Last night, I came across a great post on Pinterest (and now I can't find it!) that talked about a common mistake authors make when writing characters who have been or are being abused. Essentially, it said that authors tend to focus on the lack of things in an abused character's life (safety, love, freedom, ambitions, etc.). But that lack doesn't simply create empty spaces within a character. Instead, the places that should be filled with safety, love, freedom, and so on are filled by their opposites: fear, hatred (of self or others), arbitrary rules, survival tactics, etc. So when abused characters begin the recovery process, they don't start with blank canvases in those parts of themselves. They're trying to scrub out horrible graffiti and paint over it.
Here are a few examples of what this might look like:
Healthy perspective: Your parents will love you and protect you no matter what.
Perspective warped by abuse: Yeah, unless you break a rule that you didn't know existed. Then they'll punish you in intensely painful and humiliating ways. So always, always, always figure out exactly what the rules of a situation are and then follow them to the letter.
Healthy perspective: Emotions like fear, anger, and so on are a normal part of life. You just have to learn to deal with them in healthy ways. You can talk to your parents about them (and anything else).
Perspective warped by abuse: Negative emotions are bad. If you express them, you'll just get shut down, invalidated, or worse. If you try to use coping techniques you learn in school, you'll get told things like, "We don't run away from our problems." Thus, the only thing you can do with these emotions is bottle them up.
Healthy perspective: Most things in life—chores, art, whatever—don't have to be done perfectly. It's okay to make mistakes.
Perspective warped by abuse: The person in charge always zeroes in on what you missed/did wrong and might scold you/make you do it over, so you'd better not make any mistakes. Parents will make a big fuss if you get a B on an assignment. Therefore, you can't settle for less than perfection in anything you do.
As characters begin to see how their abuse has distorted their thinking and behavior, they experience intense cognitive dissonance. How can someone who should be their greatest protector also be the one who hurt them so deeply? How can this person hold positions of trust and respect at work, in religious groups, or in the community when they've done terrible things to someone they claim to love? A character might have both happy and heinous memories with their abuser(s)—how can this be? Even if a character leaves an abusive situation, how can they hate their abuser(s) yet miss them at the same time?
It's exhausting and frightening to try to work through these contradictions. As an abuse survivor, I've had to learn that sometimes opposite things can be true at the same time. My parents are generally good people and have been abusive for most of my life. I want to heal and am terrified of doing so because I don't know who I'll be if these experiences don't define me anymore. I'm doing a lot better than I was a year ago and still have really bad days. It's all so out of whack—and yet it's reality.
Abuse leaves deep, sometimes permanent scars. If we choose to write about it, we need to portray it with the seriousness and accuracy it deserves.
If you'd like to know more about abuse and its effects, send me your questions at storyengineer7 AT gmail.com. I'll do my best to answer them.
(Thanks to _Mxsh_ for sharing their work on Unsplash.)