(This is a paper I wrote and presented at the request of a committee from a high school in North York, hosting an educational event on the chosen topic of Family Violence…an event specifically for adult students of ESL with Canadian Landed Immigrant Status.)
The thought that strikes me most is how these two words, these two qualities of experience…family and violence, don’t belong together. Family and nurturing, yes. Family and support, yes. Family and safety, yes. Family and love, yes. The experiences of family with violence, for example: love with pain, mother with fear, father with punishment, don’t go together. They don’t fit now, they didn’t fit when we were children and no matter how hard we try, we can never put together or reconcile family with violence.
You may think me simple-minded for saying what appears obvious. Everyone knows if love is painful then it can’t be love. Or, do we really know? Many people spend their entire lives unconsciously recreating the dynamics of family violence. Sometimes the form violence takes, changes. What was sexual violation in childhood becomes emotional abuse in a marriage or vice versa. Some psychiatrists call this process Repetition-Compulsion and see it as a mental disorder or sickness. Others like myself call this process of repeating the past, Repetition-Completion which I embrace as an integral part of the healing process. And this has become my work; facilitating for others this process of completion with violence. This completion process doesn’t come from trying to make ‘family’ work or make ‘love’ fit into the context of violence. Completion comes from breaking the connection between love and pain. Sometimes we can cut or sever that connection between love and pain within ourselves without ending the form of a relationship that has become abusive or violent. Sometimes our changing is not enough. We may also need to let go of the other person even if we love that person, perhaps especially because we love that person who might be our mother or father, sister or brother, husband or wife or friend. Because family violence doesn’t have anything to do with love. Rather family violence has to do with the transference of pain from one family member to another. Family violence has to do with expressions of what we often mistake for love that is not love at all but destructive patterns of behaviour-masquerading as love. Voicing a loud, clear, unequivocal “no” to an abusive family member or family situation can be seen not as an unloving act but one of the highest forms of love and responsibility. The act of temporarily disconnecting from a violent situation or person can in the end provide an invitation to and set the tone for a better quality of life for all.
What we know in our heads or minds is not the same as knowing with our hearts and souls, the whole of our being…what is love and what love is not. Certainly love is more than words: “I love you.” Easy to say, not so easy to live. Because love is an active presence that comes with responsibility to another person. I heard a man recently say that what defines family is not necessarily a matter of biology but of function, how family members treat one another. Given this definition, how many of us in this room today can honestly say we came from a true family experience? How many can sincerely say we are now effectively creating unique family experience with our own children?
We live in a world where people say things like: “What kind of a woman would stay with a man like that?” “What kind of a man would live with a woman like that?” Often we hear the reply: “Because he loves me.” “Because I love him.” “Because it’s my family.” “After all, he’s my brother.” “She’s my mother.” and so on, as though carrying the title or playing the role of father or wife, etc., entitles anyone to give themselves license or licenses others to behave violently.
We pretend not to understand the workings-out of other people’s violent relationships. We like to pretend “that” man or “that” woman is someone else, not us. We pretend not to know. But knowing, like loving, is an active, recognizable presence or force in the world. Knowing is earned. We have to want to know because we can no longer afford to know and because we ALL are “that” woman and “that” man.
I grew up in a family that said things like: “What kind of a man would walk out on his own children?” “What kind of a man wouldn’t come home when his own mother was dying?” One of my father’s brothers left his wife without a husband and his three young boys to grow up without a father, seemingly without explanation. One of my mother’s nephews also left his wife and two young children. If there is to be a hope for any of us, we must assume these two fathers loved their children as much as any father could. If love was not the issue then what was? What happened? Although I never met this particular uncle and only knew my cousin for a brief period of time, I knew even as a young child, exactly what had happened to my cousin and uncle to have caused them to abandon their own children.
We all know each other…far more than we care to admit. Again, knowing comes with responsibility. Pretending not to know, pretending not to understand is deadly. That worn-out adage that what you don’t know won’t hurt you, has been revised to: What you don’t know WILL undeniably hurt you and most likely, others. i.e. Denial hurts, all around. The price for our dishonesty, for our remaining unconscious, becomes a deficit passed on to our children.
I knew what happened to my uncle and cousin because the same thing happened to me…family violence.
Before I share examples of my own, personal family experience within the context of this topic of family violence, I want you to know my parents and my family were good people. They did the best they could even though their best did not prove to be enough when at one critical point, the culmination of many unresolved forces had me lose my will to sustain my life. Although my parents could not realize many of their intentions, I know they had good intentions for me. They loved me and they still love me and I still love them.
I grew up with parents who demanded I always do the right thing in life when frequently neither my mother nor my father succeeded in choosing to do the right thing in their own lives.
My father insisted on honesty from his children. Dishonesty was severely punished, not so much physically but mostly through isolation tactics or deprivation of love or attention. Yet my father seemed to lie almost every day of my life. He would say he was coming home for supper and then go straight from work to a bar where he would drink all evening or sometimes not come home at all. I remember one of those times my mother was working late, when my father did not come home to make dinner for my sister and I as he had promised but instead arrived home just before midnight. When my sister and I heard his car, we hurried to bed afraid of getting into trouble for not being asleep even though we would not have felt safe enough to go to sleep alone. Although I felt uneasy about this, my greatest fear was that if my father did not make it home before my mother, then she would know we had been left on our own. That would mean more arguing and fighting and days of empty apologies and angry silences. After awhile, when there was no sound of his footsteps on the porch, I looked out the window and saw he had collapsed over the driving wheel of his car. I went outside and walked through the snow into the winter night, my bare legs cold in my nightgown, my bare feet in boots wet and cold from daytime play. When I reached the car, I opened the door and poked my dad. In my curiosity I thought he was dead but he was just drunk. Even as a young child, the prospect of my father’s death did not frighten me as much as did his life.
When I was little, mostly when my mother and I were alone, my mother would deliberately play: “I don’t love you…who would love you…why would ANYONE love you?” games with me. Only when I became absolutely frantic with fear, disintegrating on every possible level, would my mother laugh hysterically and say she was only joking. The word frantic in English comes from a Greek word meaning madness. My mother nearly drove me crazy. The first psychiatrist I saw, some years after my daughter’s birth, said my mother’s treatment of me was the worst case of emotional child abuse he had heard in all his years of practice as a medical doctor. This statement so frightened me that I ran all the way home. I hadn’t even told him about repeated sexual abuse on the part of an uncle of mine, who in some ways was more of a father to me than my own father. That this uncle, who could sometimes be gentle and patient, routinely inflicted pain and cruelty on the farm animals and also used me sexually and how this seemed no different than how I was treated at home…an object to be “loved” or used and tormented at whim.
My sister and I mirrored the bitter and hateful fighting between my parents. When my sister and I fought, my parents saw it as a particularly vicious form of “sibling rivalry” as though my sister and I should treat each other differently than my parents treated each other.
I never expected anyone to stand up for me. I was punished at home for being punished at school for things I never did wrong in the first place. I was an easy target for anyone who wanted to discharge their pain or frustration or anger or even “love”.
A little over 13 years ago, I gave birth to a baby girl. My daughter had a very gentle birth, not in a hospital but in the sanctity of my home. Her birth was a joyous occasion. But already moments after she was born, I felt tremendous pain seeping into my body. I was faced with the task of integrating the violence of my upbringing, the theft of my childhood and the early loss of innocence. I felt terror at the possibility that the magnitude of my pain would one day be reflected in the eyes of my daughter the way my parent’s pain had become my own. That thought was enough to nearly break my heart.
I could not see any hope of reconciling the love I felt for my child with the violence acted out on me when I was also a child. The more I tried to reconcile love with pain, the more headaches I had just like the migraines of my childhood…my headaches being like a circuit-breaker against the overwhelming pain in my head and the violence of my thoughts.
I became afraid for my daughter. I was afraid for myself. I was terrified that if anyone found out how small and helpless I felt, then even worse things might happen as if anything could be worse than what had already been.
I started taking too many pills and drinking too much alcohol to hide the pain, knowing most people are afraid of anyone else’s pain, not to mention their own. I tried to laugh at things that weren’t funny, to say the right words at the right time. I knew I could not keep living this way. I began to have thoughts of leaving my daughter and husband just as my cousin and uncle before me had left their wives and children.
Eventually I found another doctor to work with and spent about three years crying almost continuously. Over a period of five years of intense therapy and training I learned to redefine life because what my parents had taught me inadvertently, was not so much what life was but almost everything life was not. I learned that while I could not change the powerful imprinting of violence upon me, I could change my response towards it. I came to understand the dynamics of violation as having two component parts: one who takes and one who allows that person to take the mind or soul of another to use for his or her own purposes. Violence, while deliberate is rarely conscious and yet that doesn’t make violence any more acceptable.
Violence is not always as dramatic as it was in my childhood. Sometimes violence takes the form of passive denial, the withholding of one’s response or the invalidation of someone else’s experience of themselves. The accumulation of little lies over a lifetime can be just as destructive, a form of slow-suicide on the instalment plan.
Sometimes violence is directed inward against the self such as in certain, advanced forms of disease, alcoholism, drug or self-abuse. Sometimes violence is not a form of active abuse but of neglect in equipping children with or teaching as a parent, the tools needed to create quality of life that is our children’s birthright.
Lastly, honouring life sometimes means making difficult choices, becoming painfully and eventually joyfully aware or conscious, exercising responsibility, becoming mature, taking risks, standing behind one’s values, embracing the willingness to being accountable especially to one’s children.
Where the dynamics of violation are about taking and being taken, the dynamics of living and loving involve extending and receiving. While we all deserve to know the latter expression, true living is an experience we all must earn through conscious development.
– Gwen Dunlop, 1994