"He is such a good man--you guys are lucky to have him as a father."
"You guys are so well-behaved! Your parents are doing a good job with you."
"I thought you were a big happy family."
"I never knew. I thought you guys were an exemplar Catholic family."
It was all about appearances. "A big happy family" was a carefully crafted lie that we continually tried to convince ourselves was true. Sometimes it was easier to buy into it than others. I was so good at brainwashing myself that I would forget that I vented to my boyfriend about my dad's rages a few days prior and tell him that "dad's doing much better these days." He could not be convinced.
We were pretty convincing to others, though. Growing up, I would get compliments about how wonderful my dad was, and about how well-behaved we kids were. I'd smile humbly, and thank them, wishing so much that I could tell them the truth: that dad was charismatic and excellent at putting on a good face to the public, and that we had to behave under pain of his rages and spankings.
We could go from home, where he would rage and we'd be on edge, to being perfectly happy and obedient at church or at a homeschool meeting.
After he disowned me, and as I explained to people what happened if they asked, many were surprised. People who tried to excuse it, minimize it, or tell me that I "have only one father and mother" and should reconcile with them, I quietly cut ties with them. Others were surprised, but supported me. And still others told me they suspected something was wrong, but had no idea the extent.
Abusers frequently disguise themselves as good people. The scary part is that many believe themselves to be good, upstanding people.
It's like the story I read this morning about a couple in New Jersey who abused their biological and adopted foster children, leading to the death of one of the fostered children. So many people from their church expressed dismay that the kids were taken away from the parents, saying that they were "caring, loving parents" and that there was no way they would have done that to the children, despite the overwhelming evidence otherwise. The church people probably saw only the good side of the parents. The "upstanding Christian" side.
Similarly, people were so oblivious about Ariel Castro's true nature that they didn't know that he had three captive women and one captive girl in his home. One news site looked at his Facebook page, which showed nothing about his private life. He was so careful about not letting the outside world see his secret. People thought he was a "regular Joe," if a bit of an asshole.
Pictures of smiling children in families does not mean there is no abuse. People smile for pictures. That's just what you do, right? Also, children know they have to play along and put on a good face, or else they will face wrath when back home. It reminds me of a book, "House Rules" by Rachel Sontag, whose father was controlling and emotionally abusive. The publishing of the book must have come as a narcissistic threat to the father, as evidenced by a rebuttal website, which goes on bizarrely about how he spent so much money on providing for a "good" childhood for her. There is one point on the site where he shows a picture of her smiling on vacation, as if that meant she was not emotionally abused, and there are letters from her to her parents to "prove" there was nothing wrong. (To which I say, seriously?? Asshole. I have a hard time reading his website because I keep wanting to "run away" from the words.)
And yet people will still point to memories and pictures and say, "How could such happy child have been abused?"
Or people will say that because there were no bruises, there was no abuse. At least, that's what I always feared. Who would believe me? I wondered, every time I thought about running away. The only evidence were those invisible emotional wounds.
When I did start telling people the very basics of what happened, I had a wide range of reactions from people. I can tell you this much--the people who don't want to believe hurts. People who minimize it are also harmful. Denial and diminish-ment are very powerful mental tools meant to protect the hearer from perceived pain. This harms the person who is in pain, though.
This is what children fear will happen if they tell a trusted adult. Hell, this is what adults fear, too. This happened to a wonderful YA author, Beth Fehlbaum, when she tried to tell her mother about her stepfather's sexual abuse.
On the other hand, there are the good, lovely hearts who might be completely surprised, but still believe and lend their support. And there are the wonderfully suspicious people who may have guessed something was wrong, even if they couldn't put their finger on it. My husband and his family, even before I was capable of telling very much about dad's behavior, guessed something was wrong. They saw right through all my brainwashed statements about how "he's doing much better." And they provided so much encouragement to get me off to therapy. Others were simply listening ears. And still others expressed their love and support even if we don't talk about it much.
So, the moral of this story is:
- Even the most egregious of abusers can be disguised as good people.
- Don't let religiosity or church-attendance color your perceptions of the abuser. Even "fine, upstanding Christians" can be incredibly abusive, even to the point of child murder.
- If someone tells you they are being abused or have been abused, even if you thought the abuser was a good person, be supportive such as you can. Be a listening ear, tell them you still love them, encourage them to get help, whatever most fits your relationship to the person.
- If a child tells you they are being abused or have been abused, believe them. For the love of God, don't try to excuse it or minimize it. Believe them. It takes an unbelievable amount of courage for children to even talk about it, so listen to what they have to say, and take appropriate action. And by appropriate action, that usually means a call to Child Protective Services. Or by kicking the sorry asshole out of the house. The Childhelp hotline is a fantastic place to start.
Filed under: Abuse