This is a guest post by M Dolon Hickmon.
“How do you approach parenting in order to not replicate the abusive patterns of your past?”
This question was most recently posed to me by philosopher and Patheos blogger Dan Fincke, but as a father, who is also a survivor of- and an outspoken campaigner against religiously motivated child maltreatment, it’s a question that I am often asked. Or, rather, it’s the question that polite people should ask. Unfortunately, the sentiment is more often presented, not as an inquiry, but as a seemingly sympathetic statement: “You must feel very strongly about protecting your daughter from the horrors of your childhood.”
The constraints of time usually prevent me from properly answering.
I don’t want my daughter or any human being to suffer maltreatment. But the unspoken assumption that underlies such questions and statements is that survivors’ pasts exert an invisible pull that they must continually struggle against, lest they fall into the trap of behaving like their abusers.
As a father, I have never struggled – not even a little bit – with that.
Indoctrinate my daughter with the scary, demeaning religion of my childhood? Wouldn’t even consider it. Whip my preschooler until she pleads to heaven for mercy? Don’t even want to think about it. Allow my daughter to witness her parents verbally and physically abusing one another? Never going to happen.
And that is why this essay is not about how I fight the undertow of my past, but rather about why I don’t have to.
There’s no doubt that parenting can be uniquely difficult for child abuse survivors. It was for my mom and dad, who, between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two, went from a couple of abused adolescents to a pair of struggling young parents.
When they met, my parents were both shell-shocked, self-medicating alcoholics; my mother was months pregnant when they got married and after sobering up and buckling down to the task of raising a family, the couple discovered that their personalities were grossly incompatible. This fact, which would have been obvious to anyone who’d been nurtured in a well-functioning family, was papered over with denial – and later, religion – as my parents struggled to make their mistake work.
There was recognition that both had suffered multiple forms of abuse: I heard the stories throughout my childhood, usually as a means of minimizing the cruelties they inflicted on my brother and me. However, while my parents expressed plenty of negativity towards all four of my grandparents, they also seemed to have assumed that escaping their origin families meant their pasts were no longer a problem. Looking back through the lens of my own years of study, introspection and professional counseling, it seems clear that both of them were suffering with complex and untreated trauma-induced mental illness.
The stresses they faced as recently graduated, high school educated heads-of-household were fairly typical for the 1970s and early 1980s. Our family was never starving or without electricity, my brother and I were both bright and reasonably cooperative children, and my parents, while troubled and mismatched, were basically decent people. But in the lingering fog of undiagnosed and untreated PTSD, unavoidable inconveniences routinely erupted into shouting, shoving and hitting.
My father displayed the classic cluster of hyper-arousal PTSD symptoms. In practice, this meant that everything about his housemates jangled unmercifully on each and every one of his nerves.
One morning the trigger was a broken yolk on his over easy egg. When our father went still and quiet, my brother and I automatically froze, our faces expressionless. He stood up from the table and took a step towards our mother, prompting my older brother and I to bolt from the house. Outside, we circled from window to window; at each, my brother would kneel, and I’d stand on his shoulders to peer inside. “Can you see them?” my brother would pressure, and I’d answer: “He’s punching her.” A moment later: “He’s pulling her hair. He threw her into the wall!”
Our mother’s trauma-induced stress reactions were nearly as bad. She’d been raised on backbreaking farm labor and had contended with five brothers before joining the army. Aware that she was about to take a punch, she’d bow up, mouth off, and get right in her husband’s face. She had a special talent for wounding words, weapons she had no problem aiming at her children and husband. Balled in a corner and ducking a rain of fists, she’d go right on snidely insulting my father’s masculinity.
Arguments — usually over what was essentially nothing — ended with broken furniture, one or both of the participants bruised, and my father peeling out of our gravel driveway in his van.
If my brother and I were required to spend much longer than an hour in our father’s presence, the irritation of our being made a butt-whipping inevitable. Often, the trigger was nothing more than the rustling of a crayon on paper or the sounds of our breathing.
During our youngest years, beltings consisted of a couple poorly-aimed pops, intended mainly to drive us towards the nearest exit. Being good students, my brother and I took to spending as much time as possible out of his sight, mostly by wandering the partially wooded acreage that was our backyard. When our presence was required, our father could summon his boys with a sharp whistle. Our dad counted himself strict, on account of the sheer number of whippings he gave, but the fact was that we could do anything we wanted, as long as it didn’t force him to become aware of our existence.
For adults and children alike, time spent together was filled with constant tension.
Joining an independent fundamentalist Baptist church and seeking pastoral counsel was our parents’ one significant attempt at obtaining relief. Religion was brand new to me and my brother, but not to either of our parents: my father was raised Baptist, with accompanying harsh physical discipline, and my mother’s mother had put her children through the motions of being Catholic.
Unfortunately, the Biblical model of counseling, with its focus on ‘sin’ and the dynamics of patriarchal authority, provided no benefit for my parents’ PTSD. Understanding nothing of the neurobiological devastations of chronic childhood trauma, our pastor pitched forgiveness as a magical cure-all. Worse, he convinced my parents that the medical science that could have explained and treated their illness was actually a demonically inspired false religion. On the whole, his pastoral counseling was worse than inadequate: it threw gasoline on the raging fire of my parents’ mental illness and stained them with a decades-long paranoia of the very firefighters who might have helped them.
Rooted in the same scriptures passages and traditions, our pastor’s doctrines of thirty-plus years ago had much in common with the current teachings of Christian “experts” like Michael and Debi Pearl.
My indomitable mother was ordered — by “God” — to submit to her abusive husband. Her first duty was to never to “provoke” him — a feat that was impossible, short of literally removing oneself from his presence. Her second duty was to never question him — even when he was in the midst of physically abusing her and her children. Her third duty was to protect her children from abuse, not by intervening when they were abused, but by training them to behave in way that gave their father no reason ever to fault them.
My father received corollary messages: As husband and father, his decisions were above being criticized by anyone but God. It was improper for him to Lord his authority over his family, but not nearly as improper as their having dared to question or provoke him in the first place.
Equally ill-suited to the particulars of our family’s circumstance was our pastor’s advice on child discipline. Rather than curing what was at that time relatively minor abuse, the church’s instructions turned our home into a gulag.
It was not enough for our father to use the belt to drive his children out of the house when their mere existence annoyed him. Rather, the children had to be “broken” to instant, unthinking obedience.
Our father was instructed to speak his commands softly and to whip on the spot if his children didn’t immediately obey. He was told to use an object and hit hard enough to make us shriek involuntarily from the pain. To be effective, the blows had to be freely accepted, which meant demonstrating a willingness to stand still and go on indefinitely taking blows. To be silent was stiff-necked rebellion, but to sob too keenly was an attempt at “guilting” your parent, an equally wicked form of resistance.
On and on the whipping should go, until our father could hear, in his children’s plaintive sobbing, that they would do anything to make the punishment stop. Only then was he to pause for a reading from scripture, on the ‘doctrine’ of perfect obedience. This was to be followed by questions and a second pass through the entire ritual, should the child demonstrate a “wrong” attitude or give a wrong answer.
These cycles would continue until we’d convinced our father that we had surrendered even the desire to do, think, or feel anything other than what we were commanded. We were given a minute or two to compose ourselves then put through the process again if we could not.
Lastly, we were required to hug our abuser and acknowledge that he’d done all of this out of love.
Lying on the bottom bunk one evening, I heard my older brother being alternately beaten and read Bible verses for more than an hour. I kept time by the melancholy strains of horn music — titled Suicide is Painless — that played over the opening and closing credits of two consecutive half-hour episodes of M*A*S*H. When the door opened I was called by name to be next. When my brother passed me, I caught his eye: “Was it bad?” Snot faced, he nodded, before turning his eyes back to the floor.
Whippings went from a few per month to almost daily, with the intensity rising off the scales. I began to feel physically ill at the sight of my own house. My father was also sickened by the deteriorating situation: “Why?” he would plead wincingly with me during the worst beatings; “After the way you were beaten the last time, why would you do the same thing again?”
His demands were impossible, but even if I’d understood this I wouldn’t have dared to say it. Our father had been promised that he could command his children to do literally anything, and that once he’d made a decree — like “never forget to put the toilet seat down” — it became his duty to punish the inevitable resulting “disobedience”.
My brother and I were soon afflicted with the evidences of our traumas: bed wetting, baby talking, nightmares, and phobias — especially of the belt and anything associated with it. These signs of mental anguish were commanded not to exist and diligent attempts were made to beat them out of us.
Through all of this, our mother was consistently advised by the church that she should never intervene; however, on one Christmas Sunday, when I was five or six years old, she did. I recall that we’d been partway through getting ready for church, but nothing of the ‘disobedience’ that prompted the whipping. That time, it went on until I honestly thought he would kill me. Finally, I began screaming in earnest for rescue. When my mother didn’t come to my aid, I resorted to shrieking at the closed bedroom window, hoping that someone on the distant highway would hear and intervene.
Finally, my mother had heard enough. She’d barely burst through the door when Dad laid his hands on her and dragged her to the front of the house. He threw her out into the snow, dressed in her bra and panties, then locked the front door and returned to “disciplining” me. Mother re-entered through the back door then surprised my father by leaping on his back. He overpowered her then hurled her to her knees. She leapt up and rushed him, but this time he beat her down with his fists. Standing over her, he beat until she stayed on the floor. Yet, when he stormed to his truck and zoomed away, it was clear that she’d achieved what she’d set out to accomplish.
My mother crawled to the bathroom, her face a wet, swollen mess of blood. Looking directly at me, she sobbed and then opened her arms for a hug. To my immature senses, she resembled a monster. Like a sleepwalker, I went and sat in her lap. She shook, tears and blood falling on me.
This was the moment when I decided that I never wanted to be a father — a choice that would become the cornerstone of my own eventual recovery.
I remained committed to that seemingly odd decision for more than two decades. Keeping the promise came at a high price. Some of the costs I would not understand until puberty; other, more significant ones, became evident many years later, as I became increasingly involved in the joyful process of uncling my older brother’s four kids. But for all the downsides to my costly commitment, putting off fatherhood was the foundation of my ability to overcome my own abuse and become a good parent.
During the fifteen years or so that passed between my first trip to group therapy and the day — at age thirty-five — that I finally held the squirming bundle of my own baby girl, I was able to work out the complicated details of my own recovery. The enormity of this task is such that time was literally a major ingredient: it was not only a matter of identifying the bad, I had to learn the better and then allow enough time for my mind to integrate the new knowledge.
It was not enough to physically leave my origin family. It was not enough to uproot and discard the dangerous Biblical superstitions that that had been beaten into me, much as they’d been beaten into my father. It was not enough to appreciate the medical reality that bad parenting had inflicted emotional and biological injuries on us all. I had to realize that loving one’s children was not enough, because if it was, my own parents would have succeeded. I had to apprehend that raising children is like climbing Everest: you can’t do it on willpower alone. You need a plan, a map, equipment and skills that I could not possibly have inherited from my own unprepared parents. I had to give myself everything — including empathy, mercy, and compassion — that my own childhood had been lacking.
Before I could parent a child, I had to re-parent myself.
In the process, I became something that my own mom and dad weren’t until long after my need for them had passed: mature enough, mentally healthy enough, and knowledgeable enough about the needs of children to function as a decent husband and father.
It was a herculean effort, but it’s worth it today.
So: How do I approach parenting, in order to not replicate the abusive patterns of my past?
I approach it with the same sense of joy, awe and gratitude with which I regard every freedom that I now have from my past.
M. Dolon Hickmon is a columnist for The Freethinker and OnFaith. He explores the intersections of religion and child abuse in essays published around the web, as well as in the pages of his critically acclaimed novel, 13:24 – A Story of Faith and Obsession. You can follow his writing on Twitter @TVOS1324.
Unless otherwise noted, Camels With Hammers guest posts are not subject to editing for either content or style beyond minor corrections, so guest contributors speak for themselves and not for me (Daniel Fincke). To be considered at all, posts must conform to The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge and I must see enough intellectual merit in their opinions to choose to publish them, but no further endorsement is implied. If you would like to submit an article for consideration because you think it would be in keeping with the interests or general philosophy of this blog, please write me at camelswithhammers@ .