I have written several seemingly rather controversial posts on this blog about the importance for an adult who had been a victim of past abuse by their parents of finding a way to talk with the perpetrators about, or metacommunicate about, the family dynamics that led to the abuse. One major secret in getting past their defenses - empathy – is understandably hard for any survivor of childhood abuse to muster. How do you find something redeeming about someone who has basically tortured you and ruined your life in many ways?
Not only that, but empathy alone is not enough.
One of the biggest challenges in this endeavor is staying cool while an abusive parent systematically denies ever having been abusive in the first place, as if the survivor were just making it up or something.
Denial has become an interesting word, hasn’t it? It used to mean that a person was saying that an allegation about his or her past behavior is not true – but not any more. It almost seems to mean the exact opposite nowadays. This is due to the fact that this sort of denial is now often conflated with the defense mechanism of denial. With the spread of ideas about alcoholism, people who are said to be in denial are those who are supposedly avoiding facing facts about themselves.
The allegation, said to alcoholics, of not being able to control their drinking is often met with the rejoinder, “I can stop drinking any time I want.” The denial here is said to mean that said person cannot control his or her drinking, but denies this obvious fact, even to himself or herself.
I personally think that when alcoholics say this they are, in fact, telling the truth. They can stop drinking any time they want. Since they do not control their drinking, I think they are saying that they are unwilling to do so, not that they are unable to do so. I can prove that they have control. If I point a loaded gun at their heads, assuming they are not overtly suicidal at the time and that they believe me, and say, "If you pick up that drink, I'll shoot you," I am quite certain that they will elect not to die and choose not to drink. So I guess they can control it. But most people disagree with me.
Because of this particular association to the word denial, however, it has come to mean “lying to yourself.” Again, I think in many cases it is just plain lying to other people, but never mind that. When somebody these days says “I deny I committed such and such a crime,” many people seem to think that they are actually admitting that they did commit it!
In the case of abusers saying "I didn’t do it," they are almost always flat out lying
Not only is this “denial” of the facts infuriating to their victims, but once a person gets through this one type of denial with the perpetrator, there are three other types of denial that will likely follow, one after the other.
Barrett and Trepper, in an article in the Family Therapy Networker (now the Psychotherapy Networker) in 1992, pointed out that families have multiple layers of denial, which often come out in the same order. As one breaks through each of these resistances, the next one pops up in its place.
The presence of these many stages of denial is not a reason to avoid attempting to metacommunicate. The presence of multiple resistances represents multiple problems to be solved, not multiple reasons for giving up. Forewarned is forearmed. Knowing that these maneuvers may be forthcoming from perpetrators helps former or even current victims steel themselves in order to maintain an empathic stance throughout what may be a lengthy process.
Barrett and Trepper’s predictable stages of denial are as follows:
1. Denial of facts (“it never happened; you’re a liar!”), followed by:
2. Denial of awareness (“I was drunk,” or “I didn’t realize I was neglecting you; you should have told me”), followed by:
3. Denial of responsibility (“You were the one who was seductive,” or “If your mother didn’t deny me, I wouldn’t have to have turned to you.”) and finally:
4. Denial of impact (“It only happened a few times,” or “It was only fondling,” or “OK, so I beat you. Why do you always have to dwell on the past? You’re just too sensitive; get over it!”).
The exact words and strategies to use in order to counter these types of statements is different in every family. As I have said repeatedly, for many people attempting to confront an abusive parent figure, it is not a wise thing to do it without the guidance of a therapist who is well versed in this type of work. This is particularly true for a highly reactive family in which physical violence or vicious verbal attacks are a distinct possibility. A poor attempt at metacommunication is usually far worse than no attempt at all.
Barrett and Trepper, in the same article, say that they “…believe that some part of every offender is appalled by his own deeds and desperately yearns for the kind of inner peace and satisfaction found in healthy relationships not based on power, manipulation, and secrecy.” I concur wholeheartedly, although many readers of my blog rather vehemently disagree. I can't blame them. (And I am not saying they have anything to feel guilty about if they disagree with me about anything).
Child abusers all know what they did, and they know it was wrong, and they fully expect their offspring to hate them for it. If for some reason their offspring do not seem to hate them for it, they often will do other nasty things to make sure that such hatred is evoked. Secretly, however, they hope that they fail in this goal, despite the tenacity by which they may try to achieve it.