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7 October 2004

Oprah had a program yesterday on emotional abuse.  I missed a chunk of it because Ellen called from Wyoming, with a report on how the trip is going thus far (good report from Planet Out, which has an imbedded reporter on the bus.  Interesting.  Until Iraq, we never heard of "imbedded reporters.")

But I digress.

According to Oprah, 1 in 3 women is being emotionally abused by her spouse.  I was interested in the reports of the women and their husbands, who were filmed and then interviewed, but my ears picked up when one very defeated looking woman said that when she got upset with her husband he always turned it back on her and told her that she was too sensitive.

All sorts of alarms went off in my head.  My father was one of those emotional abusers.  It's funny, but I was trying to remember specific incidents from my childhood and I seem to have repressed them all.  I remember always being on my guard, always feeling afraid, and always leery about saying something that would set him off, but I can't actually remember most of the tirades that he would go through.

But I remember being too sensitive.  When he would reduce me to tears, he would scornfully tell me that I was weak, and too sensitive.   I spent my entire childhood thinking that I was too sensitive because I cried when he yelled at me.

I don't think that I still believe that I am too sensitive, but it took decades to get past that label that was put on me.  For my father, being "too sensitive" meant that I couldn't take his taunts, his yelling, his anger, his rages.  They made me cry and for that reason, I was made to feel I was an unworthy person because I was "weak."

When Oprah talks about the number of women who are being emotionally abused, she didn't dwell on the effect that it has on the children.  My mother and I seem to be bonded in a very special way because we, along with my sister, had to be the emotional support for each other against my father's rages.

Emotional abuse gradually eats away at your self esteem and strong, competent, intelligent women, when they are told often enough how stupid and untalented they are begin to believe it.

I once knew a woman, whom I will not identify, who had been a very competent legal secretary and then went on to start her own business, which became very successful.   Anybody looking at her would think that she had it all--a doting husband, a beautiful home, a successful business.

But those of us who were closer to her could see what was going on.  Yes, she had a doting husband.  Some of the time.  He alternately showered her with jewels, took her to expensive restaurants and whisked her away to exotic places on romantic vacations.  But he also never passed up an opportunity to belittle her in public, and lord only knows what he did in private.

We would have social events, which she hosted.  She was an amazing cook, an impeccable housekeeper and a wonderful hostess, but throughout the evening you knew that the husband was going to frequently tell her how stupid she was, make a big deal about any mistake that happened.  He'd drink and the more drunk he got, the more verbally abusive he got until all of us became so uncomfortable we would leave.

She was underweight, quite thin, in fact, but she was obsessed with weight because her husband always talked about how "fat" she was.   She hardly ate enough to keep a bird alive and looked like a concentration camp survivor, with bones sticking out of her and stick-thin wrists, but still she worried constantly about her weight.

Worst of all was watching her self esteem fade to where she had problems holding her business together.  We all knew what was happening, but because of those jewels and fancy vacations and things that he showered her with occsionally she couldn't see what her husband was doing to her the rest of the time.

I looked at the woman on Oprah today.  She looked like a frightened mouse.  Oprah asked the husband if he didn't feel bad for all things he had said on tape to his wife.  The guy apologized to Oprah for what he'd said on camera.  When she asked him to look at his wife and tell her how it made him feel, he just kind of shrugged his shoulders and said "Ok.  Sure.  I'm sorry."   There was absolutely no "ownership" of the hurtful messages and you just had this strong feeling that the minute they left the studio he would light into her again.

A good friend of mine held an important position with a local bank and was a respected member of the professional community.  After her husband retired, he spent all day at home.  When she'd come home from work at night (a job she took to get her away from him in the first place), he would start the complaints and the taunts the minute she came in the door.  Then he'd sit at the dinner table and tell her how stupid she was, how he didn't understand how anybody could give her a job and how she must surely be putting one over on her co-workers because she wasn't intelligent at all, just stupid.

She took the abuse for a very long time--for years--until she finally snapped and found a reason to leave him.

For years after she finally moved out, he would cry about how he had thrown away his marriage.  But he never changed his abusive traits.

What is the answer for emotional abuse?  Do you go to the police and say "he's picking on me?"  You'd be laughed out of the station, but emotional abuse is every bit as painful--and possibly longer lasting and far-reaching--than physical abuse. 

The problem with emotional abuse is that the answer is to leave the situation, but you keep thinking it's going to get better, and the longer it goes on, the less self esteem you have and the less strength you have to walk away.   You also start believing all those names that you're called, and all the negative things that have been said about you.

I am a sensitive person.  But after all these years, I finally see that as one of my good qualities, not the weakness that I was made to think it was all throughout my childhood.

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For a chuckle, check out this movie, which my friend Mary led me to.

They want to arrest Michael Moore in Michigan.


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