BY ELIZABETH THOMSON
"We accept the love we think we deserve."
Why do people stay in abusive relationships? From the outside, it seems so foolish that someone would cling so closely to someone who was manipulating them emotionally or beating them physically. To top it all off, why is there a pattern that more abusive relationships follow?
(This entry will focus predominantly on the effects of abuse on women. While abuse can go both ways, the U.S. Department of Justice reports that 95% of victims are women. Also, the domestic abuse in Perks usually chronicles women's stories rather than men's. This focus is in no way to dismiss the reality and seriousness of violence against men.)
Perks features three women in particular who demonstrate the cycle of violence: Candace, Sam, and Aunt Helen. (Note: Candace is the name given to Charlie's sister in the film; in the book she remains anonymous.) Each woman was abused or exposed to abuse at some point in her life, usually at a young age, and her following relationships share a common thread with further abuse or degradation. Either she continues to date or marry men who mistreat her, or becomes an abuser herself. These are certain behavioral patterns that abused women often exhibit, some of which Chbosky includes and analyzes with a sensitive eye. This is called battered woman syndrome, which is the name given to the situation when a woman goes through two full cycles of abuse.
Part One features Candace and her dating life. She dates a boy who cheats on her, she goes into a depression, and a month later she meets "another boy" (whom the film dubs "Ponytail Derek") "and [starts] playing happy records again." In a seemingly off-hand remark, Charlie says, "My sister is very pretty and mean to boys." Immediately the reader should recognize the problematic nature of her relation to males and expect further trouble. One evening, Candace and Ponytail Derek are having a movie night and she picks a fight with him until he began "crying very hard"; she tells him that he needs to "stand up to his bully":
And this guy got really red-faced. And he looked at me. Then, he looked at her. And he wound up and hit her hard across the face. I mean hard . . . The weird part is that my sister didn’t do anything. She just looked at him very quietly. It was so weird. My sister goes crazy if you eat the wrong kind of tuna, but here was this guy hitting her, and she didn’t say anything. She just got soft and nice. And she asked me to leave, which I did. After the boy had left, she said that they were "going out" and not to tell mom or dad what happened. I guess he stood up to his bully. And I guess that makes sense. That weekend, my sister spent a lot of time with this boy. And they laughed a lot more than they usually did . . . And I felt very bad for both of them.
Not all women follow the pattern of attaching themselves to their abusers and then continuing to seek abusive relationships afterward; when positive intervention takes place, these women are able to escape and build healthier, more wholesome lives. However, it is common for victims to become attached to their abusers. When the abuser ultimately disappears from her life, she will seek someone with a similar personality -- often abusive -- because, as one victim explained, it is difficult to accept "nice guys" afterward. There is an incapacitation that takes place at some point when she will feel a loss of identity that can only be found in another person, and that person must be similar to the previous one. There is familiarity and stability. Frequently the abuser will emphasize that it was the victim's fault, that no one will ever love her as he does, and no one else would want her after all that she had done -- leaving out that she had not "done" anything, but was victimized.
Still, it usually takes varying lengths of time, often years, before she escapes the abuser’s grip. Even if he is physically gone, his words may remain for years to come. The same victim mentioned above told me that she could not be in relationships with "nice guys," and added years later that her abuser was "right" in that no nice guy would want her now. No matter how I tried, I could not convince her that it was a blatant lie: for too long it had been her reality.
Charlie has a difficult time fathoming his sister's attachment. During a private discussion with his English teacher Bill, Bill asks about "problems at home." Charlie confides what he saw. Bill replies: "Charlie, we accept the love we think we deserve." He phones Charlie's parents, and Charlie comes home to a family confrontation:
My sister then said that it was all her fault, that she was provoking him, but my dad said it was no excuse. "But I love him!" I had never seen my sister cry that much. "No, you don’t." "I hate you!" "No, you don’t." My dad can be very calm sometimes. "He’s my whole world." "Don’t ever say that about anyone again. Not even me." That was my mom . . . My sister stopped crying immediately. After that, my dad gave my sister a rare kiss on the forehead.
The inclusion of the adjective "rare" is notable. Frequently girls who do not have a strong relationship with their father will turn to other men -- usually strong ones -- to fill a paternal void. It is subconscious. This does not necessarily mean that their father was abusive or physically absent, but simply that he may not have taken the time to get to know his daughter and establish a relationship from which she experienced love and knew she was worthy of being honored. Chbosky includes this through Charlie's later commentary:
By the way, I figure you are probably curious about my dad. Did he hit us when we were kids or now even? I just thought you might be curious because Bill was, after I told him about that boy and my sister. Well, if you are wondering, he didn’t. He never touched my brother or sister. And the only time he ever slapped me was when I made my Aunt Helen cry. And once we all calmed down, he got on his knees in front of me and said that his stepdad hit him a lot, and he decided in college when my mom got pregnant with my older brother that he would never hit his kids. And he felt terrible for doing it. And he was so sorry. And he would never hit me again. And he hasn’t. He’s just stern sometimes.
Again, a father does not have to be abusive in order for his daughter to experience an emotional void. Whether or not this was Candace's motive in her choice of partners is not further explored, but each human being desires to be loved unconditionally and without boundary; if a father does not provide this, his children -- especially his daughters -- will continue to seek it. There is no limit to how far she will go to receive the affirmation she needs, even if it is a small taste when there is remission in her abusive relationship:
I did ask my sister about [Ponytail Derek]. She wouldn’t talk about it until I promised that I wouldn’t tell anybody, not even Bill. So, I promised. She said that she has been seeing this boy secretly since Dad said she couldn’t. She says she thinks about him when he’s not there. She says they’re going to get married after they both finish college, and he finishes law school. She told me not to worry because he hasn’t hit her since that night. And she said not to worry because he won’t hit her again. She really didn’t say any more other than that, although she kept talking.
Frequently these girls will be dubbed "vain" for their obsession:
And when she started becoming a "young lady," and no one was allowed to look at her because she thought she was fat. And how she really wasn’t fat. And how she was actually very pretty. And how different her face looked when she realized boys thought she was pretty. And how different her face looked the first time she really liked a boy who was not on a poster on her wall. And how her face looked when she realized she was in love with that boy.
Our parents are the first ones to look into our faces, and we learn our identity and our worth from them. If a girl does not receive affirmation from her father, her vision of herself will become distorted. A father is present for years, providing stability. Candace remains with Ponytail Derek until he impregnates her; then he leaves her, taking with him her identity and leaving her with the loss of their aborted child, her "world," and relationship. There is no more stability, and she either seeks counsel, learns her worth and accept healthy relationships in the future or another male who will provide familiarity and an identity. Thus follows the cycle of violence.
"Battered Woman Syndrome." RAINN. Last modified 2009. Accessed February 17, 2013. http://www.rainn.org/get-information/effects-of-sexual-assault/battered-woman-syndrome.
Browne, Kevin, Catherine Hamilton-Giachritsis, and Shannon Vettor. "The Cycles of Violence: The Relationship between Childhood Maltreatment and the Risk of Later Becoming a Victim or Perpetrator of Violence." In World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe, edited by WHO Collaborating Centre for Child Care and Protection. N.p.: n.p., 2007.
Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1999.
"Myths about Abusers." Safe Haven. Accessed February 17, 2013. http://www.safehavenshelter.org/myths-about-abusers/.
"Myths about Battered Women." Safe Haven. Accessed February 17, 2013. http://www.safehavenshelter.org/myths-about-battered-women/.
"Signs of Domestic Abuse." Safe Haven. Accessed February 17, 2013. http://www.safehavenshelter.org/signs-of-domestic-abuse-the-abused-womanthe-abusive-man/.
"What Keeps Women in Abusive Relationships?" Safe Haven. Accessed February 17, 2013. http://www.safehavenshelter.org/what-keeps-women-in-abusive-relationships/.