One of the central themes in the book, “When I Was Twelve, It Rained Frogs” is the issue of forgiveness. Only by forgiving those who hurt us can we hope to move on and live our lives.
Every day we read about the horrors of child abuse and neglect and the resultant effects on the victims as they pass into adulthood. Many become addicted to drugs and alcohol, many turn to self-destructive behavior by becoming prostitutes or criminals, still more, sadly, become abusers themselves. In every case, these abused children carry the horrors of their childhood with them. Some rely on their abuse as a crutch or an excuse for the way in which their lives are going. Still others do not realize that they are scarred psychically and believe that they can simply leave it in the past and forget about it. They deal with the symptoms of their abuse—everything from eating disorders to extreme mood swings, violent temper, and depression—as merely aspects of their character about which they can do nothing.
Some seek therapy, and discover that they must learn, not only that they did not deserve the abuse they suffered, but also that they must learn to forgive those who have hurt them. Both of these things are tremendously difficult. How can children (even adult children) understand that the person or persons who were supposed to love them unconditionally and without reservation could inflict so much pain on them without believing that somehow they did something to deserve it? How can these children then forgive their abuser(s) for turning their childhood into a living hell? Surely, a child is justified in his hatred of someone who has done this to him.
The key is to understand that hatred of an abuser is justified, but that holding on to that hatred will not help him or her to move forward in life. “Yes, I hate my abuser(s), but I must not let them dictate my future. I must not allow them to control my adulthood the way they controlled my childhood.” Only by forgiving the abuser is the abused child able to move on.
One way to do this is through understanding. Some abusers suffer from substance abuse and/or mental disease. For the child this means that life is a constant battle with opposing feelings toward two personalities: The loving sober caregiver can become a cruel and abusive monster when under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The mentally ill person on medication can become a sadistic abuser without that medication. As demonstrated in the book, ‘When I was Twelve, It Rained Frogs,’ this terrible dichotomy creates a love/hate relationship for the child that leads to feelings of guilt, self-doubt, and low self-esteem. The hatred that Jayne feels when her mother is under the influence or acting ‘crazy’ creates terrible guilt when she eventually becomes sober. She berates herself for being selfish and unfeeling.
The fear and uncertainty of not knowing which personality will greet her on any given day teaches Jayne, like all such children, to expect the worst, which effectively both retards and sabotages their own chances for happiness. They live with the prevailing feeling that all happiness is fleeting, so why bother? Additionally, they must keep their home lives secret out of fear of reprisal and the shame they feel concerning their addicted caregiver’s behavior. They too, then develop two distinct personas: that of the normal, happy child at school, and the terrified child at home.
Many abusers are themselves locked in a cycle that began with their own childhoods. Failure to effectively deal with their own demons created as a result of their abuse leads them down the same path with their own children. For them, abusing their children is justified as, a) the only way they know how to parent and/or b) payback for their own abuse. Some of these adult children will learn to suppress their anger or their urge to hurt their own children, and find that other aspects of their lives suffer as a result. They will likely have problems keeping a job, controlling their temper toward other adults, or develop substance abuse problems. Others will grow up to be the same monsters that haunted their childhoods unless they recognize the pattern and resolve to change it through therapy.
Jayne Valjos, the heroine in ‘Frogs’ lives with all of the conflicted feelings that so many children of abusive parents experience. She hates her mother, then feels guilty for hating her. She is confused about her feelings, not truly understanding if what she feels for her mom is love or pity. Yet she learns early that her mother is, in fact, two parents. One is gentle, kind and wise, while the other is cruel, even sadistic. She does not know which parent she will meet when she wakes up in the morning or when she enters her house after playing or at school. She becomes adept at testing the air for signs of tension.
Trust is an issue for Jayne as it is for most children of abusers. She has no reason to trust her mother. Her constant changes in mood and behavior make trust a virtual impossibility. At the same time, she learns that she cannot trust outsiders enough to talk about her situation. Too often, the people with whom she shares her story use it to turn her life into malicious gossip. She lives in constant fear of being separated from her family if she should talk to the wrong person and the authorities get involved. Instead, she creates for herself a world of fantasy that allows her to escape the reality of her life and live instead in a world of her own choosing. She uses fantasy to explain her mother’s frequent absences by pretending that she is travelling on important business. She can also relegate her abusive mother to the role of house-mother, thereby allowing Jayne to hate her without guilt.
As Jayne becomes older, she tries hard to understand that her mother is sick and that she is haunted by demons in her own past; a past about which she will not speak. The more she is able to understand, the more she is able to forgive. It is the disease she hates, not the person.
For so many children of abusive parents, the biggest issue is what to do with the suppressed anger and the conflicted feelings they have toward their abusers. How does one deal with these dual personalities? The anger issues must be dealt with through proper channeling. Why am I angry? At whom am I really angry? Those questions must be addressed and the rage must be directed at the person to whom one is truly angry. Even if that person is no longer alive, it is important for the adult child of abuse to focus his anger in the right place. “I am not angry at my spouse because he left the house without leaving a note. I am angry because I was abandoned as a child and still feel fear when I am left without explanation.” “I am angry at the person who abandoned me. S/he had no right to do that to me. I did nothing wrong.”
All of these children survive through some method of mental escape. The trick is to choose a method that will not chip away at their sanity. For many, childhood becomes a battle between living in reality and disappearing into fantasy. That fact, coupled with a need to always appear ‘normal’ to the outside world can easily blur the lines of sanity.
As adults, it is hard to turn off the measures by which abused children survive. That is when it becomes necessary to recognize that not only do they no longer need those measures, but that those tools of survival that were so necessary in childhood are, in fact, hampering their abilities to grow as adults. The sooner they can face the past, forgive themselves as well as the abuser, and confront their feelings about their childhood, the sooner they can begin to heal. This means that some form of therapy must be involved. It simply cannot be done on one’s own. The issues of distrust learned in childhood require that the abused child find a safe environment in which to discuss his life, his issues, and his feelings. That environment can only happen in a place where confidentiality is guaranteed.
I am a huge proponent of seeking psychological treatment. At the same time, it is important to realize that, like anything, too much of a good thing isn’t. Spending too many years in therapy can become as much a crutch as turning to drink or drugs to ease the pain. Too often, people who spend too much time in therapy learn to intellectualize what they are feeling, but have not learned how to apply what they have learned into their daily lives. It does no good to say, “I bang my fists through walls when I’m angry because of what happened to me” unless one is going to stop banging their fists through walls when they’re angry. The mark of a good therapist is the recognition that the patient has the tools he needs to change his behavior and now needs to begin applying them. It is not just in the recognition that abused adult children have certain ‘hot buttons’ that cause them to overreact, but in the understanding of why those ‘buttons’ exist in the first place.
It is of vital importance to the abuse adult child to go back and discover the whys of his or her rage and irrational behavior and face, as an adult, the circumstances which created that behavior in the first place. By confronting that anger, pain, fear and abandonment issues, one can ultimately learn that s/he is now the master of his or her own life. That is the point at which one can finally learn to forgive the abuser and move on.