When I was in high school the book to read if you wanted a glimpse into the lives of children who suffered through abuse was Sybil. For my children it was A Boy Named It. I read Sybil the same quarter I took psychology. It was not required reading but I think it was on an additional readings list and you could get extra credit if you wrote a short book review. Somewhere along the line I also watched the movie staring Sally Fields. But, even with that exposure the subject of child abuse has always been separate from me, distant, isolated, somewhere over there. Even when I student taught and came face to face with a young girl who was routinely beaten by her mother but who refused to report it because if she did she would be sent to her father who raped her while her mother simply beat the next sister in line, I still remained detached.
The movies the books–they were the exceptions. They didn’t seem real. The girl I encountered– refused to report her abuse. She didn’t want out. So, I reasoned, it couldn’t be that bad. Later when a sliver of fear flashed through my brain as a father told me to just slam his son up against the wall if he acted out in class because that’s what he did, I made a mental note to never send a bad report home. I didn’t need the father’s kind of help. And, when a woman I waited tables with told me stories from her childhood of her father piling news papers around her brother and her, pouring gasoline on them, and sitting in a chair flicking lit matches at them until he passed out from drinking, I didn’t suddenly understand the reality or severity of physical, emotional, or sexual child abuse.
Recently I started a new job. It is another graveyard shift in a group home (my last job was in a group home for developmentally disabled adults). This home is for children. These children have been severely neglected, and/or physically abused, and/or sexually abused. Their fathers and/or mothers were the perpetrators. The people who were supposed to love them, protect them, and care for them–didn’t. Some of the perpetrators have problems with substance abuse. Some have a history of mental illness. Most practice what was preached to them from those who were supposed to love them, protect them, and care for them–but didn’t.
A few days ago staff was brainstorming what to do about a child who was continually disrespectfully to staff. I can not say I “get it” completely but at that moment something in my head and heart broke open and I heard myself say, “Maybe [this child] is speaking as respectfully as he knows how to speak. Maybe he has never heard kind or respectful words until he got here.” In that moment, I could not imagine who I would be if I had had to live with what I was suggesting for this child but I know without a doubt that I would not be who I am now. My life has not been perfect. But I believe if given the chance anyone of the children in this group home would trade my childhood experiences for theirs in a heart beat.
The few short weeks I have spent with these children has had a profound impact on me. Should I someday be a high school teacher again I will be a different teacher. I am already a different parent. Knowing these children has given me both more and less empathy for people who find themselves living in hard places. Each of these children is doing the hard work needed to get healthy, to restore trust, to build good relationships. Hopefully their work now means their children (should they ever have children) will not need to do the same kind of work. Hopefully they, with the help of their attachment counselors and therapists, are breaking the cycle of abuse.
In this sense, going to work is very much like I imagine going to church could be if the church ever decides to be the Church. He came to set the captives free. The counselors and therapist in this group home may not know the name Jesus–but they sure know how to be His hands and feet.