My niece is being abused

Should I intervene?

Published November 9, 2010 1:20AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I grew up with an abusive mother in a very conservative, religious and Republican household. My mother home-schooled my elder sister and me, and since we lived in a very rural area, there wasn't really a way to escape her. I now suspect that she has borderline personality disorder, which has rendered her unable to have neutral emotions. One day, when I was 10, she went from loving me to absolutely loathing me, and her "spankings" (accompanied by Bible quotes) transitioned into slaps to the face, punches to the throat and threats to kill me.

My sister, who was previously the victim of my mother's wrath, seemed to relish that the tables had turned and would do nothing to protect me, even denying to my father (who was working away from the home a lot) that these things were happening. She wanted nothing but to stay in my mother's good graces, something for which I can't really blame her. When I was 14, my father came home once early as a surprise and saw my mother in the process of hitting me. He realized then that I hadn't been lying when I first told him about what was happening -- that I was telling the truth, and my sister and my mother had been concealing everything from him. He threatened to have my mother arrested, kicked her out of the house, and secured full custody of me in the divorce that followed.

Life got so much better, especially after I saw a therapist in college. I no longer have any contact whatsoever with my mother, although she and my sister are still incredibly close. My relationship with my sister has always been strained, especially since she is following my mother's example by becoming a fundamentalist Christian and becoming an extreme conservative. (Seriously, she thinks that Glenn Beck is too moderate.)

I can ignore these things in an attempt to keep some semblance of a relationship with her going, even though I'm the one who has to do all of the work. But Cary, I just found out that she is spanking her barely 2-year-old daughter -- and that her husband doesn't think that she spanks my niece hard enough. Apparently, my niece is getting spanked every other day. Given the similarities between my mother and sister, I'm terrified for her. I'm so afraid that my sister will keep spanking her, harder and harder each day, and eventually start beating this precious little child.

I can't tell if I'm projecting my childhood and adolescent experiences with my mother onto my sister and my niece. I don't know what -- if anything -- I should do. Should I call CPS, knowing that my sister will know that it was me, and that I will then be forever shut out of my niece's life? Should I try to talk to my sister about it again? (I tried once, and it failed miserably.) Or should I just ignore it for now, and monitor the situation in case it gets worse? Knowing that this is happening to my niece has brought up so many emotional pains that I thought had healed, and I can't stop thinking about my niece -- which in turn brings back my own painful memories.


Wanting the Cycle to Stop

Dear Wanting,

You have to do something.

This is your chance to stop a cycle of abuse that may have gone on for generations and may endure for generations more if you do nothing.

But what? What will you do?

Sometimes when we cannot bear what we see, we act without thinking. We speak out or strike out or throw our bodies into the machine. Thinking of the consequences would only get in the way. That is how social progress happens.

We don't always do the smartest thing. But we do something. We refuse to be silent. We act out of moral outrage and moral courage.

Sometimes that does not solve the problem. But it inspires others.

What you do may backfire. It may make your life uncomfortable. But what choice do you have, after what you have been through, with what you know?

Alice Miller says that the mere presence of an ally may make a huge difference for an abused child. That is, you may not succeed in stopping the abuse or creating an ideal loving environment in which the child can thrive. But if the child knows that you are there for her, that you know what's going on and that you know it's wrong, and if the child sees that you have tried to stop it, it can change her life.

The way I see this is that the hard damage done by parental abuse is that the person, the soul, the "I" in the child experiences a threat to its survival by its creator, the one to whom it looks for life. Experiencing such a contradiction is a kind of soul death. The child has no recourse to  logic or knowledge that might counteract its experience. What the child experiences is that he or she ought not exist. Then, in later life, as we do with what we learn from our parents, the child gives expression to this message that she ought not exist. Thus we see such children grow up to be suicidal and self-destructive, cutting themselves and cutting off their feelings through numbing addictions and consciousness-altering distractions.

This is the message I think a child gets when abused by a parent: You don't deserve to be alive.

What greater authority to deliver this message than the one who brought the child into existence in the first place?

The sliver of hope I cling to is that you will do some good by signaling to the child that you know she is being mistreated and that you care enough about her to try to intervene.

Some of us have memories of being taken out of a situation for a brief interval to a grandparent's house, and we wonder, as adults, why those memories are so sweet. I do wonder if, lovely as they are, memories of visits to the farm aren't just sweet on their own, but sweet because they were indeed escapes from the sour and deadly experience of a chaotic and abusive family life.

As I say, I don't know what form your intervention might take. To be clear, it might be physical intervention at a traumatic moment. It might mean calling authorities. Or it might might be something like getting the child alone and promising her that if she is ever mistreated she can come and stay with you for a while. Such a bright spot of hope for escape might lodge in the child's heart and keep her warm through some of the worst of it. And one day she might act on it. Wouldn't that be a lovely inconvenience to wake to in the middle of the night?

You have the chance to do something. I think it is morally right to do something. I don't know exactly what that is, but trust you will figure out the best course of action.

That's how angels get their wings.

Write Your Truth.

Want more?


By Cary Tennis

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