Are you willing to lose yourself just because someone is lost to themselves?

people, emotions, stress and health care concept - unhappy african american young woman touching her head and suffering from headache

Are you willing to lose yourself just because someone is lost to themselves?

If you are in a relationship with someone where you are subjected to manipulation and abuse, whether emotional, physical, financial, sexual, or otherwise, what do you need to put yourself first? Does it matter why they are abusing you, especially if you already know that their habits and patterns will lead you to pain again (and again)? Whether you choose to walk away from such people and relationships is not a simple yes or no proposition. Sometimes, our tormentors are people we love and people we choose not to walk away from. Just because you choose not to abandon someone, it doesn’t mean that you have to abandon yourself. You can erect boundaries to decide what you will give or tolerate……………and you’ll have to decide what you’re going to do when those boundaries are violated (especially when the past has already taught you that they will violate your boundaries). 


Recently, I read (okay, listened to) The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips. The story was hard to listen to because the children in the story were living in desperate poverty in a rural Georgia town and were being emotionally and physically abused by their mother. The children could not  turn to their fathers for help because their mother had so many customers. I can’t say that I am enjoying the book, but I am struck by the author’s well-crafted story and the emotional distress that I experience with each page. I will finish this book because I need to know each character’s fate.

Perhaps the ability to draw out powerful feelings and imagery is the mark of a great writer, and I let  Phillips take me on a journey to a somewhat familiar place. Given that my southern roots hail from Georgia, I am familiar with the complicated stories of the men and women in those communities. From tales of spouses (both men and women) who cheated to men who beat their wives to mothers who were hard on their children, I knew the story, down to the Mason jar from which they drank their moonshine. I also know and share the contradictions ever present in southern tales: the beauty and suffocation of family, the strength and fear of friendship (blood is thicker than water), the joy and hypocrisy of church communities, and the incompatibility of Coke bottle shapes and Sunday dinner. 

All of what I am familiar with, and then some, showed up on the pages of The Darkest Child. In particular, the mother was a complicated character. If the setting was in the current century versus the 1940s/1950s, I suspect the story would involve social workers who would be talking about her ACE score; however, the story was written during a time when abuse that took place in the home was considered a private matter, whether it was delivered by the hands or words of the mother or father. Thus, the kids were abused in plain sight. Not only is the mother in this story physically abusive and clearly mentally ill, she subjected her children to manipulation and financial exploitation. Interestingly and perhaps unsurprisingly, the mother hated her own mother. Each time their relationship came up in the story, I wondered, “What happened?” By the point in the story where the mother’s mother dies, the author has revealed that the mother was conceived in rape, but leaves readers to fill in the rest of the gaps of this broken relationship with their own fears. 

Even as I held a torch of empathy and pity for the mom (because nobody wants to be what and how she was), I rooted for the children from chapter one. I cheered for the children’s defiance as they grew up and found ways to leave home or find respites from their mother. I wanted the parts of them that could not fully accept the abuse to keep rejecting it. I couldn’t bear the idea that they might internalize it in a way that would make it easy for them to eventually bow to it or perpetuate it. As the children gave themselves to various forms of mental and literal escapism, the intensity of their mother’s attacks increased. With each child’s escape, the mother saw her financial desperation worsening and increased her controlling and fear-inducing behavior. 

On the other hand, the children waxed and waned between hatred and loyalty to their mother, and to some extent, one another. They struggled with hating her, wanting her to be okay, and knowing that they were losing parts of themselves, including their will to escape, with each additional moment that they endured the behavior and the never-ending chaos of their home. 

The poignancy of the book is the struggle of the choice: are you willing to lose yourself just because someone is lost to themselves?

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