Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Monkey Learn, Monkey Teach

Chimpanzee troop at the LA Zoo
When I was nine years old, my father backhanded me so hard my head smacked into the wall. It was the first time I remember him hitting me, in any way - I don't even remember him spanking me before that. I never saw him hit my mother, nor my older sisters.

Yet long before he hit me, I lived in trembling fear of his rages. Why?

Because I had been well trained by the other monkeys.  You may have read the popular story of the five monkeys, the banana, and the ladder. 

 From Wiki Answers:
The Experiment- Part 1
5 monkeys are locked in a cage, a banana was hung from the ceiling and a ladder was placed right underneath it.
As predicted, immediately, one of the monkeys would race towards the ladder, to grab the banana. However, as soon as he would start to climb, the researcher would spray the monkey with ice-cold water.
but here's the kicker- In addition, he would also spray the other four monkeys…

When a second monkey tried to climb the ladder, the researcher would, again, spray the monkey with ice-cold water, As well as the other four watching monkeys;
This was repeated again and again until they learned their lesson
Climbing equals scary cold water for EVERYONE so No One Climbs the ladder.

The Experiment- Part 2 Once the 5 monkeys knew the drill, the researcher replaced one of the monkeys with a new inexperienced one. As predicted, the new monkey spots the banana, and goes for the ladder. BUT, the other four monkeys, knowing the drill, jumped on the new monkey and beat him up. The beat up new guy thus Learns- NO going for the ladder and No Banana Period- without even knowing why! and also without ever being sprayed with water!

These actions get repeated with 3 more times, with a new monkey each time and ASTONISHINGLY each new monkey- who had never received the cold-water Spray himself (and didn't even know anything about it), would Join the beating up of the New guy. 

The rest of the story and the actual scientific experiment - which is a little different - is here.

Everyone in my family walked on eggshells around my father when he was "in a mood."

It wasn't just the whispered stories stories I heard when I got older, about the time he knocked my oldest sister to the ground, and then kicked her while she was there, or the time he punched my other sister, aged nine, in the stomach because she'd been placed in charge of the traveling money and she had left her purse behind in a restaurant. Or that the reason the kitchen table wobbled because he'd worked himself into such a rage during dinner he'd actually snatched the leg right off it. (He'd "fixed" it, but not properly.)

It was the expression on everyone's faces, the body language. The tense, fearful atmosphere, the literal tiptoeing around the house, keeping our voices down.

He was also an alcoholic, which didn't help.

When he was not "in a mood," I'm guessing my dad was pretty much like anybody else's dad. I remember him taking me downtown to watch the circus train pull into town and unload, and when the crowds grew thick, putting me up on his shoulders. I remember him being a jovial host when the aunts and uncles and cousins would come over for a family birthday party or barbecue in the back yard. He was a conscientious recycler long before recycling was cool and was proud of his home-grown tomatoes.

The cover to Incredible Hulk: The End, the fir...
The cover to Incredible Hulk: The End.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
But like the Incredible Hulk, while Daddy was fine, even admirable in his normal persona, you really, really did not want to see him angry. He was a big guy (6'2", around 240 pounds) with a loud voice, and although he wasn't green, I linked him, in my childish mind, both to the Jolly Green Giant (the Happy Daddy) and the Incredible Hulk (when "in a mood").

At age 13, when he had put me on his company bowling team, and he missed a spare, he threw a tantrum. He jumped up and down with both feet (all 240 pounds of him) at the end of the approach, screaming, "Damn! Damn! Damn!" at the top of his lungs. I will never forget that, and I am pretty sure nobody in that bowling alley ever has, because the whole place went dead silent and everybody looked at him. I still feel shame when I think of it, which I know is very co-dependent of me because I am not and was not responsible for his actions, but knowing something in your head and feeling it in your heart are two separate things.

Mostly, Daddy's tantrums were in private, and directed at someone in our family (as far as I know). Besides that time he knocked me into the wall, I recall being beaten with his belt a couple times.

There wasn't constant physical violence; there didn't need to be.

We we all sufficiently intimated and cowed, that like good little monkeys, we worked to keep each other in line. Including my mother, who, in some ways, might be blamed for staying with my father, especially when the first incidence of his violence happened when my oldest sister was six weeks old. They were living with my mother's parents. Apparently the baby was colicky.  My father, losing patience, went in and began to beat the baby - and my maternal grandfather went in and grabbed him by the ear and threw his sorry ass out of the house.

In hindsight, that probably should have been the time to divorce him, then and there, but my mother did reconcile with my father, and not long after that, their family had their own home.

Why didn't my mother leave? Why did she forgive him, time after time? Why did she subject her children - and herself - to this man's rages?

For one thing, it was a very different time. My oldest sister was born in 1949, our other sister in the 1950's. This was a time when women who divorced their husbands had very little power in the courts, and beating your wife and kids wasn't considered abuse, especially if the beatings weren't frequent or they didn't send anyone to the hospital. Society believed that intact families were always best, regardless of what went on behind closed doors. If there were bad things going on in the home... the woman should simply try harder, make her floor shinier and her meals tastier.

The places my mother could go, had she decided to leave (in those days, she couldn't have gotten a court order to make him leave) were limited. Her father died when I was two, and although her mother - probably - would have let her come back home, my maternal grandmother was often verbally nasty to my mother, so it was a frying pan to fire situation anyway.

Unusual for that time and era, my mother did work outside the house, part-time, I think trying to keep her options open.

Then, too was her health. I was a "bonus baby," born almost ten years after my next oldest sister, and my mother was neither well during her pregnancy with me, nor ever really healthy afterwards. She developed Bell's Palsy, and when I was about five, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

One of the books on my TBR list is: When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection by Gabor Mate, recommended by a friend. I believe that living in a household where one's "fight, flight or freeze" reflexes are continually activated cannot be good for anyone's health, and though scientific research on this may not yet be extensive or well-publicized, it all seems to point in that direction as well.

When you are battling breast cancer - and later, when you are dying of it - is not a time you can make realistic plans to flee your abusive spouse, especially with small kids in tow.  I think when times were good, my mother hoped for the best, and when times were bad... she was too emotionally beaten down and lacking in resources to make a move.

Long-term results:
  • Mother - died before her 50th birthday.
  • Sisters - married young, to men with alcohol problems.
  • Me - involved with men who were a) emotionally unavailable b) alcohol problems c) abusive
  • Sisters & Me - weight issues, emotional eating issues.
  • Father - lived to marry, abuse, and outlive two more women, died at age 90.
Mind you, even if I'm carrying around a few more pounds than I might wish, I am now happy and healthy, as are my sisters.  Would our lives be better, would we have made better life choices, if we'd never experienced domestic violence in our childhood home? No guarantees, but I'm thinking, probably.

Every woman and man in a domestic abuse situation must make her or his own choices, but here are some points I'd like to make.
  • It is admirable to decide that you love someone and want to "help" her/him, but if your partner doesn't recognize that what s/he is doing is wrong and accept personal responsibility for it, your efforts are doomed to failure. Your partner must be actively working on her/his issues.
  • If you wait until you are "at the end of your rope" to leave, there may not be any rope left. You may be so exhausted, physically ill, or financially drained, that you can't leave.
  • You make think you are shielding your children sufficiently from witnessing any abuse, but kids pick up on tone, body language, and facial expressions. You are actually teaching them to repeat the pattern and accept or perpetrate abuse in their own love relationships.

If you are in a situation where you are being physically or emotionally abused, especially if you have little monkeys in the home, I urge you to get professional help, and devise an escape plan. Only you will know if/when to put your escape plan into effect, but simply having a plan will empower you. Please don't wait until it is too late, for yourself or your children.


Al-Anon and Ala-Teen offer support and resources for those in a relationship with a substance abuser.

Domestic Violence Resources

National Domestic Violence Hotline - 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)  TTY- 1-800-787-3224 
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (includes downloadable guides for helping women in abusive relationships)
RAINN - Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network 1.800.656.HOPE
National Alliance on Mental Illness, aka NAMI

National Clearinghouse on Family Violence - you will need to opt for English or French

Women's Aid - 0808 2000 247

Australia & New Zealand:
Domestic Violence Information Manual - phone numbers vary by territory

For Male Victims:
Why Men Stay in Abusive Relationships

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