It’s a classic case of denial: ignoring facts and revising history.
“My father doesn’t remember or just won’t acknowledge physical abuse happened when I was a kid,” says Dr. Greg Cason, on Bravo’s new series, LA Shrinks, explaining that he was suffering from nightmares and he needed to confront and resolve the underlying issues.
He welcomes his dad to his home. They manage a bear hug. Then the denial begins.
His dad compliments the way the house looks. There’s an awkward pause. Father and son sit at opposite ends of the couch.
Dr. Cason starts by saying it was a difficult upbringing. His father replies that parents “try to do the best we can.”
When Dr. Cason refers to physical abuse, which his dad calls “spanking,” he admits to the use of a hairbrush and a belt, relating what he remembers, insisting that his son is not correct in his interpretation of the past.
Covering Abuse With “I Love You”
The rest is painful to watch, as Dr. Cason recognizes that acknowledging the reality would cause his dad pain, which presumably he can’t face. He wants to understand his father’s childhood, and further discussion brings a cathartic moment when his father explains the extent to which he was left alone as young as six, that his own father hit him with a closed fist, and he seems not to recall whether it was the third or fourth step-mother at that time.
He was, himself, a little boy who was abused.
Dr. Cason’s father then says “just know I love you.”
But I think that’s much too easy, and solves nothing.
While the older man breaks down in tears and the two embrace, this moment of revelation doesn’t undo the years of denial or its pattern, as we see later in a therapy session.
Living With History, Rewriting History
We all live with our histories that may include happy times, challenging times, and some that no one should have to endure – especially a child who is essentially powerless. As we all know, abuse comes in a variety of forms – physical, sexual, emotional – and may influence our development, our judgment, and our decision-making to varying degrees.
When we’re fortunate enough to address these complex issues as adults, we may learn to live with history more readily. We may even learn to accept denial as necessary revision, so one or both parties may make peace with themselves.
While I understand that the mind recreates the past to protect us, denial brings this to a whole other level. Watching LA Shrinks, I found myself recalling attempts more than 25 years ago to get my mother to acknowledge her abusive and inappropriate behaviors, which took place throughout my childhood and adolescence.
Exploring Denial: How Denial Works
My mother’s denial was absolute. Nothing was ever her doing or her fault, and in scenes not unlike those between Dr. Cason and his father, she insisted she didn’t remember events as I did. But my attempts at openly discussing our past never achieved any breakthroughs. Nor did we involve a therapist, one of my suggestions that she refused to consider.
Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. Carl Alasko offers insight into how denial actually works:
Because humans experience a range of powerful and complex emotions, such as desire, greed, pride, revenge, need for status, shame, humiliation, etc. These emotions exert a strong influence over a person’s ability to interpret facts.
My mother was unable or unwilling to admit to any version of experience except her own. Her denial was a fortress behind which she felt inviolable, thereby preventing any process of coming to terms with reality, as well as moving the parent-child relationship forward.
Short-Term Denial, Long-Term Denial
Over the years, there were periods of bridge-building between my mother and myself. They were moderately successful as long as neither of us broached emotional territory or certain incidents. In other words, we both avoided confronting reality. Short-term denial allowed us to be polite; long-term denial assured that hurt and anger would fester.
Dr. Alasko goes on to explore the relationship between denial and blame as follows:
There is an immutable fact about denial: it does not work—long term. Reality always wins. And when it does, the next step in the process is blame, which shifts responsibility onto someone or something else. “I only did it because of you! If you hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have done this.”
When it comes to relationships, denial may grant the appearance of short-term benefits – a measure of calm in public, for example. Long-term, in my opinion, it accomplishes nothing.
Parents and Children: Legacies
During and after my divorce, the tenuous connections I had forged with my mother fell apart. Worse, they exploded – and the relationship was never put right. We were back where we had been 15 years earlier, with fresh wounds I doubt I’ll ever forget.
As for Dr. Cason and his father, the audience will continue to watch and observe. My mother is deceased; end of story in some respects, and never-ending in others.
Naturally, we live different versions of events. But denial doesn’t obliterate facts; it only keeps us seemingly safe behind delusions, pride, and other protective mechanisms that in the long-run solve little, and depending on circumstances, perpetuate a state in which we never fully heal.
Sometimes, these are the relationship lessons that teach us what not to do with our own children – hardly the best way to model behaviors, but lessons, nonetheless.