On the issue of sibling abuse
With an ongoing interest in abuse issues, Post Traumatic Shock Disorder and power relationships, I picked up this book in our library van this week.
Girl in the Water by Nancy Kilgore, MS, is a harrowing tale of one little girl's ongoing victimization, bullying and near murder at the hands of her older sister, over the span of her entire childhood, right up until her sister married and left home.
The description of the abuse was terrible.
Perhaps even more moving, however, was the very vivid description of how Nancy 'coped' (although it's probably more accurate to use the term 'survived' because I don't think anyone really 'copes' with evil perpetrated on them), often using dissociation and daydreaming as a means of temporary escape.
The most intriguing part about it though, was how it was allowed to happen.
Nancy was the second of four daughters in what appeared, on the outside, to be a reasonably normal family. Her father was in the US Navy, her mother was a stay-at-home caregiver. The family was posted to Europe, back to the US, and to Hawaii. And everything was apparently okay.
Except it wasn't.
Nancy and her sister often played together and appeared to get on well in public, at least when their parents were watching. But as soon as they were out of sight and back in their shared bedroom, her sister reverted to her position as powerful abuser, using mental, emotional, verbal and physical tortures, designed to keep Nancy in a submissive position.
When her father was away on naval postings, her mother would go out shopping every couple of weeks, leaving the older sister in charge. These were terrifying ordeals for Nancy, who was frequently suffocated to the point of near death and then resuscitated by her sister, who also pulled the two baby sisters along to witness and join in the victimization of Nancy.
How did no one notice? How did two parents seemingly miss the true cause of Nancy's constant depression, illnesses, failure at school, cutting and self-harm and lack of sociability?
In this case, as in many, many other cases of abuse inflicted on women and children, people see what they want to see.
Nancy's parents saw what they wanted to see. Her father was oblivious to much of the family's dynamics and her mother ignored what didn't fit into her vision of what her family should be.
It didn't help that her mother could hardly cope with her life. As a victim herself of an unhappy and dysfunctional family, she tended towards isolation, with few friends and no parenting support. Her first two babies were born close together in Europe, away from any source of useful help. The next two babies were conceived within a single year and she appeared to have symptoms of post natal depression.
Nancy's mother leaned on her daughters heavily for support, especially the older one. From the sound of it, any parenting of Nancy was devolved onto the older sister. "You're in charge," the mother told her daughter, and, "Do what your sister says," she told Nancy. The continual, round the clock, care of two babies and two small girls would have been depressing and hard, and no help came from Nancy's father. Like many men of that generation, he arrived home at night, sat up for his dinner and then watched TV while his wife continued to work in the kitchen and look after the children. Nancy saw her mother's energy run down and her life become smaller and smaller.
At the same time, her sister's responsibilities increased enormously - and with it, a fierce anger towards what she may have seen as the cause of her extra work - Nancy.
Nancy's mother appeared to value very highly the image that she held in her head of the ideal family. She dressed her two elder daughters alike and constantly compared them to each other. "You're the pretty one, and you're the smart one." She told Nancy, "Your sister is kind and loves you." She took photos of them dressed and posed, framed them and looked at them constantly. Her energy was spent planning dinners for family occasions such as Christmas and Thanksgiving.
When Nancy tried to tell her mother that her sister had hurt her, her mother brushed it off and told her she was wrong. "Your sister loves you." A few years down the track, she witnessed a huge temper tantrum by her oldest daughter about Nancy being allowed to sit in the front seat of the car. But rather than deal with it and stand up to her, she smoothed over the ruffled feelings, pretended there was no problem, and simply never let Nancy sit in the front seat again.
"My parents needed me to smile,"writes Nancy. "I became a mechanical doll in my own inner horror house. I played an endless soundtrack of laughter for them. I bowed, chuckled and waited for my parents to clap... Smiling took effort. When I did smile my facial expression was equivalent to a push-up bra."
Simply put: her parents refused to deal with the bullying. They denied it, refused to see it and required everyone to pretend that it wasn't happening.
That's the issue here, really.
Bullying, abuse and power plays exist because we don't want to see evil for what it is. We prefer to see the idealized version of what we think is our family, our school, our family, our community, our nation.
To say to an abused person or an traumatized group of people - "Yes, I see you. I hear you. Your feelings are real. Your experiences are valid," - well, that takes courage. Because we might have to change things. We might have to change our beliefs and our actions around. We might have to say, "You know, things are not what I thought they were."
The longer Nancy's abuse went on for, the more difficult it became for her parents to do anything about it. And let's just say right now, they could have done something about it. Rather than watch their second daughter be put to a slow and painful death at the hands of their first daughter, they could have protected her and called out the abuse and torture for what it was. But the longer it went on, the more they had to lose because they would have had to say, effectively, "We were wrong for years and years and we hurt you dreadfully."
This book makes me aware again that it's worth working hard on effectively parenting my children, especially in their relationships with each other. Teasing isn't cool, speaking rudely isn't an option. And listening, really listening, to their feelings and their thoughts and taking them seriously, could save them from a lifetime of traumatic consequences.
Because sibling bullying doesn't just go away when you grow up. Just because the bullies leave the room doesn't mean they leave your heart.
I was bullied for a year at boarding school and it took me more years than I realised to work out the behaviours and thoughts that were established in me as a result. Nancy has spent her adulthood having to reparent herself, having to learn what love and trust really mean, and having to find a way to get over PTSD and chronic anxiety.
Like all abuse of power, it's worth taking another look at sibling abuse and seeing it for the widespread problem it really is. Personally I'm aware of two people who suffered traumatically at the hands of their siblings and one who was sexually abused by a cousin. I'm sure there are more. (I'd also like to make very clear that I have two fantastic brothers who in no way ever abused me.)
Girl in the Water is well written, although it tended towards the poetic a little too much for my taste, but it is worth a read and a think about.
For further resources on the issues of sibling abuse, PTSD and domestic violence, Nancy Kilgore's blog is also useful.