AUTHOR’S NOTE:  This post may trigger, be very cautious when reading if you have a history of early and severe childhood trauma.


*The Dissociation of Being Both the Witness to and the Victim of My Mother’s Vicious Attacks

The comment I received today on my mother’s letters that I transcribed yesterday, reminds me of the FACT of the very REAL TRUTH that what I am facing in my process of ‘re-covery’ is the long term damage done to me by the unwarranted outbursts of my mother’s violent brutality and rage against me that I know occurred beginning in the time of my life that is way beyond my conscious ability to ‘re-member’ on any level except as those memories were all stored within my body from the time I was very, very tiny.

Yet while I may not have the ability to ‘recall’ the memories of her violence to me that started from the time I was born (with the exception of the early memory I describe below), I can feel them in my body.  At the instant I read the commenter’s words this morning, I could instantaneously feel the sadness in my body – the terrible, overwhelming, all consuming sadness that so washed over and through me from the time I was so tiny that it all but swept away any foothold I might have been continually trying to gain (as nature would intend any small child to acquire) of a sense of myself in the ongoing experience of my own life.

I could not ‘come up with’ any version of myself from the time I was so tiny that could possibly enable me to stand within myself against my mother.  She made certain that it was impossible for me to do.  This makes me think about witness abuse as it might well apply to my own inner experience of in some strange way being both the target for and the victim of my mother’s abuse — at the same time I was also the witness to it.

The part of me that was the witness knew a sense of hopelessness that nothing would ever be done to prevent another outbreak of violence against Linda from happening again.  Perhaps this was a platform that part of me shared with my siblings, even my 2 year old sister in the incident described about The Fire Ants, as they helplessly had to witness in terror such unprovoked and unstoppable HURT being perpetrated against one of their peers – their sister, in my siblings’ case and against myself in my own case.

I have to say that this is the very first time I’ve ever had this thought, and I will explore it because it appears here today in response to this reader’s comment.  It seems entirely possible to me as I write this morning that because of the ongoing violence on so many levels that was continually erupting in my world around me – with me as the target – from the time I entered this world in a body, that I was subdivided within my own self as I experienced every new incident of abuse.

This kind of violence against infants and young children does NOT promote integration of the self in the world or of the self in a body or of the self into a working model of the world.  It produces continued fragmentation, in part because there is no way a very young child can ever exercise enough control to prevent the incidents from happening over and over and over again.  The outbreaks of violence, with me as the target, happened outside a reasonable world of reason.  There was no predictability.  There was no link between consequence and cause.

As I write this I can see a whole new vista, a whole new field of potential understanding as it begins to open up inside my own thinking.  It is true.  I DID witness my mother’s insane switches from ‘being nice’ to ‘being angry’ just as my siblings did.  The only difference between me and them – although it was a HUGE one – was that I bore the physical, psychological, and emotional burden and brunt of her rage.  Although it is only at this moment that I am beginning to see that there were really two separate things going on at the same time, thinking about myself as not only the recipient of her rage attacks but also of myself as the witness of them at the same time, lets me WONDER about different things in different ways.

Wondering is good.  Having the ability to wonder is, I believe, something that nearly everyone takes fore granted.   But I can assure you that wondering is something that I was deprived of as a child.  Wondering happens within a mind that has grown up knowing from its beginnings that it has room to wander around within itself, within its own world of thought.  All wandering requires enough room to move, even the wandering around within one’s own mind.

My mother consumed all the room in my early childhood.  It would not be unlike being in a small confined area with limited supply of oxygen:  My mother consumed it all and left none for me.  She was all-consuming, and she nearly constantly devoured ME with her rage.  Although there were repeated pauses or ‘reprieves’ from her attacks, I could never know for how long I was ‘free’ nor could I know where, when or why the next attack would begin.  There was no safe, secure room to wander in between her attacks, not EVEN within my own growing mind.

Without this safe and secure room to wander as a child, the whole human-nature urging that we naturally are supposed to have that leads us to explore our environment – either outer or inner – cannot occur.  Without space to wander, we cannot possibly LEARN to exercise the human ability to wonder, either.

So I could never really wonder what it was I did wrong that made my mother so angry at me.  I could never wonder about what I could do to prevent her attacks, either.  They ‘just happened’ the same way the sun rises in the morning and sets itself at night.  Her rage and violence against me was a fact of my life like all other facts.  There was no reason and their was no escape.  And I was given no room to wander around within my own growing brain-mind as a child so that I could wonder about anything that had to do with my mother.  I was always in the midst of an attack, recovering from an attack or on some level trying to monitor my existence in the world as I waited for the next attack or tried to prevent one.


Because having enough safe space to wander around in my own growing brain-mind so that I might wonder was removed from me in childhood, I do not take wondering fore granted now.  Today I received a ‘break in the clouds’ that lets me wonder about being both the witness to and the victim of my mother’s extreme violence against me.  Today I want to separate these two experiences apart from each other so that by considering each form of abuse individually I can gain more power within myself to heal from them BOTH.

If one imagines being a target, and if one then looks through that perspective on the experience of being shot at, it becomes obvious that given an ability to slow the process down in slow motion the experience of knowing one is going to be hit at any second and the experience of actually feeling the impact are two different things.  Even though I have always thought of my mother’s attacks as a ‘one thing’, they were not.  There was always a split-second experience of knowing the attack was coming and there was nothing I could do to avoid or escape it.

At those moments I witnessed the oncoming attack like looking up in the sky just in time to see a bomb falling out of it about to hit your head.  Human brains are expertly designed to read and understand facial expressions and body language.  Whenever I had that split second of time between seeing her come at me and feeling her attacks on the target my body was for her rage, I could see that change that came over both her face and her body.

Anyone who has ever experienced the kind of attack a rage-filled adult can turn on a small child knows what I am talking about.  Looking back, I would describe it as if she would instantly be consumed and possessed by some force that I could see as it changed her face, and particularly her eyes and her mouth.  I know that I knew this ‘look’ from the time I was born.

My earliest memory of ,y mother’s violence against me came shortly after I had written the letter in which I disowned my mother.  The memory came to me like memories often can come, literally ‘out of the blue’.  I had simply walked from the ground of my back yard at the house I was living in, up the steps onto the deck, and was crossing the deck when I suddenly felt very small.  I was in a very small body in a crib.  I could feel my back on the mattress.  I could see the wide spaces between bars (of course I didn’t know what any of this was during the time I experienced what I remembered this day).

I heard sounds.  I knew what the sounds were and in the memory I listened.  My mother was walking hard down a hallway, stomping her feet.  I could sense the weight that was her body.  I heard her hand on the bed room door knob, the sound of the knob turning, the sound of the door opening as she continued through it and up to the crib where I lay.  Her face appeared above me a split second before her huge hand reached toward me.  She was screaming at me.  Her eyes were filled with rage.  Her hand hurt me.

I knew as the memory appeared at that instant I was walking across my deck – and as I stood suddenly still – that I was very, very small because her hand as it came down toward me was nearly half the size of my body.


At this moment as I write about making the distinction between the difference of the experience of knowing one is going to be attacked just before it happens, and what the actual experience of the attack itself is must be an important one for us as victims to examine.  I quickly learned once this infant memory returned to me, complete with the sensory memories of sound, sight and touch, that I do not need in any way to question the accuracy of that memory – or of any of my memories.  I also know that memory was not of the FIRST time I had experienced my mother’s out-of-control violence and hatred against tiny me.

That this memory would reappear to me this morning as I write this fascinates me.  It lets me know how ‘on target’ my own healing process truly is.  This is a memory of being both the witness and the victim, nearly simultaneously, but not quite so.  And it lets me know how deep within me, within my body, within my brain-mind and nervous system my pain and sadness truly is.  Because at the second this morning that I read this blog’s poster’s comment, as the words traveled through my eyes and into my brain, as they traveled a place of understanding the of words themselves, it was this pain and sadness that was triggered within me at the same instant the understanding of the words themselves hit me.


What I choose to tell myself at this moment is that nothing about my process today is anything to be afraid of.  It is, however, something to be extremely cautious and careful with.  I cannot go directly to that pain.  I can feel it in my body.  I can feel how close that sadness is from the pressure of tears that want to appear in my eyes and spill out.  But I choose not to let them come, because I don’t want to cry right now.  I never have to wonder about crying.  I have cried so many tears in my lifetime I could wonder how I could possibly have any left over to cry now.

I know the tears are not what I want, and therefore are not what I need today.  I need to open up the spaces between the experiences of terrible trauma and terror that I experienced for 18 years so that I can create spaces big enough that I can wander around IN MY THOUGHTS, so that I can WONDER.

I suspect that it is within these wondering spaces that I can let the light of the REAL reality shine into me.  This new light of reality can wipe out the darkness that my mother’s reality created within me from the moment I was born.

I see today that this darkness came to me from her through at least two separate, different yet intertwined ways:  She forced me to be a witness of Linda’s abuse very nearly – but not quite – at the same time that she forced me to be the target of it.

This will all connect for me later on as I explore and wonder about something that seems like a mystery to me.  Many, many times during my childhood – believe it or not – her attacks took me completely by surprise.  I understand now this must be in part because I was so dissociated between my own experiences of my own experiences of my childhood that it was like I was a completely different person many times when she attacked me than I was when she attacked me again.

When I look back from the present at my child self in the past I can say that simple common sense, based upon thousands of experiences of being attacked by my mother, should have been ‘enough’ to prevent me from ever being surprised when she attacked me again.  BUT – I was OFTEN surprised.  I remember that feeling and that state of disorientation when I would look up and see her ‘coming at me’.  I would be surprised like it was the first time it ever happened.  I felt confused, and would watch as if she was moving in slow motion as she moved toward me.

Today I wonder, “How could that have been so?  How could I possibly have been surprised when she attacked me?”  I KNOW it was possible because I remember it.  I remember that witnessing of her impending attacks as I was like abruptly shocked out of a daydream, out of one reality into another.  This lets me know in my current explorations toward healing that the realities I experienced IN BETWEEN her attacks were numb, dazed, floating pieces that were not connected to each other, probably BECAUSE they were so violently interrupted without warning and separated from one another by her attacks.  This was most likely to happen for me at times when my mother’s attacks on me were even more incoherently disconnected to my ongoing experience than usual.


So part of my healing process is about figuring out what, in reality, can be wondered about and what cannot.  This will help me come to KNOW what was and is ‘really real’ as I separate it out from what was real to my mother and what was real as I experienced life with her.  My entire childhood from birth to age 18 happened in her world, and her world built my brain-mind.  In her world, everything was mostly hit and very little miss.  It was irrational, had no logical cause and effect, was disorganized and disoriented, was incongruous, and completely unsafe and insecure.

Any pauses between her attacks left me in that dissociated dazed place of being ‘in between’.  These ‘in between’ places could be, and were, violently interrupted often, and often without any warning.  This pattern without a pattern left me no safe place within myself to wonder.  Nearly my entire life force as a child was occupied with enduring and surviving what my mother did to me.

But today I have yet another piece of information that is important to my recovery.  I am beginning to understand that the ‘witness abuse survivor’ part of my existence could be completely surprised at times when she turned her rage on me, even though the ‘target abuse survivor’ had clear memory of being under her attack.  The experience of these two separate experiences can obviously and factually be dissociated from each other.  I know this because it happened to me.



  1. Do U have to join ancestry.com to use it? I tried but it seemed as though u need to join becfore u can have acess to the informaton that u found.How did u do that? Did u join?
    My mother’s side doesnt talk.When I was once questioning years ago about my grandmothers past…an aunt made it appear like something was wrong with me for wanting to find out so much information.So, i gather what I can from my mother.
    What I have been kind of preoocupied with is my own memory. It bothers me that I cant remember my early years. But then part of me says”Do I really want to remember watching horrible child abuse done to my brother and watching helplessly? I know that I never felt safe with her ,so even though I cannot remember how she was with me during that time, I am sure, I was fearful of her. I am extremely sensitive to any kind of abuse on the helpless, children, animals etc

    This aunt was actually an older cousin, I called her my aunt because she had a family of her own. Both she(my cousin) and my aunt ,her mother knew about my mothers behavior and that I wanted out. They talked about getting me out but nothing was done. My aunt;s excuse was her husband was too old to have a adolescent in the house and my cousin, I later learned , from what she once told me when I was 18 or 19, that her own son was a handful and they were seeing a therapist at that time who said NOT to take me in.She told me this when I was 18, and I think I said”its okay” because at 18, I had no idea of the impact the abuse had on me. And to this day, I have not talked to her about it,we dont keep in touch. Her mother was rcently diagnosed with Alziemers and since I have experiencewith this professionally, I have started to become involved .( Her children dont live near her).
    Its part of my journey I think, helping the aunt in her time of helplessness.Not sure why…but I feel it is.

  2. I am starting to believe the teaching is happening in the form of a Zen Koan… the answer is in my (our?) face, the only thing left to do with trauma that keeps destabilizing and robbing us of our lives, is to forgive the abuser, and move on–believe in our separateness from the abuser, believe in our difference, in our capacity to be different and thus better, because we *know*, because the reasons have been brought to light, because it’s *not* our fault unless we refuse to let it go.

    I am saying this rationally. Emotionally it’s impossible for me to do. My parents have taught me that unstable parenting is harmful, yet I am still expected to fill all the gaps THEY left in their incompetence. I can’t forgive, I can’t let go, and so I keep seeing myself in your writings. I am still the child being hurt, over and over. Until I learn to forgive I can’t move on.

    Your blog is very precious to me in that sense… it reminds me of what I need to do, now–learn forgiveness, and what I have to do later–remember their behavior, *avoid* their behavior, and you give hundreds of reasons and examples to help with just that.

    • Thank you most warmly!

      For myself I tend to want to leave the over-used and worn-out words alone. I do not EVER worry about forgiveness. I was BUILT physiologically through my parents’ abuse of me — I cannot start life over with an unharmed body — they guaranteed (in cooperation with nature which dictates we HAVE to make these changes to survive the unsurvivable as infant-children) that I will NEVER leave all the trauma behind.

      I CAN pay attention to my thoughts, and scour my emotions for SOUR feelings related to useless attitudes about THEM and about what they DID TO ME. I know those feelings — which arise very seldom — because they CURDLE me. ICK! THOSE do not stay.

      But me — now? I am still outside killing the monster oleander bushes and every moment that I do I am burying through this art form the TOXIC history I know so well about my mother.

      This you say puzzles me: “I am still the child being hurt, over and over. Until I learn to forgive I can’t move on.”

      The only thing I can think of is that you might still be in relationship with your parents. Otherwise — I personally DO NOT BELIEVE at all anything about ‘inner child’. What happened THEN was very real, is contained in body memory at the very least, created billions and billions of trauma triggers inside of us — but this does NOT mean to me that “I am still the child being hurt….”

      To me, we are FREE — at the same time we unfortunately will spend the rest of our lives learning about how we react in the present according to how our body was made — back then — in trauma. At least this is true for me. I had nearly NOTHING to mitigate the abuse from the time of my birth. If there had been ANY PERSON who had helped me — my story would be different.

      I believe not so much in ‘forgetting and leaving behind or forgiving’ as I do in trying to understand the person we were since we were born — inside of us — so we can BE that person and appreciate the marvelous job we did at surviving.

      • yes! I agree so much with your explaination here. I too believed I was still that stuck child inside because I felt it with every fiber of my body whenever something was triggered which was OFTEN! But how freeing, since finding your blog and reading and learning, that I am not a child anymore…it only FEELS that way.
        My new challenge will be something brand new”SELF ACCEPTANCE”.A gift I give graciously to others, but deny it to myself. Why? Because All I ever learned growing up was that I was not wanted, in the way, worthless.And being stuck with no way out.Hopeless and helpless .

        I tried to get help from extended family. This is the part that hurts. I remember one aunt telling me that I could call her if I need to and so during a very crazy and terrifying experience I picked up the phone and called. I could hardly get my words out I was breathing so heavy(out of fear) and all I remember is she left me there. She did NOTHING! That scene really impacted me because I became so vulnerable and it told me that my experience was not important to do something about. I remained in the home for many more years but even to this day, I hold resentment towards her and even towards extended family for knowing I needed help and not doing anything about it. I would have been happy to be placed in a foster home , anything to be removed from there.

        So many messages become validated…You are not important, your feelings dont matterI think too, my life would have been different. But, My job from now on will be to take care of myself .I used to think that was very selfish…got that from my mother! She called ME selfish during those years! I think when she looked at me she saw her own self.

        • We survivors came into this world embedded in a family context that (I don’t believe) could possibly be healthy. Our abusers also came into the world embedded in family that was not healthy or truly happy. It’s like a web, a network in which trauma has continued most usually down many generations.

          I advocate that whenever and however it is safe to do so that we learn as much as possible about the history of our family. I stumbled upon information even very recently that shed an important light — again — on my ancestors.

          A friend of mine from the east coast stopped by for a visit several months ago. She is very involved in researching her family tree and showed me a website (ancestry.com I think) that she uses. After she logged on she said, “Just for the fun of it you pick a family member and we will see what we can find here.”

          I went for my mother’s father’s side of the family. After her mother and father divorced in 1930 when she was 5 that side of the family was ‘disowned’. It turned out that my maternal grandfather was the last child of 8 born — only of those eight his oldest sister would have been 12, five more children had died after her, and then he and his two-year-older brother were born.

          That is a LOT of dead children!! The grief from those losses was, I am very certain, passed directly down to my grandfather. I instantly knew that how he was as a husband and a father had been powerfully influenced by that unresolved family grief.

          Just before I found that out we found out (because my daughter is accumulating necessary paperwork for her application to the Daughters of the American Revolution to which I found out my father’s mother belonged) on my father’s birth certificate it was listed that his mother had given birth to four children. Only three were living including my father when he was born. NOBODY had EVER mentioned these dead siblings on either side of the family.

          Here is a post I wrote about this: +DEAD CHILDREN: LEAVES FALLEN FROM THE FAMILY TREE at


          Learning as much as we (safely) can about the history of our family helps pieces fall into place for US. I would be very willing to bet that this aunt you mention could not respond to you — for reasons she probably never even knew.

          We don’t understand any of this when we were children. Part of our healing is to in-form ourselves — I think of it as creating an ever-widening circle of knowledge that leads to understanding.

          I so rarely mention ‘forgiveness’ because I don’t personally even begin to understand its complexity. But I say again and again I believe our healing is about our being able to have what I call INFORMED COMPASSION. I have a post or two about resentment here, let me see if I can locate them…….


          Well, here’s my blog search for ‘resentment’:


          But now I remember, the word I am thinking of is ‘bitterness’:








          There might be more posts of interest within the blog search for ‘bitterness’ besides the ones I list here at



          As I write my story I imagine the topic will end up having to be addressed about all those outside of our family that did nothing to help — along with my father and my grandmother (my mother moved us from LA to Alaska so her mother could not ‘interfere’ with her ‘parenting’ of me).

          This is part of why I wanted my (sociologist) daughter to be the orchestrator of our book effort. I ended up at a ‘place’ where I know that infant-child abuse is a problem of the society within which families such as ours reside — and abuse.

          Anyway, again – gotta go eat!!! I hear you!! much love and healing!!

        • I am also thinking how disorganized-disoriented insecure attachment patterns are transmitted down the generations along with trauma. That means that until we begin our healing work nobody in the context of our family who as these insecure attachment patterns (as well as the other insecure attachment patterns) has ever been truly able to tell a coherent life story/narrative.

          The same woman who caused me all that trauma also (‘accidentally’) left me the body of her letters without which I could not begin to tell my own story with any kind of ‘order’. I spent two years transcribing her writing (all contained on the blog here: http://hopeforamountain.wordpress.com/ with her childhood stories being included with other writings in Part Four)

          It is not a trivial exercise to try to piece together as much of our family’s story as we can. Like it or not, THEIR story is a part of ours and ours was/is a part of theirs — for better or for worse.

  3. I share a similar “first” memory of my mother. She was not physically abusive as yours (that was my father), but there I was, maybe 2, 3 years old, still in a crib with bars, having just wet the bed–I presume that is what my mother was yelling at me for: I remember the emotional state she was in, which was the same she repeatedly displayed whenever I failed to meet her expectations. I was a bad baby for having wet my bed.

    Your reply to littlepitcher makes me think I may be a masochist in constantly revisiting my past in order to disarm it. I hope you have better luck than I when you finally write your book. You are not the victim anymore; perhaps reading your past writings with that perspective may help.

    • Hi there – and thanks for stopping by and commenting! Parallel to the whole ‘writing thing’ is my belief that trauma that does not let go — individually and as it travels down the generations — has something to teach — somebody. I am just never sure what that is!

  4. Thank you so much for putting your time and energy (and I know it takes a lot of emotional energy, especially) to do this blog. I keep learning more and putting more things together which is quite healing. It’s interesting that you are split into victim and witness and that “one” of you does the writing. Because of the intense pain and trauma and the sexual abuse I split off parts of myself. Part of me would “go away” and a different part would deal with the abuse. I was (am?) multiple personality (though they call it something else now). Once I realized that (from reading some psychology on MPD) I no longer seem to split off and I haven’t “lost time” in years. Of course I’ve not been in a situation where I had intense pain along with intense fear to put me in a place where I’d need to access another part of me. MPD (or DID? now) is seen as a “disorder” but it was a protection for me (and, I imagine, for many others suffering such intense abuse) and a way to *keep* sane though it’s considered a mental illness.

    In regard to organization I’d certainly be willing to help you organize your book. If it’s been such a benefit to me to read what I have so far and so very healing it certainly would be healing for others and from talking with others over the years there are many of us who were abused and need help figuring things out. Feel free to contact me by e-mail if you like.

  5. One of the best literary efforts which have been written about the relationship between the witnessing and the participant self, is Alice Walker’s “When the Other Dancer is the Self”.

    This relationship is an essential and healthy part of survivorship. If the victim can get help, it enables her/him to testify accurately. In later life, it can allow the survivor to switch from emotion to logical processing of memories, to reduce the psychic pain.

    I was, by virtue of having a birth defect, fortunate: my abuser targeted me, but I refused to believe that I was an inferior human and recognized my scapegoat status. The “absence of oxygen” effect is a beautiful description–I’m asthmatic and I always had some weird psychic warning when the abuser was about to descend and attempt to pound two small children to bone fragments. The abuser was a heroin addict, and her withdrawal symptoms both created danger for us, and saved our lives, since it probably weakened her just enough to create injury but not fatal injury.

    You’ve provided a forthright description of the dissociation which plagues many of us.

    • I appreciate your comment very much. One of the consequences of my dissociation is that most often I cannot go back and read what I have written. The ‘one’ that does the writing is not the ‘one’ that would go back and read it. I find this very unsettling. I doubt that I will ever be able to write a book unless someone else (outside of me) helps with organization. Except for the big (known) landmarks of my abuse history, I cannot witness what I have ‘witnessed’ about my childhood.

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