You Carry the Cure In Your Own Heart

From Andrew Vachss: http://vachss.com/av_dispatches/disp_9408_a.html

Emotional abuse of children can lead, in adulthood, to addiction, rage, a severely damaged sense of self and an inability
to truly bond with others. But—if it happened to you—there is a way out.

by Andrew Vachss
Originally published in Parade Magazine, August 28, 1994

The attorney and author Andrew Vachss has devoted his life to protecting children. We asked Vachss, an expert on the subject of child abuse, to examine perhaps one of its most complex and widespread forms—emotional abuse: What it is, what it does to children, what can be done about it. Vachss’ latest novel, “Down in the Zero,” just published by Knopf, depicts emotional abuse at its most monstrous.

I’m a lawyer with an unusual specialty. My clients are all children—damaged, hurting children who have been sexually assaulted, physically abused, starved, ignored, abandoned and every other lousy thing one human can do to another. People who know what I do always ask: “What is the worst case you ever handled?” When you’re in a business where a baby who dies early may be the luckiest child in the family, there’s no easy answer. But I have thought about it—I think about it every day. My answer is that, of all the many forms of child abuse, emotional abuse may be the cruelest and longest–lasting of all.

Emotional abuse is the systematic diminishment of another. It may be intentional or subconscious (or both), but it is always a course of conduct, not a single event. It is designed to reduce a child’s self–concept to the point where the victim considers himself unworthy—unworthy of respect, unworthy of friendship, unworthy of the natural birthright of all children: love and protection.

Emotional abuse can be as deliberate as a gunshot: “You’re fat. You’re stupid. You’re ugly.”

Emotional abuse can be as random as the fallout from a nuclear explosion. In matrimonial battles, for example, the children all too often become the battlefield. I remember a young boy, barely into his teens, absently rubbing the fresh scars on his wrists. “It was the only way to make them all happy,” he said. His mother and father were locked in a bitter divorce battle, and each was demanding total loyalty and commitment from the child.

Emotional abuse can be active. Vicious belittling: “You’ll never be the success your brother was.” Deliberate humiliation: “You’re so stupid. I’m ashamed you’re my son.”

It also can be passive, the emotional equivalent of child neglect—a sin of omission, true, but one no less destructive.

And it may be a combination of the two, which increases the negative effects geometrically.

Emotional abuse can be verbal or behavioral, active or passive, frequent or occasional. Regardless, it is often as painful as physical assault. And, with rare exceptions, the pain lasts much longer. A parent’s love is so important to a child that withholding it can cause a “failure to thrive” condition similar to that of children who have been denied adequate nutrition.

Even the natural solace of siblings is denied to those victims of emotional abuse who have been designated as the family’s “target child.” The other children are quick to imitate their parents. Instead of learning the qualities every child will need as an adult—empathy, nurturing and protectiveness—they learn the viciousness of a pecking order. And so the cycle continues.

But whether as a deliberate target or an innocent bystander, the emotionally abused child inevitably struggles to “explain” the conduct of his abusers—and ends up struggling for survival in a quicksand of self–blame.

Emotional abuse is both the most pervasive and the least understood form of child maltreatment. Its victims are often dismissed simply because their wounds are not visible. In an era in which fresh disclosures of unspeakable child abuse are everyday fare, the pain and torment of those who experience “only” emotional abuse is often trivialized. We understand and accept that victims of physical or sexual abuse need both time and specialized treatment to heal. But when it comes to emotional abuse, we are more likely to believe the victims will “just get over it” when they become adults.

That assumption is dangerously wrong. Emotional abuse scars the heart and damages the soul. Like cancer, it does its most deadly work internally. And, like cancer, it can metastasize if untreated.

When it comes to damage, there is no real difference between physical, sexual and emotional abuse. All that distinguishes one from the other is the abuser’s choice of weapons. I remember a woman, a grandmother whose abusers had long since died, telling me that time had not conquered her pain. “It wasn’t just the incest,” she said quietly. “It was that he didn’t love me. If he loved me, he couldn’t have done that to me.”

But emotional abuse is unique because it is designed to make the victim feel guilty. Emotional abuse is repetitive and eventually cumulative behavior—very easy to imitate—and some victims later perpetuate the cycle with their own children. Although most victims courageously reject that response, their lives often are marked by a deep, pervasive sadness, a severely damaged self-concept and an inability to truly engage and bond with others.

Continue reading at:  http://vachss.com/av_dispatches/disp_9408_a.html