I remember Mama: One man (and boy’s) odyssey through abuse

Born in the 1960s to a 14-year-old mother, I am one of those individuals who came into the world at a time when the word “Negro” was still being placed on birth certificates. Without the requisite skills or resources to care for her child, a tiny bundle with asthma, I was placed in a foster home and there I stayed for the first six years of my life. It was a wonderful family and I was reared in an atmosphere of kindness, responsibility, and love. Although my foster parents very much wanted to adopt me, they acquiesced to my mother’s desire to regain custody.

I left a secure home where I was the youngest of eight to live as an only child with a mother who was still a stranger to me, despite her frequent visits while I lived with my foster family. It seemed to have not crossed her mind that I would require some time and help in acclimating to this reality-jarring change.

The newness and the ecstasy of having the child she had waited so long for lasted for a little while—just a little while. What followed was a childhood scarred by psychological, emotional, and physical abuse. When I was as young as seven, my mother had introduced me to phrases such as “I hate you,” “I can’t stand you,” and “You make me sick.” Beginning at a tender age, my body was frequently visited with blows from her fists, the backs of her hands, and even her feet. My mother, who was not a small woman, would sometimes knock me to the ground, press her knee into my chest, and pummel me with punch after punch. There were times when family members would have to pull her off me.

While I was being physically assaulted, and even when I wasn’t, verbal abuse (which included blaming me for her drinking problem) was an ever-present feature in my mother’s communications with me. At eight years old, I had an epiphany (a memory still deeply etched in my mind): Her view of me would not be my view of myself. It was liberating in that even though the abuse didn’t stop, my spirit survived.

Let me be clear, though: I wasn’t without human refuge. My favorite uncle and maternal grandmother did what they could to help me, and I honor their devotion to me.

The oft-times excruciating journey of my childhood still, to this day, evokes a deep emotional response among those in my family who lament that they could have and should have done more to protect me. Yet I and many other men who have traveled this same agonizing road are told that our narrative is trivial because we are men and because we were abused by our mothers. This attitude is bewildering and perplexing in light of the very consistent data that tells us that in America stories of abuse at the hands of a mother are more common than those involving paternal abuse.

The pain, by the numbers

Department of Health and Human Services statistics show that from 2001 to 2006, of the children who were abused by one parent, approximately 71% were abused by their mothers, while 29.4% were abused by their fathers. The report goes on to state that of children who died at the hands of one parent during that same five-year period, approximately 71% were killed by their mothers, while 29.2% were killed by their fathers.

Moving to the 2009 DHHS report, the percentages for child fatalities committed by parents break down like so: 22.5% by both parents, 14.8% committed by fathers alone, and 27.3% perpetrated by mothers alone.

In still another DHHS report from 2012, we find that 27.1% of child deaths resulting from abuse or neglect were committed by mothers, compared with 17.1% committed by fathers. Mothers and fathers acting together accounted for 21.2% of child deaths.

We also see that of the 2.9 million child abuse cases in 2012, 45.3% of the perpetrators were male, but 53.5% were female. This same report points out that although abuse inflicted upon boys and girls was fairly even, boys constituted approximately 60% of those who are killed as a result of abuse or neglect. All of this tells us that for quite some time the numbers point to maternal child abuse being predominant, and yet the image we have chosen to highlight the issue is a battered child cowering in a corner with a brooding and belligerent father hovering over her.

Let’s also consider this: In the wake of the Adrian Peterson child abuse allegations, it was his mother who stepped forward and said Peterson was doing what she raised him to do. My point here isn’t whether one agrees or disagrees with his parenting methods but that the response would have been quite different had Peterson’s father been the one who had come forward and said, “That’s how I reared my son.” Can we honestly say that wouldn’t have been offered up as proof positive of how abusive men are?

There is a great deal of understanding we extend to women and girls who have been abused who then, in turn, engage in inappropriate and abusive behavior. It’s an understanding, however, that abused men and boys, who do likewise, don’t equally enjoy.

So what do we tell the millions of boys and girls abused by their mothers or women? Do we say, “Your pain is persona non grata because somehow it’s not as bad when Mommy abuses you?” This is domestic violence at its most tragic, and yet we continue to either excuse or ignore 53.5% of the perpetrators; 53.5% of the problem. This traps men and boys in a purgatory of pain aided and abetted by the destructive gender stereotype employed by men and women alike: “He’s a guy, he can take it.”

It’s time to stop treating the abuse of boys and men as some sort of competing narrative when it comes to domestic and intimate partner violence. Simply put, abuse hurts, no matter who is being abused. The outward scars and the inner wounds don’t discriminate according to gender. To be continually told that my (our) hurt is negligible because more women are hurting than men is not only callous, it’s unacceptable. It’s like telling someone who’s lost a child that they have no right to grieve because a person who lives down the street lost three. While it may be true, it does nothing to diminish that person’s pain.

Domestic violence and abuse against boys and men is not a kind of imaginary or ginned-up specter like voting fraud, where one has a better chance of being struck by lightning than it occurring. No, something that occurs every 38 seconds and includes approximately 840,000 men and affects 1.5 million children cannot be considered as some random occurrence. To those who would try to squash my all-too-familiar narrative: Your pain doesn’t cancel out mine and your legitimate grievances don’t render mine illegitimate. You don’t get to tell me where my hurting begins and ends, nor do you get to construct the boundaries for its rightful expression.

Is sympathy and empathy for the suffering of abuse victims to be decided by a flip of a coin? Did women and girls win some sort of psychological and emotional version of The Hunger Games that allows only one tribe to lay claim to the “prize” of compassion? If that is indeed the case, then we are not serious about dealing with domestic violence. And if we are not serious, we have revealed that it is not reformation in our relationships that we seek but rather retribution.

Meet Erin Pizzey

Erin Pizzey is not a household name, but in domestic violence activism circles, she is somewhat of a legend and pioneer. She established the world’s first refuge for battered women in 1971, Chiswick Women’s Aid, the organization known today as Refuge. She also wrote the groundbreaking book, Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear. Published in 1974, it is considered to be the first book written on domestic violence against women.

Today, Pizzey is demonized by most in the feminist movement and banned from the very organization that she founded. And what was her unforgivable transgression? Her research led her to the conclusion that most domestic violence is reciprocal and that women are equally as capable of violence as men.

In her essay “Who’s Failing the Family,” she states, “I was very aware that while many of the women were indeed ‘innocent victims of their partner’s violence,’ many were not. Of the first hundred women that came into my refuge, sixty-two were as violent as the men they left. They were not ‘victims of their partner’s violence.’ They were ‘victims of their own violence.’ Most of these women had experienced sexual abuse and violence in their own childhoods. Not only were they violent in the refuge but they were also violent and abusive to their children.”

As a result of her findings, Pizzey shifted her focus from a strictly “female as victim” treatment model to that of a holistic, therapeutic family approach.

In countless interviews Pizzey has spoken of being subjected to a campaign of harassment. She has described posses of screaming female hecklers waiting for her anywhere she was meant to appear. Further, she said, “Abusive telephone calls to my home, death threats and bomb scares, became a way of living for me and for my family. Finally, the bomb squad asked me to have all my mail delivered to their headquarters.”

Her bona fides on the issue of domestic violence are well established, yet Pizzey’s ordeal shows that we are repeatedly being asked to enter a conversation on domestic violence in which the conclusions are already drawn, certain assumptions fixed, and the parameters of the dialogue already set.

Definitely not one size fits all

We have lost so much by making domestic and intimate partner violence only about the extremes and about size and strength differentials. Then again, we are a society of sensationalists whose attention can only be drawn to extreme cases. We gravitate toward the incidents that explode on social media or those that run in seemingly endless loops courtesy of the mainstream media. But in doing so we fail to realize, again and again, that it is what happens during the course of our everyday lives that leads to the severe.

Women fought for years to get the American public to understand that rape isn’t fundamentally about sex but about control and dominance. Yet by primarily focusing on domestic violence as merely a matter of physical size and strength, we make it only about men. The shattering of trust and the inflicting of pain is not a province where only the male of the species dwells. A strategy that says we only need to have a sit-down with men when it comes to the issue of domestic violence is a tragically flawed strategy.

The “success” of this abuse lies primarily in what women and men, both, expect from men: men don’t talk; men won’t tell. All abuse is usually shrouded in some sort of secrecy, but this concealment is exacerbated for men because of the notions of manhood that have been drilled into our consciousness by our fathers and, yes, our mothers alike.

The constant denial of the data and the excusing of abusive behavior dehumanizes and makes caricatures of women. How so, you ask? To be fully human means that one is equally capable of being hurt and being hurtful. There are too many men and boys—this one included—who can say, “I’ve been abused and it was my mother who did it,” and that pain cannot be denied, silenced, or ignored. The battered, bruised, and deprived bodies of the innocents, the tiny corpses, tell the story that we, apparently, dare not tell.

Talking to the boy

In my lifetime I’ve occupied spaces that are considered testosterone-only domains: I played college football, enlisted in the Marines, was a high school football coach, worked with former and current NFL players, and had been, at one time, a rock-solid 6’1”, 250 lbs. Yes, I lifted heavy weights, but I couldn’t, in and of myself, lift the heaviness of the abuse I had suffered. This isn’t difficult to understand because after that lightning-strike of revelation in my eight year-old mind, there were many times when I refused, in defiance, to cry; I refused to acknowledge that my mother could hurt me.

So, I let the pain sit, like the proverbial unacknowledged elephant in the room. Yet, as time went on, I began to realize a freeing truth: That which helps us survive at one point in our lives can be the very thing that prevents the catharsis we need at another stage. In other words, we have to remove the tourniquet in order for the surgeon to do the work.

One day came, however, when I started walking down the road of healing and deliverance. I am now many miles and many years from where and when it all began. I’m free of the bitterness, but I still carry the wounds. I once thought that the man I am must reach back to the boy I was, but I have found that to be untrue. It is the boy, that eight-year-old boy, who calls to the man. He tells the man, “It wasn’t our fault. It’s okay to cry.” The man has wondered many times, “Why all the suffering?” but the boy tells him to use it to help others. The boy urges me: “Come out the shadows and tell our story.” I’ve come to cherish my conversations with him. Without the radiant sun of hope rising on the horizon of his young spirit, I wouldn’t be the man that I am today. He, my faith, and the love of a wonderful wife have helped to heal the once-unspoken pain, the undeclared hurt.

This issue includes my individual story and suffering, and yet the issue is also larger than just that. It doesn’t matter who will or who won’t acknowledge my pain and my experience, you see, because I hear the boy.

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