Abusive parents: What do grown children owe the mothers and fathers who made their childhood a living hell?

What Do Grown Children Owe Their Terrible, Abusive Parents?

What Do Grown Children Owe Their Terrible, Abusive Parents?

Snapshots of life at home.
Feb. 18 2013 6:00 AM

The Debt

When terrible, abusive parents come crawling back, what do their grown children owe them?

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Regina Sullivan is a research professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the NYU Langone School of Medicine who studies emotional attachment in rats. In experiments with rats raised by mothers who neglect or physically hurt their pups, Sullivan has teased out that, when in the presence of the caregiver, the infant brain’s fear and avoidance circuits are suppressed. Attachment “programs the brain,” she says. “The ability of an adult who can say to you, I had a horrible childhood, I don’t like my parents, but then do things to continue to get the parents’ approval, is an example of the strength of human attachment in early life.”

As Springsteen’s experience shows, one doesn’t just leave such childhoods behind, like outgrowing a fear of the dark. Study after study has found that just as an emotionally warm, intellectually stimulating childhood is typically a springboard for a happy, healthy life, an abusive one can cause a litany of problems.

Abuse victims are more likely to suffer from depression, substance abuse, broken relationships, chronic diseases, and even obesity. Many of the high-functioning people I hear from who are wrestling with their debt to their parents have struggled with some of these issues. Rochelle says, “I was a very angry kid, I got into fights in grade school. I’ve worked on it a lot, on not being the spiteful angry person all the time.” She also says she has dealt with food issues her whole life. Her mother brought home groceries once a month and she and her brother would devour the food before unpacking it. “We were starving,” she says. “If I have an addiction, it’s eating.”


Those who refuse to make peace with a failing parent may also find themselves judged harshly. In his memoir Closing Time, Joe Queenan writes of the loathing he and his sisters felt for their alcoholic, physically and psychologically abusive father. When they were grown, Queenan writes: “We talked about him as if he were already dead; such wishful thinking was rooted in the hope that he would kick the bucket before reaching the age when he might expect one of us to take him in,” although they agreed none would. When the father finally died, he wrote, “Clemency was not included in my limited roster of emotions.” In a review of the book in the Wall Street Journal, Alexander Theroux writes, “It is a shameful confession to make in any book.”

In his New York Times essay, Richard Friedman acknowledges that some parent-child relationships are so toxic that they must be severed. But he adds, “Of course, relationships are rarely all good or bad; even the most abusive parents can sometimes be loving, which is why severing a bond should be a tough, and rare decision.” But substitute “husband” for “parents,” and surely Friedman would not advise a woman in such a relationship to carry on because her battering spouse had a few redeeming qualities.

I know from my own inbox that many people are looking for someone, anyone, to tell them they should not feel guilty for declining to care for their abuser. I’m happy to do it. In private correspondence with these letter writers, I sometimes point out that, judging by their accounts, there doesn’t seem to be any acknowledgement of guilt on the part of the parent for neglecting to meet their most basic responsibilities.

A woman I’ll call Beatrice wrote to me as she wrestled with how to respond to a series of emails, calls, and letters from her long-estranged parents. Beatrice, 42, has a doctorate, is a professor of mathematics at a Midwestern university, and lives with her supportive boyfriend. She thinks of herself simultaneously as a “self-made person” and a “damaged” one. She decided long ago not to have children. “I have never felt confident I could trust another person to be the other parent. I’m not sure I could be a competent parent because of what I’ve been through.”

Of her childhood she says, “I don’t remember any happy days at all.” Her father had violent rages; he once knocked her down a flight of stairs. If she couldn’t finish dinner, she would have to sit at the table all night, then get beaten by him if she didn’t clean her plate. Her mother never intervened. Her parents divorced when she was young and her father refused to pay child support. A few years later, her mother became the fifth wife of Beatrice’s new stepfather and life got much worse.

He was unemployed and always around. Beatrice was a young teen and when she got home from school he would go into her bedroom, put his fingers up her vagina, and say he was giving her a massage. He made her touch his genitals. He let his friends come over and “have fun” with her, as long as they didn’t take her virginity. When she was 17, she finally stood up to him and he kicked her out of the house. He told her mother she had taken off of her own accord. By that time she was working 40 hours a week at a crafts store in addition to going to school, and a co-worker let her move into her basement. She contacted her mother and asked her to meet her for lunch. Beatrice explained everything that had been going on with her stepfather. “She told me she didn’t believe a word and didn’t want to hear any more,” Beatrice says. “That was the last time I saw her.” That was 25 years ago.

Beatrice says that during her childhood she would sometimes feel sorry for herself. Her friends would complain about their parents, or about having bad days, and she would think they had no idea what a bad day was. But she says of being on her own at 17, “The day my stepdad kicked me out, my life got better. I could come home and no one was trying to do anything bad to me. I didn’t have to hide. I didn’t worry about getting hit. That meant everything.”

Last year, separately and out of the blue, Beatrice’s mother and father each got in touch. Her biological father sent a small gift and a card with an update: He was in debt, out of work, and was supporting Beatrice’s troubled sister. A few months later, there was a message on her answering machine. “This is your mother,” the voice said. She wanted Beatrice to know her stepfather had only a few days to live. She told Beatrice she was willing to forgive her. “That made me laugh,” Beatrice says. Her mother started sending emails and Beatrice sent her a reply saying she was busy and couldn’t deal with any of this. She hasn’t heard back from her mother since. But she fears that both her parents will contact her again and explicitly ask for help.

“I’m worried about that happening. I’m worried she’ll call and say, ‘I have cancer.’ I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Beatrice says. “If she knows I’m a professor, I’m sure everyone thinks I make a huge salary and I’m going to save them. My salary is enough for me to do what I want.”

Dr. Ronald Rohner, an emeritus professor of family studies and anthropology at the University of Connecticut, has devoted much of his career to studying parental rejection and its effects. He says there’s little research on adult role reversal—that is, what happens when the parent is vulnerable and wants support from the child. But he says the studies that do exist demonstrate that “it really truly is as you sow, so shall you reap. Those parents who raised children less than lovingly are putting their own dependent old age at risk for being well and lovingly cared for themselves.”

In a 2008 essay in the journal In Character, history professor Wilfred McClay writes that as a society we have twisted the meaning of forgiveness into a therapeutic act for the victim: “[F]orgiveness is in danger of being debased into a kind of cheap grace, a waiving of standards of justice without which such transactions have no meaning.” Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School writes that, “There is a watered-down but widespread form of ‘forgiveness’ best tagged preemptory or exculpatory forgiveness. That is, without any indication of regret or remorse from perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes, we are enjoined by many not to harden our hearts but rather to ‘forgive.’ ”

I agree with these more bracing views about what forgiveness should entail. Choosing not to forgive does not doom someone to being mired in the past forever. Accepting what happened and moving on is a good general principle. But it can be comforting for those being browbeaten to absolve their parents to recognize that forgiveness works best as a mutual endeavor. After all, many adult children of abusers have never heard a word of regret from their parent or parents. People who have the capacity to ruthlessly maltreat their children tend toward self-justification, not shame.

Even apologies can have their limits, as illustrated by a Dear Prudence letter from a mother who called herself “Sadder but Wiser.” She verbally humiliated her son when he was a boy, realized the damage she had done, changed her ways, and apologized. But her son, who recently became a father, has only a coolly cordial relationship with her, and she complained that she wanted more warmth and caring. I suggested that she should be glad that he did see her, stop whining for more, and tell her son she admires that he is giving his little boy the childhood he deserves and that he didn’t get.

It’s wonderful when there can be true reconciliation and healing, when all parties can feel the past has been somehow redeemed. But I don’t think Rochelle, Beatrice, and others like them should be hammered with lectures about the benefits of—here comes that dread word—closure. Sometimes the best thing to do is just close the door.