“Barbarism Begins at Home”: A Story of Sibling Abuse

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I was around twelve years old when I first heard “Barbarism Begins at Home” by the Smiths. I was at a party, and I remember not just liking the tune but also relating to the lyrics, even though my English was relatively poor at the time. On the way home, I kept singing the outro of the song, “A crack on the head is just what you get / Why? Because of who you are.” I wondered if my oldest brother would be awake looking for trouble again. He had beaten me that morning, so I hoped he wouldn’t be as angry that late at night. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

Being beaten, verbally abused, or even assaulted for just existing was a daily routine for me back then. A routine without any extended moments of truce. My older brother hated, cursed, and beat me for no apparent reason, and my parents didn’t do anything to protect me. They probably didn’t comprehend the catastrophic consequences this abuse would have on my mental health and personality.

My father was constantly absent, hiding behind the excuse of trying to put food on the table. He had little to no time for us. My mother was there but as scared as I was over the whole situation, making me feel guilty for even wanting to talk to her about the nightmare I was going through. Now that I think about it, her attitude toward this situation was even worse than my father’s indifference and deliberate ignorance. She made me believe that this was a normal occurrence in a family and that I was exaggerating these episodes. I was made to believe that coexisting with a much older angry guy was the norm. Trusting my mother’s judgment, I learned to regard his beating me and my siblings, verbally abusing our mother, and embarrassing us in front of neighbors and relatives as ordinary.

This changed when I learned about bullying at school. My classmates and I read books, watched films, and participated in workshops about peer aggression. No one talked about the type of bullying I was experiencing, which seemed far more intense and frequent than the kind endured at school. I started asking questions about abuse endured at the hands of siblings and discovered, to my great surprise, that it wasn’t ordinary at all. No other student had an older sibling who beat and emotionally abused them for no apparent reason.

I was sharing the same room with a young adult whose only pleasure in life was to abuse his family, especially the youngest and weakest member: me. In his late twenties, my brother had no job, no girlfriend or friends, no ambitions, and no goodness in him. He blamed everyone but himself for his failures in life. He explained that his hatred toward me resulted from my birth ruining his life—he was deeply ashamed that his mother had a baby while he was a teenager.

I was trapped. I was too young to move out and start a life away from this abusive animal and too old to not understand what was happening. As I aged, things got a little better because I started fighting back. Around age 15, I threw back the first punch. His death threats, name calling, and emotional abuse were no longer unanswered. These events no longer ended with a terrorized little boy hiding under his bed praying for his father to get home from work early and save him with his presence. (My abuser only felt man enough to inflict violence around children and women.) As a furious teenager, I even began to initiate fights, seeking revenge against this monster and not only defending myself from him.

I joined a kickboxing class. By age 17, I was a state champion and something of a geek hero and ambassador for all the bullied kids who were afraid to stand up for themselves. However, the more I gained physical strength and the respect of my abuser and other school bullies, the more I sank into a silent depression. I felt worthless because my parents had never protected me from the hell I was experiencing. I wondered if I deserved the abuse by virtue of existing. The emotional wounds of my brother’s abuse were deeper than any of his attacks to my face or body. Until my early thirties, I experienced bouts with depression, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, episodes of insomnia, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), when I decided to seek professional help.

While things have improved, I am not fully recovered, and I don’t believe there’s complete healing for situations like mine. I can’t erase the awful memories. Nor can I protect against the irrational fear, pain, and stress that hit my soul out of nowhere. The damage is undeniable no matter how hard my mom tries to convince me (or maybe herself, really) that I’ve exaggerated my past experiences. My therapist advises me to find forgiveness in my heart for my brother because it will help me to feel better. But every time I visit my parents and see him or hear his voice, I want to hurt him for what he did to me.

I prefer not to have any contact with my brother. I am not a violent person, and I won’t do him the favor of becoming one simply because I had the misfortune of being around him as a child. Instead, I feel the need to help others who have gone through what I did. I feel the need to be the man I needed to have in my life when I was a kid. This is the most efficient way for me to ease my mind about the past.

I felt worthless because my parents had never protected me from the hell I was experiencing. I wondered if I deserved the abuse by virtue of existing.

Sibling abuse is real. According to Dr. Billie H. Frazier and Kathleen Hayes, who have studied violence between siblings, this form of abuse is even more common than child abuse by parents. Often, the most violent members of American families are the oldest children. In The Victimization of Children and Youth: A Comprehensive, National Survey, experts such as Dr. David Finkelhor and his colleagues report that 3 in 100 children are severely abusive and violent toward a sibling. Other family members will often not see incidents of abuse as such, but rather as acts of discipline.

A more recent national study by Corinna Jenkins Tucker and her colleagues at the University of New Hampshire examined sibling abuse involving physical injury, breaking things, or “psychological aggression.” These experts found that 45% of children ages two to nine had experienced at least one incident of sibling aggression in 2013, but the incidence of aggression dropped to 36% among 10- to 13-year-olds and 28% among 14–17-year-olds. The findings of the study seem to agree with my observation that once an abused kid grows up and is able to fight back, the violence from their abusive sibling begins to decrease. Does this mean that your oldest sibling would continue abusing you for the rest of your life if he had the power to do so? That’s a very scary thought.

If you find yourself imprisoned in an abusive family, it’s your right to seek help from those a parent may describe as “strangers.” Sibling violence shouldn’t be a secret or solely a family matter, especially when parents can’t solve the problem. This unfortunate way of thinking can lead to greater tragedies, including rape or murder, by allowing the abuse to continue. Just because a family member happens to be born of the same parent, doesn’t mean that person truly loves you or is a real sibling to you. It is past time to be vocal about what takes place inside a family without feeling guilty about it.

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About Author

Graduating from law school, serving in the Greek Navy, and excelling in martial arts weren't enough to keep Theo away from his first love: writing. His work has appeared in Ars Technica, Gizmodo, Ozy, and Mental Floss, among other outlets. He is the proud single father of a beautiful boy and is highly addicted to hot chocolate, great-smelling cologne, traveling, martial arts, and films. You can find him on twitter at @Theodorosll.

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