intimate and emotional arena. It wasn’t easy.

Nor was it easy to give up our male privilege. It was not easy to give up our power. But many of us did. We saw that the assumptions we had been taught to make about women were wrong. We saw that how women were portrayed in movies and on television was wrong. We saw how this connected to women’s real unhappiness. I saw this in my own mother and in other women of her generation. I saw it and it hit home emotionally. I saw that how husbands and fathers treated women led to lasting harm. But it was not easy to give up what my father had taught me.

It was not easy and it was painful.

For there were bonding moments between men and boys that, though injurious to women, were emotionally satisfying. Sharing in the snicker and the leer, the knowing comment about a woman’s legs or breasts — these were our initiation into our fathers’ world, and with them came longed-for gestures of acceptance. These pitiful moments served as rites of passage: I whistled at a woman. I guess I’m a man now.


The courageous work of women over the past century has enshrined many rights in law and custom. Because much seems now settled, it may be hard for younger women to grasp the ways men still use the conventions of romance to oppress them. That’s what this man did. He used the conventions of romantic love to oppress your sister. Now he is using the vestiges of romantic love to render her vulnerable to further attacks. And he has turned to tormenting her in ways that could probably be prosecuted. Yet when she goes to the police she finds herself rebuffed. Here, too, she is confronting the vestiges of a centuries-old center of male power. When a young woman approaches an older policeman to complain of emotional torment arising out of a romantic relationship, vestiges of the old patriarchal order are  reenacted.

So naturally she feels rebuffed. She feels as if her complaint was meager and unimportant. She has been patronized. She has been stripped of her dignity and power. It may sound hyperbolic to say this, but it is commonplace.

Knowing the larger picture can give one courage.

If your sister will educate herself about her history as a woman, she may make connections that motivate her psychologically and emotionally. That is what pioneering feminists did. That is why they met in consciousness-raising circles: They understood that if they were to succeed, they had to motivate each other. It was not only knowledge that they were transmitting, but courage.

This courage is what your sister needs. Women’s groups in her area will gladly provide some of that courage.

As for what else you can do, it might help to actually go there and talk with her. Go to the police station with her. Help her contact a lawyer who can talk to the police and frame the situation in such a way as to get a legal stay-away order.

There was a column a while back in which I was widely viewed to have given a too-lenient view of a domestic situation in which the man displayed traits that to many indicated that he was dangerous. So perhaps I can make up for it this time by insisting that this man’s behavior be treated as dangerous.

You can help by regularly checking in with her on the situation. You can also help by aiding her in changing her passwords. I don’t know the technical situation but it’s possible he knows not only her passwords but her supposedly safe “hints” — you know, the supposedly personal information only she would have. So please consult with someone about computer security and help her change her passwords in a more foolproof way.

In general, commit to giving her regular calls and pep talks to keep her motivated and confident. Visit her if at all possible. Impress upon her the seriousness of this man’s behavior. Be there in any way you can. Help her find a lawyer who can advocate for her in the courts. Don’t be discouraged. Be there. It’s what an older brother is for.

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Why am I attracted to my stalker?

Dear Cary:

I am writing to you for writing advice, more specifically, if it’s ever a good idea to write a fictional story based on an event that has happened in the author’s personal life.

Let me be more specific. For the past six months, I have been the victim of cyberstalking. It began as a flirtation in an online chatroom and transformed into an obsession with me that involved the predator changing identities seven different times in an attempt to gain control over me. What makes it more interesting, perhaps, is my occupation. I am a psychologist.

The details of the stalking are rich, as are the life circumstances in which my stalking began. I am well aware of the potential effects of abuse and have enlisted the support of a supportive therapist to sort out my feelings, which are complex. This complexity stems from my poor decision to allow my stalker to engage me for a month, under the guise of gaining more specific information about his identity, thereby putting an end to this ordeal. Unfortunately and quite unexpectedly, I developed feelings for him and continue to struggle with those feelings.

When I shared the events related to this stalking, both friends and colleagues alike expressed a fascination with the details, often exclaiming, “You can’t write this stuff.”  So should I attempt to “write this stuff,” creating a work of fiction, possibly in the thriller genre, based on a life event that not only happened to me, but that has affected me emotionally?

My first career was as a writer, but centered on writing advertising and marketing materials. The only thing I have published is my psychology dissertation, which was praised for its ability to hold readers’ attention and was written in a narrative style intertwined with an academic style.

My mind has started to explore the possibilities of plot — both based on real events, as memorialized by every email and instant message transcript I saved, combined with a variety of possible fictionalized plot twists and turns I have imagined.

How does one begin a work of fiction? Should I buy a book on how to develop a manuscript? Take a workshop? Hire an editor? And if yes, how?

When one has an important life event occur that has all the makings of a great book or movie, should one keep it to themselves or attempt to share it? Or am I just dreaming grandiose author fantasies instead of dealing with my trauma?

I appreciate your thoughts.

Thank you.

Dr. Prey


Dear Dr. Prey,

I’ve been reading The Art of Thought by Graham Wallas and it occurs to me that the reason it has taken so long to write this response is in part because of the “incubation” phase of the creative act. I did write to you when I first got this letter, excited to respond, intrigued with the situation. Then I waited a couple of weeks and was not sure why. Then when I began to draft a response, I needed clarification on a factual question and so I wrote to you about that, and you gave the answer that was required.

As a courtesy to readers, I will just say that I was not sure what the word “engaged” meant. You clarified that it meant you met with him privately in an online chat room. You never met him in person. He did request a meeting, which you declined. You gave me some other details, too, and I must admit I remain fascinated by the story, but want to just limit this to the one unambiguous response that I am clear about.

Now I sit, having been immersed in reading about psychoanalysis on a level I’m not really equipped to understand, and I come to your letter after a good long swim and some quiet time cleaning the kitchen, and it hits me: If you wish to write about this, I think the best form is not fiction but memoir.

You may at first object that you wish to keep your anonymity. Yes, of course you wish to keep your anonymity. And you can. But what is necessary here is to uncover and reveal to yourself your hidden impulses. You wish to understand yourself better. You wish to know why you acted in the ways you did. I think if you ask yourself these questions, and tell yourself the stories you need to tell, then it will become clear to you. And I think the way to do that is in the form of memoir and journal writing.

If you were an experienced fiction writer it would be different. You would be familiar with the way you disguise your own deepest themes; you would know, in some way, what you are saying by your fictional account even as it remains opaque to others. And so that might be a perfectly sensible way to deal with the powerful psychic material that is at hand.


That might still happen. You still might find what you need by writing fiction. But I have a feeling it would be like trying to express something on the violin, and not knowing how to play the violin. You would have to learn how to play it, first. Whereas, you do know how to write first-person expository prose. You do have a voice already. You don’t need to burden yourself with the conventions of an art form that takes years to master.

My intuition says that the more rough and ready, direct route of writing memoir is the best way to deal with this material. That will mean journaling and recounting the story, going deep and freely into your own most primitive reasons for doing the things you did. Do not worry about protecting yourself at first. Treat the writing as though it were a confession, in the fullest, most profound sense. Pour yourself into it. If it helps, in the realm of a confession, to tell it to some imagined wise confidant, then do that.  Tell everything you know about yourself. Tell the pain. Tell of the fear behind the pain, or the pain behind the fear and fantasize about the ways you have found to alleviate it. What is your big pain? What is your big fear? I feel confident that the series of actions you took is related to your core fear. This is a story that has probably been repeated in your life. So tell the story. Begin with your deepest fear or your deepest pain and just confess it all.

Of course I don’t know what that is. You may not know yet. It may only emerge as you continually ask yourself what it is. This may be a route to finding that out. I can’t even guess. But the mystery is there for you to solve.You can solve it in the privacy of your own writing, which is a soul-searching practice. You needn’t publish what you produce. But you could. You could publish it under a pseudonym or you could publish it under your own name. That would be up to you. But I urge you to first write it as though it will never be seen. Write it as though it is your own secret, agonized journey, your own revelation.

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How do you escape a scary love affair with a powerful married man who is your professional superior, and abusive, and dangerous?

Dear Cary,

I’m a young woman who moved to the US a few years ago to do my PhD (I am currently in another country for a post-doc). I’m in a very difficult situation, I feel so desperate and depressed, like there’s no way out. For more than 2 years I have been in a relationship with a married man, who was my PhD advisor (I eventually switched advisors so that he wouldn’t have to write a letter of recommendation for me to find a job or be involved in my thesis committee). I don’t excuse myself and I know most people would judge me very harshly, and I do too. The guilt that I feel has brought me to dark places I never imagined existed in me, I know the way things happened is wrong, no matter how much love there is. I felt, at the time, as if I had no power to control the feelings I was starting to feel. The connection between him and I was growing every day without us being able to control it, and this was taking me with it. I felt powerless, drowning into something much bigger than me, that was already destroying my self worth. Even though I felt overwhelmed and powerless by my feelings, and I felt as if I had no choice, I do know I had a choice, and I did not handle it well. Being in this situation has crushed my self esteem and sense of worth. I’m drowning, this is all I can think of during the day and is affecting my health, my mind, my whole life.

 Write for Advice

For a part of the year he doesn’t live with his wife and we video chat for hours and hours every day, and I travel to see him whenever I can, even going to a different country about once a month, when we live like we were married, only to have to deal with the pain of his absence when he leaves. I’m extremely attached and I drop anything to just talk to him – I stopped doing things to be available to talk to him when he can. I know we have an incredible bond and in his way he loves me deeply, but he has been unable to separate. He’s afraid of hurting his wife even more (she never found proof of the extent of our relationship, but she knows), there’s the effect this might have on his kids (who are not young anymore, but of course this is big), the financial burden of a divorce and how that would affect people’s perception of him. I try to be understanding but living in this situation has been heart breaking for me too.

I love him deeply but I am also worried about how our future would be. There are moments when he gets emotionally abusive and angry and that devastates me. He crushes me with words, also professionally. He’s very possessive and I feel like I have to be careful with everything that I talk to him about and how I say things. He’s much older than me and I worry he’ll get even more possessive as time passes. The fact that we still have work projects together (even after I finished my PhD) makes everything so much more complicated. Our relationship already had a big impact on my professional life, which is just starting, and I’m worried how things will affect it even more, no matter what turn they take. I can’t focus on anything, let alone work efficiently. He is uncomfortable with me working with other people, I feel like I depend on him so much and that he could destroy my life if he wanted.

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Last month I was with him when I got sick. Initially we thought I just had a flu, but my fever didn’t improve as the days went by. He treated me in a horrible way, he got upset because “I ruined the trip”, we couldn’t have sex and I couldn’t help clean the house. He treated me with such contempt and so much anger, he was upset when I asked him for a blanket when I was shivering, he didn’t offer to get any medicine for me or even ask how I was feeling. I’ve never felt so vulnerable. The last day he said he couldn’t wait for me to leave because I am a pain in the ass and he couldn’t stand me like that. When I found out what I have (it’s a virus that will go away on its own, and I’m finally well now after one month) he got out of his mind, repeating “I did this” to him. He blamed me for potentially passing this virus to him, even though it was not my fault I got sick. He couldn’t care less how I felt, he just blamed me and worried about himself. A bit after that I had to move to another city and during this process my car was broken into and half of my belongings were stolen. He keeps repeating to me he wishes I had been more careful, because now he has to deal with me upset about what happened. I can’t believe the man I love so much can say and do these things. It makes me question whether it is not my fault, if I was overbearing, if it’s the situation that’s making him act this way.

Most people would say I’m a pretty, very intelligent young woman, and there are plenty of interesting guys who want to date me, but I can’t bring myself to end things with him (at least until he sorts out what he wants to do). Even after what happened last month, I am still terrified of breaking up with him. I’m so afraid of him, of what he might do to me professionally, of his anger and his reaction, of the horrible things he says, and I feel so much guilt and sadness for everything.

I’m really lost, I don’t know what to do and I’m in desperate need of some advice.

Thank you,


Dear Lost,
At first, when reading your letter, I was forming a picture of two flawed adults who have fallen in love in less-than ideal circumstances and are just going to have to make the best of it. Then my sense of it changed when you described his behavior when you got sick. I now think you are in an abusive, dangerous relationship and you need to leave.

I cannot diagnose people. But I can recognize patterns. The patterns here are those of a predatory man taking advantage of his political, social and economic privilege to get what he wants from a weaker partner while protecting his own professional, political and family privileges. That alone is enough to suggest that you must leave. His anger and lack of compassion add an element of danger to the mix, indicating that not only should you leave, but you should leave now.

There are too many areas of asymmetrical power here. Let’s just briefly name the major ones:

Age disparity
Gender Disparity
Power and status disparity
Marital status disparity

All those could, of course, be overcome by two partners of mutual goodwill. But in this case, he is using those factors to his advantage without regard for your well being.

If you cannot leave him on your own then you need the help of a paid advocate. Locate a good marriage and family therapist, psychotherapist or psychologist and explain that you need support and guidance in leaving a destructive relationship. Make it clear that you are not seeking help in deciding what to do, that you have decided what to do and only need help and support in carrying it out.

Do it. It may save your life.

 Write for Advice

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As a foster kid, I never learned to brush my teeth

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 15, 2010

I’m afraid to go into the bathroom, because of things that happened in childhood

Dear Cary,

You recently wrote about when “to change your life.” I think I’m there now. And it isn’t a problem with my problem that I’m writing about.

Where I need help is in steps to follow.

I was raised in foster homes from birth to first grade, then I was returned to my family. I left there at age 15. There was no change from one scenario to the other. There was abuse of all types, and kids doing their best to be adults, while adults did their best to ignore the kids.

I learned nothing from them, except that (life skills-wise) I was on my own.

So my problem is that I’m real bad at “being.” And for many years I’ve felt like a fraud in not knowing so many basic things. Now, I want to, literally, come clean. I never go into my bathroom for showers or baths or teeth brushing. I’m plagued with very bad demons of violence and rape that happened in bathrooms. These go back to age 2, but maybe even farther, so they are very deep and still seem real.

Where can I “learn” the basics of health and hygiene habits that all little kids seem brought up with? What are the steps to follow that all other people (as adults) seem to take for granted in this area of life?

Can you point me to a resource that can re-teach adults all the things that were missed in a history like mine?

Thank you,
Ready Now


Dear Ready Now,

Something happened when you were 2 in a room you called the bathroom.

You have a room in your house today that is called a bathroom. But it is not the same room as the room where something happened when you were 2.

What happened when you were 2 is never going to happen again. The past in which that occurred is gone. Those circumstances are gone.

Take my hand.

Let’s take that 2-year-old into your bathroom.

Your bathroom is not that other bathroom. Your bathroom is safe.
Let’s not even call it a bathroom. Let’s give it a different name.
Let’s call it Tokyo. And let’s not call it brushing your teeth. Let’s call it something silly, like a peppermint mouth vacation. Let’s say you are taking a peppermint mouth vacation in Tokyo. And I will be your travel agent.

This 2-year-old is still with you. Only you are the adult now, and you take care of her in a way that she was not taken care of before. You now take care of her because you are a hero and a survivor. So you take the 2-year-old by the hand and start to walk down the hall and she gets scared and tries to stop but you say that it’s OK, you are just going to Tokyo for a peppermint mouth vacation. You go into that room where there are plumbing fixtures and possibly some tile, and an overhead light, and you explore that room, giving different names to all the things in it. You can give them people names or place names or whatever.

Also you do a security check. Because you are having a whole new life now and your new life is secure. In your new life, you have boundaries and you have choices and you have rights. So you check the front door to make sure no one can break in. You see if there is a lock on the door. Why not rename your house too? If the bathroom is Tokyo, then your house can be Japan, where everyone is very ceremonial. They wear robes and do lots of bowing. So your house becomes Japan where everyone is very ceremonial and does lots of bowing, and the location of your peppermint mouth vacation is Tokyo, which has a very low crime rate.

This is an extreme and indulgent example. I try to make a point, I do. I try to make a point that terrible things happen to us and we have to find ways to emerge from the prison of those things and imprint on ourselves the knowledge that everything in this moment is new and fresh. We are not prisoners of what has happened to us. We can rename anything we like, in order to avoid making it a repetition of the past. We can make everything we do completely new.

What you have today are feelings. Your feelings are real and they are good. They tell you that at one point your life was threatened, and they tell you that never, ever again will you allow that to happen. Your feelings tell you that now you are an adult and you never have to let that happen again. Events happen and then they are gone. What remains is memory. Memory is holy. Memory is love. Memory is the gift of the past to us in the present. We can open these gifts and look at them because they are just stories, photographs and sounds. They are not the event itself.

TuscanAd_Jan2015Your memories are not assault. When you go in your mind back to that time, you may feel a jolt. You may feel as though it is happening again. But it is not happening again. That is just the wisdom of your body, giving you the strength to resist such a thing.

I wish I could sit on the floor with you and say this: “The year is 2010 and you are a strong adult and what happened to you when you were 2 can never happen again.” Whether you are sitting on the floor in your new bathroom, or standing on the edge of the tub looking out the window, or standing at the sink looking at yourself in the mirror, or brushing your teeth, you can know that this is 2010 and what happened to you when you were 2 can never happen again.

You are a survivor. You have an adult life now. You can go to the store and buy any toothbrush you want. You can buy any brand of toothpaste you want. You can brush your teeth upside down, standing on your head, in the shower, at the sink, however you want.
If you need concrete information about how to brush your teeth, you can look here.

And here are a few more things. Have you read, or heard of, Antwone Fisher’s book “A Boy Should Know How to Tie a Tie”? I’m quite moved by what he has to say.

I was also moved by my discovery of the group FACT — Fostered Adult Children Together. Here is what they say: “As children we stood by and watched helplessly as our worlds crumbled apart, depending on strangers to come to our rescue and decide our fate, a fate which many times was worse than what we were delivered from.”

Coming together with others to share your experience, strength and hope is a powerful way to overcome the effects of the past.

I know this, too: You are capable of healing, of being whole and of being OK. That I know. You have taken the first step, by writing this letter.

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