Before I became a therapist, I had a very hard time seeing how one could forgive the abuser of an innocent child. I found it almost excruciating to try to understand the mindset of the person who had harmed an innocent kid, often their own. But once I became a therapist, I recognized that a host of problems in the abuser’s life and upbringing often contribute to their violent behavior. Mental illness, their own experience of prior abuse, their own early childhood trauma, and substance issues can be factors. Sometimes, though, we cannot quite identify what the behavior stems from.
But as Amy Baker and Mel Schneiderman write in Bonded to the Abuser: How Victims Make Sense of Childhood Abuse, no matter what the cause of the maltreatment, there are children who suffer through unthinkable experiences yet still feel connected to their abuser. They often reach out for some shred of love from the very person who has hurt them. Why?
Baker and Schneiderman deftly explore the issue through the stories of survivors and through their own analyses of those stories. And it is an important subject to analyze. In my own work, I have made more than 500 child-abuse reports, also called childline reports, to date. In the United States, we collectively make a whopping three million of these reports each year, and our country is said to have the worst record among industrialized nations, according to childhelp.org. It is even more frightening when you consider that such a report is made every ten seconds. The question becomes: How can we understand what kinds of mental and emotional problems in adults can lead them to mistreat their children, and what kinds of attachment theory can help us parse the unhealthy connection that results?
In the book, Peter, one of the adults who recounts his story of physical abuse at the hands of his parents, realizes that the unbearable beatings from his father occurred only when his father was drunk. “With each lash of the belt,” Peter recalls, “my body swung and juddered as if I was a rag doll being flung about by a rabid dog.” And although it only happened after his father drank, Peter explains, “Violence of this kind seemed normal to me. It was what parents were for, what they did to you.”
In fact, Baker and Schneiderman reveal, in many cases such violence stems from a parent’s own unhealthy emotional and psychological needs. Socioeconomic stressors, lack of education, lack of mental health treatment, lack of social and familial supports: all of these can result in pent-up rage that gets discharged onto innocent children seeking the love of a parent.
And because we only have so many parents in our lives, children of abusive parents still rely on those guardians for support. As Peter puts it, “Stupidly, I looked forward to seeing him. He was my dad and I wanted him to be pleased to see me. The hopefulness that very young children have hadn’t quite been bashed out of me. I don’t know what I expected but I would run to meet him when he came in.”
Here, Baker and Schneiderman provide insight. One explanation is that many of these children are like hostages who have a dependency. As the authors write, “the one who inflicts the pain is the one who can relive the pain.”
This type of bonding, which they refer to as “traumatic bonding,” can happen when a child experiences periods of positive experience alternating with episodes of abuse. By experiencing both positive and extreme negative from a parent, the authors explain, a child can become almost co-dependent. But, Baker and Schneiderman point out, although they compare this to a hostage situation, a child in these cases is different than an actual hostage, in the sense that the child has a pre-existing caregiving relationship with the abuser. So, although for many of us the idea a child bonding with that person may be impossible to fathom, the way that caregiving combines with violence makes separating oneself from the adult very difficult.
In addition, the book explores why survivors often feel the need to understand the reason that they were abused. Baker and Schneiderman write engagingly about this, too. They look at Monica Holloway’s memoir Driving with Dead People, in which Holloway observes her father being social and personable with the neighbors. She wonders why he is so nice to them and yet so terrible to her. Similarly, the authors quote Peter, who says, “I believed it was no more than I deserved and that it was my fault I brought this kind of punishment on myself. I often thought that if only I wasn’t so bad, I would get affection and sympathy.”
In many ways, Peter speaks for the many victims of maltreatment in the U.S. Indeed, most children believe that they are being abused because they deserve it — they think they must have done something to earn the punishment. They experience self-blame, self-hatred, and humiliation as they try to make sense of why they in particular are the victims of someone’s worst behaviors.
When it comes to this difficult but extremely relevant topic, Baker and Schneiderman give us an excellent resource As a therapist, I found their book not only interesting but also necessarily jolting. It can be easy to forget, or to not understand, what happens to the millions of children who are hurt by a disturbed parent. One way to ensure that we contribute to the eradication of child abuse is by educating ourselves and awakening our senses to this very heartbreaking reality.
Bonded to the Abuser: How Victims Make Sense of Childhood Abuse
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, May 2015
Hardcover, 186 pages