When You Deeply Love Your Abuser
There’s always a good reason why we respond to trauma the way we do. Healing means being gentle with ourselves as we understand why.
“Where is your anger?” My husband Steve asks me. He’s been a phenomenal support to my healing from a sexual assault that happened when I was very young, but I never had a much of an answer. I simply didn’t feel the rage he thought I should feel.
When I was little, we didn’t see my mother’s adult male relative often — he lived in another country — but I adored him. Brock was exciting and fun, and he drenched me with buckets of attention that my parents were too distracted and uptight to render.
On the Saturday morning in question, I expected to find him in the kitchen with my parents. “He’s getting dressed,” my mother said, fussing over pancake batter. “Do not bother him. Go get dressed.” Back in my room, I hesitated long enough to decide that my mother had it wrong. Brock would be delighted to see me. Then, full of joy and still in my nightgown, I climbed the steps to our third-floor guest room.
He was shaving at the sink. He was delighted to see me. But after some teasing conversation, the light in his eyes shifted to something dark and unrecognizable. Then: BLAM!
The trajectory of my life changed in that few minutes. I spent the rest of the weekend withdrawn and depressed, but no one asked me what was wrong. I didn’t know a thing about surviving trauma, but I knew better than to tell on him. My parents would take his side. This left me only one option. “I’d better forget all about it,” I told myself. My miraculous brain complied, and I did exactly that. Two decades passed before I remembered I’d been abused. In the meantime, I managed to grow up as a close-to-normal kid.
Brock didn’t visit us again until I was a teenager, during another weekend in which I was suddenly depressed, puzzling even myself. I remembered nothing of what he’d done. He didn’t try to put moves on me, but he treated me with a disdain no one else seemed to notice. I never saw him again.
So my husband Steve can’t get his head around my lack of rage. (To his credit, this very gentle man speaks of taking a baseball bat to my abuser’s groin.) Why am I not utterly livid?
The best I can do is this. Remembering wasn’t an option when I was growing up, and by the time I did remember, I was already an adult. All the repressed material was stored inside me for decades, unchanged. I didn’t just forget what Brock had done. The memory, the terror, and even the love I’d felt for him remained intact, shoved back into the farthest reaches of my being. Beyond memory, but not beyond retrieval.
The terror leaked out in irrational fears around separation from my parents as I grew up. To this day, I find travel anxiety-provoking.
And the love? Continuing to love Brock was part of what made it possible to convince myself the abuse hadn’t happened. If I’d hated him, I would have had to admit I had a reason to hate him. And I would have had to buy into a ruthlessly unpredictable view of the world.
Indeed, this childish love was pure and unspoiled. I’m glad I didn’t grow up a bitter and vengeful person. While hanging on to that love was to bring me trouble, I feel great tenderness for the little girl who still lives inside me.
When I was 13, I got involved with a teacher at my school. I had normal crushes, but this wasn’t a crush. I didn’t find Psychoteacher attractive; in fact, if I’d been willing to admit it, I would’ve said he was kind of gross. He bleached his hair, believing that the orange combover he tried to mold into place on his balding scalp was less noticeable than his dark, stringy strands.
The first time Psychoteacher had sex with me, I was 14. “I’ve felt this before,” I thought. Instantly, I shut down. “No. That’s impossible. This has to be the first time.” I wasn’t ready to remember. I was still too young and vulnerable to face what Brock had done to me.
I remember wondering at the time why I was so attached to Psychoteacher. The answer felt very clear, although it wasn’t really an answer: I was loyal. I felt obligated to be loyal to him. I didn’t question why I felt loyal to someone so unappealing.
Psychoteacher did offer the attention I was starved for. His focus on me was laser sharp and exclusive. If an older man said he loved me but treated me badly, well, that was nothing new. We remember even when we forget. And on some level I hoped that if I acted out, my parents would rescue me. They yelled, they dithered, they blamed me, and they got him fired from my school, but they never tried to find out how I was doing inside. No one rescued me.
I legally married Psychoteacher when I was 18, still loyal. The “marriage” ended when I was 26. A few months after I moved out, I remembered the earlier abuse.
It’s been decades since then. I have felt anger toward both my abusers, but there’s no master script for healing. One person might need to feel rage in order to become free. But rage, like love, can be a trap. Seeking to punish one’s abuser might cause harm if you keep focusing on the abuser’s awfulness, rather than your own healing.
One day it occurred to me that although Brock was long gone, I thought of him with whispers of tenderness, even devotion. Eventually, I began to see a pattern playing out in my friendships with men. I never had an affair, though some of these friendships had a romantic quality. But when the men didn’t treat me well, I rationalized their behavior. Although I knew on some level that I was dealing with a Brock stand-in, I still excused “friends” who were callous toward me.
Through this pattern I understood more about the persistence of my devotion to Brock.
The little girl who was so devoted, and who lives in me still, wanted to believe that her devotion was enough to bring that abuser to his knees, begging forgiveness. I kept trying to redeem my abuser through devotion to male friends who didn’t care about me.
The only way to end an unhealthy behavior is to stop doing it. Recently, I ghosted a man I’d been trying to help with a relationship issue. He was charming as hell, and part of his charm involved minimizing the damage he’d done to people who depended on him. As soon as I found out the truth, I cut off contact with him.
That little girl did nothing wrong. She was innocent. She made sense of terror and chaos the best way she could. My job now is to protect her as a mother would. She’s naive, and while I love her capacity for devotion, sometimes, she needs me to say no.