I have been terribly triggered by the Arthur Labinjo Hughes case. If you haven’t read anything about it, here is a summary: Arthur Labinjo Hughes was a six- year-old boy who was killed by his father’s girlfriend after months of abuse that the two of them called ‘disciplining’. Both, the father and the girlfriend, participated in this disciplining, which involved beating, cursing, forcing the child to stand for hours in a hallway and refusing to give him water in a heatwave.
It’s been a bit of a rabbit hole for me. I really couldn’t stop reading the reporting from the trial. What you find is an excellent (and terrifying) window into the mind and soul of a child abuser.
And that’s why it’s so triggering for me. It does bring back a lot of memories from my own childhood. A childhood of a scapegoat. A childhood of the one labelled as the family problem. A childhood of the one always at fault and therefore always punishable.
So, let’s delve into that. My abuse obviously wasn’t as horrific as Arthur’s. And my heart breaks for him. The worst of my abuse was emotional and psychological with some physical abuse as well (my first childhood memory is being given a cold shower because my parents thought I was crying too much). But I am here, alive, hopefully past the worst of trauma-induced insomnia, depression and CPTSD after years of therapy and self-work.
Dehumanization and vilification of a victim
Based on what you can read from the articles, it is obvious that little Arthur was a designated scapegoat in a pseudo-family unit consisting of his father, his new girlfriend and her children.
It is important to note that Arthur had already been traumatized before. His original carer was his mother, a volatile and unstable woman with a drug and alcohol problem who eventually killed a boyfriend and is now in jail for manslaughter.
Little Arthur was already a survivor of severe emotional and psychological trauma and likely had some emotional and behavioural problems as a result of that.
But here is the thing: Victims of abuse who simply act differently from normal happy go-lucky children (and adults by that matter), do tend to attract more abuse. Society doesn’t tolerate their differences, and so they are in for a merry-go-round of scapegoating and vilification. I wrote about it in this article a couple of years ago.
Based on his trauma-induced behavioural difficulties, little Arthur, who clearly rubbed his father’s new girlfriend the wrong way, was branded a devil and a little Hitler and treated for an extensive period of time in a way that eventually killed him.
It is the vilification and dehumanization of the child that glares at you from the words of the two defendants. Their absolute lack of empathy and care for the child. Their absolute lack of understanding that Arthur is a child and what that means to be a child. I know that all too well.
Personality disordered parents/adults/control-freaks
Families dominated by dysfunctional adults operate like cults. There are those who control and abuse and there are those expected to endure the abuse because they ‘deserve’ it. Those deserving of abuse are the scapegoats.
Parents who use children as scapegoats ( emotional, psychological and physical punching bags) are usually personality disordered, narcissistic or at least very high in narcissistic traits and lack empathy. They can be extremely controlling and expect total submission. The tiniest deviation from the desired behaviour is seen as a massive transgression and punished. Or at least ridiculed and criticized (don’t ever underestimate the power of words in breaking people down).
They don’t understand that a child is a human being who has his or her rights, needs and wants. They don’t understand the difference between boundaries, within which the child evolves, and control and abuse. They see others as projection screens onto which they project their own darkness.
In their brains, they make up the child’s personality and character, and then treat the poor child as this evil figment of their imagination. It’s called projective identification.
And so poor little Arthur was made to stand for hours in that hallway (at six years old), to think about his ‘horrid behaviours’, and starved until he could barely stand on his feet.
They are never wrong
The narrative that the scapegoat is the problem and needs to be ‘corrected’, is fed to everybody in the family’s community. It is fed to the scapegoat. The abusers always thinks they are in the right. They don’t see what they are doing as abuse, they truly believe the scapegoat deserves it. There is no support for the scapegoat because he or she always deserves it. There are few people who can see through the toxic parent’s pity play (they are really good at playing the victim).
I did survive my parents’ aggressions. But I do remember that at the age of 20, I told a psychologist that my father used to tell me to die but that was OK because I deserved it because I was bad. That’s the power of the gaslighting and brainwashing that the child in the toxic family is subject to. If you keep hearing you are bad your entire life, you will end up believing it.
I remember in my 30s being told by my medically educated sister, that I should think about how I behaved towards my father. That his behaviour, telling me to die, whacking me so hard I had bruises on my face, was a normal reaction to my behaviours. Well, if someone keeps treating your sister like a punching bag your entire life and claiming she deserved it, you might end up believing it… My sister certainly did and still does.
Yes, abused children frequently rage against their abusers. So did I and so did little Arthur. Some of them are feisty and not that easily broken into submission. If they were easy to break into submission, they probably wouldn’t be abused. The abuser needs an excuse. The abuser needs to believe the victim deserves it. The abuser must feel absolutely justified in his or her actions and therefore he never regrets, never feels guilty, because the victim deserved it, she or he provoked him. Just like Arthur’s killer step-mother who only felt sorry for herself when confronted with the horridness of her actions.
As little Arthur lay dying on the hallway floor with fatal brain injuries, his father’s girlfriend contemplated for ten minutes whether to call an ambulance, taking pics of the dying kid instead. She couldn’t be bothered with him. He had been too much of a nuisance.
The problem is that to a toxic parent, a child could be a nuisance even if it makes absolutely justified requests. It can be a nuisance if it has problems. I remember when my hair loss first started when I was 14 years old, my mother would smirk and roll her eyes at me, declaring that there was nothing wrong with my hair (how kind and caring). When I finally went to see a psychiatrist at the age of 21 during a serious breakdown, she would call me too sensitive and hysterical (how caring you are mamma…). When I told her I was in therapy in my early 30s, she said she wasn’t happy about it because she didn’t want me to talk about our family stuff with strangers. I could go on for another two pages with experiences like this.
But somehow, they know
I wonder why my mother objected to me seeing a therapist. Deep down, I gather, she knew. She knew she had stuff to own but simply was too cowardly and egoistical to do so, launching into more gaslighting attacks instead (gaslighting is psychological abuse).
It is clear from the questioning of the two abusers of little Arthur that they knew their behaviour was troubling. The father, kindness embodied, had gone to talk to a neighbour to make sure she hadn’t been disturbed by hearing Arthur cry that ‘daddy wants to kill him’. The lovely step-mum had coached her son to claim that he had caused Arthur’s bruises in a play when social workers had arrived to see the family after being alerted by the little boy’s grandmother.
In my family and the wider community of my childhood, no one considered my parents’ behaviour problematic. Everybody subscribed to the notion that I deserved whatever was happening to me. That included teachers, who frequently vilified me and dehumanized me because I did exhibit some behavioural problems (pretty mild, I can assure you), just like little Arthur who had previously lived with a mother turned killer.
Self-harming and self-abuse
To be hated and vilified by your care-givers is a terrifying experience that alters the child’s life for ever.
Shockingly, little Arthur, only six years old, was already self-harming. The evil step-mother, after smashing his head on the floor so hard it caused him ‘unsurvivable injuries’ tried to claim he had caused the injuries to himself. She had him filmed on her phone hitting himself, pinching himself, many times.
The psychology of this is simple. When the very same people who are supposed to protect, love and nurture you, hate you and work towards destroying you, you end up hating yourself. You end up harming yourself. I certainly did. The hatred of those who should have been your loved ones creates a self-destructive energy that is very difficult to contain. It took me years to get rid of it for good.
The funny thing is this: when you grow up surrounded by hatred and volatility, you end up considering it normal. It wasn’t until my mid-30s that started realising that I should have been raised in very different emotional environment. That the people that raised me should have loved me, cared about me and wanted good for me. They should have been upset when I was going through hardships and try to make it better for me, they were not meant to be the source of those hardships, the source of the pain. But instead, I was assigned a role of a punching bag, dehumanized and vilified.
I would be quite rudely attacked by my mother whenever I tried to set boundaries against her drunken antics. Her drinking wasn’t the problem, the problem was that I dared to call that out. It’s only been in the past year that I stopped having panic attacks after setting boundaries and calling out someone else’s toxic behaviour.
When the hatred turns outwards
This dehumanization and vilification of children always has terrifying consequences. Little Arthur is dead. I have spent years dealing with depression, insomnia and complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
But there is also another possible outcome.
There once was a little boy whose mother (based on available accounts) suffered from borderline personality disorder or some other serious mental illness. She hated her son and frequently called him evil. When the boy was three, social services recommended the boy to be taken away from that mother and placed into care. At this tender age, the boy already displayed serious psychological disturbances caused by the traumatic experience of being raised by the hateful deranged mother. The experts were quite certain that if the boy stayed with the mother, it would not end well.
Just before the boy was to be placed into care, his father interfered. That father was estranged from the child’s mother, lived in a different country and had little to no contact with his son. But upon the father’s intervention, the plan was scrapped, the kid stayed with the mother and three decades later committed the worst terrorist attack in the history of Norway. The kid’s name was Andres Breivik.
After Breivik’s atrocious act, his father publicly disowned him, the very same father that all those years ago took away the boy’s chance to experience human kindness, empathy and care.
People get outraged when an abused child dies, they get outraged when an abused child turns mad and turns his or her pain into hatred towards society.
People don’t care too much about those abused children that take their own lives in adulthood or those or those that struggle with depression and other mental health problems. Those are seen as weaklings, playing the victim, the weirdos.
All over the world, victims of child abuse are vilified for being different, told to get over it and move on.
I want to see the day when people care enough about a suffering child that no one has to die, no one has to commit suicide, deal with crippling PTSD or hate society to the level of acting out revenge.
Breivik wasn’t the only child abuse and neglect victim that grew into a murderer. If you have any empathy, you would see the same kind of pattern in the stories of Aileen Wuornos, Charles Manson, or Czech murderess Olga Hepnarova. An abused child has no power to change his or her situation. He or she has no insight and understanding. The scars these experiences create are invisible and snowball as the toxic society further vilifies the victim for his or her differences. It’s up to the society to show care and empathy to abused children and put their needs above the whims and entitlement of toxic adults. It’s time that society showed empathy to those suffering.