Category Archives: abuse

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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?

Traumatized

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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.

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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

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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, womenslaw.org, 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.

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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

OnlineWorkshopMay42015

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.

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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.

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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,
Lost

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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.

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

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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

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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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Cary on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence

You were victimized by a sociopath. Stop putting your hand in the flame

Hi! It’s me, Cary! How ya doin?

I’m out of the pool  eating toast and thinking about the novel. I’m committed to finishing by the end of May. I have it all planned out. It’s practically done! Finally.

Plus yesterday I finished my application to Yaddo, thanks to my Finishing School commitment. It was a long day but I got it done before my 6pm writing coaching appointment (I’m doing that too now, acting as a coach for writers who have projects that are promising but resisting ; I get on the side of the writer and together we push to dislodge invisible impediments).

Finishing School starts next week, Tuesday, January 6, 2015, at 7:30 p.m. at the house. If you have a project you’re trying to finish, let me know.

Me, personally, I used Finishing School in December to finish fiction and send it out and do my Yaddo application (I sure would love to have some uninterrupted time to write the next novel!) and I have dedicated the next five months of Finishing School, my own personal goal, to finishing the current novel. I’m dividing it up into five sections, one a month to finish up (they’re mostly written anyway). If you have a project you want to write and would like to dedicate one month or the next five months to it, get in touch with me at cary@carytennis.com. Maybe we can work something out. Dive in the deep end with me! I want company making art in the 21st century.

Now let’s answer a letter:

Dear Cary,

I have read and admired your advice for many years. I have always loved your well-considered and thoughtful advice about really difficult problems. I have started this letter to you hundreds of times but never finished it, but today is that day.

When I was a teenager (early ’90s, before the Internet – you might remember these distant times!!) I wrote something called a zine. It was a magazine about music and art that I wrote and laid out with a glue stick and photocopied and distributed at record shops where I lived. It was pretty well received – and if I do say so, looking back at old issues, well designed – and making it was the first baby steps in what would be my professional career. I learned to write well, to finish things, to find interesting stuff, to produce something that looked great that people would care about, all with absolutely no money.

As everyone did in those days I included an address to write to (again, no internet), and a few people did, sending contributing material and what I guess was fan mail. One guy in particular sent a long letter and some contributions, and I used them and wrote back and said thanks. He wrote again, became a regular contributor, and we corresponded over several years. I considered this person a good friend, though I didn’t know who he was. Later on we kept in touch and, thanks to Hotmail, this included keeping in touch when I moved overseas when I was 19.

A year or two later I found out that it had been my brother’s girlfriend – 6 years older than me – who had created and orchestrated this personality, written all these letters, corresponded with me for so many years. She was a horrible bitch to my face, often telling me I was worthless, selfish, ruining my family, didn’t deserve anything, she told me that my mother called her to complain about me (not true), her nickname for me was “charming little princess”, etc. etc., and in the meantime running this charade of a person who was my friend and someone I trusted.

The shock and fallout was unbelievable. Unbearable. A year later, my brother married her. That was the last time I spoke to my brother, in 2001.

It has been 16 years since I found out what she was up to, and the intervening years have been so fucking hard. I felt like a fool, I felt stupid, I was angry, I was humiliated, I was confused. I told my parents, who told me in no uncertain terms that they would “choose” between me and my brother, and would not exclude her from the family. Family anything became psychological torture as she paraded around as if she had a right to be there, and I felt like a pariah in my own family.

The campaign of emotional abuse and manipulation was bad enough, but the fallout has been another circle of hell altogether. My immediate family – parents and one other brother – simply do not believe that what she did was that bad, no one has advocated for me, no one has demanded that she apologise, and I have been told such things as “if it was sexual abuse it would be different” or “you just need to get over it” or “she had a hard life, it’s not her fault”. Every time I tried to talk about it, the subject was changed.

Cary, this made my 20s hell. I trusted no one. My self-esteem was nonexistent. I wanted to die. I didn’t trust my own experiences and was angry at myself for not “getting over it” and so very angry at my family for just abandoning me to my own misery. My parents refused to talk about it with me. I went to years of therapy, I was on medication, and I did all the things that are indicative of extreme and prolonged emotional distress. Eventually I moved 4000 miles away from home and started a new life.

Three years ago my remaining brother – who I had tried to have a relationship with – told me that my abuser and the brother who married her (who I think was implicit in the abuse, but have no proof) babysit his baby twins. I asked him why he would allow a woman who he damn well knew was an abuser of children to act as a person of authority in their lives and I was told “Oh we watch them really carefully” and “that just won’t happen.”

The subtext there is one of two things: either he doesn’t believe that the abuse happened the way I said it did, or he doesn’t think it was a big deal. Both of those things are absolutely unacceptable. I told him this, and told him that if those children are describing their relationship with those people to a therapist in ten years I will be the only one in the family not directly responsible for knowing what the situation was and letting it happen. We have not spoken since.

I have tried really hard to maintain a relationship with my parents, though they are clearly of the opinion – and have told me – that this really isn’t a big deal and the problem in the family is my failure to get over something minor. They’re in their 70s (I am 35) and I try to have compassion for the difficult position they’re in. I think I deserved better from them; they should have advocated for me, they should have protected me from this fallout by holding her accountable, but my abuser did so much to torpedo any trust relationship I had with my parents by telling me misinformation and manipulating the way I felt about them that I figure I have lost too many years with them to cut them out completely.

In recent years, after cutting my second brother out of my life, I have felt for the first time like I can breathe. I now realise that having a relationship with someone who invalidated the biggest trauma of my adult life was retraumatising me over and over, and that when I cut off ties with both of them I was validating myself, I was believing my own experiences, I was advocating for me – all things my family never did for me.

My problem is this: I visit my parents annually and spend the entire time sobbing. I am there right now, surrounded by family portraits of my parents, my brothers and their wives … I’m not in any of them, it’s as if I just don’t exist, like there’s two families. My mother said something tonight about all this being not as big a deal as I thought it was and it just set me off again; how can all this pain, all this therapy, all this hell of 16 years not convince them that what happened to me really happened? Why is the status quo more important than their own daughter? Why was I sacrificed on the altar of not making waves? I have had so many years of feeling desperately alone because of abuse where I was the victim, and have gone through so much shame, so much turmoil, so much loneliness and felt so bereft of love and worth. Everything about this situation sent the message that I am worthless – she perpetrated this, my brother married her, no one held her responsible, everyone pretends it didn’t happen. But it did, because I have been wading through the pain for 16 years. I don’t think that’s nothing.

My question is this: How the fuck can I finally feel okay about any of this? I am more functional than I used to be, but if I pause long enough to think about this whole system of abuse I just can’t stop shaking with sobs that last days, that shake me to my core. I fantasize about revenge sometimes – starting a website with her name dot com and outlining my story for employers and others to see, or other things that make her a victim instead of a person that can cruelly abuse and manipulate without consequences, but I know that won’t work and will only result in me poisoning my own psyche. I know it is not the spoon that bends, but me, but I have spent 16 years bending and I just can’t bend far enough. I have wished things were different, tried to make things different, been to years of therapy, drank, raged, did drugs, found a fulfilling relationship, made a good career, but nothing has ever been able to touch this pain of being disregarded by my family and my abuser winning. When I start to get better I am jolted back by the realisation that I am just disposable.

Thank you for reading. Please, if by some miracle you have read this diatribe and decide to respond, sign me off as

Anonymous

 

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Dear Anonymous,

So, I have to say, intuitively, I like you. You are a fine person. It hurts me to see you keep putting your hand in the flame.

You were the victim of a sociopath. You continue to be victimized by your family.

I suggest that you cut off all contact with your family for two years.

You are locked in an impossible struggle with them. You want them to be something they are not. This struggle is futile. It is hopeless. It is full of pain. But you have a choice. You are free to walk away from this futile struggle. You do not have to justify yourself or explain. They don’t own you. Walk away. Cut off all contact.

You are free to make this choice. It is the right choice for you. You are a free and independent person and must make this choice for your own survival and happiness.

Cut off all contact. Cut off all contact for two years. Do not call or write. Do not read emails from them.

If certain communications are necessary, make communications with them through a third party. There must be someone you can trust to do this. You say you have built a pretty good life for yourself, 4,000 miles away. That is great. It makes it easier to cut off contact because you will not be running into family members on the street.

Imagine how it would feel to go a day, a week,  a month, enjoying your life and not thinking of this event even once. Imagine how that would be! To be pretty much like other people, going about your life, enjoying the things you enjoy, being a master of your craft, being a part of a community, a worker among workers, liked and loved for who you are, sleeping well at night, enjoying life.

That is possible.

Do this, please. Give yourself a chance to heal. Stop opening the wound. Give yourself a chance to forget.

Maybe you won’t forget. That’s OK. I am not saying you should forget it or there’s something wrong with you if you don’t forget, or if it comes to mind frequently.

You’ve been injured. That’s not your fault.

But you have some choice in the matter. You have it within your power to change your habits and your circumstances. So give yourself a chance. Give your wound a chance to heal.

It won’t heal fast. It will heal slowly. That’s why the two years. Two years is doable. See what happens. After two years you might want to resume contact. Or maybe not. Give yourself two years and see how it goes.

Find a narrative. A narrative is like a box to put the story in and close the lid. The narrative is that you were the victim of a sociopath. Not just a sociopath but a sociopathic family system. This was unusual in its extent but its general pattern is familiar: When terrible things happen in a family system, the family system works to deny it. All these individuals are part of that system. They are doing what they think they need to do to survive in that system. They are afraid the system will destroy them if they oppose it. And they might be right. Look what the system did to you. This system is being run by a sociopath. It will try to destroy any member who to opposes it.

You are already the enemy of this system. You are a truth teller and  so it had to crush you. You continue to be a threat because you continue to say what is actually happening. So it attacks you when you appear. So don’t appear. Disappear. Live your own life.

You can do this. You can cut off all contact with your family. There is no law against it.

There will be difficulties. A part of you will resist making this change. It will feel weird like you just can’t do that. But you can. You can and I think you should.

Give yourself a chance to heal. Stop putting your hand in the fire.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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OK, I get it, my husband’s a verbal abuser

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, OCT 8, 2008

It’s taken me a long time to accept what my therapist has been pushing at — but I think I’m ready to act in my own interest.


Dear Cary,

I’m troubled.

At long last, my therapist did something I sensed she meant to do a long time ago — assign me to read a book on verbally abusive relationships. I suspect that, despite her dissimilation, she expects me to find myself there, in the role of the victim of verbal and psychological abuse.

And I do.

And yet on another level, I question the whole idea. The book contains no citations. It could well be cut from whole cloth, as they say — an angry woman’s fantasy of how men are, how men act. Even if that characterization is a straw man (womyn?), it is a tempting one, especially when the self-help verbiage gets a little much. But where do we draw the line? I seem to be standing on a line, on one side of which is mutually unproductive communication that can be resolved through talking and counseling and new approaches, and on the other is a crowd shouting “Why haven’t you DTMFA?”

Since I have been with him, I have gradually given up my passions — my theater, my academic field, my crafts, my gym membership. Only those things that he finds acceptable — the hobbies, the reading, the baking (but never on hot days) — remain. He wished to own a house. We own a house. I cook, clean, launder, mow the lawn, call the repairmen, run the errands, pay the mortgage. I have been working for seven years under the assumption that these are all choices I was involved in, decisions I made. And yet I daydream of a cozy studio apartment where I am alone and everything — the belongings, the music, the choices — is mine. Of going where the jobs in my field are, instead of staying where they aren’t. Of dallying with women, and perhaps men, with beautiful souls.

I take pills. I go to therapy. He goes back to school. I applaud this — it is a sensible decision that will lead to a stable job in his field — even as I resent his freedom to do so. I make a point of telling him that I wish to return to school (yet again) once he finds a job. He is wholly supportive of this, he says — once the loans are paid off, once we are no longer in debt. Despite my thrift, the loans pile up. When I fail to manage the money as he directs, I am chastised. Every cent I spend is one that cannot be used to pay off those loans and buy my freedom from menial jobs that siphon my self-confidence and passion, but which pay for the therapy to deal with the panic attacks and crying jags that primarily manifest themselves when he’s around.

And yet, and yet, and yet.

There is a long and storied history of psychological instability in my family, on both sides, which has led me to believe that my problems were internal and self-contained. There is also (as I learned recently, yet have known all along) a long and storied family history of controllers and controllees, criticizers and objects of criticism. I am not sure what his family has given him, aside from a Midwestern up-by-the-bootstraps aversion to psychoanalysis of any kind.

A dear friend says that she had these concerns before she knew him, from my tone, from my phone calls. She met him, and “[saw] how he looks at me,” the love in his eyes, and her fears were assuaged. I know that he loves me, from that same look, those same heartbreakingly beautiful smiles. I also know that he expects me to read his mind, then tells me that I am the one who needs to fix my reactions so that we can communicate — who drives me to tears with his inconsistencies, then allows me the solace of his embrace.

It is not that I fear to be alone or independent — aside from the annoyance of dividing things up, the prospect seems inviting. But the prospect of remaking myself in my own image, of reclaiming the me that was, is more complicated. And there are so many things that I would miss. Friends, games, holidays, my mother-in-law, even the house that taunts me with its constant breakings and dirtiness. Him, the man who has been so good for me in so many ways, who rescued me from an equally dead-end (though less malignant) relationship, whom I’ve shared so many adventures with. Who I’m not even convinced is aware of what he’s doing.
And yet things cannot remain as they are.

Angel in the Details

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Dear Angel,

I am going to try to be direct. You know that’s not my style. But still.

I suggest you leave this guy.

There is only one twist: You make your new life first.

I basically agree with the DTMFA approach — with one caveat.

The caveat is that you begin not by disrupting your current life but by building your new one. If you leave without trying to rebuild your life first, you may find yourself alone in a new place, isolated from friends and family, without a solid network, without a life plan, having just gone through a traumatic breakup, flooded with emotion, and you may, under that stress, be more prone to fall back into your old pattern of finding a rescuer, a controller, a caretaker. You may slip back into the same situation with someone else. So I advise taking a gradual approach to building a new life so that when you leave him, you have a new life to step into. Work to develop new behaviors and reinvigorate abandoned passions.

For instance, these things you mention that you have given up — your theater, your academic field, your crafts, your gym membership: Put these things back in your life one by one. When you begin doing this, he may object. Keep in mind that you are leaving him anyway.

It may help to set a date and write it in your calendar, say, six months. In six months you are leaving. During that time you tackle the many concrete tasks of rebuilding your life. This includes looking at new places to live and working out your budget. As you pursue this project, at a certain point — and this may happen sooner than you expect — it may become impossible to continue to live with him. Your positive action may force buried conflicts to the surface. He may decide that he is divorcing you. He may become unstable. He may threaten you. If he is a certain kind of man, when his control over you is threatened, he may become dangerous. So, while laying the groundwork for an orderly departure, you need to also be ready to leave quickly if things get to that.

The point is this: To the extent possible, don’t act precipitously to your own detriment. Instead, begin putting your life together and try to leave at a time that is best for you.

Now, regardless of his objections, you may find that you yourself just can’t build this new life while still living with him. You may feel paralyzed, blocked, unable to act. If so, OK. Leaving him might be a precondition to putting your life together. That’s OK. Discuss this with your therapist and make a plan. But please do what you can to prepare first. Give it a try. Take what steps you can to reconnect with your theater, your academic life, your crafts and your gym first. Do what you can.

Just so we’re clear: Yes, I think you should leave. DTMFA or whatever. Just, to the extent possible, prepare first.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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I’m finished with my family — but am I free of them?

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, OCT 19, 2005T

Is this resolution or abandonment?


Dear Cary:

Thank you, first off, for being a unique voice in a somewhat crude, unsympathetic age.

Here’s my problem in a nutshell: I’ve abandoned my family, and they’ve let me, and I can’t decide whether to let them let me.

I grew up in a family rife with abuse: physical, emotional, sexual. There was active abuse resulting in bruising and bleeding and sobbing. There was passive abuse (some call that neglect) resulting in alienation, fear and self-loathing. Some of it happened to me. Some of it happened around me, and I was powerless to stop it. Some of it I learned about years after the fact.

I grew up and I got out. For the most part, I didn’t look back. I maintained a few ties, but I kept them stretched thin.

I turned 30, and I still couldn’t trust anyone, and I still wanted to die.

I’m a writer, and in the process of sorting through the chaos of my upbringing, I did what writers often do: I wrote about it. Furthermore, I did so publicly, and as myself. I didn’t name any names but my own; but honestly, I wasn’t interested in protecting anyone.

When the family found out, the reaction was uniform outrage. They were incensed that I would air my dirty laundry in such a fashion — that I would air their dirty laundry without consulting them. My response was that they’d had 30 years to bring it up, and they hadn’t. I thought I’d waited long enough before choosing to deal with my past in my own way, on my own terms.

Most interesting is that nobody denied anything I wrote. Nobody owned up to it, either. They were not interested in what had happened. Either that, or they couldn’t allow themselves to face it.

That was five years ago. Today I don’t speak to a single one of my relations. Some days I feel desolate. Some days I feel free. Most days I realize that my plan worked, whether I would admit that plan to myself or not: I wanted the Bad People of my childhood to go away, and they did. If I never contact any of them again, I truly believe that none of them will contact me.

My question is: Is this resolution? Is this a real and valid way of dealing with a monstrous childhood? I’ve done therapy, I’ve cataloged what happened, I’ve inventoried my feelings about it, I’ve tried to speak to siblings and parents about it without success, I’ve confronted, I’ve publicized, and I’ve paid the price. I know I’m capable of moving forward alone. But should I?

Yours fondly,

On the Brink

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Dear On the Brink,

Yes, I think you should move forward. I think this is resolution. It may not feel like resolution. It may feel hollow. But it sounds like resolution — or the only kind of resolution one can have to events whose faint echoes will continue to be heard the rest of your life. It may be the closest you get to resolution.

It may be helpful to ask, If you could have the perfect resolution, what would that feel like? Would it make everything feel “normal”? For those of us who so rarely feel “normal” anyway, how would we know? It’s possible that even if you could have a perfect resolution it would still not feel like resolution, because you have been formed already by these events; you are, in a sense, already armed against such things, already wary, already tensed forever for the next blow.

Besides, is a resolution even possible? What would it look like? I suppose the ultimate resolution would be a kind of radical undoing: These things would never have happened in the first place. You would get a do-over childhood in which you were protected and loved and allowed to grow in a fairly normal way. That is, of course, outside the boundaries of what is possible in this universe. Even if everyone wanted this, we could not bring it into being.

What would be second best? The second best, I suppose, would be if your family members changed inwardly; if there were a God who could reach down and change their hearts, then perhaps they could step forward as a group, in grave ceremony, and confess their shameful acts. Resolution could take the form of a truth commission, a trial, a complete airing of all the crimes you remember. They might offer to bare their backs to you for whipping, prostrate themselves before you and give you all their worldly goods, become your slaves for life in penance — and you, seeking not vengeance but only closure, could take the high road and tell them no, there’s no need for that, all you wanted was a little truth.

But that is not likely either, is it? You know enough about the people involved to know how unlikely it is. They have had their opportunities. It is probably not even worth considering, except as a healing fantasy, a childlike wish.

So what is left as resolution? This relative peace you have found. This cessation of hostilities. The assurance of no further damage. That seems to be about it. You have attained safety. You are not being attacked or belittled. You are being left alone. That may be, in itself, resolution.

It sounds like resolution because you yourself have done a lot of work, thinking, feeling, remembering and going about your life with the echoes of these events occasionally in your mind. The writing was probably very helpful to you as well. It sounds like it did what it so magically seems to do — it let you get a handle on this thing, get your arms around it, define it, pin it down, contain it in words, and publishing it allowed you to defy those who would have kept you silent. That may have freed you from their influence, assured you that you no longer have to fear them.

So, as I say, it may not feel like resolution to you, but I think it is a kind of resolution — not, perhaps, the dramatic kind, but the slow, painful, subtle kind. I wish you luck as you go forward, as free of your past as any man can be.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

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A good mother

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Cary’s classic column from

I have four kids, so should I break with my sometimes violent boyfriend?


Dear Cary,

I’m a mother of four: three preteen boys from my marriage at the tender age of 19, and a 3-year-old daughter with my current live-in boyfriend. Here’s the deal. I had a lot of sex in my 20s, a lot of boyfriends, and was basically irresponsible. I was married young to my first real boyfriend. He left us when I was 21. Insecurity and immaturity and an endless pursuit for a father for my kids led to a string of real losers. I’m not talking about boring guys or guys who worked sporadically — I mean losers: drug addicts, criminals, men who wanted a free place to live, etc.

And the sex was good, on-the-edge porno-type fucking. When I was 26 I moved 3,000 miles away and started again. I met my current boyfriend, who was sweet, worked hard, and seemed to love me. He was younger, but I was immature, so it worked. He isn’t passionate, though — he doesn’t like to kiss, and he’s sexually selfish, preferring a blow job to the “extra effort” it takes to have sex, there’s minimal foreplay, and his sex drive makes sex every three weeks the best possible scenario.

A couple of years ago my father died, and suddenly I had a moment of clarity and from that moment on my kids have come before anyone or anything else in my life. I must have done something right, because I couldn’t have asked for better kids. They are compassionate, kind, and funny. My boyfriend cares for my sons and tries to show them in his way — which is usually by correcting them and being strict. He is an excellent father to our daughter. He takes on 50 percent or more of her care, gives her attention, and basically loves her to pieces. My ex-husband was remarried two years ago; since the marriage he has paid child support and asks for the boys to visit each summer. It’s fun for them, and I’m supportive of their need to develop that relationship. He was young, I was young, people make mistakes.

Here is my dilemma. I love my boyfriend, but am not in love with him. I was sooo in love when we moved in together, but when I had my growing-up incident a few years ago, I saw him in a different light. His angry outbursts pissed me off more. I was pregnant and since that time, I have often thought about leaving him, but then I look at all the changes he has made, and he tries so hard, and that makes me love and appreciate him, because I’ve met so many people who never try. In the past four years he has completed one degree and is working on another while working full time and making time for the family. He doesn’t drink, go out to the bars, or leave me wondering where he is at night. We have had episodes where there has been some physical violence. He grew up in a violent home. I put it off as the stress of being in a relationship with me, a bunch of kids, my jealousy, whatever.

He’s worked through that and sought some outside help. He doesn’t cheat on me. I’ve already had the experience of raising small people on my own and seeing their sad faces ask me for a father. I also hate thinking I had found one and then realizing that he’s kind of a dick to them — I mean, couldn’t he balance the discipline with some fun? My daughter has her father: Should that be my No. 1 priority? Do people have happy lives without good sex lives? If I told anyone that he has hit me before, they would automatically tell me to leave.

Have you heard of anyone working successfully through something like that? I have worked long and hard to make something of myself and provide a decent life for my children. I have overcome my own selfish, self-centered nature. I have prayed, cried and grown strong. I love my kids and feel that they have enriched my life so much. I love watching them grow and play.

I don’t need him, but I am afraid that I just feel that way because he is around and if he left I would revert to that person I used to be, and what if the next guy was worse? He wants to get married. If we broke up, I’m pretty sure that would be the end of my love life. I don’t think I want to go through the dating process or the having another man in my house process or the introducing my kids to another guy process. Nope, I think I’d be done, but who knows, maybe I’d become a total nympho again?

A Good Mother

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Dear Good Mother,

I recommend that you make as amicable a split as possible with your boyfriend. Support him in his desire to keep close ties with his daughter, but free yourself and your sons from his oppressive yoke.

This is not an easy conclusion to reach. No matter what you do or do not do, someone is probably going to be unhappy with you. So you have to be firm and think of the next five or 10 years. What I’m thinking is that making some difficult changes now will improve your chances for a happy and secure future, and reduce some long-term risk to you and your children.

It’s not an open-and-shut case. As you say, some people will claim that if he’s ever hit you, even once, you have to leave him and that’s that. But abusers can and do change, and there are sometimes core economic and family issues to consider. So I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that you must leave him because he hit you. Others would say that fatherhood and the family unit are sacred bonds that should not be severed under any circumstances. Again, although fathers have certain rights to their children, and children need stability in their homes, I don’t believe that you have to keep mother and father together 100 percent of the time.

It seems more a question of what brings the least harm and the most benefit to the most people.

Sometimes removing a “strict” father who is a source of fear and repression can be a good thing for a child. Those three boys may be absorbing from him a regime of intimidation and implied violence that will make it very difficult for them to live happy, peaceful lives as adults. You might go so far as to say that they are undergoing a process of slow spirit death, the steady banking of boundless rage. The conflict between him and your three sons will only get worse as they become teens and assert their manhood. Dangerous, traumatic and violent clashes could lie ahead. They will question his right, as simply a boyfriend or stepfather, to assert his authority over them; he in turn, unable to accept their challenge to his authority, may find himself striking out with fiendish cruelty, while justifying his violence as necessary to maintain order.

“It’s for their own good,” he’ll say, and by then the damage will be done. Such conflict could make you own life a living hell throughout their teenage years and damage your relationship with your sons for years afterwards. If he became a violent tyrant and you did not protect your sons from him, they would resent you and feel betrayed and abandoned. On the flipside, if you side with your sons against your boyfriend, his violence against you may erupt anew.

So I really think, hard as it is, that you should act now to remove him from your house and try to put in place a system of visitation that works over the long term.

If you find yourself concerned that leaving your boyfriend means depriving your sons of the discipline they need, consider this: While discipline is important, it’s confusing if only one parent is strict. Kids need to internalize a dependable standard of conduct against which to measure their own actions. If you and your boyfriend differ greatly in your strictness, your children may conclude that standards of conduct have no inherent validity but depend on the whims of whatever authority figure is enforcing them. That is a lesson that allows for criminal thinking: The standard of conduct becomes whatever they can get away with. They need to know that there is a standard of conduct that is always applicable. Even if it’s just you making the rules, even if you’re not a great enforcer, at least they’ll know what the rules are.

I sense that you have at times led a chaotic and impulsive life, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: At least you are powerfully alive; you are not meek or cowering; you have a vibrant lust for experience, for ecstasy, for sensation and emotion. You may be a creative type who has not yet found her art, a deeply passionate person who simply has to learn how to direct and regulate her energies. Another reason I think you should move away from this man is that if he is a controlling type, you and he will come into sharper conflict as you begin to exert or sublimate your libidinous, expressive energies into other forms — music, dance or art, perhaps, forms that may threaten his need for control.

I think you will be OK on your own. You say you fear that without this powerful, authoritarian man in your life you may regress into sexual compulsion. I don’t think that’s likely, not if your kids remain your focus. That moment of clarity you had when your father died sounds like a significant, life-changing moment to me. I’m guessing it was about more than simply putting your kids first. I think you may have had a kind of vision, a visceral and highly personal awakening to the sacredness of life and the value of innocence, and the deep importance of primal bonds. If it has caused you to begin to think hard about your choices, it has changed you in a deep and permanent way.

Do not fear change. It is better to try to achieve something good than it is to try to avoid something bad. Both paths have risks, but only one can lead to happiness. So do not simply coast along thinking maybe this is as good as it gets. This is not as good as it gets. It gets much better than this. You need only the courage to act. Take strength in knowing you have come a long way and you are doing the right thing.

WhatHappenedNextCall

 

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My husband abused my son

 

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Dear Cary,

For three years I have grappled with how to write this letter. Cary, you are the only individual aside from my therapist that I can trust with my story. I have felt ashamed, frightened (all my secrets spread across the Internet) and strangely unable to write. But now I feel strong enough.

Three years ago my 33-year-old son came forward and told his sisters and myself that my husband, his stepfather, had sexually abused him from age 10 to 13. Cary, he had been my son’s father since my son was 5 years old! My husband admitted it was true, but first tried to say it was only for one year. And it was just hugging. Then he said “I thought you knew” Then he said “It was a way to get closer.” Cary, unlike most pedophiles my husband did not court my son. He did not give him gifts or treat him “special.” He was hard on my child — never pleased with him, always annoyed, especially at the dinner table. My son went to live with his biological father when he was 16 to get out of the house. My relationship with my husband was rocky, too. We had terrible arguments, but I could never “win.” He could go on and on for hours without getting tired — all night — and wear me out, but not let me sleep. Or cry. Or go to the bathroom. He hated when I would go into another room to get tissues. I considered leaving him, but we had two little girls, and when he was happy, we all had what seemed to be a great time together. My girls adored their father.

In the last few years before my son’s revelation my husband had mellowed out quite a bit. Once all the children were out of the house he seemed to lose a lot of his anger issues. We had a lot in common, shared a house and bills and assets and cars and the whole nine yards. We stopped arguing and everyone thought we were the perfect couple. Waitresses told us how cute we were. I started to forget what a rocky past we had. We were turning gray together. My son started coming home for visits more often. I was in heaven when all the “children” were together for a Christmas dinner. Then this bombshell.

Cary, it was as though all the planets shifted — Gallilean! Many of the problems I have had with my husband now make sense — and I feel so betrayed. My girls are adults now, but they are having a terrible time trying to understand how their father could have done this to the older brother they love. They don’t know how to fit him into their lives anymore. My son has sought therapy, and he is doing remarkably well, but he has a lot to deal with. I am in therapy with a psychiatrist who has a background dealing with offenders, and I have filed for divorce. My son and I are closer than ever, and I see him all the time now. But I am crushed by guilt — how could I have not known, why didn’t I leave when we were having such problems 20 years ago? What kind of twisted fantasy was I living all those years?

I tried to create a bright, cheerful life for my family — big Christmases, nice vacations, brightly painted rooms. I spent so much time caring for my husband — being with him when he had a prostate operation, helping to care for his dying mother, doing EVERYTHING for the household. I just feel so duped and stupid. My husband is out of the house but still seems to think there is hope for us. I fret about money, selling the house and how I will ever retire now. I am happy to be rid of him, but I always feel anxious. And I was so well conditioned by his abuse that I still hate to upset him or make demands in any way! How can I come to peace with a lie that took up 20 years of my life?

Shaken

Dear Shaken,

I’m proud and honored that you would feel comfortable sharing this with me. But if your therapist and I are the only ones you feel comfortable sharing this with, maybe you need more people in your life whom you can trust, and who are capable of hearing such stories and responding in a straightforward, accepting way. One thing such an event does is shake one’s trust in others, so perhaps part of your work of recovery will involve finding some people you can trust again.

It’s not your fault, however. That I can say. You did nothing wrong. Someone took advantage of you. You were deceived by someone who set out to deceive you. You did nothing wrong. You did your best and this happened to you. It happened the way traffic accidents and murders happen to people: with the cruel logic of random events.

For many people, the sheer random nature of tragic events is very hard to accept. Being unable to accept the sheer randomness of events, we come up with strategies to invest awful events with meaning. Feeling guilty about it can be one such strategy. If you feel guilty, then you had some responsibility, some agency. If you had some agency, then it wasn’t just random. It could have been prevented if only …

It is harder to accept the fact that this happened and that’s that. It can’t be undone. Speculating on what you might have done to prevent it is a waste of your precious energy. What I suggest is that with the help of your therapist you begin consciously moving toward acceptance. That means doing concrete things to help you accept this. It might mean saying it out loud over and over. It might mean perhaps some techniques your therapist has. It means in some sense encountering what happened in a deep, raw way. I don’t know how that is done but perhaps you have a sense of what I mean. At the center of this awful thing is a philosophical truth that is frightening but liberating: We are not responsible for everything that happens in the world. We are not able to control everything that happens. We instead often have to simply accept what happens and accept our inability to fully understand.

Perhaps if you make a list of the world’s mysteries and meditate on them, you will find a place for this awful thing in the pantheon of all the world’s awful and inexplicable things. As I say, it is frightening to face this, but it is also liberating.

Here are some thoughts about guilt and how we use it to avoid facing our essential powerlessness in the universe. Guilt places you at the center of a drama that did not really concern you. Rather than face the fact that this thing happened and was beyond your power to prevent, by feeling guilty about it you can entertain the fantasy that you might have been able to stop it. But you weren’t able to. You couldn’t. This thing happened between your husband and your son. It did not happen to you. Perhaps in a way you wish you could take your son’s place. This is another perverse thought we sometimes have: Rather than mourn for others, we avoid the feeling by placing ourselves at the center of things. Or we feel somehow guilty for surviving while others suffered. The truth is that others suffer. We must accept that they suffer, and if that makes us feel awful then we must feel awful. I’m sure you have felt unimaginably awful, and it has been exhausting and painful. I feel empathy for you. But I do not feel responsible. I know that the world is full of senseless suffering which I cannot curtail. All I can do is try to point out that accepting this is ultimately liberating.

Ask your therapist for help moving from guilt to acceptance. There are many good reasons to avoid such acceptance. True acceptance of this event will shake your accustomed beliefs about the world. You may ask, If this isn’t my fault, then whose is it? In plain terms, it is your husband’s fault. You may find it hard to accept that your husband did this evil thing. It may be easier to believe that you yourself had some hand in it than to believe that your husband did this. So you need to work on accepting the simple facts. The simple fact is that your husband sexually molested your son. This is an awful thing but it is the thing you must learn to say out loud without qualification.

Maybe if you will walk along a body of water and say this aloud a few times, listening to your heart as you say it, maybe you will fill with grief and be able to accept this. Maybe you will fill with rage and find you are closer to accepting this.

It will live in your heart for a long time. It will be there. You must let it be there and not pretend. It will bring you pain and you must accept that.

Full acceptance of it will make you wiser and stronger. Accept that this happened, that you had nothing to say about it and no way to prevent it, and that it is in the past. Accept that your son is recovering from the experience and is taking responsibility for his own life.

Stay out of your husband’s life. Let him go. Stay close to your son. But do not take responsibility. This is his experience. You have your own burdens, which will grow lighter with time.