Strong at the broken places

“The world breaks everyone and afterward some are strong at the broken places.”
Ernest Hemingway

I’ve just finished reading another book about child abuse. I love to learn more about the issues that affect me, and it is always illuminating to explore different perspectives and read the stories of other survivors. I thought I’d start reviewing my reads in case anyone is looking for material that might help them.

In ‘Strong at the broken places’, Linda T. Sanford shares her insight as a therapist and social worker, as well as excerpts from her interviews with adult survivors of abuse. What’s unique about this book is the singly positive outlook throughout. I’ve found reading about abuse can be triggering and depressing if it focuses on how awful these experiences are. Sanford skillfully avoids doing this, not by ignoring the horror of the survivors’ stories, but by telling them sensitively and constructively. She highlights how each person has overcome their trauma to eventually thrive in a healthy life.

There’s a lot of explanation in the first half of this book about the psychological impact of child abuse; physical, emotional and sexual. The author describes typical responses and adaptations children make in the face of a hostile family environment in a simple and accessible way. She’s not too technical and I didn’t have to keep stopping to re-read confusing paragraphs. It is really interesting how she uses the comparison between a ‘good enough’ and ‘bad enough’ family to illustrate what children need for healthy development.

One section I really identified with was an explanation of how frightening and unsafe the world seems to an abused child, and how confusing the mixed messages within a dysfunctional family can be.

Sanford says; ‘Suppose in the midst of a tornado, a child sought comfort and protection from his parents and was told, “What tornado? It’s a beautiful day. Go out and play”.’

That resonated with me. It is exactly how I felt when I was little and my parents glossed over what had happened to me. The world was indeed a scary place and I just wanted to feel safe. It was so alien to me to carry on playing and being a child after that earth-shattering trauma.

There’s a lot more great stuff in this book which I’ll share some of in another post. Sanford really clearly highlights some of the major self-esteem issues survivors experience, as well as problems with shame and guilt. This is the focus of the first chapters and there’s a great deal of useful insight there.

As the book progresses, the author starts to hone in on physical violence, rather than sexual abuse. For me, it started to lose relevance there. Sanford interviewed a lot of people who had survived violent parenting for this book, so if that’s your background it would probably be very relatable for you. However, I couldn’t really identify with that material. I feel that while all abuse is horrendous, it isn’t all the same. The author seems to throw all survivors of all kinds of abuse into the same category, making the assumption that the impact of such experiences all have a lot in common. I found that generalisation difficult, and somewhat alienating.

While I appreciate the positive attitude of this book, it was strange to me that Sanford didn’t look at some of the darker implications of childhood abuse for adult survivors. I get that she wanted to demonstrate how people from broken homes had grown and learned to overcome their experiences, but it seemed a bit too idealistic. For instance, the author makes little reference to suicide statistics, addictions or admissions to psychiatric facilities, even though there is significant research on how each is linked to abuse.

Another glaring omission for me was a discussion around self-harm. This book is a bit dated, having first been published in 1988, but I’m pretty sure self-harm wasn’t unheard of back then. It is widely known that individuals who have experienced trauma as children are more likely to self-harm, so it felt remiss to leave this topic out.

Aside from the small gripes I mentioned above, I have one major problem with this book. That’s religion.

I am not anti-religion, but I am also not a believer. To close, Sanford writes a whole chapter on how almost everyone she interviewed had used spirituality to change their lives. She launches into a one-dimensional and over-simplified explanation of how children learn to believe in god or not. She then explains how survivors needed to find god or some spiritual practice in order to make sense of their experiences. They had to discover a faith in something greater than themselves. While I am glad these people have found peace, I really can’t go along with Sanford’s assertion that in order to heal, we need to accept that there is a power beyond our own ego or self.

The reason for this is that there is no explaining the inexplicable. Religion is a simple fix, because it takes away our need for logic. It says, ‘this was all part of a plan’, which is of course soothing for some people. I think it is far more important to be able to let go of not understanding. To know that something awful happened and there was no reason for it is difficult. It forces you to see a very dark side of what it is to be human and I can see why people don’t want to have to sit with that.

In all, this book is engaging and very accessible. It does help to read something so focused on the journey from surviving to thriving. It is uplifting and I would recommend it for anyone looking to understand more about the impact of child abuse.

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