“A Reflection on Abuse”
People who have been abused often live behind a white picket fence. The white picket fence represents the perfect home and living situation. The fence says, “Everything is wonderful. Nothing is wrong here.” Abused people often live a life of denial. The fence is a defensive construct, a boundary, but a lie. Over time it takes a lot of lies to maintain the fence.
Those who live behind the white picket fence are prone to carry a burden of shame and low self-esteem. The fence is the barrier that the residents inside believe will keep the world from knowing their secrets, their shame and low self-esteem. The fence gives them a false sense of security against further exposure and shame, and they come to believe that they are safe inside.
Those who choose to live inside the fence become adept at habitual lying and manipulation. Denial, lies and manipulation: These are the learned survival skills required to keep the fence in place.
If a concerned outsider ever challenges the white picket fence, the treatment from the residents inside the fence can be rough. “I’m ‘OK’. You’re not ‘OK’” is just one response to intruders. Anger or verbal abuse may follow. A common form of defense from a resident might be, “What makes you think something is wrong? There must be something wrong with you”, or some other form of abusive “stiff arm”. Of course, some challengers are simply ignored and written off, even if they might be close family or friends. Or, there could be an attempt to hide behind shallow conversation and pastimes that keep others from penetrating further. Deep, heartfelt conversations with the residents are generally not possible.
Everyone who lives inside the white picket fence, including spouses, children, brothers, sisters, even the few friends who are allowed to come inside the white picket fence, eventually begin to absorb and demonstrate the behaviors of the residents. Tragically, membership in the residence behind the fence is passed on to everyone who dwells there.
Children born into this community will learn the survival skills necessary to endure life behind the white picket fence. The more they might resist, the worse the pressure will become to become docile and conform as good residents should. They absorb the shame and low self-esteem through abuse from their parents and other leading residents. They learn that there are things that should never be discussed. They learn to lie to protect their caretakers and themselves and to maintain appearances, as they are taught. Their self-esteem is further eroded by their own lies and behavior. Shame becomes deep-seated in a downward spiral of ever-lower self esteem. They may become skilled in manipulation of emotions to obtain what they need. They have difficulty making real friends. They are lonely. And so, the “white picket fence” syndrome is passed from one generation to another. The “fence” becomes a reliable, enduring, even stubborn inheritance. It is the “invisible inheritance” that inflicts pain on all heirs.
Spiritual freedom and spiritual development are restricted inside the fence. For those who reside behind the fence, their image of God often appears to have frozen at the age when their abuse began; or, their image of God may be distorted by confusion with their abuser. If they are adults physically, they may deal with spiritual issues from a child’s perspective. Residents often fail to mature normally and live up to their potential as adolescents or adults. Some residents may become very successful in a specific career, only to suffer disasters in their family and friendship relationships. Life is melancholy inside the white picket fence. Hope is a stranger. Depression often resides inside. Suicide happens inside the fence.
It doesn’t matter what caused the white picket fence to be erected. For some it was alcohol. For others it was sex, violence or anger abuse, drugs or gambling. For others it may be gluttony and obesity or anorexia. It doesn’t matter, because the fence is the same defensive perimeter for all types of abuse and low self-esteem experiences. It is even possible to be a resident and not have suffered from any of the usual external abuse forms, but still have the same traits as other residents, such as lying, manipulation, poor self esteem, passive aggressive behavior and stunted personality and spiritual development; all learned behaviors for survival.
Once the syndrome is spotted by a friend, teacher, minister or counselor, just a few questions are needed to establish that Dad, Mom, Sister or Brother, Aunt, Uncle and even grandparents and generations beyond experienced abuse and exhibited the same after effects. Alcoholism, drugs, physical, sexual and anger abuse can run through family trees, generation after generation much like hair color and the color of eyes.
Residents often feel attracted to mate with similar victims and abusers from other white picket fence families. Their children often have difficulties maturing emotionally and spiritually. If they do have relationships with healthy people, their own traits often bring those relationships to failure. Social maturity is often stagnated by life behind the fence. Those who divorce because of abuse often find subsequent partners who have similar traits and fences. Like attracts like. And the beat goes on…. It is very hard for residents behind the fence to ever know real, mature love or friendships. More often the residents have dangerous friendships that collude with and enable abuse.
However, all is not hopeless. The cycle can be broken. It is often broken. The first step is to boldly admit that the white picket fence exists. The next step is to identify the abuses that cause the shame. It may become necessary to separate from the persons and factors that reinforce the fence. Defectors may be treated rudely, even brutally by remaining residents. Defectors will experience more abuse from the residents until they refuse to allow themselves to be affected by it and give themselves permission to be free. However, it is not unusual for abused women to return to abusing spouses. And then the victims often help the abusers repair the fence.
In moments of God-given clarity, a person can make a choice to stay on one side or the other of the white picket fence. The white picket fence is a personal choice. Personal freedom is the ultimate reward awaiting those who have stepped outside the fence. But grace itself is not recognized behind the fence. As Dr. Gerald May writes, “Addiction is the enemy of Grace.” (“Addiction and Grace”)
If escape is achieved the new freedom allows the former resident to begin to grow again emotionally and spiritually. Freedom includes being surprised by real love, not the synthetic imitations of love previously experienced in the abusive relationships. Escape is not easy because it requires hard choices and firm conviction to remain free. Often, there are many concentric circles of white picket fences, because of the multiple layers of defenses built over many years or generations. Freedom includes recognizing other white picket fences that may at first appear to be safe harbors. Healthy relationships do not come easy. Loneliness is challenge and the temptation drawing residents back to their abusive inner circle. Escape can be brutal. A sense of hopelessness is often the final entrapment. The white picket fence is a prison from which escape can be overwhelming or seemingly impossible.
Escape requires support and companionship. The idea that, “I can do this alone,” is simply further self-deception. Escapees must learn that confronting the fence will always be their personal choice. A habit may be changed. However, escapees who choose to rely only upon themselves will probably not be able to address the underlying causes.
Escape requires grace. Escape must be spiritual. Healing occurs in the soul and then expands out to the whole person. Prayer is the most powerful tool. Hope is essential. Hopelessness is a residual symptom of the disease. Strong, hopeful guides can help. Good models are invaluable. The escapee must learn again to love himself or herself. Self-loathing is another residual symptom. Charity toward others can only come out of self-love. Charity must be learned and embraced or one’s escape will be tinged with anger and resentment. There can be no real freedom if anger and resentment are the baggage the escapee insists upon taking with them. Forgiveness and love are important for healthy escape, because it is possible that the escapee might just take their white picket fence with them. Charity is a vital tool for those departing their white picket fences. Sincere concern for and service to others enacts this effective remedy for the escapee.
God’s loving Grace is necessary for successful escape. Spiritual food and spiritual support are necessary to give the courage and provide the energy and the charity required for successful separation. A skilled spiritual director, experienced with victims of abuse and knowledgeable in the action of grace, may be very helpful. God is love. God has the keys to open the gate.
Professional help is often necessary for those wishing to escape, especially with substance abuse. Support groups can be very helpful, like Alcoholics Anonymous for the active abuser, or Al-Anon for the victim resident. Care must be taken by those participating in these groups that the group follow a real recovery program, and resist allowing meetings to become “entertainment” with endless story-telling. Some “twelve step” programs get stuck on the stories and don’t continue the real work of the steps they advocate.
The inmates put the bars of this prison into place. Only the inmates, with God’s help and the help of other escapees can dismantle a white picket fence. Challengers from the outside must encourage the escapee with love, and witness to them the truth of the destructiveness that all remaining residents are passing on to their loved ones, their children and their children’s children – the inheritance of the white picket fence – if nothing is done to tear it down.
Failure to tear down that fence helps to provide future generations of residents. Tearing down the white picket fence can offer a chance for real life, freedom and joy for a thousand generations to come (Exodus 20:6). “The Lord builds up Jerusalem and brings back Israel’s exiles, he heals the broken-hearted, he binds up all their wounds…, The Lord raises the lowly….” (Psalm 147)