Columnist Susan Wozniak: Words can, and do, hurt

Published: 6/25/2020 6:00:51 PM

We moved to Dearborn, Michigan when I was 4. Until I began kindergarten, the following year, I never played with another child. During that time, I created an imaginary friend I called Youngy. Having such a “playmate” is common, a sign of child’s developing imagination.

When a woman came to the door, selling children’s books, my mother questioned her about what an imaginary friend meant. Embarrassed, I left the living room to assign Youngy the task of erasing a note about my bad behavior my mother had written on the calendar. As the note remained on the page the next day, I stopped talking to Youngy.

In the third grade, I was finally allowed to visit a girl my mother picked. I didn’t particularly like her, but, my mother wished to be friends with her mother. I would not venture to speak to the other children until I was in fifth grade.

My mother engaged in emotional and verbal abuse for years. Degradation and isolation are tools of emotional abuse. Talking about me to a stranger embarrassed me. Being alone had repercussions I would continue to feel for years. However, the verbal abuse, in the form of frequent reminders of how homely I was, did more damage than emotional abuse, particularly since my looks were always linked to my chances of finding a husband.

During my school’s once-a-week social dancing class, I always selected the same boy for the Ladies’ Choice. His hair was greasy and his skin was enflamed with acne. I told myself that someone like him was my destiny. I should get used to it. I was 10 years old.

The effects of verbal abuse, in both children and adults, include being afraid of upsetting the abuser, and, feeling powerless and controlled. I began to, as I put it, compromise with my parents. Contact with the world beyond school and church began in sixth grade. I tested as reading on the college level and won an essay contest.

My mother’s vocabulary of abuse extended to include what an embarrassment I was to her. Was the embarrassment due to my proving myself, or, to something within her? I don’t know. It was 1959 and no one spoke of child abuse. I had no adult to confide in.

When I was 17, my mother forbade me to go to the University of Michigan, unless I commuted. “I won’t pay twice for you to live” was her strange explanation. At the time, the irrationality of the statement struck me. The weekly commute would total 400 miles. I had no driver’s license, as she forbade me to take driver’s training on the grounds that I would be a bad driver.

Later, I saw the cruelty and even danger in the statement. I had been thinking of careers in archaeology, or physical anthropology, or genetics. They embarrassed her. Then, as we stood next to a dig at Fort Michilimackinac while waiting for the Mackinac Island ferry, she asked if the diggers were “real archaeologists or actors.” Then, speaking loudly about me in the third person, she said, “I have one daughter and she wants to dig in the dirt. I will have to buy her a shovel for Christmas.”

I gave up and applied to a woman’s Catholic college in Detroit. I saw my situation as hopeless, another effect of abuse. Not applying to Michigan or to Radcliffe was also choosing not to pursue my interests.

I would give up on other things as well. At 19, I fell in love with a tall, slender young man who was a National Merit Scholar. He told me, “I feel lucky to be with you. You’re so pretty.” I almost said, “I’ve heard nothing but how homely I am my entire life,” but immediately thought, “He doesn’t want to hear that.”

That began my inability to say any word that praised him or revealed my feelings for him. My parents hated him, calling him ugly. They succeeded in destroying the relationship. When I was 28, I was pursued by a man I did not find attractive. We had more than one date because he told me I was “marginally attractive.” Ah, honest! I said to myself. However, I never spoke of my discomfort with him, nor of the things I disliked about him. I was emotionally 19 and still able to speak my mind.

Because my parents liked him, I married him, hoping I would have peace. I had turmoil. After my daughter was born, my mother called me to say, “We (she generally spoke of herself in the first-person plural) like your husband better than we like you. You’re a horrible person.” I was 31.

Would having someone to talk to, even as early as 10, have helped me? Perhaps not, as I suspect abused children might not know they are abused. I had no model to follow and no spirit to buoy me. To prepare for this piece, I researched post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociative disorders. Clearly, I experienced both.

Susan Wozniak belongs to three alumni associations with at least one other woman named Susan Wozniak in each. She can be reached at


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