The Other I

April 25, 2016

Which lesson have we learned?

One of the most viewed posts on this blog is Why do abused children become abusers? published more than six years ago.  In it I ask why some children who are abused grow up to be abusers themselves.  Would not children who are abused understand above all how painful, destructive, indeed awful abuse is?  Some children do grow up to be loving, caring parents.  But research shows that a surprising number of adult abusers were themselves abused as children.

Among other things, what they so often learned wasn’t that bullying is bad but that it is the biggest bully who gets his or her way.

I have just read another blog post, Are African Americans Our Palestinians?, that has led me to conclude that something similar sometimes happens to whole cultures, or at least sub-cultures.  In Israel today it seems to me that today’s government has come to believe that to achieve that oft-repeated vow, “never again”, it must be the biggest bully on the block.

And do you know who are Israel’s biggest supporters in this endeavour?  The Land of the Free.  The land where immigrants arrived and in the name of Freedom began a program of bullying the natives already living there.  It was effectively a program of ethnic cleansing, eventually reducing the native American Indian population to a mere 5% of its original size.  That lay the ground work for the importation of slaves, who even today in America suffer the effects of widespread prejudice.

We Americans and Israelis are not the only cultures, of course, to develop this pattern of bullying abuse.  Nor are the citizens of any bullying country all guilty of self-delusion either.  But we humans so often see the speck in our neighbor’s eye while missing the boulder in our own.

One further qualification:  I myself have struggled for most of my life over the problem of using brute force.  I do know that punishment is rarely as effective in child-raising or in changing behavior in general as encouragement and reward.  But sometimes it seems to me behavior must be stopped by force.  If force is necessary, I would use it on a two-year-old child heading for an open fire.  I would shoot a man, given the chance, who was threatening to murder his wife.  But would I support sending government troops to defend people threatened by ethnic cleansing?  That gets more complicated, but if I thought I could stop such an outrage, I would.


September 19, 2012


Filed under: Abuse,Just Stuff,Two sides of the question — theotheri @ 2:56 pm

I’ve just finished the novel Look at Me Now by Thomas Hubschman.  It’s a story about victim-hood, though that’s not apparent at first since the novel begins with a women in her early forties finally gaining enough courage to leave her bullying husband of 25 years.  At first, I thought it was another story about women’s liberation after they throw off the yoke of a domineering male.  And in this story, the male was unquestionably a domineering egocentric bully.

But after she has left the relationship, Dierdre’s wounds gradually become apparent.  Although she is often insightful and sometimes generous and caring, she is also short-tempered and judgmental.  Having spent most of her life under the control of either her father or her husband, she’s a blamer, and often finds it difficult to take responsibility for her own decisions.  Which is why, perhaps, she is dangerously close to choosing another domineering partner after leaving her husband.  Like a child, she still seems to be tempted to want someone else to take responsibility for her.

This is not an And-they-lived-happily-ever-after story.  Hubschman’s stories never are.  They are inevitably a chapter in the unending process of a life, leaving the reader to decide how the protagonist will deal with the next challenge that emerges as he or she has dealt with the one in the story.

In Dierdre’s case, the reader is left asking whether she and her new lover can help each other.  Harry himself has struggled, with some insight, into his bullying past.  In my experience, couples like this can sometimes be immensely helpful to each other, able to forgive and encourage, understanding the complexity of a bullying/victim relationship.  Or they can continue to destroy each other.

Whatever else, Look At Me Now isn’t a story about being a victim – when a truly helpless person, often a child, is abused and does not have the means of stopping or escaping from the  abuse.  It’s much more about victim-hood, about abuse in which the abused subtly, though almost always unconsciously, cooperates in the abuse.  It’s an attitude of immaturity in which the victim is old enough and with sufficient resources to stand up to the abuser but fails to do so.

I know it well.  Look at Me Now is about a Jewish women in New York.  But her victim-hood is similar to the Catholic version, and the many varieties with which I am well acquainted.  I suspect it has a great deal in common with all the other versions around the world as well.  Victim-hood occurs more often among women, while the counterpart – bullying – occurs more often among males.  I think this is because, as research shows, young girls read social signals faster than young boys.  We learn more quickly what pleases and what displeases adults around us, so we are more successful at gaining praise and affection for responding to others’ wishes.

That’s fine in children.  It’s as it should be, and can develop into a valuable gift if the child is in a loving family where she can learn to use this sensitivity not only for her own ends but for understanding and supporting others.  But if we become adults and still feel guilty when someone we love is suffering through no fault of ours, something has gone wrong.   This makes it impossible to support the other person as he or she struggles to deal with something that is his or her challenge because the impetus is to take the problem away from him altogether and make it ones own instead.

The relationship really goes wrong if we are unfortunate enough to enter into a close relationship with a man who himself blames us for everything that happens to him that he doesn’t like.  If we cooperate, if, in order to avoid further assault, we silently ascent to his accusations that we are responsible for his temper tantrums, for his infidelities, for whatever has gone wrong, it becomes a terrible partnership.

Because each partner has found a way to avoid responsibility for his or her own choices. The man blames the woman, and the woman feels responsible and guilty – not for her own choices, but for her partner’s unhappiness.

Look At Me Now is great story.  But don’t look for any right answers.  Which, come to think of it, is one of the reasons why it’s a great story.

January 26, 2010

Why do abused children become abusers?

Filed under: Abuse,Just Stuff,Worries — theotheri @ 8:34 pm

Right now the news here in England is reporting a spate of extraordinarily painful revelations about child abuse, including some almost unbelievable stories of children as young as ten who have become vicious abusers themselves.

On first thought, one would think that people who had themselves been abused would be more sensitive, not less, to the pain and damage abuse inflicts.  Once in a while this happens, but more often than not, children who are abused themselves grow up to be abusers.


I think there are three reasons, two psychological and one bio-chemical.

Children who are abused by their caretakers, especially by one of their parents, often convince themselves that they deserve it.  They are abused, they believe — or at least partly believe it – because they are bad.  Awful as this conclusion is for a child, it is less terrifying than believing that it is their parent who is a bad person who does not love them.  Because then the child is absolutely alone, vulnerable and helpless in a terrifying world in which they have no protection, no place to lie down, no food, no guidance.  It is less hopeless for the child to believe that by being a better person he can do something to make things better.  They tell themselves that they are abused because their parent or caretaker loves them and are trying to teach them to be better.

An abused child also grows up to be an abuser because he or she has been taught that it is the bigger bully who gets what he or she wants.  He doesn’t learn from being abused not to abuse.  Just the opposite:  he learns that the abuser is the one people give into;  the abuser is the one who gets what he wants by sheer threat.  So he learns how to be a bigger bully than those around him or her.

And lastly, abused children often have not been given the opportunity to put themselves in another person’s place, to learn to understand what it must feel like to be in somebody else’s position.  There is some evidence that this is not only a psychological difficulty, but is actually reflected in stunted neuro-physiological development.

So I think the judge who looked at a young man convicted today of torturing a darling two-year-old toddler and said he was the epitome of evil was wrong.  I think he was almost certainly an abused child himself.

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