I’ve never felt compelled to put a “trigger warning” at the beginning of a post, but this one feels like it might require one. So… you have been warned.
I work in a bookstore. Most of the time, I am kept pretty busy, but occasionally we will have a slow day like yesterday. While I was adding content to our demo NOOK devices, I cam upon the autobiography of two term California governor, and the only Republican I have ever voted for, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The book, Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story caught my attention, and in the lulls during the day, I read through the first couple of chapters. I’m a fan of Arnold as an actor, but I realized that there was much I didn’t know about his life before coming to America. He grew up in Austria to parents who had lived through the second World War and were part of the losing side. Their country was occupied by Allied forces. He grew up in incredibly humble conditions. His father was a police officer and it sounds like he was a man of discipline, something I guess that could be expected of someone who seems so driven. Schwarzenegger talks about growing up in a house of discipline and rules. But he also goes into some territory that is clearly beyond discipline and into the realm of abuse. He talks about hard hits and beatings with switches. He then makes an insightful observation. Here I will ask for your forgiveness for lack of direct quotes as I do not have the texts in front of me. If I can rectify this soon, I will. He discusses how he was not the only person in his village to experience such abuse at the hands of the men in his village. The aura of losing was part of the Austrian psyche at that time. They had been on the wrong side of the war. They had been promised a glorious new empire and got occupation instead. Loss and humiliation had seeped into the hearts and minds of the men in his village, many who had fought for the Nazi cause. Schwarzenegger is insightful in pointing out that the men took out the frustration of this internalized humiliation on their wives and children. Humiliated men, humiliate those they observe to be weaker, other men, but most often women and children. This is a cycle, repeated throughout history. Hurt people hurt people.
I continue to process all of the issues coming to surface in my favorite sport. While the release of the Ray Rice video was disturbing, the allegations against Adrian Peterson hit much closer to home. Peterson is accused of taking a switch to his four year old son. The allegations seemed to draw attention to another racial divide as many African Americans defended Peterson’s right to “discipline” his kid. I read many “I was spanked and I turned out okay” comments. It was jarring and triggering for me. I have a four year old son. I would never hit him with an object. I’ve actually only hit him once. He was two. I cried and apologized to him profusely. He was two. He didn’t get it, but in that moment I had become something I hated.
It’s taken a long time, and several therapists, for me to call what I went through as a child as abuse. I was told it was discipline. I was told it was out of love. I was told that it hurt them more than it hurt me. I was told “spare the rod, spoil the child” (Proverbs 13:24). I believed it. I believed that I was bad enough that the evil needed to be beat out of me. But I have kids now. And there are some things I can’t imagine doing to them. I can’t imagine making them bend over a bed with their bottoms exposed. I can’t imagine showing them that I was wetting the leather belt so that it would hurt more. I can’t imagine making sure that belt was visible every time they entered my bedroom. I can’t imagine waking either of them up to a whipping because they had given me a dirty shirt to iron.
The things I experienced kept me in line. By all measures, I was a “good” kid. Good grades, active in sports and activities. Never caused trouble. I was also afraid. I was afraid to be at home. I stayed down in my cave and only came up for food. I avoided people. I lied to avoid being punished. I did whatever I could to not be noticed in my own home. Those things that were survival tactics for me as a kid carried over into my adulthood. I still have difficulty sleeping and have to have covers on me when I do. I try to blend in. I’m skittish around those I determine to be authorities over me. I’m dishonest at times to protect myself.
One of my favorite writers/thinkers, Michael Eric Dyson wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times. He connects the ideas of corporal punishment in the African American community to our history with slavery:
While 70 percent of Americans approve of corporal punishment, black Americans have a distinct history with the subject. Beating children has been a depressingly familiar habit in black families since our arrival in the New World. As the black psychiatrists William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs wrote in “Black Rage,” their 1968 examination of psychological black life: “Beating in child-rearing actually has its psychological roots in slavery and even yet black parents will feel that, just as they have suffered beatings as children, so it is right that their children be so treated.”
The lash of the plantation overseer fell heavily on children to whip them into fear of white authority. Terror in the field often gave way to parents beating black children in the shack, or at times in the presence of the slave owner in forced cooperation to break a rebellious child’s spirit. Black parents beat their children to keep them from misbehaving in the eyes of whites who had the power to send black youth to their deaths for the slightest offense. Today, many black parents fear that a loose tongue or flash of temper could get their child killed by a trigger-happy cop. They would rather beat their offspring than bury them.
The beatings I experienced accomplished the goal of keeping me in line. They also did deep psychological damage with which I am only now coming to terms. I use the words “abuse” and “trauma” now so that I do not let myself off the hook when thinking about how I want my children or other young people to be treated. Hurt people hurt people unless there are hurt people who are willing to not hurt people. My hurt cannot be my sons hurt. If we teach children that violence is necessary to maintain order in the home or in the school, then they will learn that violence is the only way to maintain in their communities and in the world. Haven’t we outgrown that lesson yet?
Hurt people hurt people. But hurt people can also heal people. It’s time that we call abuse by name, bring it to an end, and begin the process of healing.