By Lily DeVilliers
earlier published at Themestream.com

Every now and then in your life, you meet with a statement or opinion from somebody else which runs counter to every belief that you've ever held. But it lies around in your mind anyway, and if you ever want or need to do processing that goes beyond your existing system of thought, there it is providing a bridge for your mind to walk over into different turf. The statement opens a door in your mind, and even though you don't choose or want to go through it at the time, sometimes there are later moments when an open door makes an important difference.

I was lucky enough when I left my son's dad to meet a counsellor who broke a lot of that ground and opened a lot of those doors for me. She was this marvellous, mild old Dutch grandmother, and she always seemed to be knitting when I went to see her. She'd just seen too much life, and thought things through too clearly, to be the least bit bothered by the unconventionality of some of her own conclusions. And I remember two things she said, both of them entirely matter of fact, and neither of them entirely assimilable to me at the time.

It was about the myth and bugabear of fatherhood. I wish we talked more sensibly about this aspect of abuse, because I had a lot of trouble when I left my son's dad, first with him using my son as the only button he had left to push in me, and second with the deeply ambivalent attitude society has about abusive men and their 'rights' to fatherhood, not to mention my own son's 'right' to a relationship with his father.

My counselor said two marvelous things. She said, on the subject of my ex-partner's purported 'love' for our son, and his stated intention of being a great dad to him: 'It may be unconventional, but I believe that when a man has four children and he's not supporting any of them, he should be castrated'. And she said, about the familiar yank of be-nice-to-me-or-I'll-make-sure-the-child-suffers (which I'll get to in a moment): 'Personally, I think a lot of children would be better off if we encouraged and allowed them to view their fathers as more like uncle figures.'

That second statement let me off an enormous hook, and I believe it's saved my son's life and the lives of people he'll meet in his adult life. In the first six or eight months after I left my son's dad, he went through a very common abusive pattern, and arrived at a very common abusive tactic. It works like this.

When you live with an abuser, and an abuser has the ability to affect your life and your well-being simply as a side-effect of the fact that you DO share a life, it's like he has this huge switchboard of buttons available to him that he can push. And when you leave him, it's like you gather all those wires together in one hand and yank them out of the wall. Most abusers don't register this, because they're not quite normal in their thinking: cause and effect are a little blurred in their minds, and to them, people really are nothing but collections of springs and wires connected to the central control panel inside their heads.

You don't realize how truly abnormal they are until you leave them, and you realize that they're incapable of adjusting their button-pushing to adapt to the new circumstances. From a distance of half a city, I watched with amazement as my own abuser went through all the motions of controlling a human robot just like he'd been doing for almost three years -- even though he realized on an intellectual level that I wasn't in a position where I had to care anymore.

It was one of the strangest collections of human behaviour I've ever seen, and it convinced me irrevocably that the man was insane. Maybe not the kind of insane that anyone could ever lock up, but disconnected from reality, living inside his head, so far round the bend he's on the return journey -- absolutely. He was an unpleasant feature of our lives for about two years after we left, and the last I heard of him he was still dealing with all of life by pointing his remote-control device at the world and punching buttons. If he's still alive at this time, I doubt very much that he's changed his M. O. one bit. I don't think he's able to, quite honestly. He looks to me like someone who's not only hardwired that way, but has had the panel over the wiring welded shut forever. And with the dull intelligence of insanity, my abuser finally figured out that our son was the only button left with any life in it.

When I left him, it was amazing to me how many people applauded me for leaving him and dropping him off the edge of my personal world, but had the screaming hab-dabs at the idea that I wasn't going to go out of my way to foster a "relationship" between him and my son.

I can't pretend there was ever any logic in the discussions that arose around this issue. I could never understand how it made sense. The man's bad for me, I'd explain. He's dangerous and insane and unhealthy, and you think it's great that I'm never going to see him again -- so what makes you think he'd be "good for" a two-year-old? I heard some pretty weird answers to that.

A child needs a father.

Even more than a father, a child needs to not be abused, or witness abuse, or be given the message that abuse is okay, inevitable, or somehow redeemed by the position the abuser holds in the victim's life. I'd even say that a child needs to be able to choose ALL their relationships based on who's good for them or not -- including fathers. There's really no difference between saying 'A child needs a father' and saying "A woman needs a partner". Fathers and partners are nice to have -- but they're less important than some other things.

When you value parenthood above personal safety and integrity on a child's behalf, you send a very mixed message. The message says: "We don't choose who we love based on who makes us feel safe, confident, open, happy. We don't choose the most trustworthy people to be closest to us. We're just stuck with whoever happens to be born in a certain relationship to us." Great message for adult life. You might as well just stamp the poor kid with a sticker that says "Property of [father's name]" and box them up right away.

Children need someone to look up to.

Sure, and because it's a need, all the more reason to make sure the people available for them to look up to are worthy of it. Otherwise you condemn them to admiring and emulating the mediocre, the shoddy, the commonplace.

You'll destroy the child's faith in his dad.

My take on that is pretty simple. Abusers are the people who destroy their kids' faith in them, just like abusers are the people who destroy their marriages and relationships. All that's left for a child to wonder is whether the other parent can be trusted or not. Personally, I found that the fastest way to make a child feel really alone and untrusting is to not give them a safe place to express and validate their own impressions. That gives them TWO parents who seem to think abuse is okay and normal, not just one.

You're imposing personal baggage on the poor kid.

Strange statement. There's a big difference between "baggage" and "knowledge". It's not 'baggage' that makes us teach our kids look both ways before crossing the street, or keep them from drinking the Drano under the sink. If I withdraw my child from a class run by a known pedophile, am I "imposing personal baggage on him" or am I using my experience and judgement to protect him from unsafe people? Personally, I decided not to stand by while the poor kid went through the same hoops I'd been through, and learned the same lesson the same hard way I did. My feeling was that if I have knowledge that's relevant to his safety and well-being, and I consciously don't act on it, then that's a real betrayal. It seems to me like it sends the message to my son that he's a second-class citizen: what I won't put up with myself, I'm quite happy to let him suffer.

He's an abusive PARTNER, not an abusive PARENT.

I don't think this one is accurate or relevant. A person who is abusive is, by definition, unfit to raise or be around children regardless of whether or not the child is ever a specific target. As parents, what we do counts at least as much as what we say. We don't subject our children to abusers when they're strangers, and we don't subject ourselves to anyone who we know to be abusive "because you're not the victim personally". The rules shouldn't be different for children, or simply because the abuser's a parent.

You're using your son in your personal power-struggle with his dad.

Actually, no. There certainly was a power-struggle going on, but just like the abuse, none of it started with me. All I did was refuse to give in to the blackmail and eventually move to prevent my ex-partner from using my son as a tool for blackmail. Not something I did only to preserve myself, but also because kids are not pawns and should be made safe from people who use them that way. I personally believe that any parent who uses children as an extended control tool is abusive of those children by definition and forfeits all rights to contact with them on the spot.

What about his father's rights?

You earn the right to be a parent, and not with a quickie in the back seat without a condom. Children don't come stamped with their parents' mark of ownership, and pretending that they do is reducing them to the level of any other possession. It makes them into objects. My son has a greater right not to be an object than any man could claim through mere genetic connection. Parenthood isn't a right, it's a privilege. It's the children who have rights. And it's the parents who have never been abusive who are in the best position to enforce and protect those rights on the child's behalf.

You'll poison him against humanity.

Well, I guess if that were going to happen, eight years would be long enough for some signs of it to have shown up. I think kids actually learn greater faith in humanity from knowing a few people who actually do put principles into practice. They learn less of it from living around adults who turn wishy-washy and won't stand up in their children's defence.

Fatherless children are permanently damaged and scarred.

I wonder. Does being fatherless scar them, or does society's treatment of them and their mothers do the damage? Or do our stats on "damage" REALLY come from all the adults who were forced into proximity with dangerous, negiligent, unhealthy people in the name of "keeping in touch with their dads" when they were kids? I never could see how a poisonous father was better than no father at all.

It's been eight years and counting -- six since I actually filed a motion to end all contact until he shaped up as a parent. I never forget how lucky we both are that he just disappeared instead of trying to fight me on it, because the two years before he dropped out of our lives were the real hell for my son -- not the six years afterwards.

I'm eternally grateful to my old Dutch counsellor, who provided me with the two bridges that made it possible for me to move my thinking beyond the fatherhood myth. So, for what the words were worth in our lives, I leave them here for others as well.