Dear Imprudence: Ask Amy and ‘Making Calls’ on Abuse

At the end of July, I wrote about an Ask Amy column where she pretty clearly failed to identify an abusive relationship. Apparently at least one Ask Amy reader felt the same way I did, and wrote in to say so:

Dear Amy: I worry about the teenager who wrote to you, saying her brother called her “dumb” and “lazy.” She called it “verbal abuse,” and you said it was not.

I beg to differ. I took this sort of abuse from an older sibling all during my childhood and it continued into adulthood. I now have nothing to do with the sibling who treated me this way.

— Offended

I like it when advice columnists air complaints they receive, even if their responses are usually tepid, as was the case here:

Dear Offended: I agree that siblings are capable of abuse and cruelty — but I think it’s a judgment call whether an older sibling teasing a younger sibling amounts to abuse or is an irritation, which can be handled with adult help and by the sibling standing up to the elder.

I made a “call” on this letter, but any young person who feels he or she is being abused should seek not only adult advice, but also adult intervention.

‘Well, ok, but I’m still right, because it was really just sibling teasing.’

Contrast this ‘call’ with the call Ask Amy made on another recent letter:

Dear Amy: I have two women friends who are closer to each other than I am to either of them. Over the years, the relationship between these friends has devolved into something like a battered spouse scenario.

My one friend is meanly critical of the other and goes to her house almost daily, screaming profanities at her for her faults du jour.

It has escalated to the point that I am worried for both of them. What can I do, if anything?

— Worried

This sounds like an abusive relationship to me, and as it happens, Amy agrees:

Dear Worried: It sounds as though your friend is locked into an abusive relationship with this other woman; please encourage her to leave this relationship, and also urge her to get help. Tell her you’re very worried about her.

If you witness one person screaming profanities at another or are worried about your friend’s safety (and it sounds as if you are — or should be), you should call the police immediately. This is a dangerous situation that seems to be escalating.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers very helpful advice for concerned friends and family members who are worried about or witnesses to an abusive relationship. Read through the Web site for guidance: ndvh.org. The NDVH phone number is 800-799-SAFE (7233); you can call and speak to a counselor. Also give this number to your friend, and encourage her to call.

I’m curious to know how Amy distinguished between this situation and the situation in the previous letter. Was the previous letter not abuse because children were involved? Because it was ‘just’ sibling rivalry? Why did the earlier letter writer need to ‘toughen up,’ while this second letter writer is receiving referrals to domestic violence hotlines?

This is an important thing to talk about because these ‘calls’ are made every day by people in positions of authority, and in positions to do something. Police officers, teachers, counselors, and parents are all regularly required to evaluate situations and ‘decide’ if they are abusive or not. Sometimes, the input of the people actually involved is not considered.

In the first letter, Amy told a young person inside an abusive dynamic who identified what she was experiencing as abuse that she wasn’t really being abused. In the second letter, she told an adult outside an abusive dynamic who was afraid that the situation might be abusive that it was, indeed, abusive, and provided resources to use for help. The difference between these responses is marked, and it speaks to a lot of inequalities in society.

Young people are routinely devalued by adults and their words are disregarded by people in positions of authority. Adults are held up as more credible and reliable. People in abusive relationships are often told that their own experiences don’t matter, and what they’re experiencing isn’t really abuse, while people outside abusive relationships are viewed as authorities on those relationships. This has real world consequences, sometimes dangerous and even fatal ones.

Young people and people in abusive relationships learn not to reach out and ask for help precisely because of responses like Amy’s, and the responses of other people in power. Ask Amy says that young people who feel they are being abused should seek out adult advice and adult intervention. Well, that’s what the earlier letter writer did, and Amy told her to toughen up.

2 Comments

  1. Oh yes, it’s a “judgment call” whether it is “abuse or irritation.”

    A judgment call MADE BY THE PERSON AFFECTED.

    I’d be tearing my hair out if I weren’t already starting to bald.

    Your commentary is sharp, exactly as it needs to be, and you’ve teased out a few things I wouldn’t even have gotten to. Thank you.

  2. amy prolly has parents in mind when she talks about the writer needing adult advice and intervention. except parents are there and have been and have very likely been applied to for intervention to no avail. they tacitly or explicitly condone brother’s abuse of sister. this may be due to my personal history and biases but i find it hard to imagine brother didn’t have an example for his behaviour somewhere in his close family.

    with her bullshit “just learn to not hurt when people abuse you” response amy just adds herself to the list of People Who Cannot Be Trusted. it’s a big damn list.
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