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When Life With Parents Is Bitter : At Times, a Complete Break Is the Only Road to Survival

June 16, 1989|DON OLDENBURG | The Washington Post

Unlike Woody Allen's character in the film "New York Stories," Beverly Engel won't tell you she "loves her mom but wishes she would disappear." The 42-year-old Californian just wishes her mother would disappear. Period.

Sit down with Engel and you soon get the message hers is not an everyday mother-daughter tiff. Her harshest words aren't spoken in outbursts of rage, though she admits she's still angry. Her resentment is expressed mostly in flat, calculated and articulate sentences that take on the objective gloss of the professional therapist and marriage counselor that she is.

But at 42, Bev Engel cannot forget what happened. She cannot forgive a parent who she says denied her--and still does--the motherly love and support she believes any child deserves. She considers her determination never to see her 82-year-old mother again one of the most mature decisions of her life.

"You would think: 'My God, she's 82 years old and she's probably on the brink of death, can't you bring yourself to forgive? She's a little old lady,' " says Engel, as if she's heard it all before. And she has.

Early Sexual Abuse

In her book, "The Right to Innocence: Healing the Trauma of Childhood Sexual Abuse" (Tarcher: $17.95), Engel recounts the sexual and emotional abuse she says she suffered as a child and outlines a program for recovery she developed for adults who have experienced a similarly devastating childhood.

Engel considers cutting ties with a parent the last option, to be undertaken when all else fails. Yet, besides her own case, she has assisted 30 clients who have come to the same startling and sad conclusion: Sometimes the only possible way to get on with life is to leave behind an unrepentant, unsupportive or still abusive parent. For good.

"My mother is a little old lady," says Engel. "But she is also a very vicious, critical, blaming human being, in a very insidious way . . . just being around her makes me physically sick . . . I found out, for me, the healthiest thing to do is not be around her."

It's not that Engel hasn't tried. Even her mother has tried. Engel has confronted her mother with her nightmare past. She has gone to therapists with her. For a while, she tried being the overly caring daughter; she bought a house for her mother to live in. At other times, she simply stayed away. Apart always seemed better.

Engel says the first time she was sexually victimized she was only 3. A neighborhood teen-ager in Bakersfield had forced her and a little boy behind a bush and took off their clothes. This wasn't playing doctor. It wasn't a typical molestation, either, but Engel says it did "sexualize" her too early.

"It wasn't traumatic for me until I went home and showed my mother what happened, and she blamed me," she says. "She labeled me (sexually) precocious from that day forward."

Mother Was Alcoholic

Meanwhile, life at home wasn't much like "Leave It to Beaver." According to Engel, her mother was an alcoholic, a sales clerk who had not married her father--a man little Beverly never knew, a man who was married and had five other children.

Her mother, who had walked out on two previous marriages, couldn't maintain relationships with men. Engel suspects her mother has suppressed the memory of child abuse in her own life, which partly could explain her treatment of her daughter. Among Engel's earliest memories are those of her mother walking around the house naked, her mother slipping in beside her in bed naked, her mother watching her as she dressed. Engel's mother tells her these things never happened--or at least she doesn't remember them happening. When Engel was 9, the husband of her mother's best friend molested her. That became a regular nightmare whenever he would baby-sit her. Young Beverly was too ashamed to mention it to her mother until they moved away, when it stopped. Her mother accused her of lying when she finally told about it.

Later, she came to believe her daughter. But when her friend defended the husband as impotent, she shrugged it all off as no big deal. "I think she probably felt that I did something to encourage him," she says.

Showed No Interest

For Engel it was a big deal, however. It was the deal that determined most of the rest of her life. Because of the abuses, she entered adolescence feeling dirty, ugly and cheap; her mother didn't help her feel otherwise.

She started gaining too much weight. She was drinking, smoking, shoplifting. Her mother never knew or never cared, she says. When Engel managed to straighten herself out in high school by "losing herself" in school work, her mother showed no interest either.

"She would try to ruin every good thing that happened to me," Engel remembers. "When I came home with A's or something and was acting like a typical teen-ager who was feeling good and telling her about it, she would say: 'You think you're really something, don't you? Well, let me tell you who you really are.' She chose that moment to tell me I was illegitimate. I had never known that."

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