Child Abuse, Accepting Care, and A Little Life

Two nights ago I wrote a review of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, an epic book about four friends growing up together in New York City. One of the four, Jude St. Francis, suffered extreme sexual, physical, and emotional abuse throughout his childhood. As an adult, Jude works as an ambitious and renowned litigator. In addition to his handsomeness and his intellect, he forges several deep and tender friendships. However, Jude’s trauma continues to haunt him. He cuts himself in egregious ways to numb his psychological pain. He views himself as someone who only inspires disgust. He refuses to open up about his past. I write this post because Jude’s struggle reminded me a lot of the emotional abuse I suffered as a child and my personal battle with the scars it has left behind. I write this post to prove that hope exists for people like us, for people who experienced what no child should have to.

I slept with this book after I read it. I kid you not. You can read my review for more detail.

I slept with this book after I read it. I kid you not. You can check out my review for more detail.

A lot of the conflict in A Little Life stems from Jude’s inability to accept care from those around him. In addition to burning him and forcing him to eat his own vomit, the monks at the monastery he grew up in called him worthless, unlovable, and disgusting. Jude internalizes these labels and hates himself as a result. His struggle to believe in the love of his friends, even years after the abuse occurred, reminded me of my own difficulty when it comes to viewing myself as someone who deserves affection. As a child I promised myself that I would not turn out like my mom, so I grew up with a passion for empathy, compassion, and caring for others in addition to myself. And yet, as I begin to unravel the abuse I experienced in the past, I often wonder: am I really as awful as my mother always said I was? Will people hate me or think of me as a fraud if they knew about what my mom did? Like Jude, I work hard and have confidence in my potential as a psychologist, a researcher, and a mentor – still, I question my place in other people’s lives, or if I deserve that place at all, even when I have people who care about me.

At one point in the book, Jude engages in an abusive relationship with a man named Caleb, who denounces Jude and hurts him in ways both physical and emotional. Jude and Caleb’s awful romance reminded me of an unhealthful friendship I took part in earlier in my college career. This person often made me question his care, and in the end told me that I relied too much on other people, that the good deeds I do only act as a mask for the awful person I am. My abusive friendship mirrors that of Jude’s because we both sought people who confirmed how we view ourselves: as needy, burdensome, and grotesque. When you grow up hearing such awful things about yourself, reliving that kind of emotional maltreatment provides a masochistic safety net. It is all too easy to despise yourself; it takes immense strength to break free from those formative years and treat yourself with the kindness and compassion you give to others.

Jude has an on-and-off relationship with therapy. Throughout the book, we yearn for him to open up about his past, to confide in someone about his awful upbringing. The most affective moments of the book center on when Jude accepts the care of his friends; we as readers receive hope only during the rare scenes in which he believes in the love of those surrounding him. Jude experiences both overwhelming tragedy and unconditional affection in his life, the latter of which he must learn to welcome, despite the scars that mark his arms and his heart.

At a pivotal scene in the novel, Jude reflects that “all the most terrifying Ifs involve people… all the good ones do as well.” This statement resonates with me: how would my life have turned out without my abusive mother, my absent father, and my unavailable ex-friend? At the same time, how would I have fared without the care of my kind grandmother, my precocious cousin, my friends who have stuck with me, my intelligent therapist? The people in my life have hurt me and healed me, and now, as I have always done, I must work on healing myself, while accepting the concern of those around me.

I can write these messages with ease, these statements I would want all of my friends to internalize: “I deserve love.” “My mistakes do not define me.” “I am an inspiration to so many people.” “I am not my abuse.” “I am so cared for.” Now, I just have to believe them myself. It will be hard. It will be worth it.

As always, a selfie (feat. formal wear and red highlights).

As always, a selfie (feat. formal wear and red highlights).

Sorry for the almost two-month blogging hiatus! I have been managing a full course load, two jobs, multiple volunteering positions, etc. so my schedule has been tight. However, I appreciate everyone’s comments so so much, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Any tips on accepting other people’s affection – or believing yourself to be worthy of such affection – would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for sticking with me and my melodrama, as always.

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6 Comments

Filed under Personal

6 responses to “Child Abuse, Accepting Care, and A Little Life

  1. Has anyone told you lately that you’ve grown as a writer? In that regard, you’ve grown in your understanding of human nature, too.

    When I was in college, my roommate went through a period of learning to love herself. She had never felt comfortable in her own skin, had been bullied as a child, and experienced a traumatic (and, for a while, disfiguring) accident. She told me that the biggest thing she needed to learn to do was be honest with herself. She got into a very visible habit of doing at least one thing that made her happy and one thing that worried her every single day. She found that when she felt happier, she also felt more comfortable around others. She became more adventurous, more open-minded, and more willing to try new things. It’s been many years since college, but she now sees herself as the kind, generous, loving friend that we knew she was. It was a process of seeing herself as others saw her.

    Your post reminded me of that. I wonder if you’re in a similar situation. 🙂

  2. This book sounds really interesting, and I think it’s great how much you could personally relate to.

    Good to see you blogging again, Thomas. I hope you’re well! 🙂

  3. I’ve not been able to read the book, but this is an illuminating and honest post. I think the best things to do are a) choose your friends carefully, find kind people who are respectful, try to break the old friendship patterns, b) have a mantra to repeat (yours above the photo will do nicely) and c) occasionally do things that push you out of your comfort zone (I did a cross-country running training session the other weekend and LOVED it – so I’m trying to walk the walk myself, too). You are coming into all of these realisations nice and early in your life, so you have plenty of time to break those patterns. And it is possible to break them, I know it is. Take care of yourself (as well as others). You’re amazing.

  4. How did you do with the GRE? You always are so busy and still manage to keep sane (I will second Liz’s comment about you being amazing). I know I couldn’t do all that you do. Heck I usually can’t handle what I do and it’s way less. I’ve not read or heard of the above book, but I did have a comment about accepting help. I feel like most people have trouble accepting help, either because they don’t think they are worthy of it and/or because they don’t think they need it. I’ve always thought that I didn’t need it because there were others with greater problems than mine (friends who are bi-polar or clinically depressed), and it takes calling a hotline to see from another’s point of view that I do need help and deserve it. My problem is also taking the first step once I acknowledge the problem.

  5. It’s so great that you were able to relate to this book, but even better that you could see that, in the same way that Jude deserved the love and respect of his friends, you are also deserving of all the good things and good people in your life.

    You’re very mature and self-aware and I think you’ll be just fine, Thomas. Keep on having faith in yourself, in your kindness, and in the kindness of others. Those who are truly your friends will always choose to show compassion towards you over anything else. I’m glad you still have those people in your life.

  6. Wow. Just, wow. I need to get my hands on this book. I do not think it is a coincidence that I am only reading this now. Everything you wrote here resonated with me — I could not find the words to articulate the things I have been processing lately, but, I found that here. And more. And answers. I understand this all too well and find a lot of comfort in being able to empathize with you. Thank you for your honesty because it has helped me be honest with myself too. I wrestle with similar questions more than I’d like to admit. Sometimes it discourages me because I feel like I am backsliding. Other times, it frustrates me that I can’t whole-heartedly believe such a simple truth like, “I deserve love.” I know I those supportive and life-giving friendships, but I feel bad that I “rob” them of who they are because of the internal limitations I place on myself. It’s so unfair to view others that truly love you in a way that makes them seem less than they are. It’s a process I am working on. I am further along the way then I was before, but there is still a long way to go.

    This may seem silly, but I smile at myself whenever I look at myself in the mirror. It isn’t the most effective self-love method that I have, but I feel that the more times I do it, the more I start to like the way I look. Pretty weird but whatever works, rights?

    Sending you much love. xo

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