by Christina Enevoldsen
In the dark children’s tale “Hansel and Gretal”, a young brother and sister are abandoned in the woods by their father at the insistence of their step-mother. She convinces her husband that the whole family will perish unless they reduce the number of bellies to feed. Lost and starving, the children find their way through the forest to an isolated cottage made of candy and gingerbread. While the pair greedily feast on the house, an old woman opens the door and promises them warm meals and soft beds if they’ll come inside.
The children are happy to be welcomed, but are unaware that the old woman is really a witch who lures children inside to eat them. Hansel is locked in a cage, while Gretal is made a slave. In the end, the children become aware of the hag’s scheme and push her in the flaming oven intended for them.
Many survivors of neglect and abuse live a version of this story. We’re starving for love, acceptance, a sense of belonging, and relief from our pain. We encounter a seemingly kind-hearted soul who claims to want to help and support us. Desperate to lean on and trust someone, yet without the discernment to see the truth, we often end up in another dangerous situation. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Or oven.
My version of this started in church. As a victim of childhood sexual abuse by my father and neglect by my mother, I never felt like a part of my family of origin. I escaped my parents by jumping into marriage when I was seventeen. My husband was an abuser, too. Going to church was a way for me to fit in somewhere. I landed in the large women’s ministry and started volunteering right away. Almost immediately, an older woman, the group’s leader, took me under her wing to mentor me. I was flattered by her attention and belief in my potential. I loved to spend time with her, soaking up everything she taught me. It wasn’t long before she made me her assistant and brought me into her ‘inner circle’. It was a privilege that I was ecstatic about. I thought, “Finally, I’m worthy of love.”
The position required long hours and I spent more and more time away from my young children. This woman monitored my personal life. She had a subtle but unmistakable way of telling me when she didn’t approve. She pointed out other people’s flaws as a way to ‘teach’ me what to avoid. I knew from the way she spoke of them that I did not want to earn her disapproval. She called those people, “wolves” or “not faith”. If ever I raised an objection, she had a simple way to rebuff me. She’d “pray about it” and return with God’s approval on her own plan. That left me feeling unheard, but I couldn’t argue with what God supposedly said.
I never saw how much of myself I gave away and how much that woman used me to make herself look good. She manipulated me to get what she wanted and justified whatever she did by citing ‘the greater good’.
She exploited my hunger for a mother’s love and dangled her approval like a carrot. I gave up so much for nothing. In the end, when she didn’t need me anymore and I stood up for what I believed in instead of parroting her beliefs, she dropped me like a hot potato. That woman was my mother.
Abusers like that seem to be on the prowl for lost survivors. They come in various forms such as parents, therapists, support group leaders, teachers, mentors, or pastors. The seemingly benevolent helper plays on our insecurities and fears and enslaves us to the very thing we are struggling to be free of. “Benevolent” abusers have common methods for gaining power over vulnerable survivors:
Eat my Gingerbread House
- Showers victims with attention, validation, affection, and acceptance
- Is charming and overly sweet
- Pretends to be all-giving and self sacrificial
Come into my Cottage
- Offers protection from real or perceived danger ‘out there.’
- Has an “Us vs. Them” mentality; ‘We’ are good and ‘They’ are bad
- Loves to create a crisis to be able to come in as the savoir or authority.
- Has an “I know what’s best for you” attitude, “I’m the expert”
- Undermines the victim’s confidence and ability to protect or care for themselves
- Creates an atmosphere of status–to belong is to be part of the elite
- Nurtures dependence by finding fault with anyone who would raise questions
Locked into my Cage
- Knows what’s best and because he/she cares, victims are obligated to listen
- Coaxes victims into relinquishing their power for the “greater good”
- Is all-consuming and victims lose their individuality
- Expects excessive service to keep victims too busy, exhausted and invested to question anything
- Discounts the victim’s needs and desires; it’s no longer what the abuser can do for you, it’s what you can do for your abuser
- Withholds approval and sets the bar just out of reach
- Creates a hierarchy so victims keep working for a higher level
- Expects cheerful obedience
- Condemns desire for praise, appreciation or reciprocation since “it’s an honor to serve”
- Expects blind submission; victims are not permitted to think, feel, or choose for themselves
- Increases his/her expectations and constantly changes them to keep the victim off-balance
- Doesn’t provide a structure for airing of conflict, disagreement or questioning
- Uses top down communication and doesn’t hear the perceptions and needs of others
- Focuses on ‘don’ts’
- Uses labels to discount anyone who opposes him/her so they are dehumanized and easier to dismiss
- Doesn’t permit personal growth; victims must play assigned role
Throw Away the Key
- Expects a lifetime commitment and those who leave the control of the abuser are criticized and ostracized
All my life, I jumped from one abusive relationship to the next, each time believing that I’d finally found someone good, someone I could trust. I was running too fast from previous trauma to look carefully where I was leaping. Every abusive situation left me less confident of my own ability to care for myself. My need to take responsibility for my own life increased, but my desire to do so decreased. It seemed easier to turn my life over to an ‘expert’ rather than face almost certain failure by working out my own way.
I never liked the story of Hansel and Gretal, yet its moral has value that I didn’t understand for a long time. When the children realized they couldn’t depend on anyone else, they had to learn to depend on themselves. And they succeeded. They became their own unlikely hero. So have I.
I’m Christina Enevoldsen and I’m the cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse and the author of The Rescued Soul: The Writing Journey for the Healing of Incest and Family Betrayal. I’m a Strategic Interventionist and Certified Professional Life Coach with a specialty Life Story Certification. As a survivor of incest, sex trafficking and a 21-year long abusive marriage (now remarried to an emotionally healthy, loving and supportive man), I bring personal experience, empathy, and insight as well as professional training to help childhood sexual abuse survivors thrive.
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