NB: This post discusses the childhood experience of family violence.
One possible and unfortunate repercussion of growing up in a violent household, whether it was physically or emotionally violent, is that a person often develops a disproportionate sense of his or her own importance. The counter intuitiveness of this observation is easily explained when one recalls that the abuser rarely take responsibility for his or her actions.
“Look what you made me do” is a familiar refrain to an abused child. The child is told over and over again, “you — and not I — are responsible for my violent actions.” It is very easy for the child to come to believe this story and to think he or she possess an incredible power to compel older and more powerful beings to do horrible things.
To further aggravate the situation, in many families, once the immediate moment of violence is over, the abuser or someone else will attempt to compensate — indeed, overcompensate — for the violence, and will shower the child with some kind of recompense. Once more, the child is at the center of another universe.
Eventually, having internalized the notion that it is responsible for the being’s behavior, the child attempts to control it, developing a kind of primitive witchcraft to appease the ever-ready storm. Like any human, the child will seek out evidence that supports its theory — really, its hope — that it can control the terrible being. The child deceives itself into thinking it has some measure of control over the uncontrollable.
In some cases, with age, the child grows smart enough and, perhaps, large enough to exert meaningful control over the actions of the violent other. This, unfortunately, can reinforce the original lie of the abuser. By defeating or containing or escaping the violence, the now older child may take this as proof that, in some sense, he or she was in control all along. If only he or she had been stronger earlier, then, none of this would have happened. It is also possible, of course, that the child never outsmarts or escapes the terrible being, and remains forever trapped in a world where his or her actions lead to tremendous and horrible consequences, which would not otherwise have happened if only he or she knew better.
It is no surprise to me that so many popular stories, books, and movies feature children who, at the start of the narrative, are in the care of horrible people, but, eventually, discover that their true parents are very special and, because of that, they themselves are very special. I’m sure every child, no matter how caring and loving his or her parents may be, at some point, feels that his or her parents are tyrants and, for this reason, wishes he or she had other parents. We all, at one time or another, wanted to be an as of yet undiscovered prince or princess wizard unjustly ruled by our evil step-parents.
Unfortunately, many children do grow up in households in which demons and monsters roam freely, and the child’s survival depends on avoiding, containing, or defeating them. To put it in no simpler terms, imagine the incredible burden of trying, on a daily and minute-by-minute basis, to save a parent from him or herself because you and only you have the incredible power to make him or her do or not do horrible things. It is a terrible drama, and it is one that places the child at the center of the narrative, as the principal protagonist and wizardly chosen one, because the child has been nurtured to believe only he or she has the power to defeat the demon in the castle.
A child who has lived this terrible drama may spend the rest of his or her life always anxiously looking for the next demon to flee, contain, or slay. He or she may seek out relationships which reinforce his or her own false sense of importance, either as the abuser or the abused. He or she may always position him or herself as the fixer of all things however big or small in whatever environment he or she find him or herself. He or she may lead a life in which he or she only ever hears the statement, “look what you made me do,” whether anyone actually says it or not.
In my own case, through hard work and a bit of luck, I have become very good at appreciating and enjoying the moment in the here and now, yet I still have a hard time appreciating my life on a more global level, which, of course, makes the appreciation of an individual moment more difficult. I torment myself with the questions like, am I living the life I should be living, am I doing as much as I can to make a difference, is my life too easy, is there enough at stake, am I leaving some talent or skill inadequately exploited, is there somewhere else I should be, is this really enough, shouldn’t I be slaying dragons and saving princesses?
I suspect, if I had not been thrust center stage into a seemingly larger-than-life drama at an early age, I might be far less haunted by these questions. On the other hand, perhaps, it was a natural inclination to question constantly the status quo of my life that allowed me to slay the demon in my castle. Ultimately, I suppose, in the end, it is only for me to decide one way or the other.