Since Routledge published my book Helping Survivors of Authoritarian Parents, Siblings and Partners, readers who grew up with brutal parents or who are still dealing with authoritarian brutality in the family, at the hands of parents, siblings, a husband or wife, or even their own adult children, have written to tell me their story.
Each story is different but each bears a remarkable family resemblance. In each instance, the victim is confused. On the one hand, it is easy to see the payoff for the authoritarian: He maintains control, he gets to be the boss, he gets his own way, and he satisfies some need to punish, shame, humiliate, and do harm. On the other hand, it is really hard to understand why someone would want to live despised and reviled by his own family. Can that feel good? Is that somehow its own kind of payoff?
Here is a characteristic story, provided by Jennifer:
“My father-in-law was an extreme authoritarian. Everyone in his family tried to live by his rules, because punishment was severe. Often there would be a volatile verbal assault, followed by days of silence and the cold shoulder. I was subject to this after I married into the family, and the longer I stayed married to his son, the more I was treated as a natural, real daughter, which you may guess was not a bargain.
“Once everyone finally learned the current rules so as to keep peace with him, he changed them to something else without notifying anyone. So, no one ever knew what we had done wrong when the volcano exploded and the silent treatment fell. My sister-in-law and my husband and numerous others in the extended family were exiled for periods of time, varying from a few days to a few years, and no one ever knew exactly what it was that touched him off.
“In fact, after a time, it seemed as if someone ALWAYS needed to be in the penalty box with my father-in-law. It was very hurtful in numerous ways, and the older my spouse became, the more prone he was to re-enact these behaviors with his loved ones and friends, especially after his father passed away and he no longer had a reminder of what it felt like to be on the receiving end.
“I clearly do not understand it. I cannot imagine the payoff. I cannot imagine that it’s more satisfying to be right than to be loved. It is a very hurtful legacy that this man has left behind.”
One consequence of the confusion that results from being parented by an authoritarian is that it can prove very hard to make decisions. The victim, weakened by the parent, injured by the parent, and confused by the ongoing situation, characteristically remains confused for the longest time, into adulthood and even for a lifetime. Here is a typical story, from Rhonda:
“My father was an authoritarian leader. It was his way or the highway. He was an ordained minister, he had zero tolerance for differences of opinion, and he refused to be questioned. He withheld affection and severely punished us for any infractions of the rules.
“My dad could NOT be questioned on anything. I would classify him as oppositional defiant as NO was his first response, even before he heard the question. He may have had a form of bi-polar, or maybe ADHD, and suffered a great deal from depression, which he medicated with religion.
“Early on, I was desperately and deathly afraid of even officers of the law, though I was a HUGE rule follower. I had a fear of rejection, fear of ‘getting it wrong,’ fear of becoming a bad parent, fear of losing my ‘salvation,’ fear of someone trying to control me, and especially a fear of making my own decisions.
“What finally helped was, believe it or not, the deconstruction of my fundamentalist faith. At some point, I came to a very real understanding of a compassionate, loving, wise Father God-image, who had my best interests at heart. That really created a paradigm shift and dismantled fear. But I was still stuck having a terrible time making decisions.
“I really had hoped I could have an equal partner in my marriage. But I married an extremely passive man, who can’t make decisions and that left me very anxious. I have zero desire to be in charge or to recreate an authoritarian model of parenting. As a result, I’ve waited around a lot for a consensus of opinion on every issue. I am still dealing with an ongoing battle to be comfortable with decision-making and it is very difficult not to live a completely paralyzed life.”
There are no genuine statistics, no real psychological, psychosocial, or sociological studies, and no real comprehension of how widespread family authoritarianism may be. But the experts in the field feel that their “best guess” estimate is that as many as 25 percent of the general population is authoritarian by nature or by habit. That makes for a lot of authoritarians—and a lot of victims.
Victims often struggle for a lifetime with the consequences of being wounded by an authoritarian father or mother. As one victim, Marsha, put it:
“I hate my father. He was ridiculously mean to us, for no particular reason, except maybe because he could be. He liked being a ‘big man’ and he liked keeping all of us small and scared. My days are filled with revenge fantasies and my nights are filled with nightmares. He completely stole my life from me. He had no right to do that but he apparently needed no right, since society bent over backward to make him right and our family wrong. I hate him and though he died recently, I continue to hate him. I will hate him forever.”
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.
Follow all of Eric Maisel’s posts here: authory.com/EricMaisel
This post was previously published on Psychology Today and is republished here with permission from the author.
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