I Wish We Were More Honest About Abuse

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Heather Caliri -Honest About Abuse3

[Trigger warning: Conversation about abuse. ]

Can we talk about a big clobber word? Abuse. Also, its derivatives: abusive and abuser.

They’re ugly words, kind of like the word racist or rape. Be an abusive parent, and you might get your kids taken away, or, at the very least, be shamed and ostracized. Abuse is horrible, horrifying, beyond the pale.

I’ve experienced abuse a few times in my life. I’ve seen first-hand the terrible damage abuse causes. So you’d think I’d be glad that these words are clobber words. You’d think I’d want them to smash through bad behavior and send abusers scurrying back into dark holes, never to be seen again.

But I don’t. Instead, I think making abuse into a clobber word hurts everyone. Assuming abuse is something only psychopathic monsters do makes it harder to see abuse accurately. It makes abuse seem obvious and hard to do, when instead it is (depressingly) quite subtle and a tool that’s startlingly easy to reach for.

Making “abuse” into an elephant in the room makes it harder for all of us to notice its size and figure out how to get it out of our houses, churches, and governments.

Let me tell you a story.

For a long time, I struggled with a lot of cynicism and anxiety about the Bible and about church. I researched the reasons people feel panicky about good things, and the word abuse came up a few times.

Except I had never been abused, I thought. In my head, I thought of “abuse” as something surprising and wholly obvious: someone hitting me, or a stranger in an alley sexually assaulting me. I knew of people close to me who had been through “real” abuse: like my closest friend in high school, who had been sexually assaulted by our youth pastor. But I hadn’t experienced anything scary and wrong.

So I had not, I thought, been abused.

I didn’t consider emotional manipulation—how our youth pastor isolated us from healthy adults, or spoke poorly of other kids to let us know, subtly, that if we stepped out of line he’d shun us. I didn’t register how he used physical and emotional closeness with the girls in our youth group to create abnormal intimacy. I didn’t notice him telling me whom to date, what extracurricular activities to participate in, or how much of my time to spend with him.

I thought he just wanted to be my friend. At the time, his behavior seemed benign. But it was anything but.

As I started recognizing the wrongness of his treatment of our youth group, I looked up the dictionary definition of abuse. To use wrongly or improperly; misuse … to treat in a harmful, injurious, or offensive way, to speak insultingly harshly and unjustly to or about.

I felt stunned by how simple, how normal that definition seemed. Abuse wasn’t something exotic. It was something quite within reach.

In psychological circles, abuse carries another connotation: it’s meant to exert control. There’s also a power dynamic involved: it would be much easier for a parent to abuse their child than for a young child to abuse their parent, because the parent naturally has more power.

The thing is: when an adult is misusing their power over a child or adolescent, the child generally won’t see the abusive behavior as abnormal. You might notice someone hitting you, but tune out the emotional manipulation that undergirds the physical abuse.

People who consistently abuse others only manage to do it long-term if they do not let their victims realize how bad things have gotten. Whether they do it intentionally or instinctually, they turn up the heat slowly to keep the frog inside the pot.

Which brings me to why we need to be a lot more willing to talk about abuse in all its forms. When we assume “abuse” will seem clear-cut, obvious, or that the victim will identify their painful experiences as abusive, we’re terribly naive.

It would be easier for victims to own their experiences if we taught our kids what healthy and unhealthy power looks like. If we were fearless in naming power dynamics and how they might be misused. If we took grotesque abuse seriously, but had our eyes opened to the subtler, more insidious kinds.

The only way to do that is to pay attention to how we ourselves commit abusive acts and learn how the dynamics work. It also requires being really honest with ourselves about the power we hold so we can steward it appropriately.

In an age where many people reject the very idea of “privilege,” how can we possibly do a fearless moral inventory of our power?

If we all had an internal understanding of what abuse is, we might more quickly recognize when we or others cross lines. If we took stock of our power—the developmental stages of kids that limit their understanding, or the history of racialized policing that makes it far easier for our justice system to abuse people of color—we could actually confront abuse at its source. We’d quit feeling shamed and defensive, and start being practical and clear-headed.

The Bible is a remarkably savvy document about how misused power distorts the kingdom of God. (See James and Ezekiel.) It could help us recognize our own power if we read scripture with prophetic understanding.

I want to stop assuming that only monsters commit abuse and start recognizing that human beings do. To diagnose abusive dynamics as cannily as we talk about mission statements or systematic theology. And I’d love to take power dynamics as seriously as we chart schematics of electrical grids—both to harness its capability and prevent its awful potential to kill.

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Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who loves British murder mysteries, advice columns, and hot breakfasts. She uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri
  • Nicole A. Joshua

    You speak words rich with wisdom. I did not know that certain childhood experiences of mine at the hands of an older person was abuse until I was 17 years old and a more subtle, nuanced definition was given at a talk at my school. Thank you for speaking frankly about such an important topic. I pray that conversations around nuanced understanding of abuse will multiply so that more people will be protected and set free.

    • Wow, I’m so glad that your school spoke candidly about abuse. and I’m praying with you that we all become a LOT more savvy about abuse.

  • Melissa Henderson

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. Very insightful.

  • “The Bible is a remarkably savvy document about how misused power distorts the kingdom of God.” I have never heard the Bible described this way, and it’s absolutely incredible and poignant. This whole article is. It took me well into adulthood to realize that I’d been emotionally abused, and I so appreciate this discussion about healthy and unhealthy power. Thank you.

    • Hey, Beth–thank you. It’s so empowering to be able to name what has happened to us, even when it’s ugly.

  • Sandy Hay

    Verbal abuse was almost a “normal” punishment technique in my family, in my generation. When my boys were little, words were our first line of punishment. Then spanking. Hard for me to even believe that now but I can’t deny it. The more we talk about it, the better. I don’t even want to go to how I’ve seen it abused in the church, especially teens and dating. Thanks Heather for your voice here.

    • You’re welcome. It’s HARD not to use words as punishment, and this has been SO normal for most families. I struggle to not do it, even knowing that it’s not okay, and even though values have changed. It takes a lot more energy and compassion and wisdom to parent differently.

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  • This is so powerful, Heather. Thank you for bravely defining abuse and bringing it into the light. I think that’s what I need to remember most about creating big, bad, scary “others” – monsters don’t commit abuse or manipulation – human beings do…