First of all, I’d like to make a dedication. To Leslie Karagianis-the guy responsible for most of the research component of this post. I wish I’d heard this from you and not Google.
A word of caution. I am going to be talking about child abuse. I will be analyzing children’s books and explaining how these stories can help children deal with child abuse and others’ reactions to it. This post may offend some readers and/or contain ideas about sensitive subjects. If you start to feel uncomfortable, please get off and go read something else.
Most children read for enjoyment, or because they have to read for school. Some read however, because they need to escape. Some read because they need to find solace in something; something that reminds them that they are not alone. My grandfather wrote about child abuse concerning disabled children, and I think I’d like to connect what he found with my own studies. This may be in two or maybe even three parts, because it is a very dense subject.
“There are two kinds of pain that the human can endure. Physical pain, and emotional pain. Our society has traditionally tolerated pain of both varieties. During the last few years there’s been a lot being directed towards the physical abuse of children. Possibly because it’s more dramatic, possibly because it’s more tangible. Possibly because it’s easier to make society more aware of it.” (Nesbit) Abuse can come in many forms: physical, emotional, sexual, it can be in terms of neglect, where the child is simply expected to look after themselves or is not acknowledged by the adult at all. Emotional abuse is perhaps the most insidious and is described as “the mutilation of a child’s spirit.” (Nesbit) It lowers self esteem, can be easier for the child to dismiss, and it can be hard to detect. Psychological abuse “has epitomized the kind of thinking our society has been immersed in over the last couple of centuries. The idea that the child doesn’t have rights. The child is a shadow of it’s parents.” (Nesbit.) It has history: the cult of the child and Puritan values of child rearing are still present today as well. Particularly in terms of abuse. I’ve talked about bullying: I believe that is a form of abuse which children subject on each other. People do get hurt from this form of abuse. In some respects, this is another expression of contact zones. The parent is at the apex and the child is relegated to the margins or abjected.
In terms of who is most likely to be abused: one theory is that those with disabilities are more likely to be hurt. Using the concept of the circle again, it makes sense: the able-bodied are at the apex and the disabled are forced out of the margins of society. “Today one of the most frequently asked questions concerning child abuse and the handicapped child is whether or not the handicapped child is predisposed to abuse. When one considers the relationship between disabilities or handicapped parent and child abuse there are two possible explanations. First of all that the disabilities or disabilities in children can produce stress in parents. This stress makes it very difficult for the parents to cope with the child and therefore they abuse that child. The other explanation is that the handicapping the victim results from child abuse rather than before which could be attributed to the abuse. Although the role of handicapping conditions changes is very difficult to assess in child abuse there does appear to be a relationship between the two…The child who is abused tends to be overactive or else present some problem to the parent in regards to physical abuse. A number of characteristics make children vulnerable to abuse. They cited mental retardation, physical handicaps, poor health, and in fact anything that is perceived about the child by the parent to be different. According to Helfer’s model of child abuse three conditions are required for abuse to occur. First of all a child, a very special kind of child: an exceptional child is of course a special child. A crisis or series of crisis and the third characteristic is the potential for abuse within the parent. Helfer also points out that the child must be perceived by the parent to be special or actually be special or someone who is different from other children.” (Karagianis.) Adults have to find something which makes the child deserving of being left on the margins. They are dehumanized- because it is easier to abuse an “it” than a “her” or a “him”-something with a name. As a result, emotional abuse strips away a child’s being. They may never be referred to by their name, and referred to as a thing- a child, an idiot, etc. etc. It is the parent who has the potential to abuse, not the child who has the potential to be abused.
Matilda is seen by her parents as “nothing more than a scab. A scab is something you have to put up with until the time comes when you can pick it off and flick it away. Mr and Mrs Wormwood looked forward enormously to the time when they could pick their little daughter off and flick her away, preferably into the next county or even further than that.” (Matilda, Dahl, 10) She is different from the others in her family, and it is seen as a good thing by the narrator. “It is bad enough when parents treat ordinary children as though they were scabs and bunions, but it becomes somehow a lot worse when the child in question is extraordinary, and by that I mean sensitive and brilliant. Matilda was both of these things… Her mind was so nimble and she was so quick to learn that her ability should have been obvious even to the most half-witted of parents. But Mr and Mrs Wormwood were both so gormless and so wrapped up in their own silly lives that they failed to notice anything unusual about their daughter. To tell the truth, I doubt they would have noticed had she crawled into the house with a broken leg.” (Matilda, Dahl, 10) They neglect her and her intelligence sets her apart from her brother. What would be seen as a gift to most people is a burden to the Wormwoods. “By the age of one and a half her speech was perfect and she knew as many words as most grown ups. The parents, instead of applauding her, called her a noisy chatterbox and told her sharply that small girls should be seen and not heard.” (Matilda, Dahl, 11). She enjoys reading, and her parents are more concerned about television. Her father asks her “‘What’s wrong with watching the telly, may I ask?’… His voice had suddenly become soft and dangerous. Matilda didn’t trust herself to answer him, so she kept quiet” (Matilda, Dahl, 28). The difference in their interests makes Matilda an outsider in her family. While she strives for knowledge, her parents seek to limit it. Matilda’s father goes so far as to ruin a book she has. “With frightening suddenness he now began ripping the pages out of the book in handfuls and throwing them in the waste-paper basket. Matilda froze in horror. The father kept going. There seemed little doubt that the man felt some kind of jealousy. How dare she, he seemed to be saying with each rip of a page, how dare she enjoy reading books when he couldn’t? How dare she?” (Matilda, Dahl, 41) It is not that he dislikes her exactly, but he resents the fact that she has been able to learn when he can’t. Her parents have to despise her to dismiss the fact that they can not do what she does. They dislike her because she has qualities that they do not possess.
At school, things aren’t much better for Matilda. The first description of somebody at the school is of the headmistress. “Miss. Trunchbull, the Headmistress…was a gigantic holy terror, a fierce tyrannical monster who frightened the life out of pupils and teachers alike. There was an aura of menace about her even at a distance, and when she came up close you could almost feel the dangerous heat radiating from her as from a red-hot rod of metal…if a group of children happened to be in her path, she ploughed right on through them like a tank, with small people bouncing off her left and right. Thank goodness we don’t meet many people like her in this world, although they do exist and all of us are likely to come across at least one of them in a lifetime.” (Matilda, Dahl, 67) Miss Trunchbull scares everybody- not just children, but adults as well. This intimidation is a thing which she enjoys. There are benefits to being able to scare the children. During disagreements, the person she is talking to often feels very small, and they don’t try to discuss things with her because they are too scared. “Miss Honey stood there helpless before this great red-necked giant. There was a lot more she would like to have said, but she knew it was useless.” (Matilda, Dahl, 89). She is speechless. Nobody is allowed to say anything unless it follows Miss Trunchbull’s ideas about the school, and nobody would try to because they are too scared. “[Miss Trunchbull] hardly ever spoke in a normal voice. She either barked or shouted.” (Matilda, Dahl, 85) She shouts to seem intimidating, and once she has that power that she wants, she continues to use her power to keep her position. It is noted that “How she ever got her present job was a mystery.” (Matilda, Dahl, 82) and so to keep people from questioning, she uses fear. It works like an open secret- she doesn’t have the qualifications to do the job, but nobody will say anything out loud because they are too scared.
Anybody can be emotionally abusive. A friend, a parent, a co worker, a sibling, a teacher, and anybody can be emotionally abused. In the school system, “The child may be abused emotionally by the teacher who does not have the resources to deal with exceptional children. In cases like this it is our belief that the child may be abused. The child may be abused emotionally by teachers who do not have the resources to cope with the child in the classroom.” (Nesbit) Teachers, just like parents can be stressed by a child’s disability and not know how to handle it. As said before, the stress can help rationalize the abuse from an adult’s point of view. “All teachers do not have the capabilities or the resources to deal with exceptional children. We have to be aware of the fact that in a general context; in choosing teachers and paying teachers we must have teachers who are sensitive, teachers who are patient, teachers who are going to interact with children.” (Nesbit) The school and the home are separate. What happens at school is often not heard about by parents, and what happens at home is not heard about by teachers. The public sphere and the private sphere also come into this then. The home is the private sphere- the domestic sphere. The school is the public sphere, meant for the purpose of an education. There is no overlap. (Just think of how many times your parents asked you “How was school today?” and you replied “It was good.”, then they asked “What did you do today at school?” and you said “Nothing” and quickly fled from the view of your parents.)
In James and the Giant Peach, I have already suggested that James’ aunts threaten him and strip him of his identity. He is isolated at his aunt’s house as well, “No other children were ever invited to come up the hill and play with Poor James. There wasn’t so much as a dog or a cat around to keep him company.” (James and the Giant Peach, Dahl, 5) They keep him dependant on them, and without companions, he is completely alone. They are able to do this because he has nobody else to turn to. Similarly in Bud Not Buddy, Mrs. Amos’ “ears…were set not to believe anything I said.” (Curtis, 17). Bud is a foster child, and the Amoses have judgements of him before they even know him. “I am not the least bit surprised at your show of ingratitude. Lord knows I have been stung…before. But take a good look at me because I am one person who is totally fed up with you and your ilk. I do not have time to put up with the foolishness of those …who do not want to be uplifted. In the morning I’ll be getting in touch with the Home and, much as a bad penny, you shall be returning to them. I am a woman of my word, though, and you shall not spend one night in my house…Mr. Amos will show you to the shed tonight and you can come back in tomorrow for breakfast before you go. I do hope your conscience plagues you because you have ruined things for many others. I do not know if I shall ever be able to help another child in need. I do know I shall not allow vermin to attack my poor baby in his own house.” (Curtis, 14-15). Bud is judged because he is a foster child. He is unable to defend himself against Mrs. Amos’ words because she would not believe him anyway. His voice has been lost. He is not really a part of the family, but someone who is an income to their household. They are “being paid to take care of me.” (Curtis, 13) and he is not seen as human. He is called ‘vermin’. In Anne of Green Gables, Anne is also not cared for until she meets the Cuthberts. She has been an unpaid babysitter and when asked if her previous families were good, she says “They meant to be-I know they meant to be as good and kind as possible. And when people mean to be good to you, you don’t mind very much when they’re not quite-always. They had a good deal to worry them, you know.” (Montgomery, 41). She censors the way she talks about her last families, and gives excuses for them- they had several kids they had to put first, the husband was a drunk; but there is more to the story than what she tells. She is a daydreamer, and it is easy to believe that her imagination probably made up for rough times at the Hammond’s and the Thomas’.
In Hold Fast the emotional abuse by the main character’s uncle is used to keep control of his family. “Once he got himself into the right gear, it all boiled down to this. The way he wanted things in the house was the way they had to be done. That was it. No questions asked unless you wanted a bloody big fight on your hands. It was up to him when we had supper, who done the dishes. He decided what channel was on the color T.V, what time everybody was expected to be in bed, what time everyone was awake in the morning. Cripes, it got so after a while I didn’t know whether or not I should try going to the bathroom to take a leak without first getting his okay.” (Major, 63) Although the narrator tries to make light of the situation, he is intimidated by the atmosphere as well. “The way the old man went about things rubbed off on everybody else in the house. They all walked around looking like they was so bloody miserable most of the time. If they smiled, all their faces probably would a cracked in two pieces.” (Major, 66) His actions make the others worried. They can not act the way they wish to and feel scared when Ted is in the house. The house seems more like a museum than a home. The main character is able to offer a contrast between Ted’s behaviour and his own father’s behaviour concerning the way he acts. “The swear words, when he spitted them out of him, was almost enough to curl up my guts. Not the words, that was nothing. I was used to that. But the way he said them. People swears in different ways. Dad use to swear and he hardly had a clue he was saying it. But the way the same words came out of Uncle Ted, it was like a set of teeth tearing into her.” (Major, 62). The words are hurtful, they are constant, and he knows that they are like a wound. Ted swears to hurt others, he doesn’t do it just for the sake of using words.
“Terms such as “best interests of the child” and the child’s “emotional needs” are vaguely defined, leaving judges to consider subjectively facts presented. In Ontario, in order to prosecute, a child must be an “endangered child,” and the court must prove actual serious harm or imminent risk of such harm. The abuse must be “frontal and eviscerating” to be considered a matter for the court (Lewis, 1982). Clearly, the Canadian legal system does not hold great promise in the short term. The problem of definition is long standing. Perhaps the following captures the essentials: psychological abuse is the denial of essential psychological nutrients or the denegration of personal worth through domination techniques and patterns of interaction which are damaging to the emerging personality. Behaviours which align with the definition can be specified. Most individual acts or remarks can be evaluated as abusive or nonabusive, but it is not an easy delineation. Both intent and interpretation play major roles in both the sender’s and receiver’s perception of what is abusive.” (Karagianis) I’d like to think that because this is an article from 1987, that we’ve gotten a bit farther than Karagianis stated in the last twenty five years. However, we are still often at a loss of what abuse is. The language describing abuse is often vague. At what point is there a shift made from having an adult having a bad day to emotional abuse? This is actually where binary opposition would be a good thing. Everybody is different, so how much one can take also differs from person to person.
IMAGES (In order of appearance, everything else in alphabetical order.)
- Curtis, Christopher Paul. Bud Not Buddy. New York: Yearling, 1999
- Dahl, Roald. James and the Giant Peach. New York: Puffin, 2007.
- Dahl, Roald. Matilda New York: Scholastic, 1996
- Major, Kevin. Hold Fast. Toronto: Groundwood Books. 2003
- Montgomery, L. M. Anne of Green Gables. [Toronto]: Seal, 1996.
- Karagianis, Leslie D., and Wayne C. Nesbit. “Education 3460. Problems and Issues in Special Education. No 26. Psychological Abuse of Children.” Memorial University DAI: Kindergym. Memorial University of Newfoundland, n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.
- Karagianis, L. D. & Nesbit, W.C (1987). Psychological abuse in the home and in the school. Canadian Journal of Education,12(1), 177-183. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/1494999