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REAL LIFE

'90s FAMILY : Breaking the Chain of Abusive Parenting

August 31, 1994|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is widely accepted that many abusers suffered abuse as children. But often ignored are the majority of maltreated children who somehow manage to avoid repeating the past as adults. Many have forged healthy, successful and loving lives despite a cruel childhood.

The question is how.

A recently published study of 40 so-called resilient adults--accomplished men and women with a demonstrated ability to love well--offers some provocative ideas.

Most of the adults interviewed came from turbulent, horrific, even murderous backgrounds, yet they never thought of themselves as victims, said Salem, Mass., psychologist Gina O'Connell Higgins, author of "Resilient Adults: Overcoming a Cruel Past" (Jossey-Bass), published this month. Neither do they possess a hard-shell, pull-yourself-up-by the-bootstraps philosophy.

Rather, they share an unusual ability to seek out and obtain support from healthier adults. From childhood on, they were able to protect themselves, survive, and find hope by recruiting attention from these sympathetic people without being manipulative.

When people were not available, some said they also found strength from pets, or portrayals of hopeful solutions from books or movies.

For instance, Bob, 60, a father of four happy adults, was beaten from infancy along with his identical twin and another brother. While both twins became successful in separate professions, only Bob succeeded in freeing himself from what he calls the "family curse." His nieces and nephews, he said, are "still wounded as we were wounded and as our parents were wounded."

Bob, who asked that his real first name not be used, said he and his brother were "a mistake," born during the Depression to parents who knew they weren't cut out for the job.

In a telephone interview, Bob recalled that his father "was fighting with my mother every night and hitting her, then coming upstairs and hitting us. He would come home, have a couple of drinks and beat us three or four times a week. It started out with spanking and then he was hitting us with a belt and finally a stick. . . .

"The day before he died, he took his fist and hit me with all his might. He saw it was me and he wanted to get one more whack in. He was 93."

Throughout his early childhood, Bob said he sought out adults who could nurture him and successfully charmed his grandmother. He was also sexually abused by his mother, which made him feel favored, albeit in an admittedly perverted way.

"I remember knowing how to be a cute little boy--smiling sweetly, being respectful, asking for help and being appreciative when I got it, being good, following the rules and making a little extra effort as a student so the teachers would notice me." His twin brother, on the other hand, was getting in trouble, setting fires by age 5.

Higgins said the resilient adults in her study were referred by therapists. But most, she said, had naturally launched a healing vision by their 20s in which they came to believe that love is worth having and giving. "They somehow knew early on that life could be better than this and they were determined to make it so."

On their own they developed a "photo negative faith" in families--sponging up information on families the exact opposite of theirs. Some found hope in the much maligned TV families of the '50s. "They had no idea people sat down, ate dinner and had conversations. It was total news to them."

Books and films were also powerful. After they saw "The Wizard of Oz," Bob said he and his twin threw a bucket of water on their mother, hoping she would melt away. Needless to say, it only made matters worse. He also became religious and prayed every day until it became clear that wouldn't work either.

But buoyed by the vision of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and his grandmother, Bob said he forged ahead, eventually in his 20s marrying a loving woman and finding a therapist, a father figure who helped him learn caring techniques. Eventually, he came to believe strongly in the Golden Rule, which allowed him to provide care for his still-abusive elderly parents when other family members had long since fled.

Higgins said she wrote the book to inspire adults who aren't doing as well in coping with the past. While her subjects tended to be bright and imaginative, she said, "This isn't a have-it-or-you-don't phenomenon. You can intervene to encourage these capacities in anyone."

The ultimate source of natural resiliency remains mysterious, she said. Her subjects were often the only truly resilient member of the family.

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