- She said, “I know you fancy yourself an outdoors person, but you’re really not.”–This despite the fact that I had spent four years playing competitive soccer (well), had spent my entire pre-adolescence either up a tree or wrestling, and have since gone on to play Ultimate frisbee for 7 years and spent a month on the AT.
- Many variations of: “You’re really not that smart,” including, “you don’t have any chance of being a national merit scholar” and “you probably won’t get into Wellesley.”–I did get into Wellesley; I graduated with a BA in Physics. I was a national merit finalist. And, for the record, my IQ is in the 140s.
- “You’re not really a creative person.”–I write, compose, and arrange songs. I design and make my own clothes (and quilts.) I am an avid photographer and I also occasionally draw and paint. I write novels and graphic novels for teens. And believe you me, I exhibited extraordinary creativity in the number of ways I avoided going home and visiting once I reached the age of majority!
This is just a small smattering of all the lies my mother told me about myself. I watched her tell many similar lies to my sister, and otherwise subtly and not-so-subtlely erode our senses of ourselves. So why am I engaging in this phenomenal bout of laundry-airing and oversharing? Because I’m watching the same thing happen to a little girl who I know, and I feel completely powerless to change it, stop it, or help her.
This is emotional abuse, folks, and it is often coupled with two things: 1) isolation. My mother moved us almost a thousand miles away from her family. She had very few friends who ever entered our house, and we were discouraged from having our friends over, as well. In addition, if I ever tried to talk about anything going on at home with one of my teachers or guidance counselors, my mom acted like the world was going to end and I was the worst human being who had ever lived. 2) the abuse takes place in the primary attachment relationship and there either is no other parent/caretaker, the other parent/caretaker is also abusive, or he/she is emotionally checked out (as is the case in Chime by Franny Billingsley).
I have seen this type of abuse in several parent-child relationships, and I have to say that in every single one, I’m almost positive that the parent suffered a similar form of abuse. My mother hated her mother till the day she died and told horror stories of how she would cut her down and set her up in competitions against other girls that she was destined to fail at. And I know for a fact that the little girl’s mother was hit, terrorized, and emotionally abused by her own mother.
But this kind of abuse has devastating repercussions for the child as she/he forms a personal identity and enters into adulthood. I have seen children react in two different ways to this form of abuse: 1) They either conform to fit the version of themselves that their caretaker offers them in exchange for whatever meager love and protection the caretaker has to offer (which is generally not that much, since, as I said, the caretaker has been abused, as well.) But children who take this option tend to end up tentative and afraid to go into the world and do anything of value, uncertain of who they are, and convinced that the things that they secretly long for are forever out of their reach. They have low self-esteem, engage in risky behaviors as teens and adults, and they suffer from persistent depression.
But option 2) isn’t any better. These children fight the view of themselves that their parent has to offer–they try to prove themselves. But because they are isolated and we all need attachment, I believe what tends to happen is a kind of splitting of identity in the child. I believe that this is what causes Dissociative Identity Disorder, what used to be called “Multiple Personality Disorder.” In order to maintain a sense of self, these children develop a somewhat authentic identity that they present to the outside world, and they develop a home identity that conforms limitedly to the parent’s needs. But because they can’t quite be what the parent needs, these children fight more with their parents and receive even less love and security than the other type. In addition, this identity splitting continues into adulthood and makes it hard for these adults to develop close relationships, and eventually to continue to function in society.
I think that my mother hated her life and never believed that she could be or do the things that she wanted to. I think that she needed her daughters to not be any better than her/prettier than her/smarter than her/more competent than her. I think she needed this so she wouldn’t feel worthless herself. Even though she wasn’t. She was an incredible writer, and by all accountants a wonderful teacher, as well. Her quilting was beautiful, and she was a skilled seamstress. And she had a wicked sense of humor. It complicates the picture of the villainess that modern psychology would often paint.
But when a parent lies to a child, especially about the child’s self-worth, and when there is no other voice to gainsay the lies, the child has the option to either become the lies or reject the parent. I don’t know that any child can totally do the latter–even if the child runs away, the lies follow him or her.
I don’t know a solution, though. These children have a tough ride ahead of them.