Monday, April 8, 2013

Women and Bullies

I've been planning to write this post for a long time, but had trouble coming up with a structure for it. I'm still not sure, so I'll just put it out there. (Thanks to Katie whose honest and courageous post about her own dysfunctional family gave me the impetus to finally get this off my chest - sorry I can't find the link now. UPDATE: it's here.)

I grew up in an outwardly normal family, but in reality I was in a very abusive situation. Not sexual abuse, but constant physical abuse and a ton of emotional and psychological abuse. My mother was the main abuser, but my father and siblings also played a large part.

I have no idea what started it all - maybe my mother had post-partum depression after I was born. In any case we never bonded, and she never developed any affection for me. For as long as I can remember, I was the whipping boy of the family. My mother had an explosive temper, and I was almost always the one she took it out on.

My mother could also sometimes lash out against the other family members, but she obviously felt guilty afterwards as she had genuine affection for them, and tried to make it up to them. But when it came to me, she had nothing but hatred and rage.

I could do nothing right - now matter how meek and subservient I was, without warning she would start bellowing about how "insolent" and "ungrateful" I was. Then out would come the wooden spoon, and she would keep on beating me until it broke. That woman got through wooden spoons the way ordinary people get through toilet paper.

Try for a moment to imagine how terrifying it is to be a small defenseless child, and have a mad roaring bull of a woman barreling down on you at top speed, her face contorted with rage. Then the pain that you think is never going to end. Over and over again, the sharp agonizing pain until her weapon breaks. Then maybe she gets in a kick or two to the belly before she finally leaves you alone, crying helplessly on the floor in a broken heap, all dignity gone.

I can still show you the physical scars from those years, but the psychological scars run much deeper. To this day, whenever I make a mistake, however minor, I instantly hear my mother's voice bellowing in my ears: "You stupid fool, you're so stupid, you can't do anything right."

Everyone else in the family, including my father, was afraid of my mother. They would join in the jeering and insults she constantly hurled at me. I see now that it was a kind of Stockholm syndrome, but I have a hard time forgiving them for being complicit in the abuse.

A few years ago my mother died. I didn't go to the funeral, and I never shed a single tear. My only regret was that I never got a chance to tell her face to face how much she had hurt me. Not that it would have done any good, in all probability. She was not at all an introspective person but had a rock-solid faith that everything she did was right, "because I said so."

Obviously my childhood has had a major impact in how I relate to people. I've become a master of invisibility, adept at keeping my head down and not drawing attention to myself. Which is a useful skill if you're trying to avoid being beaten with a wooden spoon (or fists and feet) by your mother, but not so much in adult life, especially in my career. Not to boast, but I have a genius-level IQ and a math PhD from one of the top technical universities in the US if not the world - and yet I've struggled through life, eking out an existence on more or less menial computer programming jobs.

I've often wondered how I didn't end up as some kind of serial killer. I don't mean to be overly dramatic, but I've read a lot about the effects of emotional abuse and denial of affection in children. I can only guess that somehow I tapped into some deep well of inner strength that carried me through. There's also been the occasional act of kindness and caring, sometimes from relatives, sometimes from strangers, sometimes even anonymously over the internet.

If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this: don't ever underestimate the value of a small act of kindness. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to put myself out of my misery, but an unexpected act of kindness or a concerned question made me put it off and live another day.

Anyway, my life is more or less stable now. I've been home to visit my father a couple of times since my mother's death, and I've come to realize that he is basically a decent man who was dominated by her, and very much under her thumb. I guess I forgive him in so far as I don't wish him harm. But if I could start my life over again in a different family, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

"So is this why you hate women?"

No, you stupid hypothetical commenter! It's what I hate bullies. And I don't for an instant fall for the line that all women are eternal helpless victims, and all men are violent, rapey and "toxic" in their masculinity. Plus I have contempt for anyone who plays the victim card over trivial slights, whether real or perceived.

There's no neat way to wrap this up, no happy ending - life's a struggle, and you just keep on grinding away until it's over. The best you can hope for is the occasional time when you get caught up in the present moment, focusing so intently on it that you forget the past, and forget yourself. And I'll leave it at that. Thanks for reading, if anyone made it this far!


  1. Stunning..
    I have read a few cases like this in the MRM, and also remember the Gregg Milligan case highlighted by Oprah.. its still stunning every time.
    I wonder if Shrink4Men Dr Tara Palmatier has anything to say on how a mother becomes like this, given that it runs so counter to the hormones supposed to foster a bond. I am an Indian living in the US, and stories of dysfunctional human nature of this magnitude arent heard in India at all. My mom lives with me, and she finds these stories stunning and incomprehensible as well.

    1. I hadn't heard of Gregg Milligan - thanks for mentioning him. I googled him and read an interview where he talked about the love of a pet keeping him sane. I found that interesting because we had a cat when I was growing up, and I felt he was the only creature who cared about me. I remember one time I was lying on the grass in the front yard and he was lying on my chest, and he looked into my eyes and then rested his head on my chest. I thought, wow, he loves me. It was such a novel feeling for me, I still remember it clearly.