Cheaper by the Proxy: Why the Majority of Abuse Victims Don’t Escape

“A dancing puppet doll made of wood
I bet he’d run away one day if he could choose to leave or stay
He’s got a string attached to every bone
She’s got him round her little finger so she’ll never feel alone…” –Aurora, Puppet

I was originally going to write today about nutritional abuse and the development of my eating disorder, and the recovery foods and diet that have helped me. But for the past hour, I’ve been glued to a story with even more complexities than my own, but seems familiar in so many ways. And this is going to be very difficult to talk about, because food, sustenance, survival, health, medical care, and bodily autonomy are so universally interconnected to our identities and to politics that it’s an emotional maze to get an essay outline to lay flat.

The story I’ve been reading isn’t particularly new, and there was a documentary about it released last summer called “Mommy Dead and Dearest.” In 2015, DeeDee Blanchard was murdered because her daughter had asked someone to kill her. Gypsy Rose had been forced to feign multiple illnesses, under threat of a violently abusive and controlling mother. Experts differ on whether Munchausen by Proxy is a real mental illness, and many victims have little to prove their claims. But this case is so extreme that there is little room for doubt: DeeDee had been lying to everyone, using her daughter’s “illness” to get attention and praise for her seemingly loving self-sacrificing duties as a mother of a disabled child.

The abuse is shocking. Gypsy was confined to a wheelchair shortly after her parents split. She was removed from school, “homeschooled to take care of her.” Her birth certificate was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, so her mother had the opportunity to lie about her age, making people think she was younger than she really was. Her mother shaved her head to convince people she had cancer. Her teeth rotted out, and it’s unclear how exactly that happened, but it was an excuse to give her an unnecessary feeding tube. She then used this tube to torture her daughter, depriving her of normal food, and refusing to feed her for days at a time when she was angry. She was beaten and threatened, and when she had tried to escape, her mother smashed all her electronics with a hammer and threatened to the same to her fingers if she tried to leave again. Their house was constantly a hoarder-level mess, except for her carefully labeled walk-in pantry of medicines. Today, Gypsy is serving a ten-year sentence for the second-degree murder of her mother, but she is thriving and healthy, there is color in her face, and her once-bald head has grown long dark locks. Prison has been better for her than her own mother ever was.

This story is shocking because it has so many different types of abuse involved. But it does not surprise me. This mother was able to torture her child for more than twenty years because our society overlooks every red flag. These cases are not unheard of. This January, the Turpin family was discovered hiding 13 children, ages 2 to 29, in their home, also using violence, starvation, torture, and chains as means of control. In May, the Allen-Rogers family was discovered torturing their ten children. And in a heartbreaking case that reveals LGBTAIQ+ people are not immune, a homeschool mother drove her wife and their adopted children off of a cliff, killing them all, in March.

Abuse comes in as many different types as there are people who are hurting and are looking for a proxy to take it out on, instead of dealing with their own pain. It happens in many kinds of relationships, not just parents and children. Munchausen by Proxy is hard to identify, because the caregiver (parent or guardian, in most cases it is the mother), comes across as doting, loving, charming, tender, and likable. They make people believe in what a wonderful person they are, for taking care of their sick child, or making unnecessary sacrifices for them, like quitting their jobs to spend more time with them.

Illness and disability is easy to exploit because medical professionals genuinely care, and will listen to the mother, especially if the mother lies and says her child can’t talk, like DeeDee did. It is also easy to hide abuse in plain sight – taking both support and sympathy for something others cannot question without looking like a heartless person who can’t see clearly how very very sick their poor child is.

Children will look right into a camera and smile brightly when they are in a terrifyingly violent or controlling situation. Gypsy is 26 years old – my age. She asked someone to murder her mother in 2015, just a little after I was ostracized from my own family. I never considered murdering my parents, but I definitely felt the need to escape. Lurking beneath these similarities, there is more: my mother has many cupboards filled with meticulously organized medicines. The one in the kitchen is overflowing with countless vitamins, prescriptions, drugs, alcohol, ointments, band-aids, and many bottles of liquid homeopathic remedies, essential oils, and sugar pills.

In the case of my parents, my father is the narcissist, but my mother uses illness to keep control. I’ve been informed that they are still acting as if I am nothing more than a wayward child who wanted to live at home longer, even though they generously provided me with a place to live until the age of 21. Nobody needs the small details that they drained our bank accounts and refused to sign paperwork to help us get an apartment, then started yelling at us about not moving out already. We had to seek shelter from friends at a moment’s notice, with no way to pay them, nor did we have rides to our part-time jobs and my college classes. It had never occurred to me to leave, I was too busy trying to work four jobs including childcare and keeping laundry and dishes done and somehow have time for my homework that nobody had ever taught me how to do. Besides, I had never had sex, and was still waiting for my prince charming to come along, who would want to marry me. 

My parents have always wanted to be in front of the camera, so they’ve made their own little brand around it. Their shared need for attention is what keeps my dad blogging, my mom mothering, and both of them united on breeding by the dozen. My siblings are not vaccinated, we’ve been prayed over to heal injuries and illnesses, and homeopathic remedies are praised right next to teachings about being a submissive wife. Have as many babies as possible, make them sick, and keep them dependent. That was how my parents thought the concept of love should be expressed, and it’s why so many of my adult siblings still haven’t left. It hasn’t occurred to them to leave.

Demonizing me, and seeing how much my life sucks without the family, makes the threat of losing their family enough to keep control. That’s just how scapegoating works, it’s nothing new. But for people who have not known what it means to be trapped well into adulthood, being worn down and unable to say, “Can we stop with the having so many babies thing?” 

As if I would say it. Ha! The thought would never even form itself in my mind – I firmly believed that having as many children as possible, because I didn’t know how birth control worked, was God’s way, and I would have to endure the pain of childbirth over a dozen times, as my mother had. I would smile, chuckle, and say to my friends, “I’m not afraid of childbirth!” But the truth was that I was well acquainted with enduring pain quietly, so a life of raising a brood of my own was something I tried not to think about. Besides, I had never met my future husband, and it was sinful to think about sex or reproduction, so I did my best to distract myself from sinful thoughts by keeping myself busy. The devil makes work for idle hands, and I had practically memorized the rulebook for womanhood, Proverbs 31. Many of the people I know actually got married with these expectations. I am so very lucky that I escaped before I could follow through with trusting my parents to choose a spouse for me, and pressure me into having children, on my own to figure out how to communicate sexually with a new person.

This is the norm! We have also come a long way since just a century or two ago, arranged marriages were quite common. But we know about consent now. It should come as no surprise that it’s an all-or-nothing thing in the public eye: most victims don’t escape. We’ll never hear about the ones who didn’t make it, or know how many of the people close to us are keeping their child sick at home, or controlling those bright smiles with some horrible form of control behind the scenes. In the Christian world, the Duggars are highly respected because they have never had a child rebel. To lose a child to the ways of the world is an incredible shame for parents, and my own parents have often described it to me as the worst pain ever, when it was my sisters in the cold seat instead of me. But the fact that the Duggars have not lost any children – Josh is still considered a Christian, so he’s forgiven for whatever happened between their kids when they were younger.

But not a single Duggar has decried Christianity, ATI, or even bothered to cut their hair. They are trapped in front of cameras, still being milked for entertainment. To my parents, that’s a point for them. To me, it’s a point against – those parental puppet-strings must be lodged pretty deep into those kids to ensure that not a single one questions the faith.

That is why victims don’t escape – adults and children alike can be victimized, you would never know who is being threatened, beaten, screamed at, sickened, or raped in their own homes. It’s nearly impossible to think your own thoughts when you are constantly on edge, constantly being questioned, constantly being watched. The exhaustion of constantly being worn down with physical abuse, combined often with a distribution of power that resembles master and servant. The victim serves the abuser, does a majority of the work, and has no right to complain about it, or they’ll suffer dire consequences. The parent-child relationship is just one of perhaps billions of types of relationships.

I refuse to have a proxy for processing the trauma of my own childhood. That is why I am childless right now. I am choosing not to have children because I know I am not mentally stable enough to model emotionally intelligent behavior. I want to learn how to relate to my own childhood, seeking professional help as I go, so I know I will not lash out at my children, letting them endure the brunt of my unprocessed anger, grief, and need to inflict pain on the nearest person in my vicinity. I don’t want to have to apologize to my child for not being able to control myself, though I know it would be ridiculous to expect perfection from myself. And when I am ready to have a little human, maybe I’ll adopt. I don’t know. But I’m not trying to outpopulate any demographic, like conservatives do.

I don’t really know how to end this post, except to maybe link to my favorite TED talk about it.

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