Writing about psychological abuse I suffered from maternal narcissism is painful. Reading about it, I would imagine just as painful. For my mother that is. Even though I believe her behaviors were abusive, I know she’s also a living, breathing and hurting person. Does that mean she deserves my compassion? She does, but that’s not the only reason.
She believes herself to be a good mother and I remember quite the opposite. So she gaslights me–where your abuser explains, that your emotions, your memories, for a multitude of reasons, are not true. She says I am a liar, a hyprocite and a fantasist. Gaslighting can make you doubt your own sanity. So when she tells me events, memories and experiences are not real, I can choose to believe I am insane–or I can choose to believe the truth of my own experiences.
I believe that in order to survive abuse in all its forms and thrive, you must speak your truth. But her letters make me doubt myself, and the latest, more than most. She tells me that the pain of cancer, the radiation sickness and difficult bouts of chemotherapy are nothing to the pain she experiences when she reads the articles which constitute ‘my betrayal’. This will be one of them.
I am ‘poisonous’, she says. ‘Treacherous.’ I am worse than cancer.
In my doubt, I seek to understand not just my truth, but ‘the truth, if it exists’. Since memories are notoriously unreliable, I always look back at the physical evidence. At nearly 80, she continues to write me letters full of bitter recrimination. They used to be by hand. I have them tucked away, stacks of them, firm at first and then increasingly shaky, neatly bound in the green twine which sits otherwise unused in the cellar. She writes them in email, bullet points, itemizing her defense as if we are standing trial.
In hundreds of painstakingly handwritten pages from my mother over the years, I can call out numerous instances of emotional blackmail, and abusive manipulation in black and white. But with every word I have written in the past to defend myself, she writes more to absolve herself, and I understand why we cannot heal our relationship. Or more accurately, why I have been able to heal from my childhood experience whilst she remains in pain. I am validated in my experience through research, reaction and by her own hand, whilst she cannot show her face to those who have known us both, because she would be damned.
‘When are you going to stop writing shit about me? she asks.
I know when I re-read those letters that I am not writing shit, or at least, not false shit, I am writing ‘the truth’. My memory may have distorted many events, but it cannot alter what is written in her letters. For me, it is the definitive proof, a small indicator of my childhood experience. Yet the word ‘abuser’ is utterly damning and does not encourage any compassion. It’s the only word we have, but it feeds into our love of polarization. Abusers, bad. Us, good.
I write not to vilify her. I write because I own my story. I write to assert my existence. I write because silence around abuse, even emotional abuse, gives it the authority and space to continue. I write to give voice to those who, like me, have suffered the impact of those narcissistic experiences–extreme objectification, emotional blackmail, gaslighting, identity erasure–but as yet have no name for their experience.
I do condone her abuse, but I have compassion for her experience. Both how she came to be, and how it must be to confront allegations of abuse especially if you believe yourself to be falsely accused. Harder still, to make the realization, I have abused my child. To admit that you are someone both you and society would condemn. Who among us could do it? It is exactly because we make it so hard, that many abusers choose to gaslight; they cannot believe themselves to be capable of abuse. Gaslighting keeps the abused silent. I did not trust myself or my reality.
When at last I spoke out, her retaliation at my truth escalated. I think it’s because of my past condemnation of her and our outright condemnation of abusers as people. It perpetuates the abusive cycle. I’ve condemned her in the past and I see her point, I see her pain. I think I understand why she finds it so difficult to assume her responsibility. Because if she does, she risks her own survival. She’s not a monster. She’s a person who did some bad things. And also some good things. She wants to be happy.
As the abused, assuming my responsibility is easier; some condemn me but by speaking out, but others call me ‘brave’; by recognizing where I have gone wrong, I am called ‘responsible’–even if as my understanding of our individual responsibility grows, some now accuse me of ‘abuse apology’.
I believe I can better resolve the patterns of abuse that continue generation after generation. I do not stay silent because abuse breeds in secrets and lies. But I believe in compassion. I don’t condone the abuse, but I believe I need to have compassion for every single person including those who have abused. To have the courage and compassion to say abuse is monstrous and devastating, but most abusers aren’t monsters.
The common defining characteristic of those caught in the abusive cycle is low self-esteem. It is the marker which measures your worth by what you do. Abusers are condemned as the lowest of the low. Low self-esteem perpetuates abusers’ abusive behaviour because they believe it a way of accessing the power they think they need to boost their self-esteem. So I will call it because now I believe it: Abusers are not any less deserving of compassion than the abused–not only but especially because the abusers, are so often the abused themselves. Compassion doesn’t exclude anger, and it doesn’t necessitate contact. Yet you cannot do compassion by halves, that’s not how it works.
It’s not the duty or place of the abused, to support the emotional growth of their abusers. I cannot with my mother. I have taken that responsibility for too long.
But it’s our responsibility as a society to build the resources we can, so that those who have abused can more easily step into responsibility for their actions without themselves experiencing trauma. Inflicting humiliation and blame on an abuser is to undermine their already very low self-esteem. It is to inflict abuse on one person, in order to heal the abuse of another. Some people believe they deserve it; that is their choice, their reality. I can only speak for mine.
I write to give compassion to both those who have abused, and those who have suffered the experience of abuse. To her and to me. I make it my mission, not because I condone abuse, but because it is my goal to have compassion and respect for my mother and myself despite my past pain, even if the world would condemn her and comfort me. Why? Because I continue to see in my own life, that if one person wins at the expense of someone else, then the battle itself perpetuates the abuse.