kaigou: this is what I do, darling (tea and cake)
[personal profile] kaigou
( continued from part II )

This has been a long time coming, mostly because I wrote the intended post but locked it while I reflected on whether I wanted to make it public, after all -- and then, eventually, forgot about it, as I got distracted by other projects. I was reminded again by several synchronicities: one, coming across the RPG-forum complaint about the post, while searching for something unrelated, two, having it linked (again, I thought?) in LJ's little_details comm (hi, folks!); three, a recent novel that had sounded promising but ended up being an DNF thanks to the author's ignorance of human nature.

The bulk of this post can be summed up in this simple statement: if you're totally convinced the best route to pile on a character's angst is by giving them an abusive-family background, I've got a few bones to pick with you.

The majority of people I've known in my life come from relatively well-adjusted families, or, at least, dysfunctional in somewhat functional ways. By that I mean, having quirks up to outright faults, but not necessarily abusive -- conflicts and tantrums and bad times, sure, but the grown children speak with relative ease about the good and bad. Going by the statistics, I guess this means I've met a bunch of the folks who constitute the 988 healthy-family kids per every 1000. Problem is, I'm one of the other 12 who weren't so lucky.

There may be only 12 of me for every 998 readers who don't have a clue any more than you do, but that doesn't stop some of we twelve from laughing at your idiocy, and it sure doesn't stop some of the twelve from being hurt by your use of the stereotypes, and it definitely will likely encourage some percentage of the remaining 998 to incorporate your fiction into their worldview (whether or not they consciously realize it). Then they end up confused when we just don't freaking heal overnight, or remain untrusting or insecure even after we've heard the three magic words -- and perhaps it's that last one that angers me the most.

Sure, if I lived in a fictional world where the abuse is fictional as well, then my healing could be fictionally instantaneous, too, la la la magic clause. But I don't, it wasn't, and it won't ever be, no magic clause here.

Holy hell, if only we had a magic clause! On an average day, CPS (the US' Child Protective Services) assesses and determines 2,450 children as victims of abuse. 60% are victims of neglect, in which the parent/guardian isn't providing for the child's basic needs; for 20% it's physical abuse; for 10%, it's sexual abuse. For a much smaller 7%, it's emotional (ie criticizing, rejecting, or refusing to nurture a child). Of course, we've got to consider this the minimum of abused children in this country, because I guarantee you that for every child reported, there's got to be easily another three whom no one ever bothers to help. Possibly more. I only know I've met a great many people who confess they share a background with me, and I've yet to meet more than three people who've mentioned having any kind of dealings with CPS. So those twelve could be those twenty, or those fifty, or more: it could be a much larger audience that's seeing your ignorance, dear author. Just so you know.

Also, that last statistic is misleading, I'd say, because it makes it look like the smallest percentage are 'only' emotionally abused. I'm inclined to believe it's the opposite: most victims are emotionally abused. It's the easiest kind to perpetrate: all you have to do is say the right malicious things to the kid, no weapons or clothes-removing required, yet this kind of abuse is the least likely to be reported. After all, the child is not being neglected, beaten, or molested. Obviously the kid is fine, really, but how could anyone tell? Psychological scars are invisible.

Keep that in mind. I'll come back around to that, but before that, let's illustrate the first point with a little game.

1. Do not force the backstory to come out for the sake of story.

Yes, I get that you want dialogue to move the plot forward, but you're asking for a backstory from someone who would not -- if a real person -- ever, ever say those words out loud to any but the most trusted of confidants. In short: dear author, CRAM IT.

First, I want you to think of something you've done in the past two or three years that's a source of deep embarrassment, maybe even shame. Something in which you screwed up, and you know you did, and while you're not about to lie about it, maybe you'd just rather we not talk about it. Maybe you 'borrowed' something from a friend's or sibling's jewelry box, or maybe you lied at work to cover your own ass and a coworker got fired when it should've been you. Maybe you got drunk and cheated on your lover. Doesn't matter. Just needs to be something in which you cringe just thinking about it, maybe sometimes wish you could 'go back and change it' -- something that you did, no doubt about it, but would rather not say because any retelling would cast you in the worst possible light.

Next, think of meeting someone (or, think back to when you met the someone you're now with) and getting that flash that, wow, this could be The One. Everything's clicking. Think of how you'd like to believe the other person sees you: maybe a few flaws, but overall, lots of good stuff, enough to make that person like you as much as you're totally liking that person.

And then, think of the most innocent question this person could ask, that would intersect directly with the shame you feel from the first example. Maybe it's "want to go shopping with me? I thought I'd get our mutual friend a necklace to replace the one she loved, that was stolen" or "My friend X told me you two used to work together at Y company," or "didn't you and Z go out for a long time? I didn't realize you were single, now."

Authors, pay attention. This isn't rocket science. There are two emotions at work: a horrendous sense of shame over the past act(s), and a huge amount of craving for a potential future with the listener. Everyone wants to let sleeping dogs lie, and when better than when you want to look as good as possible in front of someone you're falling for? Got that? Alright, then, what do you say? Multiple choice. Not hard. Just think a little.

1. The necklace with the diamond pendant that's hung with three antique black pearls? Wow, I have no idea where we could find one like that, but, uhm, sure, I'll help.
2. Oh. Actually, see, I stole that. I don't know why, it just seemed like the thing to do at the time.

Or, in the second example:

1. Yeah, we worked together for a few years. He's a great guy. How's he doing now?
2. Oh. Uhm. See, the fact is, I lied to our boss and told him that it was X who screwed up the reports, and X got fired, when it was really my fault.

Or, the third example:

1. Well, we just realized we'd grown apart, you know how that happens.
2. Oh, well, I got drunk one night and cheated on Z. On our anniversary. With Z's best friend. While Z was asleep in the next room.

If you answered '2' to any of these questions, then either it's been about twenty years since the incident happened, OR, you may be a fictional character!

Sure, if it's been a damn long time since whatever you did, then you may have come to some kind of resolution within yourself (even if no formal closure ever occurred) -- but the deeper the shame recollected, then chances are you may still hedge, especially while still in the new stages of a relationship. Maybe later, when you know each other better, and you have a better sense the person won't get up and walk away, you might admit what you'd done, just to come clean... but we're all fairly self-serving, as humans. I think it's just human nature that we won't admit to a shame until we have some level of certainty that the listener won't ditch us completely upon the learning; we seek to protect ourselves from that hurt by rationalizing that what's done is done, right, and no undoing it now, so... let's let sleeping dogs lie, and all that usual goodness.

So, in reading any story in which two characters meet up and there's any kind of new attachment -- and this can be anything from the first throes of romance to simple hero worship (be that actual hero-ness a la SFF or the mundane kind when a character interacts with someone s/he respects and admires) -- if a character opens his mouth and confesses a shame, the author has at most a paragraph before his/her work gets slammed against the wall.

Come on, think about it. It may be in your head, the sudden discomfort knowing you're at dinner with the best friend of the guy you got fired, but for all that some authors like to move dialogue along by having someone 'think' something that turns out to be 'spoken outloud' (a stunt that in and of itself is enough to make me give serious thought to DNF'ing, unless there's extreme exhaustion, alcohol, or drugs involved) -- the fact is that you'll think of it, and shunt it furiously to the back of your head, very, very fast. As soon as you think of it, you'll probably think: oh, crap, if s/he learns the truth about that, there's no way s/he will ever like/respect me. So chances are pretty good you're not going to be 'accidentally' saying anything; in fact, chances are pretty good you're going to be watching your words twice as carefully to make absolutely certain that not a word slips out and gives away the game.

But! If you have an author pulling your strings who's determined to force that information out of you at this delicate juncture, this isn't entirely impossible. Done it myself: the sudden blurt when you're too startled by the coincidence to think fast enough to keep your mouth shut. "That was my fault!" or "I didn't mean to end up in bed with his old college buddy!" or whatever. Leaving out the tiny percentage of the population who has absolutely no connection between mouth and brain at all, the rest of us are often pretty quick to catch up, so cutting off the statement is a common mid-stream back-track: "That was my--" and "I didn't mean to end up in--" and full stop.

Keep in mind -- whatever your personal source of shame may be -- that this is something that you know with full certainty would cause the average person to lose a little respect for you -- all the way to a whole bunch, and possibly end friendships due to other folks being so terribly disappointed in you. For a new friendship? If what you did is known, it'd definitely put the relationship on the rocks, if not end it right away. That much shame, that much wrong on your part as to what you did, thought, or said. It's a secret, and secrets remain that way by not being told.

But now that your author has jerked your strings and caused you to blurt out something potentially incriminating -- even if you managed to cut it off after a few leading words -- now human nature would, on average, have a few choices of which way to go.

A. Backpedal like all freaking get out.

Aka, laugh it off as a joke, obfuscate like crazy, lie outright if it comes to that, change the damn topic, get desperate and point at something behind the person and yell OMG IS THAT ELVIS!?

Fact is, a charming person (especially when the listener wants to be charmed) can mislead pretty easily. You've been lying to yourself all this time -- in the sense of rationalizing this shame into something manageable, that is -- so it's not a difficult thing to include someone else in that obfuscation. It's just a bit of tap-dancing.

B. Get your back up about it.

Get defensive, get a little belligerent, give the nutshell version without any extenuating circumstances, generally cast yourself in the worst possible light, challenge the listener to find it grounds to get up and walk out. It becomes a test, suddenly, and one you're setting the other person up to fail. Self-protective. Stupid, and a direct line exists between shame and this defensive reaction, but there it is.

C. Take it to eleven.

Provide full history with extenuating circumstances, additional details, behind-the-scenes footage, and generally explain while carefully slanting everything so you're both victim (of your own actions, granted, but still) while somehow also confessing to be the aggressor -- but emphasizing that you're a very penitent aggressor. This is variation on B, but one intended to get the person to believe your version of events rather than anyone else's (whether or not s/he was even aware there was a 'version' in the first place). Again, a test. More of a sob story than version B's anger, but still, a test.

Which usually translates to: kiss this relationship good-bye.

Well, hell, that'd pretty much be an unsurprising result from any of the above, right? And wow, you have only yourself to blame. If you'd just kept your trap shut about how badly you'd screwed up, your date wouldn't have said good-night and burned your phone number. Or your potential colleague wouldn't have shut the meeting down and gone to his/her boss and requested a different team-mate. And so on.

Alright. Clear the heads, and try a variation on this scenario. This time, you're sitting at the table with someone you think is interesting, good-looking, intelligent, gets your crunchy goodness going, and apropos of what seems like maybe nothing, the person blurts out some kind of leading statement that twigs all over. Being in that early stage of getting-to-know-you, and thus being more likely to be highly attuned to the person than you would normally, you're going to note the sudden tension and discomfort. (And probably think, "is it me? did I just say something wrong?" -- which, if a straightforward sort of fellow, you may even ask out loud.)

If the person backpedals, you may let it rest. But I bet you more than pizza money that you'd kind of file that one away, either as a "don't mention this topic" or as a "ask mutual friend B what's up with mentioning this topic" or maybe "great, a freaking landmine, I'm not interested in a relationship with landmines," or maybe "uhm, that was wierd, I hope this doesn't mean s/he doesn't like me, and realizes that wasn't intentional..." By that, I mean, if even for a split second, you'll ping on the person's shame and discomfort. You'll be trying to come up with a reasonable explanation as to its source, whether to clock it up as you crossing some invisible line, or noting the line and decided to respect it, or noting the line and curious in some way to understand its existence and cause a bit better.

Whatever it is, I'd call this the moment where a skeleton's just knocked loudly from the closet. Most people aren't so stupid they don't recognize that, regardless of whether they're the one to run from the monster or go investigating down that dark hallway.

Second option: the other person gets defensive, challenges you to react badly to what they've done. You can prove them right, by never seeing them again. Maybe you do. Or you decide to prove them wrong, and keep going -- but if you think honestly about this, chances are you won't (remember, early in this relationship!) unless there's something else really, really good to outweigh this horrible revelation. People don't go into relationships because they want to be someone else's therapist -- plain and simple, no one is that altruistic. Only authors living in fiction worlds seem to believe (and write) otherwise, and it just ain't so. The listener willing to sit through that kind of defensive off-putting is staying for some reason, some kind of gain.

Sometimes, though, that 'gain' is a combination of pity and self-congratulations. Pity for the speaker, so childishly and belligerently getting all defensive, and a bit of patting-on-the-back that the listener is above that, or Very Understanding, or similar vibe. Or maybe you're just a freaking masochist who likes having his/her date jump down his/her throat. Or, worst of all, you're a spineless wimp who'll immediately apologize for the lack of water in the desert rather than have someone apparently angry at you, even if you don't know what, exactly, you did. You'll back down, anyway, in which case, I don't want to read a book with you at the helm. Thanks, but pass, got that, authors?

But if the person launches into version C, complete with twenty black-and-white photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each? Try to imagine that, authors writing this scenario, readers following along from home: what's your first, honest, gut, reaction? Probably going to be a bit of, "uhm...yeah, okay, bit more than I needed to know..."

Maybe you do genuinely feel sorry for the person. Maybe you can tell the person screwed up, and is really very sorry, but you didn't come out on this date to end up someone's confessional, either.

For good or ill, that's how humans work, barring the masochist and/or issues-of-their-own folks: we want to be attracted to something that's awesome. When we're first falling in love, we're busy being infatuated, enamoured, a bit starry-eyed; we want to see, and do see, all good. Maybe later we'll figure out the loved one is a total slob or a perennial cheater or a convicted felon, and we'll deal with it then. First stage, though, we want to see the other person as amazing, and getting a fifteen minute (or more) rendition of all the reasons this person isn't amazing is, for most people, enough reason to call the whole thing off. Okay, you convinced me you're not worth the time or effort, check, please.

Again, some folks may stay. The wannabe therapists, the masochists, the spineless fools, and the few who see something else so much worth the trouble that even an extended monologue on a person's past fuck-ups isn't enough to dissuade them. The average person, though? Not likely. You would have to work really really hard to convince me you aren't feeling just a little like taking a step back might be a good idea -- maybe even a whole bunch of steps. On average, I'd be willing to bet you find something else to be doing the next time that person is free. There are other fishes, etc.

A side-note to this: option B, above, can also appear in the way some folks will use a shameful incident for its shock value. "Yeah, I spent a year in juvie because I had sex with my ten-year-old cousin when I was twelve, what about it?" Sometimes the romantic-interest will see this as a defensive move and maneuver around it, but it helps to have author pushing some gain worth-the-effort in front of the character's nose. Otherwise? Someone jumps down your throat like that, what are you going to do? "Whatever. Check, please."

You came to spend a lovely evening with someone you're thinking could be someone you'd fall in love with, and now that person's jumping down your throat and not in a good way. You're probably going to end up thinking they're not the kind of person you want to know at all, let alone fall in love with. Everyone wants a relationship of some sort, a connection, but do you really want a relationship with that person and the Wisconsin-sized chip on that person's shoulder?

2. Remember this above all else: no one is proud of being a victim.

When writing a character who's survived abuse, either the person has distance and time to not care, or the person is ashamed. Them's the stages. Figure out where your character is, and write accordingly.

For someone has survived an abusive childhood (of any kind, be it physical, emotional, or sexual), it takes a long time -- years, most often -- to see the abuse as anything other than a shameful secret that is shameful, in great part, because the child/person believes the abuse was all his fault. Intellectually, sure, most folks know there's more to it than that. Intellectually, most folks are aware that shame is unwarranted. But to be emotionally free of that shame takes years of work, years of unlearning the lessons learned in the abuse.

That's the key: the shame is the abuse is the child's fault.

Think of anything in your life that makes you cringe, that you're ashamed of, that you know you screwed up and you'd redo if you could. Then you are just beginning to grasp what it's like for the majority of children from abusive households to speak about their family, the abuse itself, and quite frequently any situations arising from their attempts to deal with (or escape) that abuse. It is not something that gets spilled over dinner on the first date, no more than any of you 998 non-abusive family-raised kids would spill the news that yeah, you stole your best friend's heirloom necklace because, hey, it seemed like the thing to do at the time.

By 'write accordingly', I'm not negating the previous advice to cram it. That remains in effect: either the character is silent, hedges, glosses over, because the scars are unhealed, or the character changes the subject, avoids the topic, because it's past and gone and there's a lack of interest in dredging up old memories. Down the road, the character may hear sympathetic words as the kindness they're meant, but that's a long time coming, and until then, the most likely reaction is resentment: you say that now, that it shouldn't have happened, but where were you when it was all going down, hunh?

The reason for that lengthy set of examples is because I'm not sure if it really came home, what I'd said in a small follow-up to the original post, about kids who end up on the street because they've been thrown out of their house/family:
...try to think of what it'd be like to have your parents tell you -- by words or action -- that they don't want you, they'd get rid of you if possible. No kid wants to be rejected so thoroughly, and every kid -- to some degree -- does love their parents, however malicious or neglectful or just plain useless the parents may be. So here's someone the kid wants to love, and to be loved by, saying the kid isn't worth having around. To hear someone say, "man, your parents suck for doing that," is an agreement that indicates that you'd just admitted your parents are bad -- and if they're bad, but you love them anyway, what does that make you? And if they're good, and didn't want you, what does that make you, then? It's a lose-lose situation for a kid's brain. The only way to deal with it is to just evade the question as best you can.
That is the true source of the shame: not that the child was hit, or that the child was forced to go hungry, or even that the child got yelled at regularly. It's that the child could not seem to do whatever it is that makes other parents love their own children seemingly so effortlessly. That is the source of shame: to admit that your parents abused you is to admit that your parents did not want you, didn't see you as worth protecting, didn't care enough to stop, and you couldn't make it all better.

Those 998 people are going to surround you from day one, for your entire life. You're going to spend your life seeing happy, well-adjusted people all around you, next door, in school, on television, in books, at work -- and you're going to live with the knowledge that this will never be you.

It's a little, I imagine, like being born missing limbs. You didn't ask to be born like that, but still, you haven't missed the number of times in your life when someone's flinched at the sight of you, or even told you outright that you're a freak, or just avoided you, or maybe didn't at all but by then you're so used to looking for the avoidance you see it everywhere and it's only the lack of it that surprises you, now. No, you didn't ask to be born missing limbs, any more than 12 out of every 1,000 kids asks to be abused.

The only guilty act on the child's part, if any, is that the child was born. Plain and simple, but the guilt and the shame remain. You were born, and this is the lot you were handed; down bone-deep where language disappears and our logic is of the gut, that's where you'll find the psychological that defies every amount of intellectual knowing-otherwise: if you'd never been born, then you wouldn't have had to go through this. But you were born, and for that one mistake, you now live a life in which you will pay, and pay, and pay.

3. So you're throwing the character from the house onto the street: while you're at it, stop taking the goddamned easy way out.

Longer version: not all alcoholics are abusive. In fact, not everyone who has a drink is automatically an alcoholic. For that matter, a lot of alcoholics aren't even freaking drunks. You could be an alcoholic like my father was: two or three drinks at a business lunch every day, and then two drinks in the evening when he got home from work. Maybe another drink after dinner. I've seen my father drunk once in my entire life, and that was on New Year's (when ninety percent of the adults were cheerfully and noisily drunk, anyway). For 20+ years, the man had those drinks almost daily; they were a necessary element of his work day, as much as passing inspection with proper-colored socks. He was a habitual alcoholic, and quitting was as hard as quitting any other kind of alcoholism (he quit when I was 13). But he did not pass out on the sofa, he did not go into drunken tirades, he did not whiplash personality-shift between sobriety-Jekyll and drunken-Hyde. In fact, he wasn't even abusive; in some ways, he was as much a victim as me.

Giving the parental/guardian character the demon alcohol is just too freaking easy, and it just makes things even worse for a different segment of the population: those folks who do struggle with alcoholism. This socio-cultural expectation that alcoholics are most likely to abuse their children doesn't make the guilt any easier for those parents who are alcoholics and have never once been abusive in any way to their children. I had a number of friends in HS with an alcoholic parent (or two), who weren't abused and in fact had otherwise loving families. The parent had a problem with alcohol, certainly, but the parent did not have a problem loving his/her child.*

We talk about stereotypes of PoC, and stereotypes of gender, of sexuality, of religion. Know what? These I'm naming here, I'd like to add these to the list, too. Hollywood has its cartoon villains: the Nazi, the kaffiya-wearing sheik, the mafioso-Russian, the inscrutable Yakuza (or their cousins, the inscrutable Tong). There's no need to give motivation beyond basic lip service, because these are stock villains. Author, when you make an alcoholic parent the reason a child ends up on the streets, you are doing the same damn thing.

Now, I get why we believe that it takes alcoholism to make a person abusive (even if in polite society we only imply that correlation and refrain from stating it so baldly). Alcohol lowers inhibitions; the average (read: one of the 998) person sees "hitting a child" as something that we're strongly inhibited from doing, thanks to cultural and familial conditioning. Weaker and smaller critters should get our love and protection, not our rejection and neglect -- so, sure, I get that you can only justify/comprehend abuse by means of rationalizing that "something must have made it possible to get past that social boundary."

Unfortunately, you're dead wrong.

Some people are simply abusive, and it doesn't matter how much alcohol is in their system, or if they've never touched a drop in their lives.

It's not inhibitions that make it im/possible to abuse, it's anger. What we express when drunk is, most often, what we might express the rest of the time if we didn't have something stopping us, be it internal or external. (That's the best basis for guessing how a character will act when drunk: think of what the character most represses, and there's a clue for what'll come out when the inhibitions are lowered.)

In light of what our society expects of women, it's not surprising that a lot of the women I know tend to be angrier drunks, or at least somewhat cranky in some ways (or, as corollary, sexually-uninhibited drunks). Society tells women they should be pleasant, not get all pissed-off all the time -- a lesson learned harder for my mother's generation and previous, but it's still there today, every time someone snarks about "angry feminists" or "bitchy women who are PMS'ing" -- the message is that such anger is not okay. A woman's socialized to be inhibited about expressing anger. Alcohol added in, inhibitions lowered... crankiness comes out.

That equation does make it likely that there may be alcohol involved/required for some women to express their anger, which then turns into abuse. But it doesn't explain men -- who aren't so socially inculturated to repress -- who are abusive, and it sure doesn't address the number of women who will strike their children and no alcohol needed, at all.

Don't think I don't realize the impact of what I'm saying: if you don't tag the stock villain label of 'alcoholic' on the parent, then you're losing two things. One, the child-character loses the option of blaming the alcohol and not the parent. Two, you might have to actually, y'know, freaking explore why the parent is abusive, above and beyond a simple "oh, he's had a glass of wine, here come the fists." Author, I know it's scary, but at least try, would you? Because I'm sick and tired of "the parent has one beer and suddenly the kid's head is being used to make a new window in the side of the trailer".

My reaction to that stock villain? Wow, lazy author. Suddenly I feel lazy myself, hell, I'm feeling too freaking lazy to finish your book. Fancy that.

* Note that being raised in an alcoholic family comes with its own set of problems, many of which do overlap with children raised in abusive homes -- and many of which do not. It's too often conflated, however, such that children who suffered abuse that wasn't alcohol-prompted end up with the sense that a non-drunk parent's abuse equates to "not really being abuse", and that ain't necessarily so.

Talking about the experiences of children raised in alcoholic families is beyond my scope (though I'd bet there are folks who'll reply who can contribute in that area). But I can point out that alcohol does create its own kind of abuse, a great part revolving around damage to the child's sense of consistency and normality. Compared to what I'm discussing here, though, it's the demon alcohol sitting in the living room that gets the brunt, and not the simple fact that, well, Dad's simply a bully who thinks it's okay to hit people weaker and smaller than him.

4. Go read rachelmanjia's posts on PTSD. Process, ponder, read, repeat.

Go on. I'll wait. I've got a fireplace to parge, anyway. You read, I'll keep busy. Beats whistling.


Alright. Now, go back to her posts and read the part about hyper-vigilance. It has bearing on this next bit.

Refreshed your memory? Alright, then.

5. Abuse your character, then be prepared to write the hyper-vigilance.

As humans, we look for cause and effect, correlating it even where there's no statistical reason. It's human nature. One way to end up hyper vigilant is to live in an environment where there is no visible, consistent, cause and effect.

Think about that. Ever heard of the famous psychological experiment where the researchers randomly sent an electrical pulse through the floor of the maze, shocking all the rats trying to run the tests? They did it long enough and randomly enough and eventually those rats would randomly -- in the absence of any further shocks -- react as though they'd just been shocked. The rats had spent so long trying to avoid the unpredictable and unavoidable, that eventually every rat was thoroughly neurotic about being hyper-vigilant for the next coming shock, to the point that the rats were basically anticipating the next bolt of pain.

Whether or not your character ends up on the street, if your character comes from an abusive background (or any other warzone, such as being a soldier on the front lines, or being a cop or teacher or CPS worker in the inner city, etc), this is an absolutely crucial aspect of the characterization. You are writing a rat who may have left the maze, but the maze remains within that rat: and the rat, the character, is going to continue anticipating the next bolt of pain. Over, and over, and over. Just because it didn't come in the last five minutes doesn't mean it won't be in the next minute. Or the one after that. What happened in the past is no indication of what will happen in the future. It could be any minute now.

There have been similar, if varied, experiments, where rats were shocked while maze-traversing, but the shock was precipitated by a bright light or a sound. Hello, Pavlovian response: no surprise to anyone reading, I'm sure, eventually the rats reacted to the light or sound as though it were the source of pain, independent of whether or not the shock was delivered. Not unlike what Rachel talks about when she discusses triggering events, flashbacks, and the like: something in the precipitating event was so similar to the original light, sound, word, act, whatever, that the character-rat goes into immediate pain-defense-mode. Either reliving the experience via full flashback, or simply reacting as though it's happening again: fleeing, cowering, striking out.

Whatever protective reaction the person had to the original stimulus, the person is as likely to repeat in that non-thinking instinctual moment as the rats in the maze when the light would sound. It's bracing for impact and protecting one's self, all at the same time -- even when no pain follows. The connection is made, chains reinforced by years of light+pain, and those chains will drag us down for the rest of our lives.

If a parent is an alcoholic or a drug addict, and the use of alcohol or drugs consistently precipitated abuse, then your character is more likely to be hyper-vigilant around alcohol or drugs. These are the light and sound that warn of incoming pain. If someone speaks in anger but the character knows the person to be sober, the character may react quite differently than he will, a page later, after a drink's been had. That's the other thing that bugs me about the stock villain known as the alcoholic: a lot of you authors seem to forget that by basing your character's abuse upon a specific type of behavior -- that is, alcohol = anger = pain -- that the character would have, in fact, developed dual methods for dealing with the world. There's the reactions one can have when dealing with Sober People, and the reactions necessary for survival when dealing with Not-Sober People.

Actually, I've always rather envied the kids who grew up with alcohol being the triggering factor for abuse. At least they had some kind of warning. I'm not saying that makes it easier, or better. I'm just saying it would've been nice to have had that. Then again, if I'd had that, and still hadn't gotten out of the way, likely I would've seen it as the resulting pain being my own fault, for not being smart enough to avoid it when I'd known it was coming.

It's not enough to decide you want to give a character proper angst with an abusive background. You need to decide how the child was abused, what may have been the precipitating factor(s) -- even if these are opaque to the child itself, when the abuse escalated and when it was alleviated and when it flared up again and when it peaked, and the obvious why of the parent or guardian's own motivations and frustrations and anger that would drive them past the social boundaries of protecting-the-weaker and into rejecting their own children. Oh, and in some cases, there's also a where, both of triggering locations and also those places or times when the same act didn't bring about the usual pain.

Like, say, a parent who puts on a nice face for the relatives, thus holidays at a grandparent's mean a pain-free two weeks. In which case, your character isn't stressed out by holidays -- a relative armistice -- but by the end of the holidays, in which the backlash always occurred. Same may go for a character sexually molested: a trip to Aunt and Uncle, and Dad's on his best behavior; the child can sleep easy at night... at least until the family goes home.

Or maybe your character's parent had no qualms about pulling the child into the guest room and sotto-voco dressing him/her down while pulling hair or squeezing the child by the arm tight enough to leave finger-bruises. That means holidays and trips are not a respite, but may be doubly-painful because it's no longer just the usual anger-abuse, but now there's humiliation in the mix. Everyone else now knows, too, the child is likely to think: they don't just know, they're not stopping it... which means they must agree. The child ends up condemned, if by apparent silence, by the extended family.

You do realize this means your character is going to react very differently to different situations, depending on those facets of the original abuse, right? You're getting that now, right? It's just not as cut-and-dried, and it's sure as hell nothing but pap -- offensive pap, to those of us who've been through it -- to toss out "the character's parents beat her" or "the character's father molested him" or whatever -- and figure the scars are one-size-fits-all.

They're not. The circumstances of the origins are creating rats in the maze, so you need to think carefully about just what kind of maze you've set up for your rat character. And you need to remember, above all else, that the deepest and most shameful scars are psychological. Broken bones heal, eventually. So do burns and bruises and all the other little ways humans can hurt other humans, but it's what's spoken and unspoken that resonate the longest.

all the parts ▪ dear [not just urban fantasy] author part Idear [not just urban fantasy] author part IIdear [not just urban fantasy] author part IIIpermanent record, pt I: edginess, and street fightingpermanent record, pt II: guns, knives, and making it hurt

...more coming in a day or two.

Date: 19 Jul 2009 12:14 pm (UTC)
dogemperor: Fou-lu from Breath of Fire IV...looking VERY pleased with himself (Default)
From: [personal profile] dogemperor
THIS. THIS. OH MY FUCKING GOD, *THIS*. (And THANK YOU, incidentially, for pointing out people can be teetotalers and incredibly abusive.)

I don't talk about this too much save on anti-dominionist and survivor communities, but (to make a very long story short) I pretty much suffered religiously motivated child abuse at the hands of my parents, and particularly my mother (who was and is a member of a Bible-based cult linked with the "New Apostolic Reformation"; think "Jesus Camp" before it was cool, and you get the idea). My mother is about as tolerant of alcohol as Carrie Nation; if she was addicted to anything, it was "name it and claim it" neopentecostalism (and later an Ativan addiction thanks to an enabling doctor, but in her case it was *definitely* the religion and an inner streak of Pure Assholedom that fueled it). I eventually ended up formally diagnosed with PTSD--fully five years after I'd moved out and was having panic attacks even after having escaped.

And yes, it's very true that kids blame themselves. Doubly so if a kid is in an abusive situation, but is in an unconventional-enough abusive situation that the kid ends up being essentially blamed by the very groups supposedly meant to protect them. (Long story short--I only recognised Something Was Off in my home life around age 16, ended up being referred to a social worker and a psychiatrist (both of whom pretty much automatically assumed that teens reporting longterm familial abuse were really "out of control" youth) and was literally told if I went to the local runaway shelter I'd simply be returned to my abusive family. And I was forced into family therapy, where I *legitimately* feared talking about the abuse with my psychiatrist and social worker because I feared abuse at home for mentioning it. I won't even get into the "religious" issues; hell, it's only been since about 1999 or so that the movement my mother is a part of has been recognised as abusive by exit counselors much less child welfare groups, and "Bible-based" child abuse STILL tends to be one of the most underreported forms of child abuse in the US.)

And yes, I still find holidays utterly nervewracking (because of my mother's inevitable tantrums, and also her attempts in past (and occasional attempts nowadays) to try to get me to come to her church--hell, before I moved out, I was *forced* to). The "panic attack inducement" is one reason I am not a participant in any form of organised religion, and video and sound from NAR-linked groups and even televangelists still tends to cause panic attacks in me.

(For the record, I've never seen all of "Jesus Camp". I can't watch it without MAJOR panic attacks and panic-attack-fueled rants. Hell, I ended up in tears with my husband because I went (unexpectedly) into a full-blown panic attack watching the movie "Equilibrium"--because the theocratic government at first, the whole kids-snitching-on-adults bit, the "do not show unapproved emotions" bit--was SO damn similar (even in a fictional context) to what I grew up with (and yeah, I know the guy and his kid escape...I felt godawful ashamed with this because it was one of my husband's favourite movies). I have to be careful even now; not only have I been out of it ten years (and been a "walkaway in hiding" since 13 or so) but have been through exit counseling and (somehow) have ended up being regarded as one of the few experts worldwide on NAR-related religious abuse, but I still have panic attacks even with the time and therapy.)

Date: 19 Jul 2009 04:06 pm (UTC)
hokuton_punch: An image of two masked kids from the manga 20th Century Boys, captioned "all the lonely people." (20th century boys lonely people)
From: [personal profile] hokuton_punch
... Iiiiiiii have some rewriting to do! (Though not as much as I was afraid of at first. Maybe. ARGH NEED MORE PEOPLE WILLING TO ACTUALLY GIVE CRITIQUES.)

Thank you for writing this.

Date: 20 Jul 2009 05:03 am (UTC)
hokuton_punch: (hikaru no go sai squee)
From: [personal profile] hokuton_punch
Yep - thank you. ♥

Date: 19 Jul 2009 08:18 pm (UTC)
sevenall: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sevenall
I agree, with all of it.

Date: 1 Aug 2009 08:56 pm (UTC)
farasha: ([Firefly] Wash: Work)
From: [personal profile] farasha
Oh dear, I have a chunk of re-writing to do. Thankfully this scene at the beginning isn't very long, and I'm going for a "show the reactions, not the initial abuse, and let people draw their own conclusions about what made her that way" method of characterizing.

Date: 7 Oct 2009 10:35 am (UTC)
nympholepsy: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nympholepsy
gosh, i can't believe this post doesn't have more comments! i think i found you from lj, somewhere, i don't know, haha, just so you know i'm not a creeper. but thank you for writing this; i read all three parts of the dear author and spent most of it confused, like, "this isn't common sense?" but i guess that's fandom/lit for you. you express it waaaaaaay more clearly than i've ever been able to, though, so i love this!

Date: 6 Apr 2010 04:37 am (UTC)
pseudo_tsuga: ([Other] working)
From: [personal profile] pseudo_tsuga
By that I mean, having quirks up to outright faults, but not necessarily abusive -- conflicts and tantrums and bad times, sure, but the grown children speak with relative ease about the good and bad

Huh. Is...is not being able to talk about it easily a sign of abuse? Hm.

Date: 13 Jun 2010 04:06 pm (UTC)
zillah975: Painting of my Night Elf, Tyrnathera Stormcaller (Default)
From: [personal profile] zillah975
I wanted to thank you for this series of posts. I've never written the kinds of characters you're talking about, partly because I know I don't know a damned true thing about how to write one and haven't been sure how to find out. Now, if I do find myself writing a story that includes street kids or people from abusive homes, I at least have a starting point. I also appreciate your taking so much time to write such a lengthy series of posts on what I imagine must be some very difficult subjects.

And now, back to reading.

Thank you again.