Posted by: Marie | February 5, 2010

(243) Holding them responsible

Post #243
[Private journal entry written on Sunday, October 18, 2009]

Earlier this week, a post was published on my blog that talked about how survivors often minimize what happened. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote in that post about my parents’ physical abuse of me:

Yes, I rationalize my parents’ behavior because I totally understand why my parents did what they did. It was the best they knew to do and they did it out of love. They both came from very abusive families and they made a conscious choice to do better – and they did do much better than the example they had been given. Not only was the abuse significantly less, the “punishments” were mostly done out of love and not out of anger, meanness or drunkenness.

My friend, Evan, submitted the following comment in response to the post:

I guess rationalising is explaining away rather than explaining.

I really have very mixed feelings knowing that the abusers were behaving better than their abusers behaved to them. This is awful and horrible, a dreadful thing to have to come to terms with.

My response to Evan’s comment was:

Wow . . . your sentence, “I guess rationalising is explaining away rather than explaining” really hit home for me. That seems like the piece of the puzzle that was missing for me.

It is a bit tough for me to read the word “abusers” in your comment in reference to my parents – I know there was abuse, but I haven’t been able to call them abusers.

Thank you for your compassionate words . . .

(On a side note for those of you in the United States . . . no, we are not spelling the word “rationalising” incorrectly . . . Evan lives in Australia and that is how Australians spell it . . . )

I have been thinking some more about this exchange with Evan. I do have trouble holding my parents responsible for their behavior.

They believed the best way to keep a child on the straight and narrow was to beat sense into him or her – and to keep hitting and whipping and slapping until the child’s spirit broke and he or she became compliant.

Photo by Martin Chen

Inside my head, I fought back – hard. I refused to cry and my dad took that as a sign my spirit hadn’t been broken. Finally, he would win and I would cry.

At one point – and it would have been about the time I was being molested by “X” (about age four) – I would get so scared about being whipped that I’d pee my pants. My dad quickly learned to make me go to the bathroom first – then whip me.

I remember watching my 18-month-old niece get into trouble with my dad. She disobeyed him so he spanked her. I remember thinking, “You’ll learn . . . that’s what happens when you don’t do what you are told to do! You’ll learn! It’s what happens around here.”

My brother and I got it the worst because we were defiant. My two sisters were much more compliant. Shortly after I started therapy with Mark last year, I mentioned to my sister that I was having trouble dealing with my anger about the physical abuse. She looked at me with a strange look . . . she doesn’t remember there being much hitting. She asked, “So, where was I when this was going on with you?”

I don’t know how she didn’t see it. I know she didn’t get hit much because she did what she was told to do – and she always made a point of reporting to mom and dad when I wasn’t following the rules. She avoided the punishments most of the time.

Maybe she didn’t know that I got hit so much because dad always took me into the bedroom to do the hitting – or maybe he did it when she wasn’t around. I don’t know. I’m not sure she even believes me – maybe she thinks I’m exaggerating. But, my brother believes me because it happened to him, also. He knows from first hand experience.

I know my parents were doing what they thought was best for us. But, it surely must have crossed their minds more than once that there might be a better way. Surely common sense told them that it was not healthy for a child to have her will broken as if she was a wild animal – for that matter, what sense does it make to break the will of any living creature, human or otherwise?!?!?

No wonder I have a neurotic need to maintain perfect control! It was the only way I had a fighting chance of being perfect enough to survive my childhood.

The only touch I had with my dad was a random quick hug . . . and the beatings. No wonder I now crave physical touch from men.

I was told I ought to be thankful that I was growing up in such a good family.

I can be thankful for some things about my growing up – I had a roof over my head and food on the table and I was physically safe most of the time. There were good parts – good parts punctuated by hellish parts.

I have a feeling this is going to take a while for me to get my head around this whole issue. In looking back at Evan’s comment, I can see how I am trying to make sense of it all – I’m not rationalizing or explaining it away, I’m not saying it was okay. Rather, I’m trying to understand how two really good people who loved me dearly could abuse me in so many ways.

Maybe the conflict for me comes from not knowing what it means to “hold them responsible”. Does that mean I’m supposed to be angry at them, say nasty things to them or their memory? Am I supposed to confront them? Am I supposed to write out in great detail everything they did to me and how it currently affects my life?

Does it mean that, if I can find a way to let go of the anger, I am no longer holding them responsible?

Maybe I need to answer those questions first.


  1. Hi Marie, these are really difficult things I think.

    I remember a friend of mine who was working in welfare housing. She was supervising a person she knew well who had stuffed up badly. At one point she said to her friend something like: I understand you were unsupported, that the demands on you were huge – and WHAT THE F*#K DO YOU THINK YOU WERE DOING?!!! I wish I had the presence of mind to say things like that.

    I hope you have or can find people to help you work through this stuff. I don’t think there are any general answers.

    • Hey, Evan –

      I, too, often find myself wishing I had the presence of mind to say what I was really thinking or feeling . . . it is one thing to think clearly in the secrecy of my own mind . . . but to let it go out into the world is a whole other level of confidence!

      – Marie

  2. I was extremely upset about that particular blog entry. The particular sentences you quoted had me shaking. I’m glad that Evan said something that made you think deeper about those statements. Did your father sincerely make a conscious choice not to be as abusive as his parents had been if he knew you were terrified enough to wet your pants?

    “Not only was the abuse significantly less, the “punishments” were mostly done out of love and not out of anger…”

    There is nothing loving about abuse. Even if the abuse was “significantly less” how could it have been done out of love? Whether it is done “out of love” or out of anger, an innocent child is still at the mercy of a bigger, stronger adult. Abusing a child out of love is no better than abusing a child out of anger. Abuse is abuse. My father was brutally abusive because of his uncontrollable temper. If I had known that I was being thrown across the room because his motivation had been love, it would still have been abuse, it would still have hurt, and it would have been just as wrong as if he had done if out of anger.

    I apologize if it sounds as if I’m attacking you, because I don’t mean it that way at all. I’m looking at your statements as they apply to my circumstances and the cirumstances of many of the abusive survivors whose blogs I read. You love your parents and feel they love you in return. Perhaps if I felt that way I would react differently.

  3. I just reread this entry and realize in my “upsetness” I should have read it a few more times before I commented. I’m sorry. When I first read it I had taken from it that you were thinking about what Evan said. When I read it again, I realized that you were doing the kind of thinking that hurts…and that you were also questioning. I sure wish you had a delete button for commenters who want to remove their comments!

    • Hi cookie –

      I can delete your first comment if you really want me to . . . however, I really appreciate the raw passion it contains . . . I really would like to keep it up.

      You said things in that first comment that I wish I were ready to say myself. I’m not there yet — and it is so awesome to have someone nearby who can say them on my behalf.

      Thank you for your passion and your honesty . . .

      – Marie

  4. Maybe the conflict for me comes from not knowing what it means to “hold them responsible”

    I think it can mean many many things. I think one of the most important things it means is to correctly identify where your defining beliefs and wounds came from. Because, like all abused children, you arrive in adulthood thinking they were the inevitable result of your inherent badness. And that’s not the case at all.

    The reason to identify the ways in which parents contribute to our defining wounds is *not* to blame them, although once those things are clearly identified, there will be present-day anger to work through. The reason is more along these lines:

    Let’s say that during your childhood, your parents told you the earth was flat. You became so deeply convinced of this that other people didn’t bother to contradict it. Suddenly, in adulthood, you are confronted by someone who proves to you, with empirical evidence, that the earth is round. You are horrified and embarrassed that you thought the earth was flat all these years. You have two choices: you can decide it’s your fault that you thought the earth was flat, or you can correctly identify the source of the misinformation, and know it’s not your fault, and not really about anything you did.

    You wouldn’t be blaming your parents for telling you the earth was flat — clearly, that must have been what they thought, for whatever reason — but you would be recognizing that your view on the world was shaped by them, and that it’s not correct.

    That’s what we do in therapy as adults. I arrived in adulthood with the belief that bad things will happen to punish me if I am happy. This is clearly a nonsensical belief, since I know plenty of people who are happy and who don’t get punished. But in looking back through my life, I see that the reason I think this is because my father actually did this to me … he managed to break and soil everything that made me happy. And I could go on about the probable reasons why he did this, but that doesn’t matter; it doesn’t matter whether he did it out of hate, or out of misguided love.

    What matters is that I am able to see he is the source and origin of this belief which stops and hurts me in my adult life. I cannot begin to work on letting go of that belief until I know where it came from and why it is incorrect.

    • Hey, David –

      I sure hope you are capturing all this wisdom and clarity in a book . . . you really have some great stuff to pass along!

      I really like what you have written here . . . I’ll have to put some more thought into it . . . I’m sure I’ll be writing more about it . . .

      Thank you, so much!

      – Marie

  5. (And incidentally, I consider you to be “in therapy” although your process is self-guided.)

  6. Wonderful post. You capture beautifully the dilemma we face. Ultimately I let go of my anger at my parents–in large part because I understood how they had been abused, too. THAT DOES NOT MEAN I CONDONE WHAT THEY DID! Nor does it mean I felt I had to continue to expose myself–or my children!–to them. I could walk away in love knowing they never stopped being in pain but I can be.

    • Hi, AO –

      It sounds like you have done some great healing . . . I’m glad you have found peace in this matter.

      Thank you for the input — it is so valuable to hear how others have dealt with this dilemma.

      – Marie

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