Are we all condemned to live in ‘cycles of abuse’?
It is now heresy to question the idea that child abuse damages a person for life. But such a deeply fatalistic idea must be questioned.
The abhorrence virtually all of us feel towards paedophilia makes it very difficult to have a balanced, dispassionate discussion about its harmful impact on young people.
Indeed, as we have seen in the Jimmy Savile scandal, the dramatic and highly charged language used to describe different forms of child abuse warns people off being dispassionate, by promoting the idea that the damage caused by child abuse is unique and qualitatively different to all other forms of suffering. Metaphors such as ‘scarred for life’ or ‘damaged for life’ convey the belief that victims of child abuse are literally condemned to a life-long sentence of painful suffering. The frequently repeated claim that a single act of abuse can have consequences that last a lifetime is rarely interrogated.
And yet, the impact of abuse on a child or an adult is far from straightforward. The experience of psychological trauma is different to the experience of physical trauma, in that the way people respond to such pain, the way they choose to deal with it, will greatly influence the levels of emotional damage they experience. And such responses are inevitably mediated through the prevailing system of meaning and values in our society and communities. Cultural and social contexts influence how we are expected to negotiate painful trauma. The way that the consequences of abuse are discussed in society has a significant bearing on the way they are actually experienced by the individual.
Since the 1980s, virtually all research on child abuse has been dominated by a determination to discover the intensity of the harm it causes. Consequently, very little has been done to explore its differential impact or why some young people appear to be more able to cope with the pain than others. Researchers and psychologists who have questioned the prevailing wisdom on child abuse have sometimes been treated as pariahs. So in 1999, the US House of Representatives took the unprecedented step of passing a resolution that condemned a piece of published research in a scientific journal, which questioned the idea that child abuse has long-term effects.
The target of the resolution was an article written by Bruce Rind, Philip Tromovitch and Robert Bauserman. These three psychologists questioned some of the claims made about sexual abuse on children, and particularly the idea that it psychologically scars people for life. For their pains they came under attack from the Christian Coalition and Republican moral crusaders. The American Psychological Association (APA), whose journal published the Rind, Tromovitch and Bauserman piece, also came under fire. Under such intense pressure, the APA became defensive and announced that in future all contributions on sensitive topics would be more carefully vetted for ‘public policy implications’.
What the vicious campaign against this piece of research took particular exception to was the academics’ questioning of the consensus that child abuse leads directly to long-term psychological maladjustment. They concluded that abuse had a differential impact on people’s lives, and that a ‘substantially greater proportion of females than males perceive harm from these experiences’. As the social psychologist Carol Tavris said, the research provided an opportunity for considering what made some people resilient while others suffered trauma. She wrote, ‘We need to understand what makes most people resilient, and how to help those who are not’ (1).
It is important to realise that much of the conventional wisdom on the impact of abusive behaviour is driven by moral revulsion rather than by disinterested research. Of course, it is entirely legitimate morally to condemn behaviour that society deems evil. But moral condemnation should not be confused with a medical diagnosis. Nor is it an alternative to seeking and gaining clarity on the matter at hand. We do no favours to those who have suffered at the hands of adult predators if we treat them as the casualties of a moral drama.
Not just victims
The diagnosis that child sexual abuse causes long-term psychological damage is influenced by today’s ‘cycle of abuse’ theories. This model, which says there is an intergenerational transmission of violence, is one of the most uncontested themes of the modern-day literature on family violence. Those who promote this thesis see abuse as an intergenerational disease. Abusers were themselves abused when they were children, and in the future their victims will go on to manifest delinquent behaviour, too. Thus abuse does not end with the victim; it has a life of its own, spreading through future generations.
Cycle of abuse theories give a strikingly fatalistic account of human beings and the human condition. Indeed, the widespread influence of these theories speaks to contemporary society’s pessimism towards the human potential. At no time since the emergence of modernity has the latitude for human action and control been so strongly denied as it is today. The abuse model is based on a belief that human action is determined and conditioned by powerful forces beyond its control. Such a fatalistic worldview is conveyed through the idea that the experience of psychological trauma in early childhood directly shapes the actions and behaviour of a person for the rest of his or her life.
The importance that is now attached to childhood and even pre-childhood experiences, which are said to be fundamentally character-forming, reveals a highly deterministic attitude towards the human condition. It suggests that our adult existence is predetermined by childhood experience. Apparently, the many experiences we have as adults pale into insignificance when compared with an act of abuse we may have experienced as children. As in a Greek tragedy, throughout our lives we are simply realising our fate. People are encouraged to see themselves as victims of family life rather than as self-determining agents. This renunciation of self-determination represents a dramatic rethinking of what an adult human being is. It promotes a weak or diminished adult self, which is explicitly torn away from many of the historically idealised characteristics of adulthood: moral autonomy, maturity, responsibility.
The fatalistic idea that the impact of childhood abuse is irreversible has acquired the status of a religious truth. To challenge this idea is to risk being accused of sacrilege. And yet, the cycle of abuse thesis should be open to serious interrogation. The view that violence breeds violence is based on retrospective studies. Such studies often depend on comparing aggressive and non-aggressive adolescents and men to see if those who are aggressive were more likely to be abused when they were young. There are many problems with such studies. For example, there’s the question of how much status or authority we should assign to people’s recollections – after all, what people remember, and how they remember it, is very often influenced by their current predicament.
Another fundamental weakness of cycle of violence studies is the causal link they make between the experience of childhood abuse and subsequent acts of adult abuse. Is this a direct causal relationship? Was the experience of violence in youth really the cause of subsequent violent adult behaviour, or did other influences shape such behaviour? To abstract one variable – childhood abuse – and construct a direct line between that and future acts of abuse is to ignore a variety of social phenomena that influence human behaviour. A review of longitudinal studies on the outcomes of child abuse, by Joan Kaufman and Edward Zigler, found that more than 70 per cent of all abused children did not go on to mistreat their own offspring when they were adults. ‘Hardly an inevitable “cycle”’, commented Carol Tavris (2).
It is worth noting that the cycle of abuse thesis has been largely constructed on the basis of speculation rather than empirical research. Ian Hacking’s study of the politics of memory notes that this a priori assumption of a cycle of abuse was initially heavily qualified in the first papers on the subject (3). But soon, the bold statement ‘abused as a child, abusive as a parent’ became accepted wisdom. This swift transformation of speculative opinion into a ‘scientific truth’ was informed by the increasingly unquestioned belief that childhood experience forms the adult. Hacking also believes that the cycle of abuse view was strengthened by the opportunism of abusive parents, who ‘profess having been abused as a child’ since ‘that explains and thereby mitigates the behaviour’. But above all, it is society’s affirmation of the idea that psychological damage has toxic effects which has helped to transform a cultural prejudice into a rarely contested truth.
Since Hacking wrote his study (in 1995), cycle of abuse theories have strengthened their grip on the public’s imagination. Yet when society embraces a prejudice that masquerades as research, it inevitably loses its way. Too many sensible people feel that this prejudice cannot be questioned. Which is why we need to have a more open-minded discussion about this difficult subject. Clarity about the consequences of abuse and its differential impact is in the best interests of those who have experienced it.
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