Updated: Apr 28
The silence around it is a sort of collective omission that only perpetuates a violent culture toward children.
I don't know when it all started. I was just too little to have a notion of time. I only recall my consciousness about the discrepancy in body sizes when I was on my grandfather's lap — me, a tiny little thing, with thin legs, my feet far from the ground and my head a bit above his chest. He, a giant with rough hands reeking of cigarettes, his alcoholic breath of the sugarcane liquor he hid in the closet.
My eyes would fix on my feet in plastic, ladybug slippers, which went fuss when I walked. As he moved me back and forth on his lap, up and down, the slippers would slowly be slipped off my feet, one after the other, and I remember the excruciating anguish of not being able to put them on again. I couldn't move.
“You're my sweetheart” he would whisper in my ear. "Nobody likes grandpa. Grandpa is so lonely. Only you care for grandpa. You're such a good girl. A really good girl".
" I didn't know what that was, but I knew it made me very sad. "It's a caress," he would say, and I, without understanding, believed it."
I would feel a searing heat on the back of my neck as if I were on fire, a loud ringing in my ears, my mouth dry, a lump in my throat and an intense mix of feeling like crying, disgust and pain. I didn't know what that was, but I knew it made me very sad. "It's a caress," he would say, and I, without understanding, believed it.
I wished I could break free and run from that room as fast as I could. But his control over me was absolute, not just through physical force, but through emotional manipulation. He made me believe that I was special for sharing intimate moments with him, moments that had saved him from his deep loneliness. That was our most sacred “little secret,” though it wasn't the only one.
He liked to tell family stories that were totally inappropriate for children, in such explicit details that would make a pervert cringe. I didn't know the meaning of most words, but I listened, amazed, as if he were revealing the hidden truth of the adult world, forbidden to children. Before each story, I had to promise not to tell anyone, and I promised.
Punishment for reacting
This ritual was repeated for many years until I began to understand that it was wrong. I couldn't name what he was doing, but I knew it got worse as I got older, and without grandpa's "I'm so lonely" litany. The speech now was that I was grandpa's little girlfriend. Gradually, as my sense of guilt and pity for him diminished, anger and disgust increased, and with them the courage to react, to make it clear that I didn't want this anymore. That's when another kind of abuse took place, just as cruel as the latter.
I was about nine years old when I started pushing him away. I stopped visiting him in his room as I did every night to watch a soap opera, and avoided being alone with him in any situation. Immediately, he started a smear campaign for family and friends:
"Gradually, as my sense of guilt and pity for him diminished, anger and disgust increased, and with them the courage to react, to make it clear that I didn't want this anymore"
"That girl is such a lier!". "She is a viper! She makes up creepy stories!". "She's dissimulated and poison! If she bites her tongue, she dies!". He used to say it shamelessly, in front of me, to the maid, my brothers, my parents, the neighbours, and the rest of the family when they visited.
At the same time, he began to bully me about my appearance: "Here comes Pinocchio!". "Look at the cashew!" (referring to my nose). "She's gangly and skinny like Olivia Toothpick!". "Your highness will pass, where's the red carpet?" I never had peace at home. Never.
Sometimes I thought about telling my parents, but the idea was soon discarded. My grandfather used to say that my father would get very angry at me, "if you screw up, he'll throw you out of the house!". I tried to mentally anticipate possible outcomes to the situation, and they were all terrifying.
"I tried to mentally anticipate possible outcomes to the situation, and they were all terrifying"
If I told them, it would break my mother's heart (his daughter), and I didn't want to hurt her. She was an orphan from birth, her mother died in childbirth, and I grew up believing I had to give her the love she wasn't given. I couldn't cause her one more pain. At the same time, I was afraid my father could blame me, asking why the hell I had to be alone with a man in his bedroom. I was terrified of my father and had assimilated victim-blaming long before this was a thing.
Also, there was the possibility that they wouldn't believe me, after all, I was the family's "viper", and I couldn't think of anything more devastatingly humiliating than that. On the other hand, if they believed, I feared my father would kill my grandfather. If abuse came to light, in any imaginary scenario, my family would sink into crisis. I just didn't have the structure to cope with that guilt, so I chose to suffer alone rather than causing what I believed would be a cataclysm.
The protective child
This role reversal — being the protective child rather than being protected by adults— has caused such damage. Perhaps the biggest one has been to believe, for most of my life, that I would be a bad person if I didn't put other people's feelings above mine.
The first major violence I suffered was being manipulated into saving my grandfather from his human misery, at the expense of my own. While doing so, I was considered good, generous, compassionate. When I stopped doing it, I was mean, selfish, and poisonous. I learned that to be loved I had to sacrifice what I felt, I had to serve, I had to please, I had to say yes, no matter how much it hurt me.
"Saying no, something so fundamental to survival and our sanity, was impossible for me for a very long time."
The second great violence was protecting, with my silence, those who should have protected me, both my predatory grandfather and my parents. No child should ever feel responsible for their parents' well-being, the natural thing is always the other way around, no matter the circumstances. Encouraging otherwise is a form of abuse known as emotional incest (which I'll talk about in another post).
Trauma is preventable
Since I was a child, I've dealt with the aftermath of abuse, which has become a major trauma in my life, and has caused a barrage of physical and mental health issues. I've always been the kind of person who gets sick very easily, with a weakened immune system. I have had suicide attempts as a teenager, generalized anxiety, major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder throughout my adult life, with ghastly flashbacks and the heartbreaking feeling that I will never be able to let go of my past.
"It is already known that childhood trauma alters a child's neurological development, affecting the functioning of the nervous system for life"
Adverse childhood experiences are common, and unfortunately we all have some. But science says that they only become a trauma when the child has to deal with the emotional burden of the experience by herself. If, instead, she is welcomed, understood and supported by family and professional, both the chances of having long-term symptoms and their intensity decrease considerably.
That's why we need to talk tirelessly about the consequences of child abuse, of whatever nature — physical, psychological or sexual — and about the damaging effects of neglect. Because it makes all the difference if, as a society, we know how to properly identify and welcome abuse survivors.
Reading the signs
The signs of abuse, for anyone who have been educated on the subject, were all there—the rampant anxiety that made me bite my fingernails and toenails until they bled, insomnia, the crying spells for seemingly no reason, the constant urine infections, excessive introversion, isolation, nightmares that made me go to my parents' bed almost every night, stomach pains and gynaecological problems from an early age (they thought it was because I rode horses without saddle). And, above all, my hatred for my grandfather. Has anyone ever wondered why does she hate him?
However, it's no wonder my parents didn't notice those signs. Today, after years of searching the subject, it all seems very obvious to me, but at that time nobody talked about such things. I didn't even have a name for them. What shocks me is that forty years later we still don't talk openly about child abuse. This silence is a form of collective omission that only perpetuates a violent culture toward children. Moreover, it is cruel to those who have been abused, because it prevents us from recognizing the never-ending battle of each survivor to not going crazy.
"What shocks me is that forty years later we still don't talk openly about child abuse. "
No knowledge, no change
Educating yourself on the topic is not just a matter of good parenting. It is above all a matter of civility, respect for human rights, public health, laws and the proper functioning of society.
According to the World Health Organization, 3 out of 4 children - or 300 million children - aged between 2 and 4 years old regularly experience physical punishment and/or psychological violence at the hands of parents and caregivers. These children become adults with difficulties that will be reflected in their studies, relationships and work, which also affects the economy of countries.
"If we think about the magnitude of the issue, it is no exaggeration to say that we are a sick society, repeating toxic patterns, that urgently needs a collective cure"
It is known that this impact manifests itself in various ways, decades later, whether with mental health problems, the emergence of chronic diseases, difficulties in creating and maintaining bonds, addiction and unemployment. If we think about the magnitude of the issue, it is no exaggeration to say that we are a sick society, repeating toxic patterns - silence and denial being just some of them - that urgently needs a collective cure. And the only way to achieve it is to openly discuss everything that involves child abuse.
Culture of non-violence is the answer
We are the survivors of a childhood deformed by abuse that damaged our most vital abilities, such as trust in others, self-esteem, emotional self-regulation and the ability to deal with conflicts without reliving our traumas each time we go through stressful situations.
All this could be different if we cultivated a culture of non-violence, especially with children, without physical punishment, threats, shouting and humiliation. It has been known for a long time that none of this is educational, that it is pure aggression from adults with little self-control and emotional maturity to deal with frustrations arising from the idealization of what a "good child" would be.
By recognizing what abuse entails, and knowing its harm, we'll have the opportunity to attitude change, collectively. And, who knows, maybe we'll raise children who will become serene adults, balanced and prepared to deal with adversity.
Love is not enough, it takes reflection
There isn't a single day I don't ask myself what I would have been like if my story had been different. If I didn't have to live with the aftermath of trauma— all the health problems, difficulties with intimacy and so many emotional ups and downs that affect my functioning, productivity and career. How luxurious the idea of having peace of mind seems to me. As in Manuel Bandeira's poem, I think about the whole life that could have been and that wasn't.
"So to fight it, we need to get to know it more closely"
But since I can't change what happened, I can help fight this evil that is so rooted in almost all cultures - violence against children within their homes. Physical, psychological and sexual violence. And neglect, as harmful as abuse. So to fight it, we need to get to know it more closely.
It's time to question the principle of privacy when it comes to raising children. To question the family's supposed sacredness, and to acknowledge that it can be extremely harmful even when there is love. We are all profoundly unprepared for the degree of responsibility involved in caring for a child, and we often only realize it when it's just too late.
But that can and must change. KS