Forgiveness, Child Abuse, Dissociation and An Experiment With Gentle Reparenting

As a child of abusive parents, you are faced with a terrible dilemma. If you disown your abusive family, you become an orphan. If you belong to your abusive family, you implicitly condone the abuse. By not forgiving yourself, you are choosing to be part of the family. You are also seeing yourself as deserving of the abuse they meted out, and denying that you are worthy of the love of others.

Precious Daughter, Lois, It’s over twenty-two years since you walked into my office for help with depression , which we decided was secondary to chronic pain brought on by multiple abdominal surgeries. You told me your birth family was “close”. Little did I know just how “close” your family was! Nine years passed, during which you saw me off and on. I didn’t seem to be able to make much of a dent in your depression. Then again, other people and approaches to dealing with pain and depression didn’t seem to help either. There were some indications that your parents weren’t quite as nice as you claimed. For example, they blamed you when a blizzard made you late in getting home, and they seemed to see their own illnesses as more important than yours, but nothing foreshadowed the horror you have described here. Were someone like you to walk into my office today, I would suspect severe abuse, but then, it didn’t cross my mind.

Two events closely preceded the onset of your recovered memories. Like many depressed people, you could not access any feelings of anger. I began suggesting things that would make almost anyone angry, saying, in the first person, “You can rob me and I won’t get angry.” Nothing worked until I said, “You can tell me to spread my legs and I won’t get angry.” At that, you did get angry. On another occasion, you told me the following story about your family: Your sister, then a teenager, wanted some money. Your father agreed to play a board game with her. If she won the game, she got the money. I asked what happened if she lost the game. You told me that, if she lost the game, your father got to spank her. Little did I know what “spanking” meant in your family, but I did suggest that getting pleasure out of spanking had sexual implications. (Note: I did NOT say that it indicated sexual or even physical abuse.) I’m not sure which of these two events precipitated your recalling between sessions that your father had molested you. After that, the memories came thick and fast, getting ever more sadistic and bizarre. You’ve told me your parents said the more bizarre the abuse was, the less likely anyone would believe you.

Though the False Memory Foundation alleges that recovered memories result from suggestion by the therapist, I did not and could not have suggested your memories. Never in my wildest nightmares did I imagine such scenes.

Occasionally, when you had trouble remembering something, you asked me what I thought happened next. Invariably, if I ventured a guess, the missing part then came to you, but it was never what I had guessed. Often it was less severe than I had imagined. For example, they might hit you only once, but tell you how lucky you were; They said they were the kindest parents in the world, that any other parents would have “spanked” you within an inch of your life!

Both your physical and psychological symptoms are consistent with your memories to a degree that could not be just coincidence. For example, your lack of motility of the colon, which provided the rationale for your seven abdominal surgeries, and, which continues to be a problem for you despite the surgeries, is consistent with being made to eat your own feces. If you knew you might have to eat it, you would make Herculean efforts not to produce it! Having been made to remain on your hands and knees for hours, in “tushi-up position”, waiting to be tortured, or while being hit to “make your little tushi red”, it is hardly surprising that you still react with panic to seeing a teddy bear or other stuffed animal face down. Accidentally touching your right ear causes spasms of terror. The same is not true of the left ear. It was the right ear they threatened to cut off if you didn’t kill a cat or dog at their command. When you regressed in therapy, it was always to age five or age two. Later we realized that age five was when you were first made to kill an animal. Much later we realized that age two was when your sister was five and you witnessed her kill an animal! We traveled together to the place you lived from age three to age eight. Everything you had told me about it was just as you had described it, including the way the house was isolated so that abuse could take place without discovery. There is other corroboration, e.g., a childhood friend who remembers that your room was repeatedly filled with teddy bears one week, and bereft of them the next week. Other consistencies are too numerous to mention.

My training had been largely to break through defenses, not to unearth memories, but to get in touch with the feelings associated with them, and the messages learned from them that might still be operative in the present. When we breached your defenses, you became a five-year-old, or a two-year-old, and often couldn’t put the adult back in charge for hours! You can’t tell a five-year-old to drive home, so we were sometimes in my office until the wee hours of the morning! We sought consultation. Dale McCulley (see his response) was most helpful, instructing us over the phone how to keep the adult present while allowing the child to come out. It was important to address the adult directly as the session began, asking her to stay present. During the session, while working with the child part, the therapist frequently had to call on the adult part for comment and advice. When we followed these steps, the adult was able to function when it was time to go home.

While you are clearly dissociative, you do not qualify as a multiple personality. Both the adult and the child parts are clearly Lois. Furthermore, each is aware of the activities and thoughts of the other.

Over some time, I’d been reading about “reparenting” in the writings of Eric Berne and others. I was also impressed by an M.A. thesis on “Gentle Reparenting” by Jeanne Alvin (Goddard College, 1987). You seemed the ideal candidate. After some discussion, we mutually decided to try. It started as an office procedure, but it became more and more real. We were drawn to each other by many common interests and values, as well as the overwhelming struggle we were engaged in, to say nothing of the enormous number of hours we spent together. Gradually, I became “Daddy” outside the office as well as in. In the office, you were able to regress to infancy, sitting on my lap (mighty big baby!) and drinking a bottle. Outside, we went to the zoo, and did other “age appropriate” activities. However, as you “grew up“, it became clear that we had to choose between our two relationships, therapy and parenting. We chose the latter. You went on to a series of other therapists, but we continued the father-daughter relationship we still have today. A few years ago, we formalized it in a Native American “Hunka” (The Making of Relatives) ceremony.

It is often said that those who are abused become abusers. That is a misinterpretation of the statistics. While abusers usually have a history of having been abused, it is not true that most of those who have been abused become abusers. Nevertheless, most of those who have been abused as severely and sadistically as you continue the cycle, according to experts we have consulted. Furthermore, few of those who are not abusers are self sustaining, contributing members of society. They are addicted, in prisons or mental hospitals, or, at best, on disability. You have never felt revengeful, even in your imagination. After your memories returned, you were never able to visualize your father in any activity such as hitting a punching balloon. You said then (and still say) you don’t want to dehumanize people as your parents did to you. Indeed, you are a miracle!

Should you forgive your parents? How can you forgive yourself? A lot depends on what you mean by “forgive”. Of course, you cannot and do not condone what your parents did. However, anyone who has been abused has an enormous well of unexpressed feelings that are controlled by muscle tension. These cause a myriad of symptoms including headaches, arthritis, digestive problems, depression, and anxiety. The list goes on and on. After giving yourself permission to have and express the rage and anguish they produced in you: We screamed, threw playdoh, pushed pillows, and broke garage-sale china. We also had a ritual mourning ceremony for all the animals, real and stuffed, that you were made to kill with your present teddy bears as witnesses. Eventually and gradually you worked through many difficult feelings and are able to go on with your life with fewer periods of haunting flashbacks. “Eventually” is a key word here. A rapid or superficial decision to forgive puts premature closure on a situation, denies your own feelings, and interferes with forgiving yourself.

As a child of abusive parents, you are faced with a terrible dilemma. If you disown your abusive family, you become an orphan. If you belong to your abusive family, you implicitly condone the abuse. By not forgiving yourself, you are choosing to be part of the family. You are also seeing yourself as deserving of the abuse they meted out, and denying that you are worthy of the love of others. (You used to tell me I was crazy for loving you!) As you gradually became ready to accept love from others and forgive yourself, you also became ready to let go of your birth family by forgiving them.

You ask if all criminals and abusers are, emotionally, young children, if any of them have real choices? Certainly, it is true that criminals and abusers are emotionally young children. However, while we do not condemn children for destructive acts, neither do we allow them to continue doing them. We try to help them find better ways to get their needs met. We need to do our utmost to prevent abuse even while we have empathy for the abuser.

Lois, you have worked harder and grown more in therapy than anyone I know. Almost every therapist who has worked with you has commented on how hard you work. Many, many people love you. I am proud of you, and proud of the work I did with you. Once I had a client who said she was my work of art. When I told you that, you said that, if she was my work of art, you were my magnum opus! Indeed, you are. I love you! Daddy.

Written By: Eric Loeb

Initially posted on 1/4/2007

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