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How abuse, undiagnosed mental illness shape a mother-daughter bond

An excerpt from psychologist and writer Scherezade Siobhan's new book explores mother-daughter relationships and inter-generational trauma

The front cover of the book.

By Scherezade Siobhan

LAST PUBLISHED 10.10.2023  |  01:45 PM IST

Distress is how you react to the pigeonholing of being labelled a slur, of being defanged of your sharpest ambitions because you are piercingly alone and the foreigner you married has left without any signs of returning. It comes from being abandoned during your first pregnancy. It comes from walking into the hospital alone as your water broke. Trailing the etymology of the word ‘distress’, I encountered these variations in its roots— old French ‘destrecier’ (‘to restrain, constrain, put in straits, afflict, distress’), new French ‘détresse’, medieval Latin ‘districtiare’/’distringere’ (‘to pull asunder, stretch out’). 

From dis (apart) + stringere (‘to draw tight, strain’). 

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The drawing of lines around a person, through a person. Through their personhood. 

The epics from mythology are teeming with lines drawn around women to protect them, but often, upon closer inspection, they are mere plot devices to entrap them and pivot the story for some form of masculine conquest. In his brilliant essay ‘Notes on Craft’ (2017), novelist Anosh Irani lists how a story’s movement should be towards healing, not redemption. Healing is uncommon in this framework. Women, especially women of colour, are expected to bear the weight of everyone’s redemption arc. 

My mother’s personhood was subject to constant dehumanization. A dedicated athlete, she couldn’t appear for the selection round for the National Games because she wasn’t allotted a caste certificate in time. Her father was opposed to her participation too. He wasn’t conservative; he just wanted to protect his daughter from impending humiliation at the hands of upper-caste sports selection officials. Maybe he wanted to protect my mother who was immaculately beautiful and hence was equated to property and attempts at ownership by men of power around her. My mother who eventually acquiesced to these attempts and ended up enduring several years of domestic abuse at the hands of my stepfather—a malignantly narcissistic man who uprooted my entire childhood and subsequently buried it in a landfill of physical and emotional trauma. A landfill that was heaped in equal parts by my mother who was ‘stockholmed’ to accept and surrender to his brutalities. My mother who was my compass and my whiplash all through my childhood and teenage years. 

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The term ‘Stockholm syndrome’ has an antagonizing effect on me when someone talks about it in relationship to abuse, especially domestic abuse or intimate partner violence. It was originally used to define the psychological relationship between captors and captives in hostage situations. This term was coined by Swedish psychiatrist and criminologist Nils Bejerot to describe the seemingly confounding relationships between hostages of a bank heist in 1973 and their captors. The released hostages refused to testify against them in a court of law. Over the years, it has become the de facto term for describing a situation in which someone corralled in an abusive and/or captive situation and is unable to leave as per will. It is used to indicate that the captive perhaps sympathizes, empathizes or even aligns with their abuser and captor. Some believe that this is a form of coping mechanism when the victim feels that either fighting back or fleeing is not an option. This term has been criticised, and rightly so, for several reasons including the misogynistic underpinnings of its origin story and the vested interested of those who worked on the robbery case, including Bejerot. One of the survivors of the Swedish bank robbery, Kristin Enmark, had later clarified that the police officials handling the critical situation were botching it up as they went. Bejerot, who was the hostage negotiator, had refused to speak to Enmark while she was undergoing the harrowing experience. Almost in an attempt to discredit Enmark and perhaps to save his own reputation, Bejerot invented the ‘Norrmalmstorg syndrome’ on the spot since that was the location of the bank. He claimed that Enmark was sexually and emotionally infatuated with her captors and her allegations against the law enforcement authorities was a result of this. This Norrmalmstorg syndrome is what we today refer to as the Stockholm syndrome. 

In the light of this knowledge, I can’t say I like the use of Stockholm syndrome to define or describe the plight of survivors and victims of domestic abuse. I suspect its often used as a rather cunning deflection while attempting to infantilize, discredit and gaslight those who are trapped by the tornado. Family therapist Dr Allan Wade in his paper titled ‘The Myth of “Stockholm Syndrome and other Concepts Invented to Discredit Women Victims of Violence’ states that Stockholm syndrome is often used to shift the focus away from victims of abuse by the use of shoddily invented pathologies that are meant to instil seeds of doubts about their lived experience. It sometimes tries to paint the abuser in a slightly favourable light by insinuating that they had some positive feelings about the captive victim. In context to domestic violence, it can also speculate about how women in particular are attracted to men who show signs of abusive behaviours or, in the very least, like to control them. Wade refers to how this concept has to be scrutinized because it so clearly hinges on theorizing the oppressed (what the victim/survivor/captive) and what they feels and do, rather than questioning the reasons for why the oppression took place in the first place. It positions the victim or the survivor as inherently weak, submissive and easy to break without accounting fully for the conditions, reasons and social catalysts that contribute to their responses. 

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On a deeper psychological level, the classification of Stockholm syndrome also comes from an essentially European psychoanalytical understanding prevalent among several psychiatrists and psychologists of the time. Wade mentions Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s daughter and one of the co-founders for psychoanalytic child psychology, who presented the belief that it is evident in children of violent or aggressive parents to “identify with the aggressor" as an ego-defense against fear and terror. Some of the subsequent theorizing about abusive experiences, even in adults, when attributed to such a deterministic viewpoint can be flawed and reductive. This view, when used without caution, does perpetuate a type of learned helplessness and rests on an infantilizing approach to understanding abuse, control and captivity. 

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Investigative journalist Jess Hill researched domestic abuse for 4 years and her book ‘See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse’ is an intense meditation on what she found out during this period. Hill rejects the idea of Stockholm syndrome and instead refers to the necessity of assessing the prevalent institutional responses to abuse rather than fixating on what calls a whole network of concepts that steer us away from questioning how our society is constructed and what perpetuates these harmful experiences. When I look back at my mother staying in those abusive relationships, I see the desperation to find an anchor. Any anchor. I see how little she thought about herself, how she felt like if she asked for less, she’d always have enough to survive. I see the lack of support systems and compassionate voices in her life who could’ve helped her see her worth instead of berating her. I used to hold so much anger and blame for her actions when I was a teenager. I thought she chose this dehumanization for herself and for us, her children. 

When I look at her now, I can finally muster compassion for the back-breaking labour that left her own existence a reed-thin, burnt rope. And yet, as I struggle through diagnostic criteria, shoddy prognoses and a lifelong game of violent squash with my depression and an auto-immune disorder, I can’t help but flare up in rage against her inability to protect me or herself. My mother lives with an undiagnosed illness in the shape of her borderline personality disorder combined with signs of being bipolar. This is undiagnosed only in the sense that we don’t have a formal piece of paper signing off on its grip. I work daily within the realm of therapeutic rehabilitation and am trained to spot the ebbs and flows of human behaviour. Hers satisfy criteria for a psychiatric classification, but when I consider it, I am unsure what it would mean for her even if she did agree to it. 

We speak about distress and dysregulation a lot when we consider the spectrum of moods disorders, which includes bipolar disorders I and II. The word ‘disorder’ in itself is a bone of contention for me because it fails to fully integrate the various loose ends of causation and just makes it overwhelmingly individualized. Erasures of socio-cultural realities amass. We can medicalize my mother, as I have been medicalized in the past, but will that be enough for her to recognize the toxicity she directed towards me throughout my life in order to both negate and substantiate my being? Will it be enough for me to forgive her?

Excerpted from That Beautiful Elsewhere by Scherezade Siobhan, with permission from HarperCollins India