Editorial: Helping a few good men and women find a better way

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1992:

I find no subject more difficult to write about than child abuse, because none other
provokes such conflicting emotions. I don’t claim to have been an abused child; indeed in
some ways I had unique advantages. Both my parents were schoolteachers, well aware of
the faults of formal education and quite adept at providing educational opportunities outside
of the classroom, as well as quite willing to help me dodge classroom attendence to do any-
thing and everything else useful and constructive––attending courtroom proceedings, ram-
bling around Europe, and working parttime for newspapers, among other alternative
“lessons” that were never graded. At the same time, our family was not immune to the
times and the stresses that afflict all of us. We went through part of a winter without gas and
electricity during a period of prolonged parental unemployment; there were several years in
my early teens when because my father was working the equivalent of two fulltime jobs, I’d
rarely have seen him if I hadn’t been working for him almost every day away from school; I
was beaten and starved for disciplinary reasons in a manner unfortunately not uncommon ;
and we all had to cope with several terrifying explosions of a long-smoldering mental illness

in one family member. The violence at school was often worse, to the point that for at least
three years my only sanctuary was in books, on the baseball diamond, and in
daydreams––and not always then. As the youngest and most independent-minded member
of my class, I got a beating from someone almost daily, until the day I somehow demol-
ished a boy who was half again my size. I didn’t make him say uncle; I merely asked him to
pledge to quit picking on me and my brother. To my surprise, the schoolyard grapevine
cast me as mayhem personified. Newly confident, I responded with a counterattack against
all the bullies, singly and collectively, which evolved into my journalistic career a few
years later, when most of the schoolyard bullies had mellowed out or gone elsewhere, and I
discovered that well-chosen words were usually more effective weapons.
I wrote an angry book about it all, beginning the manuscript at age 14, that went
through two printings used mainly by teachers who work with disturbed children of similar
age. It may have been most useful to me, however, as catalyst for an avalanche of letters
from people of both sexes and a range of ages and cultural backgrounds, who shared their
own stories with me. And everyone had a story. The confluence of experience made plain
that all of us, including the bullies, were victims of abusive situations that largely went
unrecognized as such––as were our parents, and our grandparents, going back as far as
recorded memory. Some were robbed of childhood by the Great Depression and World
War II; some by the famines and wars of earlier times. All were grievously injured. Most
made a determined, conscientious effort to spare their children the particular abuses they
recognized. Thus an ancestor whose family included alcholics and an abused mother
became a Prohbitionist and campaigner for women’s suffrage. A man who never learned to
write much more than his name became a staunch advocate and patron of education. My
father, who came of age during World War II combat, barred guns and gunplay from the
house and raised us as vegetarians.
I didn’t experience deliberate abuse. Nor did a very close friend whose parents
were both alcoholics, who at least once left the children for a weekend without food or
money. We know dozens of other people who experienced similar, or worse, who cope
with the scars of incest and serious family violence, yet still love their parents and forgive,
even try to forget, because somehow the bad part of childhood was offset by just enough
love and kindness, at just enough times. There was some kind of a positive example, inspi-
ration, hope. In my case, it was sometimes only a book my parents used to read to me,
about a rabbit whose virtuous service to fellow beings was eventually rewarded, just when
he’d apparently been worst treated. For others, a prayer might have done, or simply a
vague memory of softness and warmth. Most children do recover, even when the abuse is
deliberate, if someone intervenes and gives them a chance.
But when should we intervene, and how? What exactly is an abusive situation
that warrants formal societal intervention, as opposed to situations where just a few friendly
words will do? Answers are much easier in the abstract than in reality. As a reporter, I
have many times had occasion to investigate and report upon situations involving child
abuse, animal abuse, and spouse abuse. Except in the most extreme cases, I have found
them defying easy answers. I have known kind people who under severe stress committed
atrocities they profoundly regretted, and I have seen unrecognized abuses doing far more
harm than those that were intentional. Generations of police, lawyers, social workers,
anti-cruelty officers, teachers, clergy, and politicans have struggled with the problems on
one hand, burnout and seriously conflicting ideas about appropriate response on the other. I
haven’t yet met any of them who could codify the degree of intuition one needs to accurately
assess the best interests of a child, or an animal. I have met a wide range of people who
intervened quite effectively, ranging from tough cops, coaches, and hardcore fundamental-
ists to gentle surrogate mothers, softspoken nuns and psychobabbling New Agers––and have
met many more, equally concerned and dedicated, whose interventions using the same tech-
niques have failed, because they lacked the same instinct for what’s going to work.
I do know this: we need to find better answers in child protection than we have so
far in animal protection. Too often the only relief for abused animals is euthanasia. I know,
too, than when all children are treated kindly, all animals will stand a much better chance of
receiving kind treatment.
Meanwhile, we need to continue the process of self-examination. We need many
more joint conferences of animal protection and child protection workers, to share insights
and expertise––and war stories, which are often strikingly similar. We need more routine
liaison between social service agencies and humane societies. We need more people to
appropriately hug small children and read them stories about rabbits. We need more healing
activities for adults, especially those who have the least time and/or money for seminars in
fashionable settings. And we need to bring the bad guys, the abusers, into the healing
process, which for most can only be done by simultaneously tearing down their old self-
image and rebuilding their self-esteem. Healers may be reluctant to learn from drill instruc-
tors, who to many are the symbolic epitome of everything we oppose. Yet to reach and help
abusers, we must understand why tens of thousands of men look back upon a drill instructor
as the temporary father figure who stood in for an absent or abusive biological father, gave
them new self respect, and enabled them to lead productive lives (often teaching disadvan-
taged young men to read, write, brush their teeth, and bathe, as well as to use weapons).
Such men were typically given a choice between jail for a petty crime and military service.
They learned from the drill instructor that no matter what they were when they arrived, their
negative identity could be discarded and replaced. Albeit by a brutal process, they could and
would become a vital part of the outfit, responding to the promise of the surrogate father’s
eventual approval.
We can’t and shouldn’t become drill instructors. But we do need to find means of
separating abusive conduct from the self-image of abusive people, not only by identifying
it, but also by replacing it. Just as drill instructors are taught that they must never cuss out a
recruit without showing him how to redeem himself, we must learn when not to shame and
how to introduce alternatives. If a man derives his sense of manhood from shooting captive
pigeons, for instance, he needs to hear that this is not the way, clearly enough that he
understands it. Once he does understand it, he doesn’t need to hear it again; it will stay
with him, despite repression and denial, and further accusation will usually just strengthen
the repression and denial relative to the self-recognition. What he needs instead is to see
something nonabusive he can do, which uses the elements he identifies with manhood,
identifying himself to himself (as well as to others) as a man––a good man.
I know now that the first schoolyard bully I beat up was disturbed because his
mother was dying of cancer. The second was a would-be locker room rapist who undoubt-
edly lacked sympathetic counseling about sexual self-identity. Still another had lost his
father, and was struggling to be surrogate father to his younger brothers, leading him to
assume macho postures that were at odds with his intelligent nature.
Each bully had a story, as I learned when many became my friends. Some of the
friendships endure to this day. For that reason if no other, I know there is hope. Even some
of the hardest cases have grown into good and gentle men––not all, but enough to be a start.
––Merritt Clifton
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