You Carry the Cure in Your Own Heart


Emotional abuse of children can lead, in adulthood, to addiction, rage, a severely damaged sense of self and an inability to truly bond with others. But—if it happened to you—there is a way out.

by Andrew Vachss

Originally published in Parade Magazine, August 28, 1994

This article is courtesy of The Zero.

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The attorney and author Andrew Vachss has devoted his life to protecting children. We asked Vachss, an expert on the subject of child abuse, to examine perhaps one of its most complex and widespread forms—emotional abuse: What it is, what it does to children, what can be done about it. Vachss’ latest novel, “Down in the Zero,” just published by Knopf, depicts emotional abuse at its most monstrous.

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I’m a lawyer with an unusual specialty. My clients are all children—damaged, hurting children who have been sexually assaulted, physically abused, starved, ignored, abandoned and every other lousy thing one human can do to another. People who know what I do always ask: “What is the worst case you ever handled?” When you’re in a business where a baby who dies early may be the luckiest child in the family, there’s no easy answer. But I have thought about it—I think about it every day. My answer is that, of all the many forms of child abuse, emotional abuse may be the cruelest and longest-lasting of all.

Emotional abuse is the systematic diminishment of another. It may be intentional or subconscious (or both), but it is always a course of conduct, not a single event. It is designed to reduce a child’s self-concept to the point where the victim considers himself unworthy—unworthy of respect, unworthy of friendship, unworthy of the natural birthright of all children: love and protection.

Emotional abuse can be as deliberate as a gunshot: “You’re fat. You’re stupid. You’re ugly.”

Emotional abuse can be as random as the fallout from a nuclear explosion. In matrimonial battles, for example, the children all too often become the battlefield. I remember a young boy, barely into his teens, absently rubbing the fresh scars on his wrists. “It was the only way to make them all happy,” he said. His mother and father were locked in a bitter divorce battle, and each was demanding total loyalty and commitment from the child.

Emotional abuse can be active. Vicious belittling: “You’ll never be the success your brother was.” Deliberate humiliation: “You’re so stupid. I’m ashamed you’re my son.”

It also can be passive, the emotional equivalent of child neglect—a sin of omission, true, but one no less destructive.

And it may be a combination of the two, which increases the negative effects geometrically.

Emotional abuse can be verbal or behavioral, active or passive, frequent or occasional. Regardless, it is often as painful as physical assault. And, with rare exceptions, the pain lasts much longer. A parent’s love is so important to a child that withholding it can cause a “failure to thrive” condition similar to that of children who have been denied adequate nutrition.

Even the natural solace of siblings is denied to those victims of emotional abuse who have been designated as the family’s “target child.” The other children are quick to imitate their parents. Instead of learning the qualities every child will need as an adult—empathy, nurturing and protectiveness—they learn the viciousness of a pecking order. And so the cycle continues.

But whether as a deliberate target or an innocent bystander, the emotionally abused child inevitably struggles to “explain” the conduct of his abusers—and ends up struggling for survival in a quicksand of self-blame.

Emotional abuse is both the most pervasive and the least understood form of child maltreatment. Its victims are often dismissed simply because their wounds are not visible. In an era in which fresh disclosures of unspeakable child abuse are everyday fare, the pain and torment of those who experience “only” emotional abuse is often trivialized. We understand and accept that victims of physical or sexual abuse need both time and specialized treatment to heal. But when it comes to emotional abuse, we are more likely to believe the victims will “just get over it” when they become adults.

That assumption is dangerously wrong. Emotional abuse scars the heart and damages the soul. Like cancer, it does its most deadly work internally. And, like cancer, it can metastasize if untreated.

When it comes to damage, there is no real difference between physical, sexual and emotional abuse. All that distinguishes one from the other is the abuser’s choice of weapons. I remember a woman, a grandmother whose abusers had long since died, telling me that time had not conquered her pain. “It wasn’t just the incest,” she said quietly. “It was that he didn’t love me. If he loved me, he couldn’t have done that to me.”

But emotional abuse is unique because it is designed to make the victim feel guilty. Emotional abuse is repetitive and eventually cumulative behavior—very easy to imitate—and some victims later perpetuate the cycle with their own children. Although most victims courageously reject that response, their lives often are marked by a deep, pervasive sadness, a severely damaged self-concept and an inability to truly engage and bond with others.

We must renounce the lie that emotional abuse is good for children because it prepares them for a hard life in a tough world. I’ve met some individuals who were prepared for a hard life that way—I met them while they were doing life.

Emotionally abused children grow up with significantly altered perceptions so that they “see” behaviors—their own and others’—through a filter of distortion. Many emotionally abused children engage in a lifelong drive for the approval (which they translate as “love”) of others. So eager are they for love—and so convinced that they don’t deserve it—that they are prime candidates for abuse within intimate relationships.

The emotionally abused child can be heard inside every battered woman who insists: “It was my fault, really. I just seem to provoke him somehow.”

And the almost-inevitable failure of adult relationships reinforces that sense of unworthiness, compounding the felony, reverberating throughout the victim’s life.

Emotional abuse conditions the child to expect abuse in later life. Emotional abuse is a time bomb, but its effects are rarely visible, because the emotionally abused tend to implode, turning the anger against themselves. And when someone is outwardly successful in most areas of life, who looks within to see the hidden wounds?

Members of a therapy group may range widely in age, social class, ethnicity and occupation, but all display some form of self-destructive conduct: obesity, drug addiction, anorexia, bulimia, domestic violence, child abuse, attempted suicide, self-mutilation, depression and fits of rage. What brought them into treatment was their symptoms. But until they address the one thing that they have in common—a childhood of emotional abuse—true recovery is impossible.

One of the goals of any child-protective effort is to “break the cycle” of abuse. We should not delude ourselves that we are winning this battle simply because so few victims of emotional abuse become abusers themselves. Some emotionally abused children are programmed to fail so effectively that a part of their own personality “self-parents” by belittling and humiliating themselves.

The pain does not stop with adulthood. Indeed, for some, it worsens. I remember a young woman, an accomplished professional, charming and friendly, well-liked by all who knew her. She told me she would never have children. “I’d always be afraid I would act like them,” she said.

Unlike other forms of child abuse, emotional abuse is rarely denied by those who practice it. In fact, many actively defend their psychological brutality, asserting that a childhood of emotional abuse helped their children to “toughen up.” It is not enough for us to renounce the perverted notion that beating children produces good citizens—we must also renounce the lie that emotional abuse is good for children because it prepares them for a hard life in a tough world. I’ve met some individuals who were prepared for a hard life that way—I met them while they were doing life.

The primary weapons of emotional abusers is the deliberate infliction of guilt. They use guilt the same way a loan shark uses money: They don’t want the “debt” paid off, because they live quite happily on the “interest.”

When your self-concept has been shredded, when you have been deeply injured and made to feel the injury was all your fault, when you look for approval to those who can not or will not provide it—you play the role assigned to you by your abusers. It’s time to stop playing that role.

Because emotional abuse comes in so many forms (and so many disguises), recognition is the key to effective response. For example, when allegations of child sexual abuse surface, it is a particularly hideous form of emotional abuse to pressure the victim to recant, saying he or she is “hurting the family” by telling the truth. And precisely the same holds true when a child is pressured to sustain a lie by a “loving” parent.

Emotional abuse requires no physical conduct whatsoever. In one extraordinary case, a jury in Florida recognized the lethal potential of emotional abuse by finding a mother guilty of child abuse in connection with the suicide of her 17-year-old daughter, whom she had forced to work as a nude dancer (and had lived off her earnings).

Another rarely understood form of emotional abuse makes victims responsible for their own abuse by demanding that they “understand” the perpetrator. Telling a 12-year-old girl that she was an “enabler” of her own incest is emotional abuse at its most repulsive.

A particularly pernicious myth is that “healing requires forgiveness” of the abuser. For the victim of emotional abuse, the most viable form of help is self-help—and a victim handicapped by the need to “forgive” the abuser is a handicapped helper indeed. The most damaging mistake an emotional-abuse victim can make is to invest in the “rehabilitation” of the abuser. Too often this becomes still another wish that didn’t come true—and emotionally abused children will conclude that they deserve no better result.

The costs of emotional abuse cannot be measured by visible scars, but each victim loses some percentage of capacity. And that capacity remains lost so long as the victim is stuck in the cycle of “understanding” and “forgiveness.” The abuser has no “right” to forgiveness—such blessings can only be earned. And although the damage was done with words, true forgiveness can only be earned with deeds

For those with an idealized notion of “family,” the task of refusing to accept the blame for their own victimization is even more difficult. For such searchers, the key to freedom is always truth—the real truth, not the distorted, self-serving version served by the abuser.

Emotional abuse threatens to become a national illness. The popularity of nasty, mean-spirited, personal-attack cruelty that passes for “entertainment” is but one example. If society is in the midst of moral and spiritual erosion, a “family” bedrocked on the emotional abuse of its children will not hold the line. And the tide shows no immediate signs of turning.

Effective treatment of emotional abusers depends on the motivation for the original conduct, insight into the roots of such conduct and the genuine desire to alter that conduct. For some abusers, seeing what they are doing to their child—or, better yet, feeling what they forced their child to feel—is enough to make them halt. Other abusers need help with strategies to deal with their own stress so that it doesn’t overload onto their children.

But for some emotional abusers, rehabilitation is not possible. For such people, manipulation is a way of life. They coldly and deliberately set up a “family” system in which the child can never manage to “earn” the parent’s love. In such situations, any emphasis on “healing the whole family” is doomed to failure.

If you are a victim of emotional abuse, there can be no self-help until you learn to self-reference. That means developing your own standards, deciding for yourself what “goodness” really is. Adopting the abuser’s calculated labels—”You’re crazy. You’re ungrateful. It didn’t happen the way you say”—only continues the cycle.

Adult survivors of emotional child abuse have only two life-choices: learn to self-reference or remain a victim. When your self-concept has been shredded, when you have been deeply injured and made to feel the injury was all your fault, when you look for approval to those who can not or will not provide it—you play the role assigned to you by your abusers.

It’s time to stop playing that role, time to write your own script. Victims of emotional abuse carry the cure in their own hearts and souls. Salvation means learning self-respect, earning the respect of others and making that respect the absolutely irreducible minimum requirement for all intimate relationships. For the emotionally abused child, healing does come down to “forgiveness”—forgiveness of yourself.

How you forgive yourself is as individual as you are. But knowing you deserve to be loved and respected and empowering yourself with a commitment to try is more than half the battle. Much more.

And it is never too soon—or too late—to start.

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Is Abuse Caused by Demon Possession?

I just read an op-ed piece where a Christian mentioned in passing the “…demon of abuse…”  This is one of the bits of wrong theology held by some Christians regarding abuse.  If you believe abuse is demonic, then it can be exorcised.  The antidote to abuse is to cast it out and all will be well; the end.

However, the huge hazard in this theology is that it makes the abuser a victim of demonic oppression or possession.  It implies they are helpless in the control of a demonic power.  And, most critically, it relieves them of personal responsibility for their choices and their consequences. 

Abuse may be rooted in any number of “causes.”  But everyone, unless they have had brain trauma that destroyed their capability of impulse control (which is possible and requires permanent institutionalization) has a choice when it comes to abuse.  I understand completely there can be contributing factors.  Any number of mental illnesses, which are completely legitimate, can contribute to uncontrolled behavior.  There are developmental disorders which lend themselves to abusive behavior.  There are psychological disorders that can contribute to abusive behavior.  And people who grew up in abusive homes often automatically repeat behaviors they learned by modeling.  But there is always personal choice involved. 

How is it that several children who grew up in the same abusive home don’t all grow up to be abusers if there is no personal choice?  How do others rise above those circumstances and stop the cycle?  I know it can be done; my parents did it.  Granted there were some other patterns of behavior, particularly victim mentality, that was passed along unknowingly.  But my parents never, not once, resorted to violently abusive behavior.  (One of my husband’s contentions was that my family was dysfunctional because my parents never fought; he said anger is healthy because people are being honest about their feelings – of course, he was the only one allowed this luxury.  I got the strong impression that this philosophy was overtly shared by his mother, though I can’t remember her specifically saying so.  She did say my family was dysfunctional because my parents never fought.  Yes, our family does tend to submerge emotions and not communicate well and that’s not healthy.  But abuse is not a good balance!) 

When developmental, psychological or mental illness factors are involved there is still personal choice.  There is therapy and treatment to enable a person to exercise self-control.  At one point Gary was diagnosed as manic depressive by a psychiatrist (who saw him for 30 minutes, one time).  He took the meds provided, which ultimately made his violence worse.  A year or so later when I was literally afraid for our lives I asked his nurse (who did all his 10-minute med checks) and another nurse who was also a Christian, whether his behavior could be excused because of his diagnosis.  Was he truly incapable of acting differently, as he claimed?  They both said he was not excused because of his diagnosis – a diagnosis which turned out to be wrong anyway.  The med-check nurse told me there were plenty of people with far more serious issues than him, such as bipolar disorder (which he was not diagnosed with) who participate with therapy and medication and learn how to be responsible for their actions.   She said it is still an issue of personal responsibility.  Perhaps people with these various disorders/conditions would be unable to control their behavior without medication and/or specific training in how to work with the way they are wired, but they can choose to be responsible.

 Yes, I think someone who is abusive may be allowing themselves to be controlled by a spirit of anger, violence, even murder.  But not in the sense of demon possession, to the point they are helpless in its grasp.  Nor will a prayer or a really fantastic exorcism change the behavior.  Only an abuser can change his behavior, starting with acknowledging he is choosing to sin against his family and then by taking responsibility for his actions.  He may need help (he will almost certainly need help) but he has to make a choice to get that help and cooperate with it.

A True Story – Abuse in a Christian Home

 I have posted another article by Marcia, a Christian counselor in my Articles section, under Abuse in the Christian Home.  I have excerpted only a little bit to give you a flavor of the whole…

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…The first thing I noticed about her was that she was a tiny little thing. The next thing I noticed was that she was very young. Perhaps in her late twenties, but with a look of youthful innocence…

She was silent for a moment. Looking down at an invisible object somewhere on the floor, she tightly gripped her small clutch purse with both hands on its corners, centered it smoothly on her lap, and in a soft, almost breathless voice, exhaled, “I killed my husband…”

You can read the whole post here.

More About Abuse in Christian Marriages

I have added an article to my Articles section, written by Marcia, out of her experience as a Christian counselor. I’ve only excerpted a small “teaser” so follow the link to read the whole piece.

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…The issue that prompted this writing is that once again, I am observing and being asked to pray regarding the divorce proceedings of a couple going to court…once again…today. It is a situation where a lovely and faithful wife of around 20 years is being legally threatened and browbeaten by a husband who has verbally, psychologically and somewhat physically abused her for their whole married life. He is pompous and pious outwardly, and has drug her to several church counselors who admonished HER to be a submissive wife, and in essence, told her she had no legitimate right, in God’s eyes, to separate from him. They have four teenage children, two of which are severely handicapped. He remains in the family home; she and the children were the ones who eventually found another place to live. The children are afraid of being with him. Now he is trying to get her declared an unfit mother, and is placing demands that would rob her of many things that are rightfully hers, including custodial care. Hopefully the court will have wisdom and make right decisions. But the most heartbreaking fact to me, is that she has been counseled to remain in this destructive situation for many years, and felt that God would not approve of her doing otherwise…

The full article is here. Check it out!

Why Pastors Won’t Stand Against Abuse

I wrote an article by this same name with the full story.  Here’s an excerpt.

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So why will pastors not take a stand for the abused within their churches? …

One, they don’t want to make a mistake in taking sides.  If an abuser denies the allegation of abuse, they are afraid not to believe him (or her).  However, from the first separation I begged my pastors to follow the Mt. 18 pattern for church discipline.  But they wouldn’t do it and follow through to the final step.  The problem with this is, when pastors will not “take sides” they are taking sides.  They are taking the side of evil and leaving the abused abandoned in their abuse.  They might as well make a fist and punch people, it is just as hurtful.

Pastors are also afraid of creating division in the church.  This is the ostrich approach to pastoring, I suppose.  Unfortunately, the Bible says that those who sin are to be rebuked publicly so others will see and fear.  The silence of the church on the issue of abuse is contributing to its continued growth because abusers are affirmed in their behavior.  So by saying nothing pastors are “calling evil good” and enabling evil to continue.

The big one though is that pastors don’t want to be guilty of “putting asunder” what God has put together.  They take one statement by God (repeated two or three times in the Bible) out of the context of the whole and elevate it above every other consideration.  As I outlined in my article on the theology of an abusive marriage, the Bible has more to say about the issue of abuse.  There is more Scripture has to say about marriage and abuse as well.  But seminaries and Bible colleges don’t teach the rest of the Word on the subject of marriage.

If pastors took a stand against abusive marriages, I believe they are afraid of either making a mistake that would earn them God’s wrath or they are afraid of gaining the disapproval of church members who have the power to ruin their careers.  I love my pastors a lot but this abandonment was extremely hurtful to me.  

Until something changes, abuse will abound in Christian marriages.  And until something changes I will keep being a voice for change and for righteousness.  The Bible does have an answer for the issue of abuse and that answer isn’t silence and denial.

Theology of an Abusive Marriage

I wrote an article by this title in my articles section. I’m excerpting just the beginning of it below. It’s lengthy, so go check out the article to see the whole document.

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Much of the abuse in my marriage had its roots, or at least it’s excuse for continued existence, in the theology of marriage and family taught in the churches where both my husband and I grew up. These were almost all Baptist churches, some fundamentalist Baptist churches, and a very few non-Baptist churches. The reason I am naming these churches is because, while this theology is extremely common in fundamentalist Baptist churches, it is not limited to this subset. Throughout most of our marriage we were in a Southern Baptist Church and during our first separation our counselor was an elder in our church who was also a LMFT and Christian counselor. During our second separation we received counseling from a trained counselor who attended a Charismatic (full gospel) church and had exactly the same theology of marriage. I also want to make clear that the application of this theology does vary. While I believe this theology is biblically inaccurate, not everyone reaches the conclusion in their personal practice that these theological distinctives excuse behavior which some view as godly but which is abusive…

Click here to read the rest.