Helplessness And Terror Of Children


Pain becomes the center core of the life of one abused, and it is perpetuated in most relationships.

The recent horrors reported on the Penn State campus highlight the utter helplessness and terror of children who experience this violation, as well as the rock like denial that usually surrounds it.

Most people thankfully have no idea how prevalent both physical and sexual abuse are worldwide, and what children who are abused go through following their ordeals. The aftermath of these experiences “with the devil,” as one of the young women I have worked with describes them, is something that involves my life work.

One of the realities of childhood sexual and physical abuse of boys as well as girls, is that the wounds, unless addressed, make finding love and life fulfillment next to impossible. Life becomes an exercise in “coverup” – the determination not to show others the self hate resulting from your horror and its continual expression that dominates your entire life.

Pain becomes the center core of the life of one abused, and it is perpetuated in almost all relationships. Almost without exception one abused as a child becomes incapable of all enriching relationship commitments -- becoming an abuser or seeking out and then clinging to damaging relationships again and again – though each time the one inflicting the pain, and its expression, may seem to be very different.

Most of those abused as children who I have worked with have been young girls. I will share the story of Martha to try to show some of the hell and terror all abused children endure. They finally can finally heal when the cancer of their abuse is slowly and carefully removed, not unlike a slow and painful surgery, and hope and experience with respectful relationships then can be planted and take hold. In order for this to happen, the complex repetitive relationship between the past and the present must be understood.

I had been in practice for about three years when I met Martha. The year was 1975, a time when getting a divorce in our state could be next to impossible. Martha had endured by husband's brutality toward her, in ways physical and sexual, throughout her marriage of twelve years. She came from a deeply religious Catholic family and had two very young children. At each of their births, their father was no where to be found. “I know that I was repeating my mother’s life and her misery,” Martha told me in our early work together, “but I had no idea how to break away and leave a prison that was the only home I knew.”

Of course, all of our work was geared toward Martha doing just that --- leaving the prison that was familiar not only because of her own marriage, but because of her late mother’s. And then, breaking the cycle of abuse of pain and violent expression that had become so familiar to her.

Martha was far more fortunate than most women in her situation: Although she had no steady income, she had a small trust fund left to her by her maternal grandmother. Also, Martha held onto her sanity throughout her married life and teen years by writing continuously in a journal. And because she had a college degree she was able to find a job in a local private school teaching English.

The "tipping point" that led to Martha consulting me came when she learned from her housekeeper that another woman had slept in her marital bed with her husband the evening that her daughter, seriously ill with a spiking fever, had been rushed to the hospital. When Martha confronted her husband, his response was to throw her to the floor, rape her, and beat her to a pulp.

Leaving her bloody, with a broken arm, and a collapsed lung, he then stormed out of their home, warning that Martha would soon she would be on hands and knees, begging for his return. It was her two small children who found her unconscious the next morning.

Martha returned to consciousness hearing the screams of her children, but also remembering how often in her own childhood she had found her mother bloody and bruised, refusing to talk about what happened. She remembered once trying to defend her mother during an attack by standing in front of her. Her father’s reaction was to pick up his ten year old daughter and toss her against a wall. She knew well how one attack, a blow to her mother’s eye, left her partially blind. Then and there, because of her children, Martha promised herself that she would fight to give her family the safety they had never known.

One year later one of Martha’s childhood friends insisted on caring for her two children so that Martha could have some time to herself, and Martha decided to take a two day intensive writing workshop in New York. This decision would lead to both deep joy and deep loss……

Stu was one of three faculty members who taught her two-day workshop. Martha described him as “very handsome, with a wonderfully trimmed salt and pepper beard, light brown eyes, and a deep voice that made you sure he was musically gifted.”

Martha’s daughter had developed a bad cold the day she left to join Martha’s friend; and Martha knew she would be unable to concentrate on the workshop unless she was assured that all was well. Stu directed her to the pay phone (yes, this was in the years before our cell phones, much less smart phones). Later he would tell her that as soon as she left for the phone, he had Martha switched to his breakout group, the smaller meeting that followed the lectures and demonstrations taught during their two days together At the end of the first day Stu asked Martha if he could take her to dinner when the conference was over. Their evening was magical, and the next week, on an evening that Martha’s children were visiting her parents, he