A1.1. TO frequently the case of a child dying at the hands of his or her parents reaches the headlines. We read, if we can bear to do so, the sickening details of the child's often prolonged torture and suffering. Maybe, to ease our own feelings, we join in the blaming and scapegoating. We feel relieved that at least the child's agony is now over, and glad when the media move on to their next piece of "news". For it seems unbearable for us to hold onto either the parents' violence or the child's pain.
We need to acknowledge these feelings for they affect our ability to embark on and sustain a discussion on the subject of domestic violence. Personally I find it easier to discuss the violence of nuclear warfare. This is because I can easily distance it by talking about what "has been" or what "might be", or I can put it "over there", or feel that, at its worst, it would involve everyone, even me; and as an equal victim my feelings of responsibility and guilt would somehow be drowned in my own suffering and death.
The great difficulty of this subject of family violence is the "close here and now" reality of it, as well as its nature. The "now" is that each week a child dies at the hands of its parents, and for each child that dies there are thousands who are being verbally torn apart, or physically assaulted, or sexually abused.
The "here" is that it happens in houses we pass, or in streets where we live, in neighbourhoods and communities of which we are part. And although few children die as a result of what happens, many die emotionally and shuffle out an existence of sorts in our mental hospitals or on our streets.
Others manage to go through life with the appearance of living like other people. Only their lack of real relationships, the deadness in their eyes, or the complete absence of any joy give the lie to this. All children who survive physical and sexual abuse do so to reach adulthood damaged and crippled emotionally, with difficulties in trusting and relating to others.
This particularly affects their relationships with those who have any authority over them or with those emotionally close to them. Their marriages and their relationships with their children are characterised by violence and abuse, leading to yet another generation of abused children. What can the priest do? One thing I hope he will not do is to wash his hands and say that this never happens to children in his schools, with parents in his parish, his community. Unfortunately our Catholic child-care agencies make us know otherwise.
Of course even if this were the happy state of affairs it would surely be no comfort since each victim (and the aggressor is also a victim) is a child of God and for some reason God has chosen to depend on us to act out for Him His compassion, His concern and His love.
-But I begin with this not because I think priesjs are in particular need of encouragement to take up this responsibility but because the earliest research into this subject taught us that one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome was professionals' disbelief that it happened. Doctors, nurses, social workers believed all sorts of explanations as to how injuries had arisen . . . explanations which intellectually made little sense, because emotionally no one wanted to believe the reality of what was being presented to them.
More recently the same thing has happened about sexual abuse and incest. So we need to be on our guard if we find ourselves saying "Oh no, they wouldn't, they couldn't" or "Oh no, not so and so". Or if we dismiss adults' accounts of their childhood assault or sexual abuse as fantasy. 1 think we have sometimes made the mistake of thinking it is "Christian" to give the benefit of the doubt. But that enables us to love without cost. The real test is to know the truth and still love . . . that's the difficult one, especially in this area.
On the whole the body grows to adulthood whatever happens, and so when you look at a "grown-up" you see an adult. However, if as children they did not get the kind of things children need to grow emotionally and to mature, then their "child" will have got stuck somewhere . . . though now in an adult body and acting through it.
For example, you might be looking at a neglected, crying "baby" who never seems to have had enough, who is constantly
Beverly Lorrington, mother of the murdered Jasmine Beckford, whose case reached the headlines recently. Was she just as much a victim as her
searching for the bottle to take away the empty feeling.
Such a "baby" will have little idea of anything beyond the satisfaction of his or her own needs, and not even have a concept of you as a person with needs of your own (even for food or sleep!), i.e. just like a baby.
If you can see the behaviour in this light then you are less likely to get caught up in its unattractiveness, its inconvenience for you, and react with rejection. It might even help you to know the most appropriate way to respond.
What specifically has happened to parents who batter their babies or physically or sexually assault their children? Invariably they are repeating what has happened to them. They might not have a conscious memory but their bodies remember, their feelings remember. In fact they seem driven more powerfully when they have no conscious memory, and therefore have no idea why they feel driven to act as they do.
For example, the crying of the baby stirs and awakens long-forgotten feelings associated with their own desperate and despairing crying. They cannot bear to be put back in touch with this pain. Before they know it they are stopping the pain in the way it was stopped before for them . . . by battering their baby into unconsciousness and silence. Why? Logically one would imagine that no one who has suffered that pain would inflict it on their own children. It is to do with avoiding their own unbearable pain. _
Children adopt various measures to cope with these situations of pain. One is to try quickly to wipe out the memory of it. When it is not actually going on they try to forget that it happened, and might happen again, since to live in conscious fear all the time is almost impossible.
Another thing they do is to "go out of their bodies", split off from their bodies in an attempt not to feel what is happening to them.
Children who are constantly abused throughout childhood often end up as adults who can no longer feel. I understand from them, and can imagine, that not to feel anything at all is the most terrifying and lonely experience of all.
Such people might cut themselves or assault themselves in a desperate effort to feel something. When you are cut off and cannot feel you can also inflict pain on other people since you cannot identify with what they are experiencing.
Children identify with their parents as a way of coping with their pain. It feels marginally better to imagine that the parents are somehow right to do whatever they are doing. It is easier for children to consider that they are the bad one and that parents are right to punish than to bear the awful truth that the parents do not love them.
And so it is the parent who as a child wiped out his or her pain, identified with the abusing parent, or cut off from his feelings and who cannot now bear to get back in touch with his own emotional pain who can become in turn an abusing parent. If parents can bear to get back in touch with pain they felt as children then they will be able to identify with their own children and be unable to inflict such injuries.
So how can an environment be provided in which it is possible to go back and face the pain of an appalling childhood, hold that, and not continue it into the next generation?
I think that life has to be less deprived and safer in the here and now before it is possible to have the space and energy for dealing with past pain. if it is as bad now as it was then, then all the emotional energy will be needed for mere survival. This is why bad housing, unemployment, large families with little money and all the deprivations which follow, while they do not cause family violence, increase the chances of it in families where it already exists and militate against the posibility of recovery from it.,
So too does more emotional rejection, more battering and punishment of the abusing parent . . . since this is what caused the problem in the first place. Early research evidence showed that if social workers entered the scene with an attitude of critical watchfulness or punitive supervision then the chances of battering actually increased. The children were in fact safer without any intervention than with intervention of this kind.
This does not of course mean that intervention is not absolutely necessary. Very often the children will have to be removed for their own safety, either for a shorter or longer period. But the removal must not be carried out as a punishment of the parent, but for what it is . . . a protection for the child.
If possible the parents must be helped to see this. For what the parent needs if he or she is to face how painful it was not to be loved by their parent when they were a child is a loving and caring relationship now. The abusing parent needs to experience and internalise all the things they never received . . acceptance, being valued, dependability, consistency, honesty, care, concern, discipline. They require for themselves the experience of good, nonviolent parenting, so that this model can be internalised and drawn upon when parenting their own children. Most "good enough" parents intuitively respond to their children's needs and rightly assess as their children get older the amount within their capacity.
The violent adult has missed out on this maturing process. There was a fundamental misjudgment about what he needed and what frustrations he could tolerate. His care was often so erratic and inconsistent that he felt, and indeed had, no control over what happened to him. As he could not control this by his own behaviour, since there was no consistency or sense in it, he was left with feelings of impotent rage . . . feelings he no doubt acted out as a child and saw being acted out by his parents or caretakers.
What is all this to the priest? Well, he is called "Father" and needs to know that people will respond to that title differently, depending on their experiences. In his relationships he has the opportunity of providing a corrective experience for those who only know father as depriving, inconsistent, critical, violent.
Ideally his Christian community is the very place where people could expect to be healed since it is the place where they should find all the qualities they need in order to be healed . . , forgiveness, acceptance, patience, gentleness, kindness, compassion, love.
If our Christian communities worked as we would wish, then they would indeed be places where the sick members of the body received assistance and help from the stronger members. Spiritual and psychological truths are not in conflict. They are the same. A truly Christian community would be a therapeutic community of the highest order.