Tag Archives: verbal abuse

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.

Dear Imprudence: Just Toughen Up Already!

Oh, Ask Amy. You’re still on my shit list for your rape apologism, and yet, I keep reading your column. I admit it, I mainly do it so that I can find particularly awful pieces of advice to feature here.

This week, a high school student writes about a problem she’s experiencing at home:

Dear Amy: I’m a high school student and feel like I am being verbally abused by my brother, who constantly tells me that I don’t do things right.

For example, he criticizes me for not putting dishes away after I am done with them.

Whenever he criticizes me, he says things like, “You’re lazy.” Or he’ll say, “If you continue to make these choices then you probably won’t have the greatest path you can have in life.”

Whenever we get into an argument, he says he’s smarter than I am because I have a GPA of 3.85 and his is 4.3 (he’s taken AP classes).

His words hurt me and my self-esteem suffers, even if I know he doesn’t really mean it. I do believe he loves me for who I am, but this bothers me.

I don’t know how to handle this problem.

— Hurt Sister

Let’s be clear here. Hurt Sister is saying that what her brother is doing is actively hurting her. She cites that it’s a blow to her self esteem, and it makes her feel bad. She’s writing to ask for help. It’s worth noting that all over the world, every single day, people experiencing verbal abuse cry out for help, and they often get responses exactly like Amy’s:

Dear Hurt: A big brother riding you about not cleaning up the kitchen, or saying he’s smarter than you, is not verbal abuse.

People have different qualities, strengths and weaknesses. Your brother might have a better GPA, but you might be a compassionate friend (he sounds lacking in the compassion department). He might be good at chemistry but you might be good at languages, art or geometry. Your GPA would put you at the tippy top in my household (and most households).

Words do hurt. But they hurt less if you make a healthy choice to let the stuff roll off you that you know isn’t true. Your parents should nip this in the bud, but you shouldn’t leave your brother in charge of your self-esteem.

Evidently you never learned the comeback to petty sibling badmouthing. The next time he calls you lazy or dumb, you say, “I know you are, but what am I?”

All together now: Wrong! You know what is verbal abuse? Something that someone identifies as abuse because that person is experiencing it. There are definitely degrees of verbal abuse, but they are all abusive. This is a short letter. We don’t know all the details. But it seems to me, reading between the lines, that her brother is constantly hounding her, is constantly making her feel small and worthless, is constantly saying that he is better than her, is constantly reminding her that she is ‘not doing things right’ and, you know what? That can become highly abusive when you are hearing it over and over.

Especially if you are aware of how it is impacting the way you feel about yourself. Hurt Sister is not writing in to say ‘this is annoying and it bugs me,’ she is writing to say this hurts me and I want it to stop.

Amy’s response is the equivalent of the old ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ adage, with a side of ‘you shouldn’t let the things that other people say about you affect you.’ Well, guess what. Words hurt people. The things that people say about (and to) you affect you, whether you like it or not. It’s not always possible to make a ‘healthy choice’ to ignore verbal abuse, especially when you are a high school student, in your own home, a place that should be safe, and your family member is subjecting you to it.

Contrast this letter with this week’s Dear Prudence, where a reader writes in about being increasingly afraid of her husband because of verbal abuse and acts of violence. Here’s what Prudie said:

There is no excuse for the kind of assault he is inflicting on you…He sounds potentially dangerous, and just an arm adjustment away from punching your jaw instead of the wall. Stop apologizing and start packing. You may even need someone to accompany you when you get your things and tell him you will no longer live in fear in your own home…Nice line he spewed about not faulting him for your faults. Now he can contemplate how it’s his fault that your marriage is about to come apart.

Verbal abuse is abuse.  It’s abusive and it’s hurtful and, as Prudence points out, it can escalate to physical violence. I’m not saying that Hurt Sister is in physical danger from her brother, but I am saying that her feeling, that this is abuse, is valid, because she is experiencing it, and Amy should have recognised that and provided her with some assistance on addressing it, instead of telling her, basically, to toughen up.

There’s a prevailing and extremely dangerous attitude that verbal abuse isn’t ‘real’ abuse, despite ample evidence to the contrary. That attitude manifests in the way that people at all levels deal with abuse, from teachers handling bullying to human resource directors in offices with hostile work environments. If an abuser uses words alone to harm people, that abuser is far more likely to get away with it, and the responsibility for dealing with it will be placed solely on the victim. It’s the victim’s fault for being ‘too sensitive’ and not ‘toughening up.’

I’d hazard that a fair number of FWD readers have probably experienced verbal abuse at some point in their lives, and may even be experiencing it now. How many people are told ‘just toughen up’ or ‘just ignore it’?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Suggestions for Dear Imprudence features are always welcome in my inbox! (meloukhia at gmail dot com)