The Lines Separating Victims from Perpetrators

The Story of The Smallest Violin

Hurt people hurt people.  You’ve probably heard this simple and tired statement used in a sloppy attempt to explain the nature of trauma to a victim.  I’m not saying that I’ve never used it myself, but when I heard it for the first time after my mother abandoned me, I got even angrier.

What kind of excuse was that?  I’ve suffered; therefore, I have the right to make you suffer.  To me, the words translated to a loss of accountability and let my mother off the hook way too easily.  As you can predict, the anger I felt in that first year was unparalleled to anything I’ve ever experienced before.  Not only did I lose my mother, but I had to push my emotions deep down and keep her family together: I let go of a scholarship to play soccer in the US at a Tier 1 university, I let go of the opportunity to intern for a sports agent in England,  I had to work 3 gruelling, physical, minimum wage jobs just to keep my two younger siblings fed and sheltered, I had to get my father working and prevent him from taking his pain out on us.

She even transferred the child tax credit to a new bank account and drained the family account leaving a tidy thirty-two cents for our troubles.  However, to my surprise, the worst part was that she became a ghost for 2 years.  I had to hunt her down by Facebooking every family relation of hers that I hated just to beg her to sign a paper giving permission for my siblings to travel with their soccer teams.

By the time the second year rolled around, my anger gave way to concern for my brother and sister.  I couldn’t keep my baby brother from wanting to run away from the house.  Running away from my fathers’ temper and what my father called “constructive criticism”.  My brother was by this time starting to hang out with gang members, skipping school, and I was chasing him around town trying to keep him from deep diving past the point of no return.  I swallowed my pride and sent word through the Facebook grapevine.

This time when we spoke on the phone, I didn’t yell at my mother, I simply told her “I need you to come home.  My brother needs you.  My sister needs you.  We can’t handle my father anymore.”

A few weeks later my mother showed up in Calgary.

She was a harder person than I remembered.  Her face gaunter, skin tighter, less youthful.  She was couch-surfing and had managed to get a job at a neighbourhood bar in a dodgy part of the city and was dating a bald dude named Francis, of all names.  She now smoked weed, swore like a pirate, and was full of stories about how she managed to become a mother to cousins I’d never met before.

In the 2 years that followed her return, I neither received an apology, nor an explanation.  Every push for the truth was met with either a stone-wall or a reminder of how it was I, after all, who tried taking her kids from her.  My anger, pain, and sadness only descended deeper.  I went from passing university-level courses while holding down multiple jobs, coaching youth athletics, and playing competitive sports to being unemployed, unproductive, and a failing student.

To say I blamed my mother is an understatement.  In fact, there was not a whole lot she could do that wouldn’t result in me swiftly and harshly criticizing her failings as a mother and a person.  Afterall, who could blame me?  It got to a point where I had given up trying to run her out of my life while accepting that she was simply incapable of giving me what I needed to move on.  In other words, I felt deprived of progress.

The Defining Moment

My mother, on the other hand, developed a habit of taking off on road trips by herself or with her sisters, which vexed me to no end.  I would torture myself with questions such as, “why would she never take me on road trips?” and “Why did she care more about her family than making things right with her own children?”

Yet, just like clockwork, each weekend would come and with it a phone call informing me of another visit to yet another relative and, as was my ritual, I would eat my anger in silence and tell her to have a great time as my bitterness hugged me tight.  Another weekend approached, another phone call, this time she was going to Edmonton for the weekend to visit her sister Lisa and planned to stay with Lisa’s daughter, my cousin.  I sat in silence and ran through my usual playbook of judgements.  This trip in particular hit me hard because my aunt Lisa was a co-conspirator to my mom’s crime of abandonment.  “Can I come?” I blurted out and, without hesitation, as though all this time she had just been waiting for me to accept her unspoken invitation, she responded, “I’ll pick you up at 6”.

The Journey

I tossed my overnight bag into the back of her rundown Buick Regal and jumped into the passenger seat which always smelled of cedar, tobacco, and marijuana.  She pushed in the cassette tape that converted audio from the old, cracked iPod touch I had given her the Christmas before, and a Tina Turner song started playing in the background.  “Now we are ready to cruise” she said as she lit a joint and handed it to me.  Rather than make my typical snarky response about how drugs kill, I simply accepted the joint, inhaled, and cleansed my soul of judgement with each subsequent dry cough as my mother mischievously winked at me and put her foot to the pedal.

That first night we stayed with my cousin in her cozy trailer on the wrong side of town.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn she was a new mother and a fledgling artist.  It was a humbling experience to be so warmly accepted by a blood relative I hadn’t seen or spoken to since childhood.  To some degree it made me feel less anxious about my impending meeting with the aunt whom I hadn’t seen since the day my mother walked out on me.

On the second night, we pulled up at the 7-11 where my aunt worked, just before her shift ended, to load up on chips, taquitos, and beef jerky before our big night out.  My aunt looked unchanged with the same short black hair, robust midsection with skinny legs and magnifier style glasses.  At my mothers request I reluctantly purchased a pack of cigarettes for my aunt, which tested my patience as I realized I would be funding our whole night out.  “Perhaps she only wanted you to come because she was broke” I thought, “so what?” I responded to myself, “you came to get to know your mother” I added.  My aunt took us to a local blues bar with live music and, although I felt awkward around her, I was optimistic I would end the night without blowing up on her.  However, as we were dropping off my aunt, she turned to my mother and asked, “want to come in for bit?” My heart sunk as my mother agreed.

Where It Came Full-Circle

My aunt’s place was nothing short of the picture of misery.  It was a dimly lit room that reeked of cat urine emanating from the small, open closet that housed not one cat litter box, but two.  Her clothes were stuffed in large, black garbage bags, and the only seating available was a choice between an uncomfortable looking wooden chair and a ripped black leather sofa that doubled as her bed.  I chose the wooden chair to get comfortable in as I did my best to hide my horror and disgust at her living conditions.

This time I enthusiastically accepted the joint my mother lit, as they both started reminiscing about their childhood.  My mother rarely shared stories of her childhood, but my aunt was much more forthcoming and generous with her words.  My aunt shared detailed accounts of growing up with sexual abuse, neglect, familial revenge, and suicide as though they were simply casual facts of life.  My mother told me proudly about how her father would bring home his friends from the bar, where they would through the wildest parties, call all the kids outside and bet on which kid would win a chicken-coop fight.  In her stories she was always the winner.

I realized that when she shared stories that were too painful to recount, she changed from first person to third.  I sat there for what felt like hours in complete silence, absorbing the unfathomable way in which they told their painful stories with humour and tolerance.  Once they had finished discussing the details of their stories, my mother glanced over at me, studied my face momentarily and turned to my aunt, “alright Lisa, it’s time I get my girl to bed”.

Internal Power

It was on this trip with my mother that I realized that I knew nothing about her beyond my expectations of her.  But she had become a complex person to me, with stories that put my favourite books to shame.  She lived a life that sometimes forced her to make decisions that she didn’t even understand fully.  I began to look at her with compassion and see that she had given me the greatest gift any mother could ever give their child.  She gave me a better childhood than the one that she had experienced.  She taught me how to face your mistakes, take responsibility, and never lose sight that you are walking your own journey.

During his keynote address at the National Stolen Generations Conference in Gold Coast, Australia, Gregory Phillips stated that “if we do not deal with our trauma, we inadvertently hand it down to the next generation” (6).  My mother’s story gave me perspective on her unceremonious departure, dissipated my pain, and replaced it with gratitude for all the trauma she had not handed down to me.  The other significant lesson I learnt was the importance of “respectful individualism”, which, as discussed by Michael Hart, assumes “when provided significant space for development, individuals will act…towards the well-being of the community” and “no personal journey is taken in isolation” (75-76).

At the end of the day, I could only begin my journey of personal healing when I was ready to listen deeply to my mother’s story and hear it in the way she wanted to share it, not in the way that I demanded it.  In my burning all-consuming need to address my pain, I lost my internal power.  Void of my internal power, I punished all those around me for turning me into a victim.  I became a perpetrator by forcing others to live up to my pain’s expectations.

So, if you are feeling the same way I felt and you can relate to my story, I want you to know that you can reclaim your internal power by listening deeply to the stories of the people who have hurt you.  I hope you will drop the judgement coming from your pain’s internal voice and be grateful for the pain you didn’t have to experience.  Remember, hurt people hurt people.  And when you leave your hurt unattended, you will absolutely hurt others.

Hart, M.  A.  (2014).  “Indigenous Ways of Helping.”  In L.  Lavallee, P.  Menzies, V.  Harper, & C.  for A.  and M.  Health (Eds.), Journey to Healing : Aboriginal People with Mental Health and Addiction Issues: What Health, Social Service and Justice Workers Need to Know (pp.  73–83).  CAMH.
Phillips, G.  (1999).  How we heal.  National Stolen Generations Conference.

This one is purely my pick. I got lost in the story so much I was only able to start editing this on my third read. It’s touching, inspiring, personal, and just a hell of a good read. It absolutely deserves to be included as part of the Best of the Voice and that’s simply all there is to it.  The only reason I think it wasn’t mentioned by students is that the title doesn’t do it justice.  I don’t think enough students took the time when it was first published in late November to read it. Something I’m hoping to correct by including it here.