Filial Cannibalism-Parents Who Eat Their Young

by: Heather Fawn

The gift of sight is threatened when the people who raise you want you blind….

There are few words that can evoke discomfort quite like the word, “abuse”. I cannot count the number of times someone has told me to get over it, to grow up, to move on, or some other form of word-vomit cliché bullshit to shoo me away. I seem to have come from the proverbial country-town cesspool of inbred damagers: people who beat the fuck out of their kids because they struggle with an inner voice of serious mental duress. They then turn to an intergenerational bullshit excuse: “It hurts me more than it hurts you,” or, “It’s for your own good.” These ideologies feed ignorant souls eager to extricate themselves from serious self-reflection, and, equally pressing, accountability. They hide behind primitive tactics to parent children who are sometimes treated as callously as livestock.

The truth is, parents, millions of them, right now, in every income bracket, in every backwater town or high-rise apartment, in every forgotten or newsworthy place of the entire planet, systematically attempt to destroy their own babies. The cycle is passed down through the family tree like grandpa’s dimples or mother’s cellulite. We cannot choose our families – and we cannot as children escape abuse. The dark recesses of the human psyche house innumerable and creative ways to tear people down, and some families use these tools with disturbing vigor, bravado, and cunning.

If one fast-forwards a year of weeping, of snot-covered tissues, of clinically-appropriate talk about inappropriate things, you get someone like me. I walked into a university counseling office wanting to talk about anxiety and ended up being ground-zeroed by terms like, “sexual threat”, “refer you to a specialist”, “don’t have the resources to help you”. I was already a graduate student in education, so of course I overdosed on knowledge. I learned that sexual predators are intentional, deliberate. That people who support predators are in denial, have deeply-embedded escape codes and game cheats to resist the sucker punch of real life and self-awareness. I learned that neglect, abuse, exposure to parent abuse, and hostile environments in early childhood have an effect on an individual for life. “It changes who you are”. Words that follow me, haunt me.

And how could this be my life? A drug-addicted, estranged father who used to pound on my mother while I cowered in my great uncle’s lap. A mother who beat the shit out of my younger brother, and then insisted that I be her 5-year-old referee on the next occasion so as to stem the violence. A step-father who legally adopted me and saddled me with his last name, and then, when I hit puberty, became my number one fan. His monologue a long list of the same ridiculous and depressing street harassment women face every day – only I wasn’t walking to my car downtown on a Friday night— I was just trying to grow up. As fast as possible. To get the fuck away.

Ironically, but typically, these experiences were not addressed properly until I left home, flying to Australia –my all-purpose academic and geographic refuge. Once I started speaking with mental health professionals, they urged me to consider the many ways I had been damaged. I easily and completely crumbled at the thought of my mom beating my brother when he was a toddler.  But I had a harder time seeing the things that I myself had endured as unprovoked, undeserved, and valid. I carefully deconstructed the common culture of denial and “victim-blaming” that leads people to stop talking, to change the subject, or to rationalize instances of abuse. I finally felt validation for my anger, for the constant obsessive thoughts I had about being put together wrong, of feeling like a human example of a time-bomb, of feeling like I had no control, my panic attacks and anxiety giving the illusion of lurching recklessly forward with no direction other than the general destination being failure.  Alternatively, and much worse, was the thought that my soul-muck had left me radioactive and I would unintentionally but inevitably inflict damage onto everyone and everything around me.

Being wrong. That was the fabric of my existence. I felt wrongness defining my personhood. It was stark and outright in my childhood – a mixed kid in an all-white neighborhood, with white parents who insisted the whole family was white? Imagine it. And the emotional abuse when I started dating and my parents hammer-fisted my choices, tore down my matchstick emotions, were disgusted by my general existence. And yet, there was always that image to uphold. Our entire extended family welcomed us with a gleaming, squeaky-clean normalcy that was both bewildering and gratifying. No one had any inkling that my mother chose to lie to my brother and I about our biological father, that my step-dad liked to tell me that I was “sexy” and was sometimes found sleeping in my bed when I’d come home from being out with friends, that my mom punched me in the back over an argument about a love interest.

It has always been astounding that my mother could become this pristine public figure who gloated about her children’s achievements in public, considering the ways she had chosen to wrangle us into submission. I had on some level bought into this wholesome façade when I bellied up to the task of point-blank confronting my mother on the layers of bullshit she bathes in, so I wasn’t exactly prepared for her to instantly regress back to the person I’d hidden from in high school. Her response was unbearably infuriating, and resolute:  I was crazy, I was trying to destroy the family, I was in a downward spiral.

Never mind the fact that a real mother, upon hearing something she truly believed to be insanity spewing from her child’s mouth, would immediately seek a professional’s opinion. She has an unwavering faith in the church of denial and superficiality. I might fool around in the darkness of reality, but she flies with the heavenly angels of delusion.

Suffice it to say that the last time I had a real conversation with her was almost a year ago, when I used the occasion of my step-dad’s hospitalization (he had drunk himself into an “alcoholic comatose”) to tell her why I hadn’t talked to him in 4 years.  This was the deepest level of confrontation in my series of failed olive branch offerings wrapped in ugly recollections. She insisted repeatedly that she had no idea that anything was amiss, and the other instances of my being molested by other caregivers were “things that lots of girls go through”. I had hit another wall, in my series of walls. Last time she wrote about him on facebook, she used the words, “best husband in the world”.

What is the purpose of outing one’s demons? Well, there are many. Mostly, I am tired of being told that it’s not appropriate. Your reality is that your family is quirky and maybe your dad told you girls can’t play hockey. My reality is that my parents are emotionally, physically, and sexually violent. Just because my truth is disturbing doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.

Like I said, way in the beginning of my diatribe, this is one of the world’s repulsive secrets: that parents eat their young. Parents feed off of the perceived weakness of their children, and use it to make themselves feel better. And why does one eat? One eats to derive nourishment, to satisfy a craving, to alleviate emotional turmoil, or because something is delicious. In this same way, some parents fuck up all of the lines and boundaries of what is ok and normal, so that they can satiate some twisted, deep need. It is both an act of self-mutilation and a violation of another being. Because only when one sees other people as ineffectual extensions of themselves can one so willingly destroy those people. It is a way to beat away their demons by making other people the enemy. And it seems to work, because why else would it continue, decade after decade?

I don’t have a success story for you. Just simply a story. Unfinished. Unseemly. But most significant is that it’s real. Change doesn’t come from shushing people or hiding things. It comes from allowing ourselves to recognize damage and seek a better way. The cycle of violence is disentangled when people really take a look at it. But once you adjust the tractor beam of unfaltering acknowledgement onto a painful past, you can’t step down. Adult children of abusive parents carry with them both the burden of knowing and the task of healing. This usually isn’t done with the cooperation of the abuser or even the enabling parent. It’s usually done with the help of friends, or thoughtful strangers whom one pays to patiently watch them cry (i.e. counselors, psychologists, bartenders, clowns).

I sit in the seat of acknowledging my past. This throne has been threatened many times, but there is strength in a steady-handed rule of the truth. I know the price of this reign has been my former life, and a family that thinks I’m unwell. But I would rather be maligned for being myself than adored for being a caricature. They hit me, they shamed me, they made me feel like I was nothing. But I’m busy being a real, more-or-less functional, decent, honest human being with the broad spectrum of feelings and musings that being authentic can grant. The real world is dirty, messy, and beautiful. I wish my family could see it.

2 replies on “Filial Cannibalism-Parents Who Eat Their Young”
  1. says: Beth

    Heather thank you so much for writing this! I can’t imagine how hard it was for you to put this to words. I have adopted 2 little girls who had some similar experiences. After 3 years they still rage with anger over the wrong that was done to them and they sometimes are completely unable to accept our love. I will keep this blog post tucked away to remind me how deep their hurt is. And so that empathy and gentleness stays at the front of my lips.
    Thank you from 2 little adopted girls who haven’t found their voice yet.

  2. says: Heather


    It took me awhile to pull it together enough to respond to your comment. It means more than you know. Thank you for reading, and your little girls are lucky to have you.

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