Laura really does something incredible with this book. She finds the strength and courage to tell a story about abuse – a story that will be all too familiar to millions of men and women – a story that often never gets told. She shines a spotlight on an area that demands our attention. Her brave account of suffering psychological abuse at the hands of an older brother, under the watchful eyes of her mother, is heartbreaking, riveting and empowering. It is a story that needs to be told.
Psychological and emotional abuse (terms I use interchangeably) are often misunderstood, minimized, or ignored. Over the past decade alone, there have been substantial advances with respect to identifying, preventing and treating those who have suffered sexual and physical abuse; however, there has been much less attention to identifying and addressing psychological abuse. Defined, psychological abuse is an intentional pattern of behaviour in which one individual exerts control over another through very systematic and specific means. People often assume that emotional abuse primarily consists of yelling, screaming, name-calling, constant criticisms or put-downs; it is assumed that the abuse would be so obvious and palpable that the victim would seek help and/or others would notice and express concern. While this may be the case in some situations, emotional abuse is often much more insidious and covert. Consistent with Laura’s writing, victims are subjected to a chronic pattern of intimidation, lack of empathy and support, gaslighting (e.g., making a person feel “crazy” by making them doubt their memories and experiences), subtle and overt threats to safety, financial abuse and isolation. Such behaviour can be verbal (e.g., sarcasm, under-the-breath comments) and non-verbal (e.g., silent treatment, grimacing, glaring).
One of the most frightening aspects of dealing with an emotionally abusive person is their ability to charm others, lie or speak only in half-truths, blame the victim for any difficulties and/or minimize the concerns of the victim when he or she does speak up. One of the most difficult and painful aspects of Laura’s story is her realization of the way her parents and family members reinforced her brother’s abusive acts by NOT acting, by minimizing Laura’s repeated attempts for safety and by chalking it up to “sibling rivalry”. Sadly, it is not uncommon for members of the family to support, defend and even glorify the abusive party. This is especially confusing for a child who looks to his/her parent(s) to protect them. In Laura’s case, she was threatened that she would be killed if she told – and yet when she finally mustered up the courage to tell in her early years, she was not believed and was, at times, made to feel shame for speaking up. A child will withdraw, tend to blame him or herself and suffer in silence.
The impact of living in a psychologically abusive home or relationship is harmful for anyone and when a child grows up in such an environment, the results are even more damaging. Studies have shown that adverse childhood experiences (ACES) that include emotional abuse, neglect and lack of proper supervision (among others) of children can impact brain development and are associated with a greater likelihood of developing chronic health problems, being diagnosed with a mental health disorder (e.g., anxiety, eating disorders, depression and suicidal behaviours), having behavioural problems and difficulty with emotion dysregulation, and having a greater likelihood of premature death. Victims typically have low self-esteem, forever doubting their value, recollections and “gut” instincts. (“I know something is wrong, but no one else seems to notice…is it just me?”) They develop maladaptive beliefs about themselves (“I am unlovable”), the world (“I cannot trust anyone”) and the future (“I will never be safe”). Without understanding the pattern of abuse and/or working through their trauma in treatment, victims often feel forever imprisoned in their fear and doubt.
My Courage to Tell makes the invisible visible. Reading Laura’s account of healing and recovery is inspirational and is an outstanding contribution to the literature on psychological abuse in families. Her willingness to confront and share the scary and painful reality of her childhood and detail how various treatment interventions allowed her to work through distressing memories, emotions, and beliefs will pave the way for others who recognize themselves in Laura’s story. This is a story about hope, resilience and strength for anyone experiencing psychological abuse.
Anita Federici, Ph.D