Breaking the silence, Katherine Findlay

The Middle Bridge: A New Zealand childhood
Sheryl Jennings
Tandem Press, $19.95,
ISBN 0 908884508

Warriors of Truth: Adult Survivors Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse
Kim McGregor
University of Otago Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0 90856984X

Invisible Wounds: A Selfhelp Guide for New Zealand Women in Destructive Relationships
Kay Douglas
Penguin Books, $24.95,
ISBN 0 140 237976

William Brandt and Miranda Harcourt
Victoria University Press, $9.95,
ISBN 0 864732767

Warriors of Truth author Kim McGregor believes abuse survivors need to throw away shame and break their silence in an effort to stop violence. Certainly psychology’s hot topic of the 1990s has produced a plethora of “survivor” stories, a category into which the first three titles fall.

Despite this confessional flow, it would seem that the urge to suppress or at least to minimise the extent of our violence is still strong. In the course of researching this article I sought some statistics on the incidence of child abuse. I discovered that between July 1994 and April 1995 there had been 20,154 notifications to the Children and Young Persons Service (CYPS) of concerns about neglect, care issues, behaviour problems and physical and sexual abuse of children. As reports to CYPS are usually a last resort, these figures would represent only a small fraction of what’s really happening in these areas for children.

In a survey of reactions to the recent “Breaking the Cycle” television campaign aimed at showing the intergenerational effects of violence in the home, few of those questioned had any understanding of the differences between emotional and physical abuse; the majority thought physical abuse was defined by whether or not the victim had to be taken to hospital and most thought that it was none of the state’s business to interfere in the home. Many people complained that the advertisements were too graphic, that is, too realistic.

Verbatim authors William Brandt and Miranda Harcourt also report this tendency to minimise ‑ or maybe it is to normalise ‑ our violence. They asked each of 30 interviewees ‑ convicted murderers, their partners and their families ‑ the question: “Are you a violent person?” Everyone said: “No”. Harcourt: “There is a line in Verbatim where Aaron says, ‘Never laid a finger on her. Oh [he indicates slapping with his open hand] couple of times if she got smart and that; nothing serious.’ That more or less encapsulates the attitude we found with everybody, whether wives, parents or offenders themselves: they are all saying, ‘I am not violent’ or ‘He’s not violent’. … Our definition of violence was quite different from that of the people we were interviewing.”

Freud literally could not believe his own ears when he heard of child sexual abuse, so he relegated his clinical evidence to the realm of fantasy and labelled it “seduction theory”. This closed off psychiatry’s recognition of child sexual abuse for decades and still feeds the backlash against it with the promotion of so‑called “false memory syndrome”.

Perhaps we should be asking ourselves why it is so terrifying to acknowledge our violent and abusive tendencies. Why do we sometimes promote the idea that children are sexually provocative, habitually lie or that battered partners “asked for it”? Why don’t we put more energy into prevention of abuse instead of trying to deny or hide it? Perhaps, as Kim McGregor suggests, rape and sexual abuse don’t affect those in power? I suspect that as a nation we are afraid of busting our most cherished myth of all ‑ that New Zealand is a great little country in which to bring up children. To anyone working with children on a regular basis this myth has little currency. We struggle to comprehend the quality of lives of children chastised by harsh words and even harsher blows and shamed by sexual abuse. We struggle to muster enough compassion and understanding of how adults can do such things to children in order to help them to stop. We can predict these children’s depressing futures.

The Auckland serial rapist may be an extreme product of the “cycle of violence” but any experience of childhood maltreatment is a likely indicator of trouble in adult life given the wrong mix of circumstances. Professor John Briere, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California, an eminent researcher of childhood abuse trauma, writes that “the connection between child maltreatment and later dysfunctional or ‘pathological’ behaviour has often been overlooked and/ or trivialised, partially as a result of cultural acceptance of physical violence, verbal aggression and exploitation in the training and control of children.”

Sheryl Jennings is a product of childhood maltreatment ‑ physical, emotional and sexual. The world she describes in The Middle Bridge is familiar to a generation which grew up in the 1950s ‑ Life with Dexter on the radio, the big school trip to Christchurch on the Hinemoa, swims at Foxton beach and two‑parent families. But for Jennings and, no doubt, many of her contemporaries there was a darker side. Writing a series of short stories in the persona of “Wendy” whom Jennings describes in 1990s psycho‑parlance as her “inner child”, she gives chilling testimony to the lasting effects of violence on children. In Jennings’ case it is her mother who is the main offender, taking out her own intense pain and anger on Wendy, usually after being beaten herself by a drunken husband. All the textbook indicators of childhood trauma are there ‑ the pants‑wetting anxiety and “frozen watchfulness” of the child who never quite knows when things are going to turn nasty. What the textbooks don’t tell you and what Jennings does well is to describe how pathetically important good times are to such a child:

Mrs Bennett smiled and put some plates on the table for us, then she spooned out some sausages and mashed potatoes. Before we sat down though, she washed the plum off our hands and faces, then she sat down at the table with us. I choked on some sausage and she put her arm around me. I cried and she cuddled me and when she did that I was so glad we lived here and that there was no more middle bridge, no Saturday dancing and no more grownup secret kissing with Grandad and I cried so hard that she sat me on her knee and I went to sleep. That has never happened to me before.

Somehow these throw the abuse into even more painful relief. “All Wendy ever wanted was to be loved, accepted and believed,” writes Jennings in her introduction. As a stark sentence it sounds trite, but meeting these needs is a necessary precondition for healthy human development. By adulthood these deficit needs have for many people abused as children been transposed into a diagnosis such as bulimia, anorexia, anxiety, depression or phobia.

Jennings’ ability to capture the spirit and inner dialogues of her childhood in simple prose is strangely powerful, sometimes unbearably painful. It is also painful to know that, the demise of Life with Dexter notwithstanding, Jennings’ childhood is being relived in many New Zealand homes four decades on.

In Warriors of Truth, Kim McGregor’s personal narrative of her own childhood sexual abuse and its repercussions in her adult life is confined to four and a half pages. She does, however, include a number of stories from other survivors and heads each chapter with the extraordinarily moving survivor poems of Lynda Morgan. McGregor and her consultants ‑ Warriors has the slight feel of being written by committee ‑ have put together a remarkably comprehensive text. Of its kind, it is an outstanding contribution to the literature on sexual abuse.

McGregor acknowledges the difficulties she experienced with the scope of the book addressing as it does not only survivors, but their supporters, including parents and therapists. It is in three parts, the first containing general information on child sexual abuse, the other two providing a sort of smorgasbord of topics written in “byte‑sized” pieces which allow readers to progress at their own pace or select what is relevant to their own purposes. McGregor leaves no angle uncovered, even explaining how offenders often coopt children into sexual behaviours. This is my one reservation about Warriors of Truth. Although it is possibly an unlikely book for abusers to read, I was struck by the thought that it might unintentionally contain some handy hints for them.

I was pleased to note that unlike some saccharine new-age healing books, McGregor does not advocate forgiveness of the offender as a necessary part of healing. Some things are unforgivable. She also discussed the vexed question of how memories of childhood sexual abuse can surface and gives guidelines as to how a therapist should help deal with, not suggest or interpret, memories.

Warriors of Truth is a timely book, locally relevant, based on solid research and clinical experience and more than a notch above your usual “How to heal your (supply own noun)” book.

Like McGregor, Kay Douglas uses her own experience of surviving abuse ‑ this time the Invisible Wounds of emotional or psychological abuse in marriage ‑ as the springboard for a self‑help manual. Again it is impressively comprehensive. Douglas and her 50 informants (aged from 23 to 73) eloquently describe the pain of this less‑documented form of abuse.

Douglas defines an abusive relationship as: “When one partner constantly controls, dominates or intimidates the other by means of manipulative, punishing or forceful behaviour”. She confines herself, however, to male emotional abuse of women and suggests that a better question than “why on earth does she stay with him?” might be “why does he do it?” Her conclusion is simple: abusive men choose to be violent. Abusive men behave badly in order to gain power, attention and privilege in the relationship. Douglas has no time for the excuses about his terrible childhood, his alcohol problem, his anger problem or the pressures of work. She indicates that women waste too much valuable time trying to understand men rather than holding out for their rights to an abuse‑free and denigration‑free relationship.

By keeping the responsibility on the male partner, Douglas does not buy into “women who love too much” or “co-dependency” ideas. Hers is the view that women have long been socialised into being experts at nurturing, at meeting others’ needs and desires first and denying their own. To label this behaviour “co‑dependent” is to pathologise it and to add to women’s guilt.

While I acknowledge wholeheartedly the need for an abusing partner to accept total responsibility for the abuse, and that the more common abusive scenario is male abuse of female partners, I have a bit of trouble with Douglas’s brief statement that lesbians may find the book useful because “power struggles can be a feature of any intimate relationship”. Where does this leave gay male relationships, for example? Do they get left out because logic would demand the existence of a nurturing male? Is there any possibility that women could psychologically abuse men? Certainly, Wendy’s mother in The Middle Bridge was deficient in nurturing capacities. Was that just because she chose to be abusive? This has the whiff of “privileging” women’s essential qualities about it. But I digress. To be fair, Douglas is straight up that hers is a book by, for and about women in destructive relationships.

Recognising emotional abuse is much harder than the physical or sexual kind, although it is hard to conceive that these latter two would not contain an element of the former. Douglas helps her reader identify emotional abuse and gives lots of useful suggestions on how to address it with useful questions to ponder at the end of most chapters. She wisely includes a chapter on the impact on children of living in an emotionally abusive atmosphere and does not skip over the difficulties women have in leaving destructive relationships by blatant advice to get out. In fact she devotes a chapter for those who choose to stay with an abusive partner.

Because there is little available information on psychological abuse, Invisible Wounds makes a valuable contribution to the popular literature. It is also a timely resource as the introduction of psychological abuse as a ground for a protection order under the Domestic Violence Bill likely to pass through Parliament next year. This should make for some lively debate as the most insidious feature of emotional or psychological abuse is its very invisibility which makes it extraordinarily difficult to prove or police.

Katherine Findlay is a clinical psychologist at Marinoto Child and Family Service at North Shore Hospital. She is also a freelance journalist.

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Posted in Gender, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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