Columns 2009

Surviving the horror

Once upon a time many years ago, when I was occasionally motivated to socialize with other human beings after 6 PM, I found myself at a party with a mixed group of Alaska Natives and non-Natives. Some of the Natives were of mixed ancestry. As the evening wore on and more and more liquor was imbibed, voices started to be raised about past abuses to the Native community. Somehow this devolved into a discussion of people’s ancestors. And at some point, one of the full blooded Natives made a comment about the grandmother of one of the people of mixed heritage.  It was followed by a deathly silence as everyone waited for what seemed to be the inevitable fight.

Into the silence came these words, “You weren’t there. You can’t judge my grandmother for what she did to survive.” No fight followed, only a sad silence.

I remembered those words when I read the recent article in the Daily News about Native survivors of abuse.  One of the survivors spoke of telling her mother about the sexual abuse she was enduring only to have her mother slap her and tell her never to speak of it again. I’ve heard those same words before coming out of the mouths of clients I’ve dealt with as a Guardian Ad Litem.

The easiest response to that story is horror at the mother’s failure to protect her child.  That was my initial reaction every time I heard one of my clients repeat some variation of it to explain why they endured the abuse until they were old enough to leave home.

But like the words said at that party so many years ago, you weren’t there. So you should maybe withhold that urge to judgment on the mothers until you fully appreciate the circumstances under which the situation occurred.

Picture yourself a mother in a small village with a family to feed – a small village in which survival is a communal experience.  Without the support of neighbors and extended family, you and your family might starve or freeze to death. Any government authority is hundreds of miles away. What do you do what your daughter tells you that the same man who is your husband’s hunting partner, the same person you and your family depend on to help keep food on the table all winter, is the person abusing her? Do you risk your entire family’s survival to protect that one daughter? Do you risk ostracizing yourself from all you know?

And if you survived this kind of abuse as a child in order for your parents to maintain their stability in village society, and were told that this was just the way it had to be, how are you supposed to know how to stand up for your own child?

Anger at the mother who turns a deaf ear to a child’s disclosure of abuse is a natural and easy response.  Understanding all the forces that shaped that mother into someone who would slap a child and tell them to endure is another whole story. Is the mother frightened for her own safety? Frightened for the future of her other children? Conditioned by her own childhood to endure unspeakable horrors for the sake of the family’s survival?

I’ve worked with these mothers. Most are not monsters but many have monsters within them – monsters bred of a childhood that makes abnormal seem normal and abuse just another part of family life to be lived until escape is possible, whether that escape comes in the form of a bottle, a pill or a life on the streets where a tent vulnerable to hungry bears and human predators still seems safer than a life in a home.

For those who say there is no excuse for not protecting a child from abuse, I ask you to walk a day in the shoes of a mother who daily faces choices that range from horrible to more horrible just to keep her family together.

Abuse in family life is almost always a cyclical phenomenon.  Until we understand that and find a way to bring all into the healing circle – the abusers as well as the abused, those who actively perpetrated the horror and those who kept silent for whatever terrifying reason – we will never end the cycle.