HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Cynthia Jeub’s blog CynthiaJeub.com. It was originally published on October 6, 2014.
< Part One
“How can I pretend that I don’t see
What you hide so carelessly?
…It’s not what it seems
Not what you think
No, I must be dreaming…
Help, you know I’ve got to tell someone
Tell them what I know you’ve done
I fear you…” -Evanescence
I have blogged very little about my family, even though I know many of you follow me because you’re interested in what a girl with fifteen brothers and sisters has to say.
I never thought of much to write about. My family felt normal to me. There was nothing deeply introspective or philosophical about it. My lifestyle was intriguing for people because we were different. That’s all.
Recently, the trending hashtag #WhyIStayed gave domestic violence victims a chance to tell their stories. They piled in by the hundreds – women and men explained how spouses, significant others, and parents had abused them. I chimed in with this tweet:
The most informative thing I first saw about domestic violence was Leslie Morgan Steiner’s TED talk, “Why domestic violence victims don’t leave.”
In it, she says that when we ask why the abused people don’t leave, we’re asking the wrong question. Such a question blames the victim for being in the situation. She also tells her own story, and says she didn’t know it was happening.
Her husband beat her, but she didn’t think of herself as a battered wife. That’s how many, many victims feel before they get out. Abuse is the norm, especially for children raised in abusive homes. Some abusers may even tell their victims that it could be worse, and abuse is what happens in other homes, but not here.
Often, victims don’t realize it’s a problem until the breakthrough moment. For me, the breakthrough was a few things – being told that I couldn’t live in my parents’ house anymore was one. For Steiner, the breakthrough was “a particularly sadistic beating.”
Every morning I wake up and think, “How did I never see it before?”
Some days, I have trouble getting up in time for work. It’s debilitating to look at my past as something different than what I thought it was.
Nobody has to ask me why I never said anything about my past in abuse. I ask it of myself, and I question my own sanity. I trusted my parents completely, and I couldn’t identify manipulation or emotional abuse. I was physically abused, and I don’t just mean that I’m opposed to spanking.
I didn’t know I was abused. For every violent incident or when my parents lost their tempers, I had three options. First, I could blame myself and assume I deserved it, or that one of my siblings deserved it. Second, I could see this instance as isolated and minimal, totally out of character, and thus erase my logical ability to recognize patterns. Third, if the first two options didn’t work, my parents apologized profusely and demanded forgiveness, which meant I could never bring it up again.
The life of abuse isn’t full of anger, getting thrown and smacked and bruised, and being yelled at and torn down. That’s only part of it. You also feel special and needed. You don’t feel like life is hell, even if it is, because you know how to force a smile. It feels good to damage your own health and wellbeing for your abusers, because you’re told that you’re doing what is right. You fight for acceptance and admonition, because you’re always getting small tastes of it, and it’s always just out of reach.
The breakthrough moment isn’t the only reason domestic violence victims don’t leave. They also stay in their situations because they feel trapped. Once they know what’s going on, it’s unsafe to leave.
The reason it’s unsafe is because nobody knows about it, and if you speak up, the perpetrator threatens and punishes.
I wasn’t safe to talk about my family life until now. I had to get a new bank account, so my dad could stop financially abusing me with easy transaction-making access. I had to get my own car, so my mom could stop using rides to my much-needed mental health therapy as reason to tell me I was ungrateful if I stepped out of line. I had to buy my website’s domain name from my dad so he couldn’t delete my blog for prying the mask off my family’s face.
These stories have always existed. I was taught to tuck them away as if they never happened. To speak of them would be unforgiving.
There’s so much to tell. I’m assuming that those of you who don’t know anything about my family can use Google to fill yourselves in on what I’m referencing. My parents love the spotlight, so it’s not hard to find the pieces.
Ages will be estimated. Because my parents deny so much of what happened, I can’t confirm exactly when certain events occurred. I’ve chosen to include specific ages for the sake of narrative.
Also, I want to say a thing about abuse. I am not labeling everything in the following stories as abuse. Some things are abusive, some things are just a little weird, and some things are totally common. “Bad” and “common” are not mutually exclusive terms, but I want to be clear that I don’t classify everything my parents ever did as abusive.
Never letting my older sister and me grow our hair very long, and pressuring my sister who wanted short hair to keep it long, was bizarrely controlling. It was just a piece, a detail, of how our bodies were not our own.
But the time my mom grabbed my ear as a small child and threw me on the hard wood floor so my head rang, or the time my dad hit my sister over forty times with a belt not as punishment, but because she had a rebellious spirit, or when my brother wasn’t allowed to attend his regular extracurricular activities for a couple of weeks so nobody would see the bruises my mom left on his face…I think it’s fair to call those things abusive.
I’m just telling stories about my past, so there’s a mix of everything: the abusive, the controlling, the bizarre, the good, how I dealt with it, and how I see it now. I’m undecided on a whole collection of things. Parenting, for instance, is something I can only write about as someone who well remembers being a child, not from the perspective of a parent.
I predict this, and some of it has already happened since Friday’s teaser: people will say it’s disrespectful to put these stories on display. Others will say I’m complaining about things that aren’t a big deal. Still others will discredit my voice because I sound angry and hurt, as if the people who’ve been hurt have no right to speak up about what they’ve experienced. I will be, and have already been, accused of lying. I’m prepared for all of these things.
You have to reassure people when you’re talking about such things, so here’s that reassurance: I have a great support system from friends since losing trust in my parents and connection with my siblings. Yes, I have friends who disagree with me, so I have accountability. Yes, I’m prepared for being accused of slander and I can back up my claims. I’m moving forward in my career, and I’m in mental health therapy. I am living in a safe place.
I hope my stories are redemptive.
People who discredit you for sounding angry and hurt have no goddamn concept of why these emotions EXIST. You were hurt. You have the right to be fucking angry as you unpack your childhood and find all sorts of nasty little memories. You were denied the sweet, happy childhood that people imagine and you are right to be pissed.
The end. Before I go into a hulk!smash rage.
Sorry all that happened to you. Sending hugs.
When people tell you to STFU, don’t listen to them. You have a right to talk about what happened to you.
One reason some folks might not want to hear this, is because they knew your parents, and they seemed like ‘such nice folks’ and they can’t picture them doing such things. It’s as if abusers are supposed to ‘look different’ instead of like everyone else.
Or they imagine that abused folks ‘look a certain way’ and you don’t seem abused. Or they can’t imagine that happening to anyone they know.
Anyway, sending hugs and best wishes for a good, happy rest-of-your-life.
Considering the things you are describing, I feel like you come across as pretty emotionally in control. Maybe that’s just me.
as a mom to eight kids who “met” your mom online, i am sad by these stories, but not sad at you, or mad at you. You have the right to tell your stories – they belong to you. I will pray for you, and for your family. And I’m so sorry that things like this have happened to you.
You know who makes the best mom? The daughter who vividly remembers what it was like to be a child! You know who makes the best dad? Sons who devote themselves to keeping their promise, “When I have kids, it will be different because I won’t treat my kids like this.” Empathy makes better parents!! Never forget those promises, devote yourself to hearing and validating rather than controlling and enforcing – your children (should you choose to have them) will thank you.
I experienced many of the same things you did, Cynthia. I kept quiet for over four decades, for fear of hurting my parents reputation at first, and then later for fear of reprisals. Stick to your guns. Tell your story. The truth matters, and the truth is all we have.