I overheard chilling abuse

My brother put the phone down and said things to his wife that made my blood run cold

Published June 29, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

This is a problem that is, on its face, sort of simple, but there's a great deal of context that makes it more complicated. I feel helpless.

My older brother and I are pretty close, I think. We talk on the phone two or three times a week and see each other every few weeks. Last week, we spoke while he and his wife were driving through the countryside, she at the wheel. He asked me, at one point, to hold on, and then he seemed to put the phone in his lap or something -- I could hear everything --  and what I heard was chilling. He said, quite loudly and angrily, "What the hell are you doing? This is absolutely humiliating. I am so fucking embarrassed right now. You should be ashamed of the way you're driving ..." and on, and on. I hung up because I didn't want to hear any more, and then later pretended we'd lost the connection from poor cellular coverage.

So at this point, the question I have goes something like: Do I confront him and point out that his words and tone were emotionally abusive? Should I ignore it? Should I assume it's part of a dance that they both know the steps to? That she's an adult and can take care of herself? Should I bypass him and try talking to her?

But the context goes like this: I've known for 15 years that he's an abuser. When we were teenagers, he'd say horrendously cruel things to me, and I'd cry and shut my door and choke and end up with burst blood vessels under my eyes and across my cheeks. But this is a common situation in emotionally abusive families; the siblings turn on each other, and we now know that that's what we were living in. We've become close recently because we've worked hard, since my diagnosis of PTSD (type II, arising from chronic emotional abuse) five years ago, to overcome the trauma caused by our disastrous, narcissistic parents. Our parents gaslighted, mocked, deflected, denied, shut the door, shut us down, and shook their heads sadly as they said they weren't "buying it," weren't going to be manipulated by whatever emotional need we were expressing. They've never taken any responsibility for the poor state of our relationships with them, and they've certainly never taken responsibility for treating us unkindly, no matter how small the instance at issue. "There's some misrepresentation here that's not going to work," or "I'm so sorry if that happened, but I don't think it did happen the way you're portraying it," or "You're behaving as though the damage was done in only one direction." And the rest of the time, they're charming and intelligent and funny and warm.

Now, I'm 32 weeks pregnant, and in the last month I've asked my parents to stop contacting me. We three had been in family therapy, but after three sessions I got an email from them saying it was "one-sided and dehumanizing" and that while they'll continue to stand by me however I need, "the healing process has to go beyond blaming others for your distress." So that ended, and with it, I ended my relationship with them, at least for the time being. It's emotional torment to sit through the good moods, knowing a fight is around the corner, and then fight, and then get smothered by their rationalizations and bizarre interpretations and revisions.

My brother is also on the edge of a big transition, and will be moving away from the area for a new job in four weeks. Our parents were in family therapy with him as well (never both of us kids at once) earlier in the spring, but after three sessions they quit that too, saying they didn't really see who it was helping. So things right now are tense. Mom and Dad have recently contacted both of us, saying that they'd found a new family therapist that we could all go see, but who won't actually be available until a week before my brother leaves. I won't go because the last I heard, they thought I was blaming others for my distress. More gaslighting? No, thanks. My brother won't go, because what's the point of a single session, and me not there? So there's some continuing drama. It's what my brother and I were discussing, in fact, when he put the phone down to yell at his wife.

Let me make clear, I've been in therapy for years, as has my brother. We've come a long way, and we're both doing really well -- or, really well for people whose foundations are utterly, utterly unsound, and whose adolescences were spent in a whirl of suicidal ideation and acute anxiety and rage. So I know that when I hear my brother yelling like that at his wife, he's expressing distress the way victims of abuse do -- by abusing. I know that females tend to abuse themselves, and males tend to abuse others -- my brother and I both do both, in differing proportions. But I've understood that all victims become abusers, in some direction, and his extraordinary cruelty is what I remember from our youth and it's what I see now.

So now the question becomes, can I say anything to him without blaming him for not healing fast enough? Can I point out the abusiveness of what he said to his wife without sounding like I think he's a bad guy? I don't honestly know whether he's a bad guy -- he's been the cruelest person I know, and he's also been the strongest support I could ask for. I don't think he's unaware of the awfulness of his fighting style, but maybe he's unaware of how disproportionate to the crime it can be. If I were his wife, would I desperately want someone to step in and say, "That was too far"? I did when I was his little sister. But she's an adult. She has her own complicated psychological context. But -- but.

I'm sorry it's such a long email. I've considered writing to you many times over the last several months, during which all this shit has kind of come to a head, but always the emails were so long I never bothered to finish. There's too much.

Can you help?

And thanks just for reading.


Dear Torn,

Yes, I think I can help a little bit, by reminding you of what a strong foundation you have built over what a weak foundation you were given. I can help by reminding you that yes, you can talk to your brother with evenhanded compassion and say that yes, he went too far, and you heard it, and you are calling him on it.

He has to be called on it. And you can contact his wife, too, and say that she has to stand up for herself. Tell her that you know much more about growing up in an abusive family than she does, and you know when someone is crossing the line, and you heard your brother crossing the line, and she has to take a stand.

Yes, I think you can do that. No, I don't think it's meddling. Yes, I know what codependency is and this is not it. No, I'm not favoring anything but what I said. And yes, I can imagine what it's like to have your words constantly twisted as you describe. I can imagine very well what that is like. It makes it all the more important to be clear, to speak up when you disapprove, to speak when your gut tells you something is really wrong.

I suggest you contact her and say you heard how he talked to you and that she should have pulled over the car right then and there and told him that he can never speak to her like that again, and told him to get out of the car and then she should have driven away.

You don't even continue after something like that. It's got to be that way. The abuse has to be not tolerated.

Tell her to go visit a shelter for abused women. Tell her to take a good look at the broken jaws and black eyes and ruined lives.

It's not rhetoric. It's assault. Maybe not legally, I'm no lawyer. But spiritually and emotionally, it's assault. It's assault on the person, and in this case on a perhaps fragile person. You allude to her history but don't elaborate; it isn't necessary. If she's staying with him through such streams of abuse, she needs an ally to tell her she's not supposed to put up with that.

Your role, I believe, is to be that person, the one person in all this who has clear boundaries and standards and no tolerance.

You've put a lot of work into climbing out of the hellish whirlwind of gaslighting and denial. You describe it extremely well.

I say you put aside the therapy at this point and demand acceptable behavior.

I mean, if not now, when? How long before you say enough is enough? I would say to him, You may wallow in whatever private post-traumatic phenomena you experience, and you may hear whatever awful words you hear in your own head, and you may vibrate quietly with rage and fear and cry real tears and maybe in your private moments dig a grave or burn an effigy in the woods but when it comes to speaking, bite a rag, dude; clench your fists and tense your body but get a grip when you're with your wife.

Otherwise, when does it stop? How much insight do you need to know it's wrong and you have to stop? How do you stop? Maybe you stop by stopping. Maybe you stop being an abuser by stopping the abuse.

By Cary Tennis

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