Power and Children

 “Children have never been very good at listening
     to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

-James Baldwin

He is Everyman. You run into him several times every day. He delivers your mail, or writes prescriptions to help you feel better. He calculates your taxes; he answers the phone when you have questions about a bill you received. You have no way to know that he carries scars in his soul. That he has never been able to feel love or joy in the same fashion that you have.

Nothing seems odd about him. He may not even know that he has been seriously wounded. Maybe the abuse that he endured as a child was framed as good intentions. His abuser could have very well been a pillar of the community that he grew up in. His crippling influence often follows the victim as a shadow. The suffering boy remains in an adult body.

The stories that I hear are terrifying. Both because of the content of evil and because of how commonly they come up. In all social strata.

There was the middle-aged man who repeatedly turned down promotions at work. He avoided postgraduate studies, even though it was clear to me that he was very smart and articulate. During a long conversation one day he told me about the priest who had sex with him.

“He told me that I was the devil because I tempted him. That he did not want to do what he was doing to me; that I made him.”

Imagine the panic a child must feel when he finds out that he’s a malignant human being; that no matter how hard he tries he’ll never make it to Heaven because by his very nature he cannot get in there. What are the chances that he’ll report the abuse? How ashamed must he have been every day; every minute of his existence?

There was the one whose mother insisted on bathing him; she also forced him to report every bowel movement so that she could wipe his anus. Well into adolescence. When it became obvious that he had reached puberty he protested. She paid no attention to his complaint. At this time she began to masturbate him, while telling him that he’d never be able to find another woman that would treat him as well as she did. Little wonder that he had trouble functioning sexually; he also was unable to defecate when he was away from home.

There was the one who grew up in a low income neighborhood. One of the gang members that plagued the street that he lived on used him as his own prostitute. He feared for his life if he complained.

The outstanding student who wanted to be an artist, but whose father browbeat into a career in medicine. He hated every minute that he spent in an exam room. Or the lawyer whose mother left him in charge of his two younger siblings beginning at age eight. Some days she would be gone since early in the morning. She left no food for them to eat.

I thought about all of these people when the Hastert case hit the newspapers a couple of days ago. One of the recurrent comments that the journalists felt compelled to make was that this man was third in line for the presidency. As if this made a difference; as if being powerful and reasonably accomplished was an antidote against abuse.

We make this mistake. We think that these horrible things only happen in ghettos or Third World nations. Only to alcoholic parents. Only when the neighbors are all horrible parents, so nobody feels the peer pressure to report mistreatment.
It happens in your neck of the woods. Probably every day.

There’s a lot written on the circumstances that lead to abuse. Certainly poverty and substance abuse are major precipitating factors. I read something very interesting, though, about the underlying psychology behind abuse. There are authorities who believe that many cultures fail to accept that children are individuals who have rights.
This statement hit a nerve.

“Children are made to be seen…”

“Don’t spare the rod…”

Many times I’ve heard patients who bring their children to the office threaten them with physical violence. This is deemed acceptable.

Then I thought about the story in the Bible, where Abraham was told that he had to murder his only son… and he accepted!

Maybe we need to change our way of thinking. Children are not possessions. Because we talk about “my son” maybe we take this to mean that this boy is ours in the same order that a house or a car is. Maybe we need to begin to think of children as small nuggets of gold that we have on loan. It is our duty to help them grow, but we should always keep in mind that they don’t belong to us.

Maybe if every parent had a constant reminder that they must and will be set free…

A solution to the issue of child abuse is long overdue. We cannot call ourselves civilized when the most conservative estimate says that 10% of our kids are not getting the love they need. If only we forced our legislators to divert one tenth of what goes into weapon production to do research and treatment on this cancer!

It’s there; it’s real. Will we have the courage to face the facts and try to act?

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This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. Don Peterson

    You had me until that final comment about trading guns for butter. Why does it always seem that weapons are evil and funding of them is somehow less moral than other uses of those funds? Weapons have helped us secure what freedoms we have and they protect all of us from certain evils. Rather, lets end corporate welfare, bailouts and subsidies that consume tax dollars for causes that help but a few. Or, work to end welfare fraud and bloated bureaucracies that waste our precious tax dollars. Then use those funds to help restore dignity and hope to those who’ve been abused and to help educate the community on how to spot abuse and report it.

    1. Weapons were used as a means of comparison and not as a political statement. The fact is that we spend a huge part of the budget on military procurement; another huge chunk on social security and Medicare. Yet we do not have any accurate estimate of how prevalent abuse is, nor do we know the best way to avoid it. I’m all for making corporations pay their fair share and for ending welfare as we know it to be substituted for job training and ideal child care and education. It doesn’t matter where the money is to come from; the fact is that we need to invest whatever it takes into educating our children and keeping them safe. It should not be an afterthought.

  2. Lois Allen

    I must confess that I think Mr. Peterson has a point that you can’t compare apples and oranges. Child abuse is not a cancer, it’s sin. Government is a poor substitute for God but that is what America seems determined to do. You cannot legislate the changing of men’s hearts. Sin originates there. Not in learned behavior. Jesus taught that it isn’t the things on the outside that corrupt the inside but the other way around. Jn. 15:19 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man unclean. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual, immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.
    I’d love to see us “force” our legislators to actually do their jobs and put the resources at their fingertips to productive work. It hasn’t happened. Where corruption reigns, there is no accountability. Laws are on the books for every tiny thing you can imagine. None of them have prevented the choices humanity make to sin.

    1. I understand your point. If I disagree on anything it’s in the statement about laws; they are very important. In ancient Rome it was not unlawful to abandon your unwanted baby in the dung pile. Once a law is passed society changes; initially grudgingly but within a generation or two the law becomes the moral imperative. I agree that we have too many laws, but the bulk of what we have we need. I also feel that people are not born sinful; there is a mountain of evidence that shows that people who are raised in a loving environment get into much less trouble.

    2. rtiepelman

      I would submit that learned behavior forms the contents of the heart. The words of Jesus which you have shared are indeed truth — nothing external can touch the soul, corrupt it, nor make it good. This privilege is ours, and ours alone.
      Though we cannot change what others have done to us, it is we who establish its meaning. Sin comes from ignorance to this fact.
      To understand, reflect upon this, the words of Marcus Aurelius:

      Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth.
      To act against one another then is contrary to nature, and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.

      Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are and to make new things like them. For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.

      It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgements.

      1. This is beautiful. My philosophy teacher in college despised Marcus Aurelius. I failed to become familiar with his writings. Will correct this oversight for sure.

  3. rtiepelman

    Prior to the advances in contraception–sexual relations carried with them the stipulation of commitment. If a pregnancy resulted, marriage was a duty.
    Following the appearance of birth control, the “pill”, legalized abortion and free distribution of condoms, sex has become more common due to the lower chances of pregnancy. In essence, sex without commitment.
    Girls, now have the very real fear that if sex is withheld, they will lose their partner. Virgins are lambasted; Sex is casual; and for men, it’s fidelity free.
    Pregnancy has shifted to a choice by the woman. Boys feel no consequences for their actions; they have become disengaged from what family really is. Personal accountability has been displaced by a self-fulfilling, consumer mentality.
    Spouses and children are viewed as things to be possessed, enjoyed, and abandoned; instead of treasured and cherished.

    1. From my viewpoint things haven’t changed much. My mother had many friends who were mistreated by their husbands, but they were afraid of being alone so they stuck it out. Not sure that boys or men have ever had to face consequences for being jerks. I venture to say they have not; the deck is stacked against women. As far as pregnancy is concerned, marriage was seldom a duty. Many helpless young women were abandoned, particularly if the man who got them pregnant was already married or committed in some way (read the part of “Of Human Bondage” excerpted in the introduction to my book). Those men who felt obligated to get married ended up resenting their wives and children; this often led to abuse and mass unhappiness. Take it from an old man: the old days were not what we are told that they were.
      “Tell Me How You Die Easy” – by Francisco Garriga, M.D. — only $15.00 +tax
      Tell Me How You Die Easy - by Francisco Garriga

      1. rtiepelman

        I look forward to reading it, I will purchase a copy soon.

        What has corrupted the souls of man; there was once a time when people knew the meaning of morality. It was; an America worth fighting for.

        “They are as agreeable as my enthusiasm had painted them. The simplicity of manners, kindness, love of country and of liberty, and a delightful equality everywhere prevail. The wealthiest man and the poorest are on a level; and, although there are some large fortunes, I challenge anyone to discover the slightest difference between the manners of these two classes respectively towards each other.

        “The American women are very pretty, simple in their manners, and exhibit a neatness, which is everywhere cultivated even more studiously than in England. What most charms me is, that all the citizens are brethren. In America, there are no poor, nor even what we call peasantry. Each individual has his own honest property, and the same rights as the most wealthy landed proprietor…. the title of a good American is a sufficient passport to all those civilities paid in Europe to one’s friend.
        – Marquis de Lafayette, June 1777.

        What went wrong between then and now?
        Even in 1913, at least our president had a sense of righteousness.

        “There are many kinds of success in life worth having. It is exceedingly interesting and attractive to be a successful business man, or railroad man, or farmer, or a successful lawyer or doctor; or a writer, or a President, or a ranchman, or the colonel of a fighting regiment, or to kill grizzly bears and lions. But for unflagging interest and enjoyment, a household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison.”
        – Theodore Roosevelt

  4. Cordell Webb

    If you want to see child abuse up close try being a foster parent. My wife and I were foster parents for over 12 years. We were able to adopt two of them. This was 40 years ago and I can only image what you might see now. Dr. G I thought this one of your best blogs. I forwarded it on to several friends. Please keep it up.

  5. Denise

    Is this a new book. I don’t think this is the one I bought when you were still in practice. I was sexually abused as a child and went thru 3/4 years of therapy. It helped a lot and when I finally told the abuser what I remembered I felt a huge relief and my feeling that it was my fault disappeared. I still have a lot of trouble being with a man one on one so I doubt I ever date again. The abusers answer when I cconfronted

  6. Denise

    Him was that it was a long time ago. Get over it. He never said he was sorry so I took him out of my life. I feel so much better now but sometimes little things happen or I see something and the past rears its ugly head and my heart takes off and anxiety sets in. I am now working on me again and I am progressing slowly. My hope is to be whole again and less critical of myself. Thanks for all you have done to help me open my eyes and strive to be an unbroken woman again.

    1. There are many of us. The scars never leave: they are scars. We are branded much as cattle are. The best we can do is try not to project one person’s bad behavior unto everyone we meet, but trust, I agree, is hard to come by. Hang in there; keep working.

      1. Betty Townsend

        The Bible says that the sins of the father will carry on to the third or fourth generation. I have never (?) experienced abuse. My husband verbally abused our oldest son. My mother thought he was jealous of his son. I found out later that his father sexually abused him as a child.
        The scares are very real. My son used drugs and was jailed but thankfully he turned himself around but I can still see the scares.