A model family in a small Midwestern town in the 50‘s and 60‘s, we had all the right stuff: a nice home in a comfortable quaint neighborhood; a family business that benefited the entire community; and a father who was well-respected, a prominent businessman who served on the city council and the school board. We were members of the local Country Club. Attending church every Sunday, we were the talk of the town-four sisters-with our matching outfits and beautiful red hair. Everyone made such a fuss over this model family. Our Saturday nights were all about getting ready for Sunday with mother spending hours curling our hair while we watched Lawrence Welk on TV...all the right stuff.
As a child, the third of four daughters, I remember being carefree and happy, especially when the chores were done and it was time to go outside and play! Having a passion for the outdoors and that feeling of abandon offered by the wind blowing in my face, I rode my bike or ran just about anywhere I wanted to go in our little town. I loved to climb trees and walk in the summer rain, splashing in puddles along the way, or rustling through a pile of leaves on a beautiful fall day. I had a zest for life and a curiosity about anything unknown, with a burning desire to learn and explore and a boldness to go after something until I understood it or captured it. In everything I did, I challenged myself to do it the best I possibly could. Practicing until I could practice no more, I was driven to perfect whatever it was I was trying to learn, whether it was something just for fun like whistling or trying to beat my record number of jumps on a pogo stick, or something a little more serious like perfecting my diving skills at the local swimming pool after hours or rehearsing Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune for my most difficult piano recital. Looking back now, I realize that I had an extraordinary drive and an adventurous, bold spirit that would not give up easily. I didn’t know at the time that this was my gift. I didn’t know that it was special. Nobody ever told me.
Oh, I remember people telling me I had a beautiful smile. They noticed that I was always happy and they hoped I would never lose that. But my smile was masking something else below the surface. Something was amiss in my carefree world…in this “Leave it to Beaver” family. Something the community didn’t know. Or did they? We kept it well hidden. It was our secret. Our model family was not so perfect after all. Occasionally I thought there must be somebody in town who knew. Surely, there was some little telltale sign that something was wrong, but perhaps they chose to ignore it. It was not appropriate to talk openly about such things back then. Teachers, neighbors and friends turned a blind eye and pretended it didn’t exist. Besides, it was none of their business. And so the myth of the model family was perpetuated by another generation of onlookers who preferred to live in denial. This “happy” child had another story to tell.
I often wondered if everyone else had the same experience in their own families. Did their fathers rule the household with an iron fist? You know, “old school” style. This is normal, right? Was there yelling and screaming every time they did something out of line? Were harsh words and insults thrown at them with sharp precision like darts aimed at a designated target? Was the dinner table a place of cruel discipline, when slouching in your seat meant you got a yardstick down your back? Or when a spilled glass of milk or an elbow on the table brought on the insults to your intelligence once again? The tension at dinner would often escalate to a dramatic tirade which ended with me crying. And with a knot in my stomach, I would be forced to finish my meal without speaking, choking down the food, all the while just wanting to escape to my room for solace.
Was it normal for a father to tell their child that they were a disappointment? To state over and over again “You have nothing but rocks between your ears!” Did all children receive such harsh criticism every time they made a mistake? “What’s the matter with you, are you really that stupid!” was a statement often hurled in anger and frustration when typical childish behavior created an undesired outcome. Was this the way all children were treated? It didn’t seem right to me. I knew in my innermost being that something was wrong in our family. The way he made me cry so often, hurting me with his insults and angry criticism, all the while following his harsh words with “You know I love you.” What? How could this be? It didn’t make sense! “I love you” and “you are stupid” don’t go together. Regularly whipping me with a leather belt like some pathetic creature or banging my head against the wall in an attempt to “knock some sense into me” do not translate to “I love you.” I knew this much to be true!
I don’t remember exactly when it all began. Somewhere in the dark corners of my mind, there is a vague memory of a specific incident of ridicule and humiliation when I was around 5 years old, but I feel as if I was afraid of him all my life. Looking back, the most serious incidents may have been infrequent, but it really didn’t matter. The insults carried much power regardless of how frequently or infrequently they occurred. And there was always an underlying fear that it could happen again at any moment without warning. What would be the trigger that would set off the next explosion? Checking his mood whenever he walked in the door or sensing the environment whenever I arrived home became a habit. Keeping my radar on while in his presence was automatic. It never went away. My sensitivity to the atmosphere in the room was sharp – always on guard, I was ready to flee at the slightest sign of a meltdown.
Learning to tiptoe around and telling lies to avoid the unpredictable eruption of vile words and sometimes physical punishment, became the norm in our household. It was a defense mechanism we all employed. Never knowing whether a certain behavior or mistake would set him off, we tended to hide and cover up as much as we could, even insignificant things. It was just understood, it was a way to survive. I could never tell when it was coming. There were times when he surprised me and didn’t react at all to something I thought would surely get his ire up. And then the very next day, something relatively minor would bring on the rage. How does a child live with that uncertainty every day? By holding one’s breath…or not breathing at all as long as he was in the room. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought there was a possibility he would go too far one day…and what would happen then?
Growing up, I didn’t really know for sure if our “model” family was like other families. I wanted to ask my friends, but somehow I understood this was a family secret that I was not supposed to tell. This unwritten rule was never spoken - just assumed. Finding escape and solace in daydreaming, spending as much time at a friend’s house as I could, staying away when he was home or climbing my favorite tree to hang out and watch the world go by, I wondered what it would be like to be part of a “normal” family. My sister and I would spend hours talking about our pain and anger, expressing our desire for him to go away. How that would happen didn’t much matter, as long as he was gone. I thought certainly this would bring peace to our family and I could relax and be myself without feeling like there was something fundamentally wrong with me…that I was somehow flawed…that God made a mistake in creating me the way I was.
I’ll never forget the fire in his eyes or the sting of his words, the hurtful way he lashed out with his cutting remarks. It was as if his intention was to make me feel as small as he possibly could - to belittle my very being and strip away any sense of worth I might have in me. What did I do to deserve this? I must have done something besides what he got angry about, because such a minor thing should not have stirred such rage. A strong sense of helplessness pervaded my life, unable to control my surroundings and feeling stuck in a situation I could not change. I knew with every ounce of my being that this was wrong and I made a vow to never, ever treat my own children this way!
Sometimes I asked myself why my mother didn’t do anything about it. But most of the time I think I understood. He held our entire family emotionally captive. He wielded the power and he controlled us all with his rage, even those who were not his primary targets. I was aware that my mother felt frustrated with the situation, but she also did not have the strength to fight with him. He was too powerful and intimidating. His very presence changed the atmosphere in the house. There were times when he would be raging at me in the living room, and I could hear my mother banging pots and pans around in the kitchen out of sheer frustration. Later on, after being sent to my room in tears, she would come to comfort me and try to help me understand why he was the way he was. My innocent young mind couldn’t grasp the adult concept of stress and worry; however, this was the excuse made on his behalf.
One blessing in the midst of it all was that my mother shared her faith in God’s love with me during these private talks. I would draw on that faith during some of the darkest times in my life. As a child, I had a little plastic cross on my nightstand that glowed in the dark. I often looked to it for comfort. There were times though, when I questioned why God would allow a helpless child to be treated in such a way. Why couldn’t He rescue me from this? If God was really all that powerful and loving, why did He not perform a miracle and change my father to be more loving and kind?
There were a few times, when under my father’s attack, I found a spark inside of me that ignited, and I fought back - really hard! As I screamed for my right to be respected, the look on his face told me that he was taken aback by my retaliation - something he didn’t expect. I thought, “Good! Maybe now he’ll change his ways!” Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. It appeared this rebellion only fueled his anger more, but I didn’t care. I’d had enough! It seemed I couldn’t grow up fast enough to get away from this monster called father. All I could think about was gaining my freedom and being able to live my life the way I wanted to. I tried to stay the “good girl” as long as I was living at home - that’s where the fear tactics probably worked best - but this would soon change.
When I was finally on my own at age 19, I thought the world was my oyster and my troubles were over! Little did I know that I would spend the next 20 years of my life making mostly self-destructive choices and “looking for love in all the wrong places.” Escaping my pain through the use of drugs and food, and attempting to resolve my issues within emotionally abusive relationships became almost a rite of passage for me, but it was also a cry for help. I didn’t really want to be so miserable, I didn’t really want to fail in life, but I didn’t know how to be any different. That bold little girl had lost her way and she didn’t know how to find the beautiful child inside which she knew existed. That beautiful child was disabled by violent words, by insults that made her believe she had no worth, that she was a hopeless case and might as well give up on life. After two failed marriages and with a soul weary of trying, this child, this woman lost hope. That man with his words had absorbed all the energy from my being. He took my soul and broke it down. The stamp of abuse forever ingrained on my spirit, it held me in its grip. My entire life was altered, my way of being in the world and in my relationships was defined by this experience. My God-given gifts were not allowed to be expressed or to reach their full potential - all because of words…violent words.
I have worked a lot at healing over the last 20 or so years. Since the age of 30 I have sought help through counseling, Twelve Step Programs, journaling, and writing letters to my father which have been burned in a symbolic gesture to release the pain and resentment. Although I have made much progress in my recovery with the help of these tools and my faith, I have not found the courage to confront my father face-to-face with the reality of how his treatment affected me. And, until recently, I have felt deep in my soul that there was something at my very core that I had not yet reached. My inner light, my beautiful child was still buried, protected from harm by my fear of judgment, my need to “fit in” with the rest of the human race, my lack of trust in a world that wouldn’t understand, my belief that unconditional love and acceptance would never be mine.
Most people can understand how physical and sexual abuse manifest in a person’s life. These crimes against helpless human beings are unforgivable, reprehensible, and are obvious in the harm they cause. But the “crime” of violent words is yet to be understood or even acknowledged as being worthy of significant efforts to change it. It is the most elusive of all abuses because many people believe that it is not so harmful, that the victim should be able to handle it and move on relatively unscathed, because children are resilient, right? It is also one of the most rampant abuses in our society today because of this misconception about the power it wields. My life is testimony to the fact that having what appears to be “all the right stuff” does not guarantee protection from the deep wounding caused by violent words.
- What is the myth of the model family?
- How might the so-called model family be camouflaging a problem of abuse within the family?
- How would you define verbal abuse? Emotional abuse? Are they the same? If not, what are their differences?
- How does physical abuse play a role in the verbal and emotional abuse experienced by the person in this study? Does it change the experience?
- In this situation, what could the non-abusive parent have done differently? Or not? Why or why not?
- What signs or behaviors would you expect to see in a child that is being verbally abused? Emotionally abused?
- If you became aware of any kind of abuse toward a friend or acquaintance, what would you do? What should you do?
- If you suspect a friend or acquaintance is being abused, but you don’t know for sure, what would you do? What should you do?
- What are some of the long term effects of verbal abuse on the victim? On society?
- Do you think there should be laws against verbal and emotional abuse?
Written by: Charlene Burgess
Poem by Charlene Burgess
Wounded Soul…A Path to Wholeness
Copyright © 2010 by Charlene Burgess
Case Study written by: Charlene Burgess
Charlene (2nd from the left in the top photo) grew up in the Midwest and lived there until 1986 when she moved to the West Coast. She currently resides in southern Oregon and works as an Administrative Assistant for a non-profit organization. She has a daughter and son-in-law, two rambunctious and loveable grandsons, and a cat named Angel. She enjoys singing, reading and writing inspirational stories and poems, scenic drives, the ocean, walking on the beach, sunsets, moon and stargazing, gardening, swimming, music, good movies, friends and stimulating conversation. Her passions include writing and seeking ways to make a difference in the world through works of love and compassion.