Childhood abuse still echoes in adult survivors’ lives

In a room recognizably located in a nursing home, a tiny lady with white hair speaks in a bird-like voice to her young nurse, “I must hide under my bed.”

“Why?” asks the nurse.

“He’s coming!” says the old woman.

“Are we playing hide and seek?”

“No, my papa is coming, please don’t let him find me!”

The Spanish short film at the Cleveland Film Festival several years ago breaks from the scene with a message: Childhood abuse lasts indefinitely.

This column demanded to be written, no matter what else I had in mind. Why? Because in the two weeks since my last column, many women have shared their stories with me.

Some have been strangers sharing the impact, if not all the details, of their decades-long struggle with the abuse they suffered as children.

Others are women I’ve known since childhood, like one who told me about her teen rapist. I first met him, too, in elementary school.

Many women who wrote were sexually assaulted, but equally as many were physically abused. “I was told that my dad loved me as he bashed me around. It’s the loss of trust that is so damaging,” said one.

For any child abused, even if that child is now 30, 50, 70 years of age, I am deeply sorry other adults didn’t intervene. If I could strip away the lingering pain and replace it with enduring safety for the child-self left inside these adults, I would. Just as I wish I could give the same to my own child-self.

What I can do is love and protect my own children. For though child abuse may never be 100 percent eradicated, we can do better.

Celebrity shame

Since my last column, Woody Allen told the media in Argentina he should be the poster boy for the #MeToo movement. Why? Because he’s never had a complaint of assault from any of the hundreds of famous or just-starting-out actresses he’s worked with over the decades.

Great. He kept his sexual assault limited to the children in his family and never took it to work. Based on his logic, my dad, too, could be a poster boy for the #MeToo movement. (Unless my doctor writes me an unlimited prescription for Zofran, I need to avoid reading anything Allen says.)

Days later, Bill Clinton went on the interview circuit. He has a new fiction book, co-written with author James Patterson, about a president battling a cyberterrorist. As a result, the topic of Clinton’s affair 20 years ago with Monica Lewinsky has resurfaced. At the time, he was 49 and president of the United States. She was a 22-year-old college grad.

Clinton was defensive when asked about the affair on the Today show, claiming two-thirds of Americans sided with him at the time. He was comparative, wondering why he had to endure impeachment hearings when Kennedy and Johnson were never pressured to resign over their affairs. He touted his record of promoting women to high positions in government. And he attacked the reporter asking the questions.

Nothing he said conveyed an iota of contrition.

“Clinton’s smart and can afford the best PR firms, I’m sure,” I said as we discussed his tone-deaf answers over dinner. “Why didn’t his advisers better prepare him for these inevitable questions?”

“I’m sure they did,” said Max, “And he ignored them.”

When the Clinton impeachment hearings were going on, a friend of mine from a well-connected Democrat family wished Clinton would resign. I disagreed. I don’t now.

No party should parse between the personal behavior of a politician and the political gain of his policies. As Frank Bruni wrote in a recent column in the New York Times, nominating the first women to serve as secretary of state and attorney general does not compensate for eviscerating the life of a 22-year-old.

Lewinsky, who has admitted her own mistakes in allowing the affair, has become a modern-day Hester Prynne. Meanwhile, Clinton has gone about his life, amassing fortunes and building a library to commemorate his life and time in the Oval Office.

The thing about men like Allen and Clinton is no matter what outrage they face, they will never see the error of their ways. Perhaps they are all narcissists. But also, when predatory violence against women continues, sometimes for decades, with impunity, it underscores a predator’s notion that the rules don’t apply to him. Everyone who witnesses such abuse and does nothing is culpable.

Complexity of abuse

Today is Father’s Day. If you read my last column you might think I have nothing good to say about my father. But that is not true. The complexity of child abuse is that nobody is always evil, just as nobody is always perfect.

When I was an undergrad at OSU, I read a review of a British movie about an abusive family in the student paper. The college-age reviewer couldn’t understand how the father could beat the children in one scene and have a joyous Christmas celebration with them in the next. Clearly that writer had an upbringing devoid of violence.

Just as all parent-child relationships are layered, if not complicated, reconciling the history of parental abuse can be fraught with conflicting emotions. Making this even more difficult, abusers, and sometimes other survivors, often claim the abuse never happened.

In 2013, Emily Yoffe, formerly slate.com’s Dear Prudence writer, wrote a column on what adult children owe the parents who abused them as children. Her answer? Nothing, absolutely nothing.

“Holy moly, you are right! I’m a horrible excuse for a human being and what I did to you can never be excused. I am truly sorry for the endless suffering I have caused you. Tell me what I can do to help.” These are words I don’t expect Woody Allen and Bill Clinton (and Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, etc., etc.) to say to their victims. Neither will most nonfamous parents who’ve abused their children.

“Make a list of all the persons you’ve harmed and become willing to make amends to them all.” That is step 8 in Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program. It is also the step too hard for many to make. More people stop at this step, I am told, than any other.

For those with whom my last column resonated, do not give control to the people who harmed you by waiting for them to understand your pain and make amends. Seek whatever help you need, surround yourself with kind people — for most people are truly good — and be kind to yourself.

Be the adult you deserved in your life when you were a child and you will find what was taken from you. For me, parenting my kids as I wished I’d been parented has been the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.

The column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on June 17, 2018.

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