Don't tell me I'm imagining it!

Elayne Raskin Savage

May 06, 1993|By Elayne Raskin Savage

THE young black man on TV screamed in rage, "Are you trying to tell me I didn't see what I saw or hear what I heard?" His words were hurled at Los Angeles police officer Stacy Koons, after the first trial acquitting Koons and three other L.A. policemen of using excessive force in the infamous beating of Rodney King.

This man's words offer a key to understanding why rioting occurred after the first trial but calm prevailed after the second.

The first verdict discounted our perceptions regarding the beatings. The second jury looked at reality and validated it.

By acquitting the four policemen, the Simi Valley jury was, in effect, saying we really didn't see the beatings. It didn't happen; we were imagining it.

I began to realize the powerful effect of this invalidation last year when several of my private psychotherapy clients expressed shock and outrage at the acquittals. They reacted with the same intensity as the young black man on the TV talk show.

I began to explore what experiences these economically comfortable clients shared with the rioters in South Central.

What I concluded was that the jury's "you're-imagining-it" message felt like a slap in the face to my clients -- reawakening old feelings of injustice and betrayal.

The media pointed out how poverty, racism and lack of opportunity contributed to the South Central rioting. But this didn't tell the whole story. Abusive messages from childhood, rekindled by the jury's verdict, may have fueled the rage.

Similar rage was evident following the opening of the movie "Boys 'N' the Hood," which sparked disturbances in Los Angeles. Some speculated that the participants were identifying with the social and political conditions depicted on the screen. But there was another explanation: angry reaction to the movie's graphic family scenes of psychological and physical abuse. As people watched the frustration of their lives in living color, rage took over and rioting occurred.

What if similar feelings from childhood indignities were rekindled by the verdict of the Simi Valley jury? For my psychotherapy clients, the "not guilty" verdict felt like another betrayal by those in authority. A slap in the face. One more message of invalidation.

Many children receive repeated messages of rejection and invalidation as they grow up. Sometimes these messages are intentional; often they are not. Rejection messages are embedded in all aspects of abuse -- psychological, physical or sexual. These messages become part of the child's core belief system and can have harmful long-term effects. A distressing event in the present can trigger an overwhelming response if it reminds us of a painful experience from the past.

Parents frequently discount children's feelings, telling them they are "imagining" something, "It didn't happen," "It wasn't all that bad." This can occur in benign situations when a parent responds to a child's feeling upset by saying, "Don't be silly" or to a child's bad dream by declaring, "You're really not afraid." Such messages are even more of a problem in secretive families.

Secrets are all too common in alcoholic or abusive families. Sometimes children become expendable to protect the family secret. If they try to tell someone, hoping for support, that person might respond, "You're crazy! It really didn't happen like that!" Someone might even blame the child: "It's your fault; you could have stopped it."

When children feel no one believes them, they get confused. Is their perception real, or are they imagining?

Many of my clients are still agonizing over whether their childhood abuse really happened. They tell themselves they must be imagining it -- because that's what someone once told them to believe. Abuse is a betrayal of trust. An abused child feels betrayed both by the abuser and by the parent who fails to provide protection. It's baffling and frustrating when we want to trust the people who are telling us to distrust our own perceptions. This confusion affects the way we view the world and the people in it.

Then we begin to lose the ability to trust. Someone may "beat us up" in some way and then say he or she didn't do it. We reel from the injustice. This is what happened after the acquittals in the first Los Angeles trial. The jury told us our perceptions didn't count. We felt ignored, diminished, invalidated. Some of us began to believe we didn't count, we didn't exist. Then we got angry, maybe even enraged.

Adults who feel helpless, disappointed or betrayed may find the abused child within them acting out in a childlike way. When children can't express pain or anger in words, they handle their anxiety in other ways. Some remain silent and withdrawn. Some act out their frustration and rage by calling attention to themselves. Some throw tantrums. Others trash their rooms. Some hurt smaller, weaker children or animals. Others light fires.

It was unsettling for many of us when the jury's verdict questioned our perception of reality. In some, rage ignited and exploded. New feelings of helplessness and betrayal piled on old injustices. The man on the talk show screamed out his rage; it was more than he could bear. Maybe it was more than residents of South Central could bear, too. The fires and riots may have been their way of saying, "You want real? We'll give you a good dose of reality!"

There's a lesson to be learned about "real" from these two trials. After the chaos of the first verdict, real people reached out to real people and validated perceptions of what happened. And calm prevailed.

Elayne Raskin Savage, a former Baltimorean, is a psychotherapist in Berkeley, Calif.

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