If you’ve been wounded by an authoritarian, you can expect that other family members will have been wounded as well. If the authoritarian was your father or your mother, you can expect that your siblings were damaged, too. If the authoritarian is or was your mate, you can expect that your children have not escaped unscathed. All these other wounds affect you: in the following instance, the suicide of Laura’s brother, himself a victim of authoritarian wounding, becomes another trauma for her to endure. If your family has been wounded by an authoritarian you can expect to be wounded many times over and from many different directions since you are dealing with a whole damaged family. Here is Laura’s story.
My father was a tyrannical presence in my family home. We lived according to his emotions—if he didn’t want to do something, we didn’t do it, and if my mother pushed, he became very angry, petulant, withdrawn, etc., until it was just easier to do what he wanted.
One thing that I learned was that my feelings didn’t matter. I remember once, at the age of six, being extremely angry at him for something, and him forcing me to tell him that I loved him. I remember how hard it was to shove the words out of my mouth, but I guess I knew that I didn’t have a choice.
I was always on edge, too. I remember coming home from being away at sleepovers and the first thing I’d do was try to find my sister to ask her what sort of mood dad was in. I suppose this was so that I’d know whether or not I had to be on guard, or try to avoid him. At the same time, I was his emotional caregiver. If the dinner conversation went in a direction he didn’t like, he’d sometimes run off to his room and slam the door, and I was the one who always went after him and comforted him.
I remember that he’d tell me never to marry someone who wasn’t as sensitive as I am. At other times, he’d pull out his shotgun and sit with it, passively threatening suicide, I suppose trying to make us pledge our undying love; and when I was about fourteen I stopped reacting to this (I was the baby, so by this point, everyone else had given up as well). Eventually, he stopped this extreme behavior—but I remember still feeling very guilty about no longer caring but also like I’d been backed into a corner. It felt like the only way to survive was not to be manipulated by him anymore. This happened with all of us in our family, so as a result, he turned to another woman who would give him what he wanted. My parents split up when I was eighteen.
I would say that my father was an authoritarian leader more than a follower. However, from what I know from his childhood, he was a follower as a kid. His own father was a twisted tyrant who would insist—I’ve heard from family stories—that his wife not wear underwear under her dresses so he could ‘have her’ whenever he wanted, including in front of the children. I think my father became a leader perhaps because he was so damaged as a kid and didn’t want to ever be in that situation again. I don’t know‚—but his tyrannical behavior and absolute insistence on getting his own way makes me define him as a ‘leader’ (and his new wife is now his follower).
Nor would I say that he had an ‘authoritarian parenting style’—he was an authoritarian through and through. His authoritarianism hasn’t ever wavered, and it comes out with his friends and other family members as well. For instance, he has some friends, a couple, one of whom is very ill, and they have asked him and his wife not to stop by late at night. Yet they continue to show up after normal hours, sometimes as late as eleven p.m. at night.
I think that the consequences for me include all of the following. One is an overwhelming sense of guilt when I put my own needs first. A second is my inability to relate to my siblings without casting on them the same judgment my dad leveled on them. For example, my sister was adopted and it was quite clear that my dad didn’t really want her. He treated her differently—for instance, he drilled a peephole into her room from the basement and covertly sexually abused her in other ways. I’ve only realized in the past couple of years since my brother died, and since my sister and I have both ended our relationship with our dad, that I cast judgments on her and subtle rejections that I’d picked up from him.
I also find it very hard to be vulnerable with my husband or to simply state my needs. I often misread his normal quietness as passive-aggressive anger. I’ve also struggled a lot with one of the effects of the corrosive family dynamic, my brother’s suicide. My brother, who was a difficult person to be around in part because of his lack of social skills (Asperger’s) and his upbringing, died by suicide last year, after suffering an acute delusional disorder during which he reached out for help from my dad’s family. My dad neglected to do anything that would have helped him. This is what led to my final estrangement from my father.
What has helped? Time has helped. And severing the relationship. Trying to learn about myself and change have also helped, as has having an incredibly supportive mother, sister, and husband. As to therapy or counseling, I haven’t been in counseling much. When I was in my early twenties I was misdiagnosed as bipolar and put on lithium that I went off after a few months, without accompanying counseling.
At the time that I was diagnosed as bipolar (a totally incorrect diagnosis) I was trying to deal with a sexual assault, as well. I’ve also had to deal with chronic depression and low self-esteem, both of which have so much to do with being steamrollered by an authoritarian figure: being told you don’t matter, being rejected if you express your own opinion, and not allowed to have your own emotional reactions to things or even your own likes and dislikes. To this day, whenever I go to buy ice cream, I think of how my dad never asked us what flavor we wanted and always bought his favorite like he was entitled.
As to making a break with my father, that came with both positives and negatives. It was positive in that I can see things more clearly, and I can understand how I spent most of my life seeing him as I wanted to see him, rather than as he truly was (that is, excusing his behavior and imagining a sort of benign version of him which pulled only on all his good traits). But there are negatives, too, in that I feel a lot of guilt, especially around holidays and birthdays, as if I’m the one who is to blame for not contacting him when he never tries to contact me. I also feel a lot of rejection, which I didn’t feel before—this understanding that I must never have really mattered to him, if he can let go of me so easily.
That feeling of rejection makes me think of my brother, who my dad pretty much abandoned, only sending cards (and some money which, yes, was certainly appreciated) on holidays, and how he must have felt. He didn’t tell my dad what my dad wanted to hear (Asperger’s doesn’t exactly support that kind of social savviness) which is partly what caused their rift, whereas I maintained our relationship for years by being the ‘good girl’, making small talk, rarely expressing my opinion and doing things like letting him choose the damn ice cream.
If I have any advice to give, I think it’s the following. I think it’s important to try to understand the reality of an authoritarian parent apart from how we viewed things as a child. I’ve realized – with distance from my father and with remembering the circumstances that I went through in my childhood – that I had essentially overlaid a fantasy version of my dad over the reality of the person he is. It took my brother’s suicide (and my father’s absolute lack of concern and atrocious, self-oriented behavior around his funeral) to puncture that layering so I could see things clearly.
This is essential for growth, I think, even though it brings with it grief over the parenting that I never had, feelings of abandonment and a lot of feelings of low self-esteem, because I realize that I matter very little to him if he can’t control me. There are some aspects of this wound that can never be healed. I think this pain and the constant striving to understand it has pushed me towards becoming a writer … and always influence the stories that I tell.
If you’ve had the experience of being harmed by a family authoritarian—a parent, sibling, grandparent, aunt or uncle, partner, adult child, etc.—or by someone else close to you—a cleric, teacher, boss, co-worker, etc.—I invite you take the Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire, available here. I also invite you to tell your story, as it is long past time that we got this epidemic of wounding exposed—and ended. Come back each Thursday to read more about authoritarians in the family and please think about taking the Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire and about telling your story.
This post was previously published on Psychology Today and is republished here with permission from the author.
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want to join our calls on a regular basis, please join us as a Premium Member, today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS.
Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: iStock