I came across Ingrid Clayton’s work while listening to an excellent podcast about Trauma Bonding; I liked what she had to say and the way she said it, so I bought her memoir, Believing Me.
Sure enough, I liked her book. Maybe it’s because our stories have similarities. Maybe it’s because she manages to describe universal aspects of trauma. Probably both.
Believing me can be useful especially for those of us who have been traumatized in our family of origin. It helps validate the weird dynamics of such families, and normalize our trauma responses later in life.
In case you fear being triggered, know it’s relatively easy to read: there is almost no mention of physical stuff happening. The emotional abuse and chaos is well described though and can lead to some discomfort – but it’s also what gets us reflecting, and feeling.
I really recommend you read Believing me, but if you can’t, here are a few takeaways about the dynamics of abusive families :
Predators tactics are so predictable
When we try to live our lives after the shock of trauma, we usually think our story is unique. We feel ashamed of having been abused, as if it was our fault somehow. We believe it happened because of what we did or did not do, or who we were, or were not. Because of us, in short.
When we read a book like Believing Me, it helps realize our stories are indeed not unique. When she described the way her stepfather alternated brutal periods of silent treatment, neglect and hostility, with periods of warmth and attention, I recognized the dynamic. Done enough times, with sufficient intensity, these cycles destroy personal boundaries with great efficiency.
This is not “the way he is, you know” as other family members describe with a knowing look. What it really is, is a grooming tactic on a young, dependent mind. Make no mistake, it’s a conscious maneuver. You can hear another example with Harvey Weinstein’s tape from Amber Gutierrez, several of these cycles in less than 40 seconds.
Same old, same old.
And they think they are so brilliant.
Predators repeat the same scenario their whole life
Like Ingrid Clayton, I came to this realization in my early forties: it was never about us.
These guys have one scenario in their mind, and they replay it over and over with any young and dependent person who is around. It was us, but could have been anybody else. Often, it has been a substantial number of anybody elses. They are so stuck in a hypnotic, repetitive trance, they don’t see people anyway.
We don’t understand it because our perspective is very limited while stuck in our family. But if you have the opportunity later, do a bit of digging: chances are your abuser left a trail of destruction spanning decades.
The other parent is willing to do anything to stay in denial
That’s the worst part: the other parent is also in a kind of trance, a la la land where their relationship and their family is loving and normal, and nothing’s wrong. It feels and looks a lot like their own family of origin, who was loving and normal (as everybody knows).
Most partners will do anything to stay in this lalaland, even if it means inflicting enormous damage on their own children, and eventually themselves. They believe they are too fragile to face reality, leaving it to their kids to handle so they can go on with their fictitious life.
The victim often ends up scapegoated
There is a mighty problem though: even with heavy doses of denial, it’s obvious for everyone something is wrong in this family. So often, the victim becomes the problem: too fragile, too sensitive, too rebellious, too provocative, too bad, too spoiled too problematic. The scapegoat is supposed to carry all the family’s dysfunction.
This is very heavy and unfair, indeed. It’s sinister, but all very usual unfortunately.
The great Tolstoy has famously written in his opening of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
In all humility, I’m not sure about that: I don’t know a lot of happy families, but I can confidently say a lot of insane families are alike.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Believing Me, the abusive narcissist’s prayer :
“That didn’t happen.
And if it did, it wasn’t that bad.
And if it was, that’s not a big deal.
And if it is, that’s not my fault.
And if it was, I didn’t mean it.
And if I did, you deserved it.”