The Abuser in All of Us

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Last night at Elliott Bay Book Company, author Val Brelinski read from her debut novel, The Girl Who Slept with God, and posed an impossible question: Is it possible to love another human being–parents, siblings, children, spouses–and not in some way damage the other person? Or is that part of the nature of intimate relationships?

It’s a theme her novel explores through two sisters who end up exiled from their fundamentalist community because one of them is pregnant–and claims it’s the child of god. But it struck me as a universally relevant question.

After the reading, I flipped through my old photo album with my fiance, whom I had never shown a picture of me as a child. I had taken most of the snapshots with a camera my parents gave me for my birthday in 1988. It was the kind with the little viewer you peered through like a peephole. I bought the flash cubes with my allowance. They made a delicious pop when I snapped a photo, and then there was the smell. Hot plastic and something burning, like a lit match just snuffed out.

But now and then, a relative would ask to take a picture of me, and I would loan them the camera–smiling into the peephole from the other side, allowing myself to be spied upon.

Josh said I have exactly the same smile as the ten-year-old in the photos. In fact, I looked like a remarkably happy child. It wasn’t fake. I remember that optimism. Josh pointed out a photo where I smiled into the camera from a vacation in Southern California, cuddled up against my mother–who sat rigid as a fence post beside me, not touching me, her smile tight.

But it was my father’s remarkable transition I had never seen before. The album opened with his grin, a young engineer who scrunched his face into goofy roars at my lens and bounced his children on his knees while whistling Rossini’s William Tell Overture.

Just two years later, it all had changed. I never caught another shot of him looking straight at me. He was always busy with computer screens or tent stakes or grills. Josh pointed out his flat affect in every photo after we left Richland. “Hardened,” Josh called it. And he was right.

A combination of misfortunes and my father’s response to them conspired to replace the affectionate, playful father with a cold abuser. No one starts out that way.

But he lost his job at Hanford and couldn’t find another in the area. My mother had given up a comparable job at Boeing when they converted to Mormonism a few years earlier. Sending her back to her career wasn’t an option for them. He refused to ask anyone for help or even admit he needed a job. The bank foreclosed on their house. Unemployed, my father moved us to western Washington where he continued job searching for months, our savings draining away. My mother took a few late-night temp jobs like inventory for grocery stores. Eventually, my father found work.

But it was one of the most humiliating, desperate periods of his life. He never forgave the world for it.

And he never crawled back out of the isolation he sealed himself into like a tomb.

So do loved ones hurt each other? Always. But the world hurts us, too. And if we sink into the muck of hatred and vengeance and outrage, that hurt is guaranteed to cut deep and leave a scar.

But if we develop resolve instead of resentment, compassion instead of blame, and wisdom tempered with humor–rather than bitter sarcasm–it’s possible to nurture our loved ones, too. And maybe even help them heal from other scars. I believe fiercely that the ratio of damage to healing that we leave behind is the best indication of our character. Because it reflects how each of us chooses to live with the abuser in all of us.

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