Survivors of any kind of abuse often believe it was their fault. This tendency is in part a very positive sign, even though it is not true and it is not conducive to healing. Eventually, anyone who has been abused needs to allocate the blame to the person or people who did the abusing. But the thought ‘It’s my fault’ is a part of a healthier belief; ‘I can do something about it. I can change this.’ It allows us to go forward into a place where we can make changes. But in the time and place that abuse happened, it happened, and the person at fault is the person who harmed us.
Still, that belief tags along on the healing journey. It’s often worse for people abused as children. This, too, is natural. Not only is it natural, it’s very often a requirement for staying sane until we can get to a place where we can start to heal. You see, for a child, parents/caretaking adults are the core of the child’s world. In a very real sense, children experience their parents or other guardians as god. Adults are the source of food, warmth, shelter, personal contact, medical care, comfort… For the infant, adults are the ones who can pick up a teddy bear or tuck in a blanket, the ones who find, fix, and serve mashed banana or pieces of cereal, the source of changed diapers, the ones who make light and heat go on or off. Take a moment and think about how much everything in a developing infant’s world is controlled by adults. Think about how powerful that makes adults seem to young children.
As kids get older, they learn to manipulate more and more of their environment, but adults are still the ones who really hold the strings. A child can feed themselves pieces of food from a dish – then learn to open a cabinet and retrieve a snack – then figure out how to make a sandwich, to bake cookies, eventually to cook an entire meal (or to still be surviving on sandwiches in college.). But adults are still the ones earning money, going to the store, providing the necessities. Or perhaps they’re not acting as they should, and they aren’t doing these things. Either way, a child is not allowed to open a bank account alone, not allowed to drive, has a hard time reaching tall shelves or holding a heavy dish, and hasn’t yet achieved the coordination to spread peanut butter without tearing the bread, or to cut the core out of an apple without taking half the apple along with it.
That’s just using one need – food – as an example. Children – people – have many more needs, and all of them are controlled by adults. The child’s dependency on adults and their opinion of adults as all-powerful, all-knowing, all-affecting is founded in infancy, when the infant needed help in all ways, at all times.
If a child is hurt and assumes it is his or her own fault, then the world is still safe. Children are used to getting things wrong, sometimes with really lousy consequences. It’s how we all learn. But if a child thinks a parent is at fault, then they are assuming that one of the pillars of their world, one of the people who can do everything, knows everything, is responsible for everything, is wrong. That belief is too scary. How do you, or I, or anyone live with the knowledge that the source of care, of answers, the person who can fix anything, who we completely have to rely on, is at fault? We can’t. Instead, we believe the adult is right, and we are wrong – at least until we are mature enough to care for our own needs. To believe anything else would literally crash the child’s entire world. A child can cope with believing that they are bad or at fault. They cannot cope with believing the people responsible for their continued existence are at fault and are going to continue to do the wrong things.
I’ve known all of this for a while now. My own therapy, and journaling, and reading books, and talking with other survivors of abuse, has given me a different foundation. Part of the replacement foundation for the one that was damaged in my childhood is the knowledge that to survive, I had to believe my parents were right and I was wrong when I was a small child. Another part is that this belief isn’t the truth. I know it in my head. Some days I even know it in my heart. Recently, though, I have been spending time specifically considering how and when and why I have picked up ideas that strengthen the idea that being abused is, or was, my fault.
Right away I discarded the idea that I was told directly that any abuse was my fault. Some people are told straight out ‘you made me hurt you’, or variations of that phrase. I may have been blamed directly a few times, but for the most part, no. Because my biological parents are extremely practiced at living in denial, and you can’t directly blame someone for something that didn’t happen. Nothing wrong, bad, or abusive occurred in my childhood home; (according to them). In fact, they have told me, directly, that they expect me to apologize for saying that abuse did occur. Even with witnesses, even with me put into foster care in my teens, they still expect an apology.
(They can expect as they want, I am not apologizing for doing what I could to keep myself safe, or for telling the truth.)
When I look a bit deeper, though, I see a huge source of blame, and it’s aimed right at me. In order to see it properly, you have to decode the true meaning of some common phrases used by my biological parents. We’ll consider the term ‘mad’ or ‘angry’. This is used in phrases such as; ‘Be good and don’t make daddy mad while I’m at the store’ or ‘Behave yourself in the car, Daddy is already angry today.’ I don’t think that a child should ever be held responsible for helping a parent cope with their emotions. In fact, I believe in the reverse; parents are responsible for teaching their children how to cope with emotions in a healthy way. But I can see where statements like these could refer to just an emotion, not to any behaviour.
In my house, though, they were a code of sorts. ‘Mad’ or ‘angry’ really didn’t have much to do with how much a person felt; it referred to what the person did. If ‘daddy is mad’, it means that he has already yelled at someone, or belittled them, or called them names, or hit them physically, and/or that it is very likely that he will do any or all of these things.
For denial purposes, though, everyone is supposed to remember that everyone gets mad sometimes, that it’s a normal, even healthy, part of existence. Everyone is to replace any inappropriate behaviour they observed with a mental image of someone in control of their feelings and actions who is upset by something logical. Perhaps their child misbehaved, or they are frustrated by being cut off in traffic. Every member of the family is supposed to recall only logical, sane, normal responses to everyday issues.
This is how denial works. (My biological mother, especially, is a master at this.) This is also how blame is built and directed. I can remember warnings piled on directions piled on correction. ‘Be nice to your father, he’s had a bad day.’ ‘I expect you and your brother to behave and not make daddy mad.’ ‘Maybe you can think of something to cheer up your father.’ So many different ways of saying ‘If you’re abused, it’s your fault.’ So many ways that add, ‘If someone else is abused, it’s also your fault.’
When I look at these conversations through my secret decoder glasses… (How cool would it be to have secret decoder glasses?? What if you could see little thought bubbles over people’s heads that said what they really meant?) …I see layers on layers of blame. A lot of it is piled right on me. More is on other siblings. Some is on family who didn’t live in our house. Some is even on people I don’t even know. (It’s the fault of the clerk at the grocery store, the person driving that car in the next lane, politicians, waiters… anyone who did something annoying that day.)
My mother does reserve some blame for herself. She likes to twist her own blame into creative shapes. She should have left the store five minutes earlier so that she had more time to find a good parking spot to pick up my father at the park-n-ride so he could see the car better so he didn’t become angry thinking that she wasn’t there on time. It’s a sort of origami-blame.
NO blame is given to the father. I say ‘the’ father because in this worldview, father isn’t just a designation, it’s a title. This is a very patriarchal worldview – God to Priest/Pastor/ Rabbi/Shaman/etc. to Father/Husband to Mother/Wife to children. ‘Father’ comes highest. Naturally he can not be blamed under this structure, at least, not by anyone ‘under’ him, such as his family.
If you think back to the explanation of just how terrifying it is for a child to conceive of blaming the people who fill the role of ‘god’ – the parents or guardians, the source of everything as the child sees the world – there are some distinct similarities. If the father is the source of finances, the last word on decisions, the person in charge; and the mother is, perhaps, still subconsciously following her own childhood pattern of never questioning the person in a higher position for fear of overturning the entire world; then the pattern, the blame, is passed down as a generational inheritance.
Fortunately, no one has to hang on to things they inherit. Some things come with more strings than others, but if something is too cumbersome or ugly or awkward, it can be tossed away. I don’t need a whole matched set of luggage filled with blame, so I think that’s something I’ll be getting rid of. In my head, it’s already gone. The next step is to keep watch for places where it has spilled over onto my heart, or taken up residence in my pockets, and get rid of that, too.
 For anyone not familiar with a park-n-ride, commuters who need to travel a long distance drive, carpool, or are dropped off at a large parking lot connected to an area where city buses congregate. They get on the correct bus there to ride to their job; hopefully saving gas money, giving themselves time to work on things while they ride, and in the case I’m referring to, allowing another member of the family to use the car.