Thursday, September 27, 2007

Child Abuse: From the Inside Out

Since my earliest childhood
a barb of sorrow has lodged in my heart.
As long as it stays I am ironic—
if it is pulled out I shall die.
Soren Kierkegaard
Danish Philosopher

My children are abused. By me. Rest assured they aren't defenseless, innocent little ones, now.No need to find the Child Help Line number. At ages 46, 45, and 37 they survive the abuse I inflicted on them. They recognize the ravages of abuse in themselves and others. They protect themselves from me…or anyone else who means them harm. And they remember what I remind them of frequently…child abuse is their legacy.

My children tell me they don't remember much of the actual abuses. True to the findings of researchers, as with the majority of child abusers, I abused my precious children the most when they were younger than five. They don't remember the slaps on tiny, dimpled baby hands, or on chubby thighs. They don't remember spankings before they could walk, beatings with belts, wooden spoons and other weapons before they could ride two-wheelers. They don't remember when I shook them, threw them down on beds, yanked them up by their hair, pulled, pushed, punched, pinched, bit, knocked down and kicked them. They don't remember, they tell me. They don't remember those early years, but I do.

Every minute of every day, I remember my ugly screams, laced with foul language, aimed at my innocent children. Their big tears flowed down tiny upturned faces twisted with pain, contorted with fear. Through all the years since, their desperate pleas echo in my mind. Mommy, please. Mommy, don't. No, Mommy. I'm sorry, Mommy. I promise I'll be good, Mommy. Their choking sobs as they fell asleep, alone, confused, crying out their agony and abandonment. Where are you Mommy? I need you Mommy. I love you Mommy.

I remember, and my heart aches, with a sorrow too deep to express fully, for what my children deserved but didn't receive from me. Where was the unconditional love, comfort, safety, nurturing and everything else any child is entitled to? Guilt and shame tear at my soul for the terrible emotional, psychological and physical pains they endured because I failed to protect them from my rages.

My children were so young and defenseless. Too young to know that mothers and apple pie are supposed to be the sweet stuff of American Idealism. Too young to know how mothers are revered and venerated by saints and sinners alike, hallowed as the source, the inspiration, and the teachers who create the world anew for them. Too young to know why mothers are praised in rhyme, exalted in prose, honored with the last dying breath of soldiers. But they knew I was Mother. That meant I knew best. Tat meant they knew I did what I did, when I did, for their own good. [ii]They knew I did it even though everything I did hurt me more than it hurt them. They knew they made me do it. They knew these things because I told them so…over and over and over again. They may not remember. But I do.

In their innocence, they trusted me. They believed me. They faithfully learned everything I taught them. Over time they learned they were not good, would never be good. They were only good for nothing and nothing they ever did would be good enough. They learned no one would ever love them…certainly not anyone who knew the real them. They learned to deny the pain, hide the shame, and carry the burden of guilt they never deserved. They learned the bigger and stronger survive, control equals power, and power makes right. They learned do unto others before they do unto you, bully or be bullied, go along to get along then do what you intended in the first place.

Fortunately, one day in 1976, I stopped short, stood still and listened. A voice on television screamed, "I'll teach you to hit someone smaller than yourself." I watched in awe and disbelief. Child abuse became a fact before my eyes. With sudden insight and clarity I could no longer deny that I abused my children. I felt sick to my stomach. The guilt and shame and pain of what I'd done to my children flooded over me. Overwhelmed with helpless, hopeless, grief, I cried out to God as I had so many times before. But this time I didn't ask for strength to deal with my children. I asked for help to control myself, to save my children from me. I reached for the phone, called the mental health clinic, said, for the first time, "My children are abused…by me."

Help was immediate. With professional help my children and I began the long and difficult process of healing. I learned methods to avoid the rages that drove me to nearly destroy those most precious to me. I learned ways to parent that could help my children develop in healthy ways, heal the wounds I'd inflicted on them, become adults determined to break the cycle of abuse. I developed the courage to begin to show the love I'd felt afraid to show for fear the children would see it as weakness, a way to control me as I'd tried to control them. And with my daughter's stubborn determination, I even learned to give hugs and accept them with joy! And for which I giver thanks every day.

Is this a happily ever after story? I wish. But as Herbert Ward, an Episcopal priest stated so eloquently, "Child abuse casts a shadow that lasts a lifetime." [iii](Andrews, Biggs, & Seidel, 1996a). And child abuse is an ugly chain that continues generation after generation, until the cycle is broken. One of my children chose to stop the abuse by having no children. I damaged another so much the cycle couldn't be broken by her. Help came too late. Four living children were taken by the state and placed for adoption. Perhaps for them the cycle is broken. And one angel died during childbirth because her mother overdosed on drugs that night. Ironically my words haunt me…what I did to my children hurts me…oh not as much as them of course…but the hurt continued and it grew.

And the third child? She did everything possible to learn, and change, and break the chain. She accepted help. She relived the pain of her own childhood so she could lean from it. She refused the ruse of so many, the "I'll never do that to my children," denial that is the first step in continuing the abuse because too late the abuse is happening and hidden from shame. She understood the risk. She did everything possible to protect her children from her legacy. And with the grace of God, she succeeded.

Could this be your story? Or the story of someone you love? Although most people like to think they would never commit child abuse, Gonzalez-Crussi they can. Professor of pathology, and author of "Reflections on Child Abuse: Notes of an Anatomist," he said, "The germ of violence is laid bare in the child abuser by the sheer accident of his individual experience…in a word, to a greater degree than we like to admit, we are all potential child abusers." (Andrews et al., 1996a)

I don't forget. I can't forget. I won't ever forget. As long as children wait in silence...wait for someone to make them visible even when locked behind closed doors, wait for someone to acknowledge and validate their reality no matter how painful to look upon, I will speak out. I'm so glad so many of you are speaking out today, September 27. Please don't stop until child abuse exists only in a few memories and then is no more. Thank you.
Nancy Lee
And now another perspective... from my abused and beloved daughter.
When I was a child my parents divorced. Although my stepfather loved me he was never able to replace the abandonment I felt from my birth father. In the late 1990’s I reconnected with my birth father, he had cancer. Although I was never able to forget I was able to forgive and we had a few years of a nice friendship, but the abandonment still hurts to this day.

I made the same stupid mistake of abandoning my daughters when they were 3 and 5. They are now 23 and 25. While serving in the military a small town judge ruled that I had “abandoned my children in order to fulfill military obligation.” Who would have thought that while serving my country I would loose my children? I tried for years to obtain the visitation rights that were mine, but things happen, the girls got older and didn’t want to visit. In the long run I avoided confrontation at all costs and let well enough alone. This turned me into just a name in my daughter’s lives. My daughters and I have reconnected and share a friendship, but they have abandonment issues and have trouble trusting that people will stay in relationships with them.

When I was a child I was physically abused. I don’t remember the early years, I do remember from about first grade to six grade. The painful hits with belts, hands, wooden spoons, anything that was within easy reach. I remember words that I never understood “This hurts me worse then it hurts you.” How can the person welding the weapon and inflicting the pain feel worse then the one receiving the blows. I understand these words today because I understand inner turmoil. I remember holding my hands in the air out to my sides, sometimes with books on them, sometimes just mid air, and being told not to let my arms drop. This was a good punishment. The eventual pain in the arms was nothing like the physical blows. Plus when holding the books I could always escape into them by closing my eyes and imagining I was a part of the book and not a part of reality.

When I was between sixth and seventh grade, I stopped being physically abused and the healing began. The whole family was in counseling and I vowed one day when I had children of my own that I would never abuse them. My relationship with my abuser has opened up years of friendship due to our recognition of the situation and the choice to make it better.

I wanted to be the one who broke the cycle of abuse; of course I had already failed with abandonment, as it is abuse. I have also failed because I have failed to protect them from verbal and emotional abuse found in my household. But in a very small way I have succeeded because I am responsible for my actions and I do not physically, verbally or emotionally abuse my children, current ages 10, 13, 14.

As painful as it is to take a step forward and say I grew up in an abusive household, it is extremely embarrassing to have to take a step back and say I still have a long way to go.
Damara Lee

Andrews, R., Biggs, M., & Seidel, M. (1996a). The Columbia World of Quotations. Retrieved July 15, 2004, from
Andrews, R., Biggs, M., & Seidel, M. (1996b). The Columbia World of Quotations. Retrieved July 15, 2004, from
Miller, A. (2002). For your own good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence (4th ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[i] (Andrews, Biggs, & Seidel, 1996). Quotation #32581.
[ii] (Miller, 2002) Miller frequently includes common phrases known to abused children everywhere, as in "for your own good."
iii (Andrews, Biggs, & Seidel, 1996b). Quotation #25584.


tatyveli said...

Thank you for opening your heart and sharing this so difficult part of your life, and the lives of your children. I am so proud of you and the fact that you recognized the signs and asked for help. And because of the help, you and your children were able heal what was inflicted to them, and the remaining scars are there to remember and take care of not being part of the circles of abuse. Ever.

Rich said...


It is not what one has done but how they recover and help those who heal from those actions. Forgiveness is one of many keys to life.

Best, Rich

Marisa said...

Wow. That was powerful. Thank you so much for having the courage to share that.

B. James Stinson said...

I hope we don't skim over the point that this all began with a divorce. We're told that a divorce is just a private transaction between two adults, nobody else's business. But divorce affects a lot of people whose names never appear on the decree, and for some it amounts to deeply felt betrayal and abandonment, with cascading consequences through the generations.

Elizabeth Marquardt writes how even amicable divorces do lasting damage to children in Between Two Worlds: the Inner Lives of Children of Divorce.

Divorce is almost always preventable, and it's almost always worth preventing. The insights and skills to keep your marriage are not inborn, but learnable.

I would recommend any of the following books to a marriage partner trying to save his or her marriage: Fighting for Your Marriage, by Howard J. Markman; The Divorce Remedy, by Michele Weiner Davis; or Take Back Your Marriage, by William J. Doherty.

If you opt to invest in professional help, avoid "neutral" therapists whose lukewarm approach may or may not be helpful. Seek out a pro-commitment therapist.

The National Registry of Marriage-Friendly Counselors is the gold standard. You can google them or follow the link from my Therapeutic Family Law blogroll at

Anonymous said...

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Alcohol Abuse

Anonymous said...

I am a 37-year-old mom to two children - daughter of 13 and son of 10 - and did A LOT of ugly stuff to my daughter that makes me choke in horror when I recall it now.

Yes, I was suffering from post-natal depression of some sort, and my husband was not very supportive at the time, and I had abandonment and anger issues ... but she was just little and helpless and terrified and I knew there were times when I was just going too far.

Today Miss C (my daughter :) ) is a shy girl with no confidence who does not perform well at school ... I pray everyday that this is not my legacy / her legacy. I love her, I love her, I love her, but I cannot undo what I have done. I can only make it different.

I am sad you and your family also had such traumatic experiences. My mom also vented on me a lot of her frustration over my dad leaving ... perhaps I was also practicing learned behaviour.

The point is I am forgiven, I just have to forgive myself, and I have to love Miss C sooooooo uncoditionally while offering discipline that is not rooted in abuse.

Lots and lots of love to every mom who comes across this blog - there ARE joyful days ahead and you've got to stop condemning yourself to let the healing start.