Content note: This article contains descriptions of domestic violence and traumatic assault.
When my ex-spouse and I were dating, we had the the usual getting-to-know-each-other talks — with a deeper dimension, since we had known each other as kids and had reconnected as adults. As we delved deeply into our personal histories, each providing individual perspectives on our shared childhoods, she said something that would forever change the context of my life:
“That was abuse.”
I had been working up to the description of how my dad used to “discipline” my brothers and me when we were kids. Every relationship I’d ever been in, some version of this conversation would crop up. I would have to explain the deep wound I carry from my father (and to some degree, my mother) without painting him as a monster, and especially without using the “A” word. After all, I wasn’t an abused kid. I knew what “abusive fathers” looked like — from TV and books, anyway — and my dad didn’t act like that. My dad was clean and sober, stern but loving, the very model of a Baptist preacher. He never raised a hand to my mother, and he certainly, it seemed obvious to me, did not beat his kids.
No, he didn’t beat us. He spanked us.
The distinction seemed so obvious and significant when I was young, but as an adult I find it impossible to explain. Parent-child violence in one context was clearly abuse, while parent-child violence in another context was clearly discipline. One was unconscionable, the other justified, even morally mandated. One was hate, and the other, love.
My parents both believed in spanking. A Baptist preacher and a preacher’s wife, they grounded their parenting in Biblical principles such as Proverbs 13:24: “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” In theory, this teaching meant that corporal punishment was a duty undertaken in solemnity, an unpleasant task that was nonetheless necessary for the sake of guiding children to be well-rounded adults, able to act responsibly and functionally in the adult world, and not slaves to wanton impulses or selfish indulgence.
In practice, however, while my mother administered spankings in a detached and businesslike manner, my father’s spankings were a different story. When my father spanked, it was in anger. It was no 10-swats-and-you’re-done chore. It was an ordeal of indeterminate length, often with my two brothers and me shut up in a room, my father spanking the three of us in turn, ranting and raving between rounds of furious swats. It continued for however long he felt like it. These spankings were not “discipline.” They were not short, sharp reminders of what we had done wrong. They were a blur of terror and pain. They were my father indulging his anger and frustration to their fullest and at his children’s expense.
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And so, in my early thirties, I found myself explaining the trauma of that frequent ordeal to my partner, without situating myself as an abuse survivor, because to admit that was unthinkable. When that partner (who grew up in the same community and was no stranger to its values and practices) helped lead me to the courage to name my abuse for what it was, it felt gruesomely freeing, releasing decades of lies and denial in a tear-filled flood. It also seemed witheringly obvious. In what possible world could this behavior toward a child, toward any loved one, be anything other than grievous mistreatment?
And yet, my family lived in such a world. Once, when the older of my brothers and I were adults, still living at home, a petty argument escalated until he assaulted me, utilizing his military training to inflict maximum pain and terror while avoiding serious injury. We were not alone. My mother watched, ignoring my pleas for help, later stating that she thought I needed the beating as a lesson in controlling my temper. When I tried to tell my father what had happened, he lectured me on respecting my mother and chided me for using profanity in expressing my anger.
In our household, swearing was a more serious offense than assault.
My brother’s attack had not sprung forth in a vacuum. He had bullied me in minor ways throughout our childhood. Sometimes, Dad would be furious with him, even standing between us protectively, daring my brother to fight him instead. But my father was apparently oblivious to the connection between my brother’s violence and his own. The violence he had enacted in our home was passed on to him from his father, and he had passed it on to his son in turn. As Proverbs 22:6 states, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” My brother had clearly learned his lessons well.
Some might argue that my father’s violence was merely spanking gone wrong. But I contend that it was actually spanking gone “right.” Sure, my father’s temper led to gruesome excess, easy to condemn. Even my mother’s “businesslike” spankings, however, were violence, and that violence is a feature of spanking, not a bug. The entire point of such “discipline” was to use pain and fear to coerce behavior. Remember, as I was beaten by my brother, my mother watched and considered it a valuable teaching tool.
Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren once told this anecdote:
When I was about 20 years old, I met an old pastor’s wife who told me that when she was young and had her first child, she didn’t believe in striking children, although spanking kids with a switch pulled from a tree was standard punishment at the time.
But one day when her son was 4 or 5, he did something that she felt warranted a spanking — the first in his life. And she told him he would have to go outside and find a switch for her to hit him with.
The boy was gone a long time. And when he came back in, he was crying. He said to her, ‘Mama, I couldn’t find a switch, but here’s a rock you can throw at me.’
All of a sudden, the mother understood how the situation felt from the child’s point of view: that if my mother wants to hurt me, it makes no difference what she does it with; she might as well do it with a stone. The mother took the boy onto her lap, and they both cried. Then she laid the rock on a shelf in the kitchen to remind herself forever: never violence.
And that is something I think everyone should keep in mind. Because violence begins in the nursery, one can raise children into violence.
My parents certainly raised my brother into violence. They may have seemed disapproving of his bullying, but in the end, his abuse of me was entirely, explicitly sanctioned by them and their values. In fact, it was identical in nature to their own abuse of me and of him.
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In truth, the seed of that violence germinates in me as well. Anyone who has known me with any level of intimacy can tell you the difficulty I’ve had with managing and modulating my emotions. Every time I feel silenced or shut down, the trapped panic sets in — the panic of a girl whose feelings were never allowed a fair hearing. Every time I feel anger rising in my chest, I relive the white-hot nightmare my father inflicted on me, and it’s that heat that scorches anyone near me. Every day, as a parent, as a friend, as a lover, I struggle to avoid becoming the raging beast of my father or the cold spectre of my mother. Every day, I try to live in open-hearted empathy. Some days, I fail. Others, I succeed.
I survived a household of religious violence by looking it in the eye. I named the demon for what it was, and that didn’t banish it, but at least it brought the beast into the light. I’ve turned my back on its ways, but that doesn’t mean I’ve left it behind for good. Its heat and hurt will probably always be with me. It is not possible to fail to teach children. They will always, always learn their lessons well. I certainly did. All I can do is to work, day by day, to set those lessons aside and teach my own child different ones.
[Headline image: Black and white photograph of a young child wearing a plaid hat and looking upward and to the side against a black background. The child has a serious expression.]