Lately there has been a pileup of emails asking for ideas in dealing with abusive fathers, spouses, and other family members. Writers report stymied growth, inability to concentrate, trust and authority-figure issues, fear, depression, anger and other unpleasantries.
It seems this sort of thing rolls along in some families like a snowball. In talking to former victims, it also seems that forgiveness, together with the calculated act of leaving the abuser behind, can be a key to moving on. Frequently mentioned was the coming to terms, particularly in childhood, with the dual personas — the “bad” one as seen in the eye of the abuser, and the “beautiful” one they feel themselves to be. Interestingly, these transferred, beautiful people are often attracted to quiet, solitary work, the gentleness and nurture of nature, and the private joys of creativity. The “art persona” seems an appealing choice, perhaps because it’s more closely attuned to the beautiful inner being.
Abused folks often report trust issues. Distrust of one person migrates to distrust of many. These distrusting folks need to feel a greater calling, and art fills the bill. But there’s a catch. Art requires creative evolution, and an artist’s self-esteem often depends on external evidence — improvement of work, cash flow, etc. Perceived progress generates self-worth. Without progress, creators wither and die, and they know it. Those without trust may not want to risk progress. Locked learning and the flat-lining of growth are common results. These artists need to be shaken up and reborn. This can be done by solitary self-will or together with a trusted friend or mentor. There’s good news — many terrific artists rise and fly from the tangle of abuse.
Psychologists also talk about the “Stockholm Syndrome.” The name is based on a situation where thieves broke into a bank in Stockholm and held four people hostage for 131 days. The hostages came to like their captors and tried to defend them when they were finally set free from them. One hostage even accepted a proposal of marriage from one of the thugs. The Stockholm Syndrome suggests a belief in and sympathy for the abuser/controller. Abused people need to understand this condition and the co-dependency that can go with it.
PS: “The only tyrant I accept in this world is the still small voice within me.” (Mahatma Gandhi)
Esoterica: Late at night, leaving a performance of the National Ballet in Kiev, Ukraine, we made our way through boisterous crowds of young people apparently waiting for buses or trains. Many of them were drinking beer from giant bottles. One couldn’t help but notice the collegiality of the scene. It was rough, yes, and full of individualists, but they seemed comfortable and at ease with one another. Something to do with the social fabric, I was thinking. Ukrainians dine together as families, struggle together to make ends meet and seem to know how to interact without passive or other aggression. Anyway, no need for water-cannons in this crowd.
by Gavin Calf, Cape Town, South Africa
Of all the subjects you tackle, I never thought this one would come up! Not to burden you with too much, my alcoholic father lies in the indigenous forest on Table Mountain and his spirit is talking with Huckleberry Finn’s Pop. In fact I called my father, “Pop.” It’s true what you said: I love being alone with my canvases or dipping below the conversation at a restaurant while I sketch a face at the next table. My art is my haven of rest. My downside is my inherited psyche that galleries are out to abuse me so delays in replies or payment are often misconstrued. I consult with a therapist regularly who has helped me tremendously over a few years. After a long struggle things are coming right and I have forgiven Pop. He loved me in an odd sort of way as I did him.
(RG note) Thanks, Gavin. I’d like to thank the many, many readers who wrote. Remarkably, considering the stickiness of the subject, there were very few “anonymous” ones, but we always welcome those, too. We have published below a range of ideas and stories — by no means all. Please feel free to send further material to the live comments below. It seems valuable for people with experience in these sorts of problems to hear of others similarly beleaguered. Interestingly, whenever I write something in any way touchy, some folks always unsubscribe. This time it appeared to be only a half dozen or so abusive ones.
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Solace from ugliness
by Sharon Voyles Belcher
A true artist can take something ugly and make it beautiful. But until today, it has never occurred to me that creating art might be a solace from the ugliness of my childhood. I have memories too painful to relate. In a life today, painful with the serious illnesses of a parent suffering from cancer and a too-busy, every-moment-filled agenda, I do find renewed strength and joy in my painting and find myself craving the solitude that embodies. I feel that creating art brings light and beauty to a world that can be dark and desperate, and I hope my paintings reflect that light and beauty in some small way.
An end to violence
by Anne O’Connor, Canada
I work as a social worker and it was a shock this morning to see the topic of your letter. To be truthful, art is my moment away from human suffering. Last year in an art history course, the teacher talked of the joyful playful approach to art that Paul Klee embodied. He then presented a slide of the line drawing called 4 nudes, mother and children waiting for father to come home. The mother’s hands protect her pubic area, the children’s hands protect their buttocks. Nothing prepared me for so clear a representation of violence in the family. I have found no other evidence in Paul Klee’s work that conveys the fear, anger and depression of this drawing. There are days that I wish that I could draw the picture that would put an end to violence.
The value of friends
by Helen Opie, Granville Ferry, NS, Canada
My own experiences re art and abuse are two-fold. Perhaps they will help others. First, I keep in mind Socrates‘ dictum, “The best revenge is a life well lived.” I am NOT going to give the perpetrator any more power over me. I am evicting them from that comfortable rent-free place in my head – repeatedly. I have made the choice to avoid the Victim Role. It is hard work, but immediately upon recognizing I am slipping into the Victim Role and reminding myself that this is giving power to the abuser, enabling them to continue their abuse in absentia, I feel better. Then I set myself the task of finding some other useful, purposeful thing I can engage my thoughts and action in, even if it is only climbing out of bed and starting morning routine. In so doing, I have stood up for myself at this moment and won this day for myself.
Second, I have now learnt that whenever I face up to an event in my past and put it to rest, my art improves; I make a great leap forward, enough that friends comment on this leap. And I don’t think growth of this sort can happen without the support of kindly, loving friends who give gentle kicks in the rear when needed. God bless my friends!
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Art is the silver lining
by Chuck Marshall, Mason, OH, USA
Wow! This one hits home. I grew up fitting the symptoms in your letter and even still today.
I grew up in a family of seven kids, two boys and five girls. I was the oldest boy. My father was very abusive physically, and my mother was very abusive verbally. At times they switched roles. Needless to say there were many good times as well. It wasn’t all bad. I used to wander off just so I could be alone and not have to deal with things. Drawing became part of the escape. Like so many artists at that young age it grew into winning art competitions at school. After a while I noticed I got lots of attention for my artwork. It was just about the only thing I found my parents complimented me on. I enjoyed the new found attention. Now I had another reason for doing my art. Over the years I have used my art like a drug to escape reality and get attention. The funny thing is, my art has always saved me in bad times. I have had many jobs in my lifetime due to financial needs and everyone telling me to get a real job. I now tell people I am not an artist by job choice but it is just who I am. I have no choice anymore. Of course without explaining all of this they don’t understand.
I am a perfectionist when it comes to my art. It is like the proverbial carrot in front of the horse. The closer I try to get to what I am after, the farther away it gets. I have learned to embrace all of this and use it to my advantage. Since giving into it, my art has blossomed.
That is my silver lining from my past. I welcome it now.
Untold reasons for writing
by Linda Holloway
When people learn that I am a travel writer they immediately ask the question, “How did you get started in that field?” Then they proceed to glean information of how they too can travel and get paid for it. Travel writing from the “first person” is all about paying close attention to details. I often tell them the story about writing for my small town newspaper for free, and my husband is a professional photographer and his work helps to sell my articles. I can go on for hours about the technical aspects of the business, but I rarely tell them that when I was 8 my mother died of colon cancer and by the time I was 12, I had a step mother. I began writing my feelings down in a journal after Mother died and that is the way that I coped with reality. I read a quote years ago that made a lot of sense to me: “One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family.” (Pat Conroy)
Some things never change!
by Rose Moon, Sedona, Arizona, USA
For many years I’ve had very little contact with my dad because of his abusive nature. At age 89 he called me to help him through a major surgery. I reluctantly agreed. Afterward I sent him a picture of a recent colored pencil piece. He told me he would put it out on the back fence and use it for target practice. He wanted to know why I just couldn’t paint something somebody would want to buy and hang on the wall. I would like to have responded as an adult, but the little girl inside surfaced and I slumped into depression. Some things never change! Needless to say I have not spoken to him since. I have learned an old lesson once again.
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Art makes us
by John Mix, Madison, WI, USA
Mythologically our crowd is cut from the same cloth. Haephestus was the only god on Mt. Olympus who worked. All others got someone else to do their bidding. Son of Zeus and Hera, he was rejected as an infant for some defect so he committed his life to making beauty with his hands. Most of us know the consequences to our well being of not making art for whatever reason. Wounds of various kinds, oddly enough, are a source of creating what’s next. In the words of Jean Houston, “The Divine enters through our wounds.” After we’ve spent ourselves in the standard responses to betrayal — revenge, isolation, self-betrayal, and cynicism — comes the option of forgiveness, the true engine of our evolution. The art we make along that entire journey is also making us.
Life choices in men
by Jill Unger, Windermere, BC, Canada
Have my choices in men only been different facets of my father’s love? I would have to say yes. Without these men in my life I appeared to have no center from which to trust life or secure my future. My happiness has depended on their approval, their thought of me. If I let them down, I became less of me, because ‘me’ was all about how they saw me, what relevance I’ve had ‘in’ their lives… not ‘on’ their lives, and there lies the difference. My life has been orchestrated by the Maestro of my choosing. Shouldn’t I be the Maestro of my own symphony? I’m sure I would be less timid. Less victimized (my own doing). To meet LIFE each morning when I wake up versus my PDA schedule which dictates my life. I never have to think about what “I” want to do because I fill up my life with things that ‘need’ to be done. Joy needs its own room and only I get to furnish that room with all the things that I find joyful.
Boundaries and edges
by Gregory Packard, Montrose, CO, USA
The earth surrounded by atmosphere, continents surrounded by oceans, countries surrounded by borders, peoples surrounded by customs, and individuals surrounded by their own neurosis. Boundaries are found in nature and are a natural part of life. When they limit us they can be frustrating. When they limit somebody else from violating our personal space, or worse, boundaries can be liberating. Our differences often define our boundaries in an obvious and abrupt manner while our similarities examine the universal qualities of our being human. Easily accepting another’s boundaries while respecting your own is an art in life. It’s an art that has no specific recipe. It’s ‘edge-work’ in a painting. For every generalization there’s an exception. In relationships, boundaries can be viewed as endings or beginnings, a transition into a new opportunity. As edges do in paintings, boundaries weave their way through the winds of our experience. They are lost and found in sometimes logical and sometimes incredibly artistic paths. Some are soft, some hard, some very intense while others simply make the transition with gray tones. Handled with care it’s a poetic language that enables relationships to exist without conflict to nurture and support instead of antagonize and accuse, to be truthful and fair instead of deceitful and selfish. It’s the attitude of happiness that cares about others’ happiness too instead of the “we’re happy and that’s all that matters” attitude. As in painting, when edges are handled without sensitivity, the shapes and objects within stand alone like an awkward postage stamp pasted on rather than being intertwined with love, passion and respect for all the relationships brought forth: hue, value, saturation, intensity and drawing. Successful edge work doesn’t belie the truth; rather, it illuminates what’s important while letting rest what’s not.
Note on Nov 11 — I was not abused by my father or my mother. I wrote this months ago in my own journal and having experience with abuse of a different form found it very applicable. Gregory Packard
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by Nancy Lennie, San Patricio, Mexico
My father was a great man, and many said so, but he was not there for us, he was solving medical problems all over the world. We lived with the idea that he was very valuable to others — but what about us, his kids? His life was devoted to others, not his children or wife — that left a big hole in the family always wanting and never getting. He left his wife and our mother most of the time while we were growing up. She idolized him and held up his picture to us to also worship, but the man was missing.
I find that when I finish a painting there is a depression and hole in my being that I feel I will never be able to fill again. It takes me a long while to let go of the painting and move on. Am I in the process of producing art or therapy?
Freedom of expression
by Odette Nicholson, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
I come from an abusive childhood, admit to trust issues, short fused in patience and strongly driven to be doing, doing, doing… which fuels the retooling of my art, where I reinvent ideas in my head and work creatively with physical surfaces. I will admit to shying away from actively seeking reward for my creative activity. I do not have what it takes to blow my own horn, though I do show my art to the public at regular intervals. I have never sought an agent or commercial engine and no longer seek grants because those things require preplanning what may or may not happen in the studio and I find that crippling. Self esteem is related to the process. I rationalize, someone pays you for something and control is relinquished. My production is not to be directed by monetary gain because in the studio my creative activity is the only true freedom of expression that I own absolutely. Everything else is couched in compromise.
by Belinda Morris, Perth, Australia
I’m 29, still single, studying Graphic Design full time (it’s my 2nd round as a student, the previous being as a Fine Art student at University), I recently lost my job, in July I had to move out of the place I was sharing and move into my dad’s. He’s single, has a good paying job, yet he’s unhappy and he makes sure I know it! I had to live with him for the first 18 years of my life, then my parents split up and a few years later divorced. At this time I was diagnosed with depression, which seemed to have originated from my childhood. For the past 9 years (it’s hard to believe where the time goes!) I’ve been taking anti-depressants, which has helped get this fuzzy brain of mine together. I’m a Christian which has helped heaps! The community, the love, the respect and the guidance I have received from Church and Christian friends has been invaluable, and their prayers and mine have resulted in times when things couldn’t be explained other than by divine intervention. And I’ve been doubly blessed with Christian creative and artistic friends (as well as creative friends who aren’t religious). I thank God for my creativity, for my imagination — the ability to visualize a better future than the present. But it still has been very hard! For my dad doesn’t see what I can see, neither does he understand my desire to be creative, instead he thinks that I’m being “a professional student,” that I should get a “real job” (he forgets his version of reality didn’t suit me — I’ve worked as a shop assistant, an accounts assistant and done data entry to earn my crust). Now that I have matured, I realize I want a career in the creative sector — hence the choice to study Graphic Design (I’m at the end of my second year). So at the moment I’m a bit dependent on my dad. But today when I got home from classes I found a note stuck to my door:
“Belinda, you have a week to remove your things and move out, by Friday 14 Nov 2008 (latest) this is not negotiable tell me where your things are to go and I shall arrange”
Hmmm very supportive… not! But I’m still ok, I have good friends, and the rest of my family will help me the best they can (my mum would do more but she lives 3-4 hours away). I have learnt to separate myself from my dad, avoiding him as much as I can, however being my dad he still hurts me when he says nasty stuff and acts mean. Being a parent is important, and ditching your kids coz it’s inconvenient is unacceptable. A parent is for life. Bless you for supporting and loving your kids, it is invaluable, and precious.
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A survivor of clergy abuse
by Becky, Hermon, ME, USA
I am an adult survivor of clergy sexual abuse, emerging from this abusive relationship about 2 years ago. Most folks don’t realize that most clergy abuse — 3 out of 4 — these days, happens with adults… mostly in the Prot. sector and with women (as victims/survivors) because women can hold positions of power and thus often work closely with their perpetrators (mostly male).
My husband was also groomed by him so as to keep me close. At any rate, we emerged, he had his clergy orders stripped, and the Church was held accountable. I also saw it as an opportunity to more closely examine how I was so vulnerable in the first place, and how I put too much trust in that position of authority in our society vs. physicians or others that I work closely with (I am a nurse). It is amazing how one can practice the ‘cognitive dissonance’ that helps the ego protect what it wants to protect — i.e., that your ‘choice’ of having a pastor-friend really made you feel/look good and gave you what you needed (a spiritual friendship/teacher/mentor), only to later have something happen and now you can’t get out of it for fear of shame and guilt.
This whole phenomenon is highly incestuous, given the ‘familial nature’ of churches. One knows the pattern of abuse well: you cut out a part of your life; peace and security are restored, relationship is preserved, and shame is avoided. My perp. had multiple offenses. We knew of 2 of them, but amazingly dismissed them! Alas — Stockholm Syndrome. So… on it goes. His wife is just as complicit. They are both in their 70’s — he was retired when I came out and spoke truth to power. It happened in the late 90’s when he was still working.
Survivors must move past the shame and guilt. If you have a good spouse, you are uniquely blessed. Plus supportive community who can see the truth for what it is. And then, you as a survivor find that quiet space within you that is now authentic, and you are blessed by the awful event to have an opportunity to keep it authentic and use it as the Higher Source intends it to be used. Finding out what that might be is why the quiet, inner nature that you name must be given room to have presence in one’s life. If not, ego takes charge!!
I am happy to say I am thriving, finishing my Masters degree next month, and hopefully making a difference in this world by being more aware and awake than ever!
Enjoy the past comments below for The abusive father…
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes M. Frances Stilwell of Corvallis, OR, USA who wrote, “In reference the Stockholm Syndrome, there is a school of thought that says “forgiveness” isn’t necessary. I think perhaps it comes after all the anger is gone and the survivor has managed to prove him/herself valuable to him/herself in spite of the abuse.”
And also Fred Asbury who wrote, “Abuse from family members in charge of your life can be subtle and divisive. This scenario has been played out many times in books and films. The recently released independent film, Bee Seasonrelates to this. I highly recommend it for greater understanding of this problem.”
And also Leslie Beauregard of West Newbury, MA, USA who wrote, “A person can spend his/her life looking backwards and never see the good stuff ahead. So I choose to look forward. Besides, looking back hurts your neck and your soul. Thanks for this letter. It just made me feel grateful for one more thing today.”