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?

Illustration by Charlie Powell.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

What do we owe our tormentors? It’s a question that haunts those who had childhoods marked by years of neglect and deprivation, or of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of one or both parents. Despite this terrible beginning, many people make it out successfully and go on to build satisfying lives. Now their mother or father is old, maybe ailing, possibly broke. With a sense of guilt and dread, these adults are grappling with whether and how to care for those who didn’t care for them.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

Rochelle, 37, wrote to me in my role as Slate’s Dear Prudence because of the pressure she was getting from friends to reach out to her mother. Rochelle is a banquet waitress in the Midwest. She has a boyfriend but lives alone and has no children. She and her younger brother grew up with an angry, alcoholic mother who was on welfare but cleaned houses off the books to supplement the check. Rochelle’s parents were never married and split when she was young. Her mother always told her not to have children. “We were the reason her life turned out as it did,” Rochelle says. She told Rochelle she was so stupid that she’d need to find a rich husband to support her. She said she couldn’t wait for Rochelle to turn 18 and get out of her house. Rochelle’s younger brother had difficulties from the start—she looks back and thinks he might have been autistic. Her mother used to take a belt to him and call him the devil and say she wished he’d never been born.

Rochelle started waitressing when she was 15. By 18, she was indeed out of the house and into an abusive relationship with an older man. She broke up with him, got her own apartment, a decent boyfriend, and started working to put herself through college. Then her brother was killed at age 18, shot in the heart during a silly fight over a girl. Rochelle stepped up and took care of all the funeral arrangements. Her father came and, when he left, hugged her goodbye. “That was the first time he ever hugged me,” she recalls. Her mother called later that night, drunk, and said that, by hugging her, Rochelle’s father was trying to molest Rochelle. Rochelle wrote her mother a letter saying she had a drinking problem and needed help. In response she got a letter saying that she was a horrible daughter and she would get what she deserved and that her brother was defective and needed to die.

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That was Rochelle’s breaking point—after that, she didn’t see her mother for the next 13 years. Even though Rochelle was barely scraping by, she would sometimes send her mother money for rent, knowing she probably used it for booze. Occasionally, a friend would check on her mother and give her a report. Then last year a tornado struck the town where Rochelle’s mother lived, and Rochelle went to make sure she was all right. That began a sort of rapprochement. Rochelle started taking her mother out to lunch every other Sunday. She did it not because she felt she owed her mother anything: “Absolutely not.” Instead it was for her own sense of self. “To me being a good person means helping people when you can.”

The visits took a toll. Rochelle describes a physical response that sounds a lot like post-traumatic stress disorder. “All the stuff I tried to let go of seeps in. One little thing—the scent of her cigarettes, a mannerism, a word—floods back all these memories.” Rochelle started chewing gum on the drive to see her mother, she says, “because I’m clenching my jaw, white-knuckling the steering wheel.”

Rochelle found that being a good person to her mother was so draining that it left her sleepless and snapping at the people she did love. Her mother’s verbal abuse resumed and her demands started escalating—she wanted more attention, more money. Rochelle got a therapist, and with her help, has again cut ties with her mother. Rochelle says, “I can’t sacrifice my life and sanity in order to try to save her.”

In an essay in the New York Times, psychiatrist Richard Friedman writes that the relationship of adults to their abusive parents “gets little, if any, attention in standard textbooks or in the psychiatric literature.” But Rochelle is not alone. I have been hearing from people in her position for years, adult children weighing whether to reconnect with parents who nearly ruined their lives. Sometimes it’s a letter writer such as “Comfortably Numb” who has cut off contact with a parent but is now being pressured by family members, and even a spouse, to reconcile and forgive. Sometimes a correspondent, like “Her Son,” has hung on to a thread of a relationship, but is now fearful of being further yoked emotionally or financially to a declining parent.

One hallmark of growing up in a frightening home is for the children to think they are the only ones in such circumstances. Even when they reach adulthood and come to understand that many others have had dire childhoods, they might not reveal the details of their abuse to anyone. “The profound isolation that’s imposed on people is a very painful and destructive thing,” says Dr. Vincent Felitti, co-principal investigator of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 3.3 million cases of abuse or neglect were reported to child protective service agencies in 2010. This vastly undercounts the actual number of horrific and painful childhoods, as most never make it into any official record. The CDC notes that some studies estimate that 20 percent of children will be the victims of such maltreatment. That means a lot of people are wrestling with this legacy.

Loved ones and friends—sometimes even therapists—who urge reconnecting with a parent often speak as if forgiveness will be a psychic aloe vera, a balm that will heal the wounds of the past. They warn of the guilt that will dog the victim if the perpetrator dies estranged. What these people fail to take into account is the potential psychological cost of reconnecting, of dredging up painful memories and reviving destructive patterns.

Eleanor Payson, a marital and family therapist in Michigan and the author of The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, sees some clients who feel it would be immoral to abandon a now-feeble parent, no matter how destructive that person was. Payson says she advises them to find ways to be caring while protecting themselves from further abuse. “One of my missions is helping people not be tyrannized by false guilt or ignore their own pain and needs,” she says. Setting limits is crucial: “You may need to keep yourself in a shark cage with no opportunity to let that person take a bite out of you.” It’s also OK for the conversation to be anodyne. “You can say something respectful, something good-faith-oriented. ‘I wish you well’; ‘I continue to work on my own forgiveness.’ ”

There is no formula for defining one’s obligations to the parents who didn’t fulfill their own. The stories of famous people with abusive parents reveal the wide range of possible responses. Abraham Lincoln couldn't stand his brutish father, Thomas, who hated Abraham’s books and sent him out as a kind of indentured servant. As an adult, Lincoln did occasionally bail out his father financially. But during his father’s final illness, Lincoln ignored letters telling him the end was near. Finally, he wrote not to his father, but his stepbrother to explain his absence: “Say to him that if we could meet now, it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant.” Lincoln didn’t attend his father’s funeral.

Warren Buffett remained distantly dutiful to his mother, who had subjected her children to endless, rabid verbal attacks. On the occasions he visited her at the end of her life, he was a “wreck” of anxiety, sitting silently while his female companions made conversation. He was 66 when she died at 92. His tears at her death were not because he was sad or because he missed her, he said in his biography, The Snowball. “It was because of the waste.”

Bruce Springsteen’s frustrated, depressive father took out much of his rage on his son. In a New Yorker profile, David Remnick writes that long after Springsteen’s family had left his unhappy childhood home, he would obsessively drive by the old house. A therapist said to him, “Something went wrong, and you keep going back to see if you can fix it or somehow make it right.” Springsteen finally came to accept he couldn’t. When he became successful he did give his parents the money to buy their dream house. But Springsteen says of this seeming reconciliation, “Of course, all the deeper things go unsaid, that it all could have been a little different.”

We all accept that there is an enduring bond between parent and child. One of the Ten Commandments is to “honor your father and your mother,” though this must have been a difficult admonition for the children of, for example, Abraham, Rebecca, and Jacob. Yet the loyalty of children to even the worst of parents makes perfect biological sense. From an evolutionary perspective, parents, even poor ones, are a child’s best chance for food, shelter, and survival.

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