My half-brother locked me in the closet and I think I'm to blame

I am conflicted about who is to blame for my older brother's abuse. I goaded him on. I think I share the blame.

By Cary Tennis
Published March 6, 2008 12:05PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I grew up with a half-brother eight years older who was kind of an asshole to me -- much of my childhood was spent being threatened, locked in small spaces, tied up, etc., but he never touched me sexually. (The rest of the time, I was loved unconditionally by my awesome parents who had no idea any of this was going on. It would never have occurred to me to tell them, not realizing there was anything to tell.)

My current difficulty is twofold. One, I feel stuck in a trauma-survivor cliché that seems too intense for what happened between us. And two, at some point I became complicit in the nastiness of our relationship, goading him into more extreme behavior toward me. Make sense? No, although somehow it made me less scared of him. But it makes me feel bad, the way I continue to turn him into a monster. Doing that no longer helps me.

A couple of people close to me know this bit of history, and I have learned a lot through talking with them. Still, I am strangely drawn to the idea of an outsider weighing in. Someone who doesn't care about me. People who care about me, well, they tend to feel as strongly as I do. They're on my side. But they love me, so that doesn't tell me anything about how valid my side is. I am not on my side. It has even occurred to me that one of the reasons I want this question answered in Salon is because it will draw abuse from some of the readers -- more evidence against me.

Maybe I've stopped making sense. This always happens when I try to explain my side. If you're finding yourself feeling cold toward me, that is something else that happens when I initially reach out. There is something about the way I reach out that repels tenderness. I'm not sure what I'm reaching for. Maybe a way to think about this relationship that preserves his humanity and recognizes mine. It's just that it feels impossible to do both.


Dear DMG,

You know, I initially responded to you privately to say you need to get help from someone other than me. I still believe that.

But I found it hard to stop thinking about your situation.

I feel for you, OK -- that's at the root of my decision to respond publicly. I feel for you; I am on the verge of tears as I write; and yet I sense that if I feel for you it marks me as a weakling. I fear you will have contempt for me. You were strong enough to survive the brother, weren't you? In fact you admire his strength; I am by comparison a weakling, am I not, for sitting here on the verge of tears as I write? And yet: Your plight has flattened me. What am I supposed to do? Your plight flattens me. I am on the verge of tears.

I know how to welcome abuse, to share in the victory of the abuser over the split-off self: To laugh, to align yourself with the person who is laughing at your fate, to say, yes, I am laughing at that stupid, perverted little child, too. What a stupid, perverted, laughable little child!

And yet it's you, isn't it? That laughable little child you are laughing at is you.

This I relate to as well: To share in the delight of the abuser, you must shut down feeling for the abused. To feel for yourself is weakness. You would rather take some more abuse.

You have told me that you hold beliefs you know to be ridiculous. I understand what it is like to hold beliefs you know to be ridiculous. They yet serve some occluded purpose, don't they? Knowing that it is ridiculous to want to be found guilty of causing your own abuse (you have told me as much), yet you put yourself on trial and hope for conviction. This arises out of a struggle both transparent and obscure; it is a mirror image of the negotiating that went on inside you as these things were being done to you.

Apparently in the mind of that child either your half-brother or you has to be wrong and if it's you, perhaps you can deal with that better. If your half-brother was wrong, that would mean you were indeed a victim, powerless and under his control, fearing for your life. It would mean that at the end of this tangled string of time is a moment of shattering terror. It would mean that you made a deal to survive -- the deal involved distortion and denial. Eventually you may find it easier to admit, once and for all, that the half-brother was more than an asshole, that he was a criminal abuser, that what he did was evil.

But you are not ready for that yet. That is OK. You are safe now. Those things are in the past. They cannot harm you now. The memories can return but they cannot harm you. That whole period is over. There is no more locking you in the closet. You could call the police today if someone tried to lock you in the closet.

I am not going to fix this. I am not going to give you a mantra. I am not going to say, make a decision tree. I can only suggest that you talk with a therapist who works with childhood trauma. You need someone trusted and skilled. You need someone to guide you.

Find that person and cling to him or her. Cling to him or her for dear life and do not let go until you get through this and come out the other side, shaken and scarred but able to see what happened and narrate it with courage and frankness, knowing finally whose side you are on.

Still dealing with abuse?

"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition.

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