The word responsible has positive connotations. When seen in the comment section of a report on someone’s performance, or used to describe a person’s attitude toward tasks, it’s unquestionably “a good thing”. After all, to be irresponsible is to be slipshod, forgetful, unreliable.
There’s one small problem, as I recently discovered through conversations involving my surviving parent, and my therapist.
One said the responsibility for my being harmed lay on my abuser.
The other said it was my responsibility to not anger the abuser, and, more specifically, to get out of the abuser’s way.
The therapist, unsurprisingly, held the view that the abuser shouldn’t hurl fists or belts or metal objects at a child.
My surviving parent, to my shock, laughed aloud to think anyone would have the therapist’s opinion.
The best description of my reaction to my parent is, simply, “Another childhood hope becomes a ruin.”
The upshot, however, is that I realized my abuser was not the only parent to place responsibility for the abuse on me. So did my other parent. If I caught a fist, insult, or metal object, then I had been irresponsible enough to not get out of the way. It was my job to not upset the abuser, and if the abuser happened to be upset (say, by a stubborn oil filter), then it was my job to calm the abuser, and predict his behavior. When a stainless steel wrench bounced from the concrete floor into my shin and literally chipped the bone? Too bad for me. I didn’t get out of the way.
Literally thirty-five years later, the scar on my shin is visible. That too is something I am responsible for, as far as my surviving parent is concerned.
There’s nothing new in this narrative. Victim-blaming is a regrettably common response. Yet my parent had no malice in that reaction. It was, simply, reflex. Or, more accurately, a conditioned response.
Probably the most famous example of a conditioned response would be Pavlov’s dogs. In a simple experiment, Pavlov fed dogs at the ringing of a bell. Eventually, the mere ringing of the bell caused the dogs to salivate, even though food was no longer being given to the dogs.
Those who survive abuse can have many conditioned responses. In my case, I react very strongly to certain sounds, which I associate with pain or humiliation. Other conditioned responses were learned as survival mechanisms, such as anticipating needs, behaving in a subservient manner, and denying that any problem existed. That last may sound utterly ridiculous, but if the problem was acknowledged, then what? As a child, I lacked resources—internal and external—to do anything about the problem. Admitting it would have been beyond my coping capacity, so I denied that it was “wrong” to be hurt.
The inability to place the blame—responsibility—on the abuser still haunts me. I was taught to blame myself before I was able to speak. (Alas, not an exaggeration.) My abusers actively told me I was to blame, I was responsible, for their rage and violence. If I was harmed, I was the responsible party. If I weren’t irresponsible, then they’d never be upset.
Somehow, I managed to survive until middle age before realizing how fully my non-abusing parent agreed. I understand why, and ironically place no blame. To survive, without facing the financial and religious perils presented by divorce, my non-abusing parent had to participate in the abuser’s worldview. Fighting against the domination of the abuser, refusing subservience to the abuser, disagreeing with the abuser, involved the risk of becoming a target for the abuser’s wrath. Any rebellion against the abuser was restricted to passive aid, done secretly and silently.
In that sense, my “non-abusing” parent was a full participant in the abuse dynamic.
In another sense, my non-abusing parent was a victim.
In a third and dreadful sense, my non-abusing parent remains a victim. Locked in the mindset that allowed survival then, my non-abusing parent is unable to understand me now, as I strive for wellness.
Read about an adult who sued a parent for failure to protect him from abuse by the other parent in this article.
Images by ghwtog and author.