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Undoing the Damage of Incest : COME HERE: A Man Overcomes the Tragic Aftermath of Childhood Sexual Abuse, By Richard Berendzen with Laura Palmer (Villard Books: $21; 301 pp.)

October 24, 1993|Robert Dawidoff | Robert Dawidoff teaches history at the Claremont Graduate School. His is the author with Michael Nava of "Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to Americans" (St. Martin's Press, 1994)

Unhappy families may be unhappy in their own ways, as Tolstoy said it, but they are remarkably alike in the degree of harm they do to children. Children who survive the tempests and abuse of dysfunctional and especially incestuous families share many of the same traits. They experience shame, humiliation, anger, dissociation from their feelings, lack of self esteem, depression, addiction and memory loss. Above all, they seem to share a need to remember things the necessities of their survival compelled them to forget.

Forgetting and remembering are notoriously subjective, and the recent publicity given to adult memories of childhood trauma has generated a wide-ranging controversy about the legitimacy and authenticity of memory. But any adult survivor of childhood trauma will tell you that the capacity to forget or selectively to remember is one key to the ability of children to survive the unsafe homes that are the other side of the American myth of the traditional family.

The difficulty, of course, is that what the child requires to survive in an incestuous family often turns out to be a hindrance to a fully realized adult life. The strategy the child develops crystallizes around defense, avoidance, apparent acquiescence, forgetting and denial and a host of other attitudes, which turn out to be burdens later. So, in addition to surviving the incest, the child must re-experience that abuse as an adult so that the violated child can, as it were, be rescued by the adult who survived. Addiction, dysfunction, bizarre behavior, depression, trouble of all sorts characterize the lives of adult survivors of incest and other childhood trauma. They come as wake-up calls from the traumatic past, rich in alarm but also in the potential for something better than mere survival.

In April of 1990, 51-year-old Richard Berendzen, the highly visible and successful president of American University, resigned after obscene phone calls to a Virginia woman were traced to his office. Berendzen spent about a month at the Johns Hopkins University Hospital where he was diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of sexual, physical and emotional abuse he experienced in his family. He subsequently pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges of making obscene phone calls; his two 30-day jail sentences were suspended on condition of good behavior and continued treatment. In 1992 Berendzen returned to American University as a professor of physics. "Come Here" is his memoir of his experience of childhood abuse and its festering presence in his adult life; its subtitle accurately captures the story he means to tell: "A Man Overcomes the Tragic Aftermath of Childhood Sexual Abuse."

Berendzen's story is horrific. As a boy he was subjected to the obsessive and unrestrained abusive attentions of a mentally ill mother. His experience of incest--regular forced sexual encounters with his mother--and of a level of routine control, verbal abuse, physical punishment, disorder and total absence of independence and anything to depend on is truly shocking. The adult survivor's ingenuous and matter-of-fact description of unspeakable horror as ordinary life dignifies this book. To survive Berendzen had to accept his abusive family as normal in some way and learn to adjust to and keep secret the tormenting realities of the only home available to him.

Berendzen's situation in his own family italicizes a general truth about sexual abuse of children: It is not about sex, it is about power. His mother's insane need to exercise constant, unreasonable and terrorist power over her son is like an Orwellian dystopic vision of parenting. The fact that she was crazy complicated the abuse because it added to the incestuous the unpredictable and too little acknowledged damage that happens to well family members of the mentally disturbed. Richard's father was distant and no match (nobody was) for the demonic energy of his mother. Richard himself seemed a model child, good in school, eager to please, keeping the secret; he was a walking false advertisement for the family's normalcy.

Abusive families roost in their children's imaginations, larger than life; they stay in power long after they can intimidate in life. The pathetic, crazy old lady Berendzen's mother turned into remained in his own mind the all-powerful unrestrained monster of his childhood, one minute beating him up, the next minute forcing him into secret sexual encounters; unpredictable except in her refusal to let him be, to let him live; and horribly too, someone for whom he had feelings of love. "Come Here" can teach people that the abused child's apparent happiness and health are constructed by the abusive family to keep their misconduct secret; that is how such families continue to abuse their children even into adulthood.

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