Re: policy & legitimacy (child abuse)

Michael Cahill (MCBlueline@AOL.COM)
Thu, 9 May 1996 17:33:56 -0400

Many thanks to Patsy Evans and John McCreery for their replies to my post on
child abuse and child protection in America. Patsy supports the notion that
anthropology has a strong role to play in policy formation. John likewise
notes that since a major social problem like child abuse "is a political
issue in which community values are at stake," a broader search -- an
"anthropological" search, perhaps -- for solutions makes sense. I am in
strong agreement here. In fact, I will come right out and make a plea that
more anthropologists get involved in policy research *and formation,* whether
here in the US or abroad. I say this shamelessly: policy *needs*
anthropology. (But, of course, I won't go so far as to say, "your country
needs you." That would surely be boosterism of the lowest stripe.)

After all, it's not as if the policy field is already crawling with
anthropologists. In my experience, dealing with child welfare policy makers
and policy implementers at various levels of state and county government, I
have encountered *not one* professional anthropologist who was in a position
to make a real difference.

Obviously, simply being an anthropologist is no guarantee of success. But, in
my view, holism and a cross-cultural perspective are what is needed in
policy now, and these two qualities -- while "available" in other disciplines
-- are more likely to be found in anthropologists. Moreover, anthropologists
should never fear that research in policy contexts will somehow pale in
comparison to fieldwork in other cultures. Try studying American prisons. I
guarantee that you'll have plenty of culture shock. Try using ethnographic
methods on prison bureaucracies and you'll have culture-shock-after-shock
(culture shock squared). You couldn't hope to find a more exotic locale than
a tough, inner-city neighborhood in a major city. They come complete with
lot's of odd customs and even foreign languages -- culture shock cubed!
(Sorry to be venting here, but this is the way I feel sometimes.)

Now, having hyped "the anthropological way," let now show why lots of the
stuff that this anthropologist had to say in his last post is bound to be

It probably took John McCreery all of a minute and a half to spot the central
weakness in my list of (prospective) recommendations:

"The definitional issue, 2), is at the heart of that process. I'm inclined
to agree...about the importance of "the mental and emotional destruction of
the child," while remaining very unclear about how to either identify or
judge the extent of the problem. Here, in particular, is where a little
anthropological knowledge disrupts easy stereotypes, but is still
insufficient as a guide to replacing them."

There is no denying this fundamental problem. Is there any hope of
developing clearer and better means of identifying and measuring emotional
impairment? I would come at the issue in two ways: clinically (from the
inside out) and symbolic interactionally (from the outside in) [sorry about
the neologism]. For example, my own research suggests that from an
interactional standpoint, parents (and significant others) destroy children
emotionally by continually misrepresenting and distorting their worlds in
identifiable ways. Scapegoating, or blaming everything on the child, is one
way that I've already mentioned. Children who fail to develop defenses
against scapegoating, and who end up incorporating the image of themselves as
defective projected by the parent, are likely to develop what's called
"customarily low self-esteem." Two difficulties here. One, a child can
acquire low self-esteem in many ways, not just at the hands of parents. So,
caution is in order. Two, how do we know that a given level of blame
actually constitutes scapegoating. Older children, for example, can do some
very nasty things -- viz. the kids depicted in Dwight Read's _LA Times_
stories -- and may deserve the blame they garner. But, generally, the
younger the child, the less likely it is that heavy blaming is either
accurate or appropriate. It's more likely that the child is being attacked
or used to solve a problem that really exists somewhere else, e.g, within the
family or the parent's wider social/work world. (Scapegoating can be an
especially virulent from of displacement -- the old notion that, e.g., I'm a
victim of the "structural violence" found in my wider social world, so I
bottle up my anger and bring it home where I can "safely" spill it all over
my family.) Re: Identification. Spotting of most of these things would have
to be done inter-subjectively with reference to patterns, duration, severity,
divergence from local norms, and impact on the child. Again, the idea here
is not to capture garden variety family squabbles as child abuse, but rather
to identify and treat truly sick families and children.

Another way to distort childen's worlds is through role reversals or by
"casting" them in bizarre roles and ways ("bizarre" with respect to the
culture and social organization of the group). In symbolic interactionism,
this is called "altercasting." Altercasting is a common interactional
feature of sexual abuse. Here's an example from my own field research (seen
"after the fact"). Stepfather Tom seemed preoccupied with his stepdaughter,
Ellen. Early on in their relationship, he focused on her misbehavior,
routinely beating her for minor infractions. Around the time the girl
reached puberty, Tom "got religion," developed a concern with "demonology,"
and was considering becoming a preacher (interest in _The Exorcist_ was
sweeping the neighborhood at the time). With a vengence, he drummed into
Ellen his belief that the devil was trying to get at him, the saintly man of
God, through her, the sinner. To heighten the effect, he secretly turned the
crucifixes in her bedroom upside down and the heads of her dolls around
backwards (as in the film), claiming that satanic forces were responsible.
He also showed her bite marks on his arm that had been inflicted by one of
the demons she was attracting into the home. Ellen began having nightmares
and gradually came to believe that she was truly evil. It got to the point
that she became depressed and attempted suicide by overdosing on pills (this
was more than just a gesture; she spent some time in a hospital recovering).
The stepfather then shifted gears and *suggested that Ellen's problems
stemmed from sexual "hang-ups."* Now playing the role of sex therapist, he
offered to go to bed with her in an effort to "cure" her. The child didn't
"buy" the scenario, however. It was culturally too far out of line (note
that "demonology" wasn't, however). Finally, Ellen's mother stepped in, but
rather than admit the real problem -- his own obsession with physical,
spiritual, and sexual domination of his stepdaughter -- Tom left the home.

Altercasting can shift from one set of roles to another, it can be combined
with scapegoating. But, in the end, it's usually done to "trick" people into
giving up something that cannot be obtained in other ways.

Scapegoating and altercasting are just two examples of interactional features
that are often found with abuse. What about clinical indicators? Post
traumatic stress disorder is one. Moreover, borderline personality and
pathological narcissism are often associated with the kind of violation I'm
talking about here. If there's any interest in this area, maybe we could
pursue it in future posts. I'm not going to get into them here. Suffice it
to say that extremem narcissism is a pathological overcompensation for
emotional neglect. In effect, the child tries to parent himself, to give
himself the love and attention that his caretakers are unable or unwilling to
provide. This act is bound both to fail and to embitter. Hence begins a
continual search for love out there in the world. Significant others who
might connect are overidealized and sucked dry. Should they fall short of
expectations or leave, they are ruthlessly devalued and discarded, and the
search for new sources of regard begins anew. This helps explain why so many
abused adolescents and adults can seem to "turn" on others so quickly, and
why they often lead highly episodic lives, characterized by many infatuations
and bitter disappointments, and by feelings of marginality, anger, and

Obviously, I'm not claiming here that everyone subject to, or exhibiting, the
features cited above must be or have been abused. All I'm saying is that
they seem to me to go together with child abuse with a fair bit of frequency,
and that as possible diagnostic indicators they ought to be given more
consideration. (Actually, PTSD is given a fair amount already.) Are they
sufficient as a guide to replace other indicators? No. Still, they are a
start. And insofar as they apply across cultures, they give us something
more to focus on, something that is beyond a list of proscribed behaviors
which must, inevitably, be culture-bound.

Now, with respect to John's Inuit example. Are we saying that some cultures
are more abusive than others, or that they have to be in order to survive?
Or are we saying that an act that would destroy a child emotionally in one
culture (extreme hazing or teasing) would not do so in another, given a
difference in the function (or meaning) of the act in the one as opposed to
the other? What is missing for me in the example is the effect on the child
in question (and, really, on the community) . But the effect on the child is
the key.

I might also speculate that if life were that perilous, then the odds are
that everyone in that community would be in danger of screwing up somehow.
Ergo, everyone would be a potential target of teasing. Under the
circumstances, being teased (mercilessly, to us) might not be such a big
deal. On the other hand, and sadly, the purported "adaptiveness" of this
teasing might be overstated. The hazing of this child might be serving other
purposes entirely, purposes more closely associated with displacement or
scapegoating. Could it be that the ethnographer just doesn't want to see it?
I don't have access to the article in question, but it sounds similar in
some ways to Nelson H. H. Grayburn's article entitled "Severe child abuse
among the Canadian Inuit," in Nancy Scheper-Hughes's _Child Survival_
(1987). Grayburn describes the hitting and teasing of a toddler in very
different terms:


"...(When) a tremendous bellow came from Ataataluk [the father] across the
room. "SILITUPALUK ANILAURUK" (stupid little thing, get it out of here). He
was standing, red in the face, shouting right past Apirku's [the author's]
ear at the bedraggled child....
The aging mother caught the youngster by the wrist and dragged him straight
outside. Apirku quickly got into his parka and joined them in the whipping
icy gale outside. "Why don't you stop them when they attack Paatauyuk?" he
asked. "Because when I do, he beats me up to," she replied."

"This is a paper I did not want to write because I would be happier if the
data did not exist. In fact, I wrote a prior version, called 'The battered
child syndrome, Eskimo style," over fifteen years ago, but sat on it..."
[because of their rarity and due to confidentiality concerns].


Possibly, this whole thing points up that hazing and teasing can be adpative,
but that even in cultures where they perform an important function, they can
be taken to extremes (very, very extreme to us), at which point they become

I've wandered a good distance in this post but am now pressed for time, and
so will have to sign off. I won't be able to get back to these issues until
next week. But before I go, I'd like to raise a question for the list: do
you think that the "cast" of a culture can be in some sense abusive? I mean
this in a Benedictian sense. For example, the issue of female circumcision
or mutilation that I believe Adrienne DeArmas has already raised on this
list. Does the practice reflect structural injustice of a sort that goes
beyond what is seen in most of the world's cultures? So that our objection
to the practice, if we have one, is really an objection to the cultural core
itself? Or is our perception injustice more arbitrary, conditioned by our
own cultural values?

Mike Cahill