In this post, I want to address some of the more complex psychological aspects of child abuse as I experienced them in the family I was born into and the extended network of child-abuse-enabling relatives.
My profoundly dysfunctional family chooses family members to scapegoat, creates false narratives (in which they absolutely believe) around the scapegoats and then systemically collaborates in the abuse (feeling justified in their actions because the victim deserves it). This type of structure is common in families where severe child abuse is present (you can have a look at my analysis of the Arthur Labinjo Hughes case, but the same dynamic can be seen also in the case of Logan Mwangi).
The most evil, vicious primary abuser in my childhood was my father (I add a boxout to the end of the story describing just the top layer of the incidents I remember without even trying. I am doing that because I am constantly being accused of lying, not remembering it right and exaggerating by my awesome family members, whose were supposed to protect me and take care of me when I was a vulnerable little child and a powerless young person).
Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender (DARVO)
I have always known that my father was abusive, but it took me many years to call it that way. The reason for that is that my father appears to be a DARVO master. DARVO stands for Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender and it’s a form of psychological secondary abuse that comes after the primary act of abuse.
In my family, there are multiple people to whom DARVO comes as naturally as breathing. My father is one of them, but this behaviour has been regularly exhibited by my sister and mother as well (what a hell I grew up in!). If you are on the receiving end of this as a little child, it does have a profoundly damaging effect on your sense of self and reality as such. You are being abused but the fact is being denied by the people closest to you and you are being told you are the problem. On some level you know the truth, but sustained DARVO abuse does create a profound sense of unworthiness and self-doubt that persists into adulthood.
Here is how it works: After an act of abuse, if I tried to call out that act of abuse, my father would immediately accuse me of making false allegations. If you decide to take action after his act of abuse, for example by ceasing communication with him, the story he would tell others is that he has no idea why you are not talking to him, implying that you are the one with an issue.
I will give you a couple of examples: When I was in my early 20s, I terminated contact with him for multiple years after he (once more) told me that I should die. There were some other family members who inquired about the situation, to which my father’s response was that he had no clue why I did that, indicating the problem must have been with me.
A couple of years ago, I confronted him about his abusive behaviour. In his response, he immediately accused me of lying and making false allegations (in spite of the facts that there are witnesses for certain incidents that in a normal society would be more than enough for an intervention by social services).
I am not the only one he used this tactic against. At some point after divorcing my mother (whom he abused to but she chose to forget so that she could be friends with his cousin who enables her alcoholism), he had some sort of a girl friend. She cut contact with him one day and disappeared without a trace. The official story was that he had no clue, she was crazy and ungrateful because he helped her set up some business. It was clear to me that he was abusive to her and that she was intelligent enough to move on.
Learned in childhood and enabled by dysfunctional parents
For many years I wondered whether my father suffers from some sort of a split personality problem and perhaps really doesn’t remember his abusive behaviour, but after much contemplation, I came to the conclusion that the explanation is much simpler: he is a sadistic, toxic, smug abuser and he learned those behaviours in early childhood.
I do see similarities between my father and the narcissist I used to be enmeshed with, a guy who at the age of 30 was laughing about the fact that he kicked a five-year-old girl in the crotch when he was in the kindergarten because hahaha, she deserved it because she was a bitch. My own sister has been exhibiting this behaviour towards me since like the toddler-age. Being the younger of the two of us, she very early developed a habit of accusing me of attacking her and running to our parents whenever there was a problem between us. She learned quickly that my parents would automatically side with her without even looking at the situation and punish me. It really wasn’t a good place to be for me.
There seems to be a tendency in dysfunctional families to create roles for children and treat them based on these pre-defined roles. If you are cast as the problem, you will forever be at fault, if you are the coddled, spoiled one, no matter what you do, you will forever get away with it. It is out of these coddled spoiled ones who always get away with everything that the worst abusers grow.
The shocking thing is how the entire toxic family system conspires to maintain these roles and the narratives attached to them. There is objectively very little positive that one can say about my father. The way he lived his life really has always been about reckless self-serving selfishness. Yet, he has powerful enablers in the extended family, especially his sister and cousins and all the people who are under their spells.
The enablers that protect the abuser
I call these people secondary abusers. When I think about my life and my experience with this family, I am actually coming to the conclusion that these secondary abusers caused me more harm than my primary abuser, my father.
My father is what he is. I have accepted that. There is no hope for him and I am at a stage that when he’s dead, I will feel relief. His abuse of me had to happen because of what he is and always has been, probably since his earliest childhood.
But there are things that didn’t have to happen and shouldn’t have happened. First of all, I shouldn’t have been alone in it. There should have been people who would have asked the difficult questions. Firstly, of course, my mother, but unfortunately, she was abusive in her own right, although she was a victim of my father. She was passing that abuse onto me; conspiring with him in the story that I am somehow a difficult child (I am an unwanted child and they did make me feel that way. All of them).
When I grew up enough to be able to have my own voice and speak about what I had been through, I was several times silenced by my father’s cousin and told that either ‘I have to understand’, or that it really didn’t happen that way, I just ‘perceived it that way’. When I confronted my father about his abuse of me, that information somehow leaked to his sister and was discussed between her and her cousins, who unanimously decided that I have mental health problems and how dare I talk to my father like this.
This bit is extremely shocking, especially because my father’s sister is a retired special needs teacher whose motto, according to her daughter, supposedly is that spoiled children are better than unloved children. Somehow, the abuse of me didn’t count for this aunty from hell.
Growing up on planet disorder
In this DARVO system, roles and preconceived narratives are more important, genuine concern for a child’s well-being doesn’t exist and empathy is absent.
Sometimes I feel like I have woken up from some sordid dream. I do feel that I spent years living on planet disorder, where the only people who had a healthy core were marginalized and pushed aside (those being my maternal grandmother and my paternal step-grandmother, both of whom I remember as very kind, pleasant and caring women, my maternal grandmother especially).
The DARVO bonds of planet disorder are powerful. I am completely alienated from my family for many years because they have to maintain their story. There is powerful narcissism at the core of these personalities, or some form of shared psychosis. It’s like a very deranged cult.
Their aggression towards me is now limited to badmouthing me behind my back, discussing my supposed mental health issues, while not a single one of them has ever reached out to me to check on my supposedly fragile mental health (well, if you have a relative that you CARE about, that’s what you would do. But CARING is not something that a DARVO family does, they just shit-talk you). Neither have they reached out to me to own their role in my abuse and to apologise for being so blind, insensitive and misguided and causing me so much emotional and psychological damage.
Well, my DARVO sister did reach out… She owned that she was deliberately abusive to me, but only to let me know that in her view I deserved it because my existence simply annoyed her so much that she had to slam the door in my face that it almost cracked my skull hahaha so funny it was (no exaggeration here, she really is like that. If you wrote her as a movie character, she would be too much, but she is my real sister).
Now thinking about it, I should probably cherish that one because that’s probably the closest to actual ownership and apology I would ever get from anyone from my family. Attempts at somewhat better behaviour should be rewarded.
The conspiring family cult
Anyway. I am writing all this, because I want people to understand that child abuse really is complex and is not about one evil person in a family. The family cult conspires in the actions and enables the abuser based on some preconceived stories in their heads. If you ever have a feeling that a child is being abused, physically or mentally, don’t take at face value whatever the family tells you. These dysfunctional patterns do tend to run in families for generations. They might be so deeply absorbed by the narratives they have that they have no ability to see what they are doing. These families run on some collective psychosis.
Just to give you an example, my mother’s family of origin was dysfunctional. My grandfather was abusive and everybody knew that. My father’s family is this covertly coercively psychotically abusive type. My father is abusive and everybody conspires to protect him. I hope it’s clear that type A (my mother’s family of origin) is less harmful than type B (my father’s extended family of origin). It is in my father’s family of origin were the tendency to choose family members who will be destroyed by other family members exists. I am not the first one and I am convinced that I will not be the last.
It does appear to me that the true tragedy of my life is that my mother, damaged from her type A dysfunctional family, got essentially finished off in the type B hyper-toxic family of my father. Nothing good in my life has ever come from my father’s relatives and I do wish they had not been in my life at all.
I have a couple of friends that I hugely admire who chose the challenges of single motherhood instead of putting up with toxic abusive men and their toxic enabling families. I do wish my mother had the guts and strength and personality to do the same (and to deal with her issues instead of becoming a boozer and a scapegoater of her own child). Life would have been tough anyway, but it may have been a tiny little bit better.
And here is the list of my awesome memories of my lovely daddy.
I remember being whacked across the face and called a freak when I was like three years old and was crying.
I remember being whacked across the face when I saw my father’s penis as a five year old and joked that it looked like a cow’s udder.
I remember having bruises on my face from my father hitting me.
I remember my father hitting other people’s children. I remember a school friend when I was seven being smacked across the face by him when she said something pretty innocent to my sister. I remember a family friend’s daughter being smacked across the face when she made a correct remark that her mother was drunk.
I remember my father coming into my room without any provocation when I was like 13 to inform me that he wished me to be dead.
I remember my father attacking me on the street in front of our house where I was waiting for a tram. I walked into the road to see whether the tram was coming in the distance and suddenly someone grabbed me from behind and started yelling at me something about me blocking traffic, which was absolute shit.
I remember my father calling me a liar, a junkie and a looser.
I remember my father giving me a box of condoms, when I was 14 and didn’t want to go away for a weekend with them. He treated me like absolute dirt.
I remember my father hitting my mother.
I remember my father threatening my mother during the divorce court that he will not pay her any child support. I remember him doing everything so that my mother couldn’t reach any of the possessions which he had.
I remember him using money that my grandfather set aside for me and my sister for himself.
I remember him smearing my mother and manipulating us against her.
I remember my cousin (my father’s sister’s daughter) telling me how cool my father was and that we had a horrible mother.
I have an email saved of him hurling abuse at me and accusing me of making false allegations after I confronted him about a financial decision that he had made, which led to me and my sister to be kicked out of a substantial chunk of family property. And I know that said interaction was discussed by my father’s enabler toxic sister and cousins, with the trio deciding that I must have mental health problems.