I obviously enjoy a wide range of books across many genres, but the ones that tend to stick with me the most are the ones that can give me a story about the imperfections of humanity and do so with a strong emotional impact, be it through humor, joy, anger, love, tears or grief. As long as the story fully engages my emotions, I’m probably going to really enjoy it, but even more so if it has a central focus on family.
While this isn’t a book review, it is, in a way, about a book I read, or more accurately, my reaction to it. Whisper Me This by Kerry Anne King. It is about family, but it focuses on the side of the damage family can do to each other and the long term effects of abuse and breaking that cycle. Even though the bigger focus in the story was around physical abuse, the part that hit me and resonated with me the most was the underlying issue of subtle emotional abuse.
As I was reading, seeing the hints about actual physical abuse and even, later when it begins to talk specifics about that abuse, the expected sympathetic emotions in response were brought out. That isn’t what really tugged at me and forced me to feel more, though. It was when the less physically obvious signs of a subtler emotional abuse began to come out that I started to react on a much deeper level. Because I recognized it. I recognized bits and pieces of me in that main character because of it.
There are lots of different kinds of abuse and they all can have devastating, long term effects. I think that people tend to see physical abuse as more damaging or legitimate because there are obvious, visual results of that abuse. Bruises. Broken bones. Strained or torn joints and muscles. The next level of legitimacy is given to outright, obvious emotional abuse. The screaming and name calling and blatant putting down of another person where others can see and hear. Again, because we have visual or experiential evidence through witnessing the abuse.
But it is the subtle, unseen emotional abuse that is too often ignored or dismissed. It is something that a phrase here and there comes across as innocuous or a normal sharing of opinion or rebuke or even a kind sounding correction. Words and situations that, under normal circumstances would never raise a red flag, but when combined and repeated over time can be just as destructive.
Have you ever seen a set of stairs that has seen generations of steps that have worn down an obvious dip the center of the tread from all those steps? Or an area where water has trickled for so long it has carved a channel in the rock it was running across? It isn’t something that you see happening. It is gradual. You don’t really see the signs of it at all until the damage is there and permanent.
That is subtle emotional abuse and it eats away at your sense of self. Your confidence. Your value. Most people that do this aren’t even aware of it. Some people may even argue that it isn’t abuse at all. How can it not be when it leaves that kind of damage behind?
It isn’t the kind of abuse that involves name calling or screaming or overt insults. It can be conveyed, not even in the specific words used, but by the tone of voice and the implied words that were never actually spoken. An incredulous “Why on earth would you want to do THAT?!” can imply the words “stupid” and “thoughtless” or “you are incapable.” It can be done through a complete lack of words as their way of showing their displeasure. I have experienced the master of the silent glare that often spoke more than words ever could.
If someone is always and forever pointing out all of the ways you could be/do better, even if they are minute and insignificant, backed by a lack of any effort to recognize an accomplishment, you eventually believe that you will never be/do good enough.
At one point in my life, with my ex, this kind of thing convinced me that I was a horrible cook when cooking is something that I’ve done since I was tall enough to see into a pot on the stove. Even though I’d cooked for family and friends for years with rave reviews. Even though I was my Foods teacher’s favorite because I always presented her with elaborate home projects like chicken tortellini with pesto, all from scratch, that she absolutely loved. He was able, with a simple critical comment, like something needing more/less salt, over and over and over again, to erode that hard won confidence down to nothing in less than 4 years. Not one time were any of those criticisms done in anger or intentional meanness, but, combined with the lack of any kind of mention in any form that he ever actually enjoyed anything I cooked, they still managed to decimate a huge part of my identity for a very, very long time. He had convinced me that, no matter what I made, it was never good enough.
That is only a single, tiny example, from one person in a line of them throughout my life that have done significant damage that I’m still trying like hell to heal from. In my late teens, I had thought that I was this strong, self assured, confident person that wouldn’t take shit from anyone. That I would never tolerate someone cutting me down or hurting me. I even had a shining example of proof of that ideal from an argument with an ex where he threatened to hit me and I got in his face and dared him to go for it and see what happened. Like most teens, I felt infallible.
I look back at the time between then and now. I can see that dip worn in the center of my stairs. I can see how it has been eroded over the years. I can see how walking away from a large portion of the people that helped to create that dip has helped to heal me. I am not made of stone, so my damage can heal and it has some, but the dip is still there. It most likely will be for the rest of my life.
But because I can see all of those things, I hope that means I’m breaking my own cycle and not being the cause for a dip in my kids. I catch myself sometimes, hearing the words come out of my mouth and know the damage they might cause if I don’t course correct and find a better way. I still get tripped up when I run across yet another thing that I can see, another set of footsteps on my stairs, that has contributed to my damage and realize I’m not as far along as I thought. But I’m trying and I’m not closing my eyes to my faults and my damage. I’m honest with my kids and, I hope, I’m giving them the tools to see the signs so they don’t end up with the same.
Reading that book did tweak a cord in me and force me to think about it all and recognize it. It forced me to take yet another moment to look at myself objectively to see how far I’ve actually come. I will always see that as a good thing and it is one of the very reasons I enjoy books like that.