Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Personal History

Cathy Meyer, wrote at the Huffpo in January:

Only someone who has never been a victim of parental alienation would refer to it as “junk science.”

<annie raises hand> I’m a victim of PAS and I think it’s junk science.

The Men’s Rights Movement has been unsuccessful in the bid to have the Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), which many assert is a clinical disorder, included in the forthcoming edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders, the DSM-V.  The psychiatric community generally regards Howard A. Gardner’s work on PAS as pseudoscience or, as Ms. Meyer put it, “junk science.”  Gardner’s initial research, done in the 1980′s, was self-published.  He later published works in peer-reviewed journals, but even those are based on case studies and, well, there is this itsy-bitsy matter of objectivity.

Nonetheless, PAS is getting a fair amount of airplay even from bloggers I respect. I am uniquely qualified to speak anecdotally on this topic, being both a victim and an accused perpetrator of what some would call PAS.  This post is part one.  (Coming soon, part two: “Alienator Annie?” Coming thereafter: “PAS and Domestic Violence.”  It’s like shark week, sans sharks.)

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My mother was most certainly an alienator.  If you asked her about it, she would deny it. Most alienators probably would which makes all of the accused inherently suspect, including me.  I was fifteen when my parents’ marriage exploded like a fireworks finale in Boston. My mother led me to believe that my father left her for another woman, which was essentially true; however, she left out that he had what most would consider a defensible reason for having done so. To his credit, my father never pointed a blaming finger at my mother.

I was in high school and I needed money to put gas in the car.  I called my mother at work.  She directed me to look in the pocket of the slacks she had worn the day before where she thought she had tucked her lunch change.  There were some bills and some slips of paper.  One was a lab slip with her name and scrawled words, “positive—chlamydia.”  I sat on on my parents low bed, shocked.  I didn’t know much, but I knew what chlamydia was.  My father traveled frequently for business and I assumed this was the result of some wild liaison overseas; he had brought my mother back a twisted gift, one that hadn’t been wrapped in fancy paper by a pretty salesgirl before being pulled from his musty suitcase.

That evening I told my mother I had seen the slip and expressed my concern.  She told me simply not to worry, that they were taking care of everything and getting counseling and it would all be just fine.  (It wasn’t.)  That STI wasn’t a result of my father’s infidelity, but of my mother’s.  If I had known that, if she had been honest, I would not have looked on her as an innocent victim of my father’s selfishness.  She never told me the truth. She knew it would matter somehow.  In concealing the truth, she won the private opinion war she was waging with my father.  She kept me on her side, at least for a while.

One Christmas when I was home from college she checked the status of things after too much boxed wine.

“You know what I would really like you to do for me for Christmas?” she asked, the word Christmas slurred with wine.

Uh oh, I thought.

“What?” my brother asked, sucked in.

“I would like it if you two would call your father.”

“F*ck that,” my brother spat.

“No.” That was me.

She shook her head sadly, but she was pleased.  She wanted our loyalty and she wanted us to hate our father and we did, we really did.

I remember discussing my father, even as a young adult.  I said that she wasn’t the one who cheated and she told me that didn’t matter, what mattered was that he was the one who left us, and that we had to struggle.  (When he left, he also took most of the money.)  It would have been a good time to come clean, but she didn’t.  I heard the truth years later from my brother, who had once caught my mother and her lover… well, in a compromising position.

My mother would probably say she never badmouthed my father and it’s true that she didn’t call him names or overtly say what she thought.  She did, however, reliably telegraph her boiling resentment.  She made sure we knew about every time she felt our father had failed us, even if it was something we didn’t especially care about. She made it painfully clear that she believed he had abandoned us, let us down, vacated his every responsibility. She made sure that we knew that he didn’t really love us. We stood convinced that he was a very bad man. Except he really wasn’t.

He may have been emotionally inept, somewhat irresponsible, and depressed even, but he wasn’t especially bad. Certainly he was not much worse than she was.  We were so nasty to our father that he eventually just gave up, and I don’t really blame him.

By all accounts he did a fairly decent job of raising the two children from his second marriage, Katherine and her brother.  Certainly they love him.  As for me, I send a Christmas card to my father most years so that his wife will kindly send an obligatory card back.  (She has impeccable manners.) These reply cards have always included a form letter with relished updates on the lives and achievements of my two half-siblings.

I called my father a couple of summers ago and we had a nice conversation, but really, there is nothing there.  Getting together would only be stressful and upsetting to all parties and it seems best to leave things quietly as they are.

I will say that I was profoundly hurt by the loss of my father in the 1980′s.  I did love him and the alienation was cruel, harder than if he had died.  I have always been too sensitive, drama-prone. Adolescence is not a cakewalk by itself, and I am not going to lie—the emotional upheaval was hard.  I didn’t have the skills to process my father’s disappearance in addition to a host of other things that were happening.  I lacked healthy coping strategies to manage the roiling emotions, the heavy sorrow.  It was a turbulent and ugly time, uglier than I can even say.  I count myself especially lucky not only to have survived, but to have come to thrive.

Some of those Men’s Rights blokes might say that if they had chivalrously come to my father’s defense and whacked my mean old mother upside the head with a copy of the DSM including PAS, I could have been spared many hours in a therapist’s chair, and the necessary navel-gazing.  Perhaps.  Or perhaps it would have only served to undermine the other parental relationship, which—imperfect as it was—was the one I depended on to pull me to adulthood, something my father was even less equipped to do.

My experience does not convince me that “Parental Alienation Syndrome” should be a clinical diagnosis. Richard Warshak, Huffpo blogger and author of DIVORCE POISON: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing wrote in a worthy comment: “…for the general public, the issue about syndrome or not is esoteric. It distracts from the immensely important job of recognizing­ that poisoning a child’s affections for a good and loving parent is an under-reco­gnized, yet widespread­, form of child maltreatme­nt.”

Parents can do and say things that undermine the fragile relationships each attempts to sustain with their children.  Some of those things are cruel, as some bloggers have said, emotionally destructive.  I have yet to meet a parent who is able to shield their children entirely from conflict. (Well, maybe Molly Monet @ ‘Postcards.’) Parents can be civil and hold their tongues, but still exude animosity and mistrust in one another’s presence, refusing any friendliness, refusing even to smile.  For a child, that tension is a capital-suck.  (More on that soon.)

3 comments to Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Personal History

  • Oh honey, we haven't shielded our children from conflict. In fact, ironically, we had a pretty big blow up tonight. The only difference is that we do put our conflicts aside eventually and show our kids that we still love each other. Maybe it would be nice to never show them conflict, but I think that it's pretty realistic for couples to fight, especially divorced ones. I guess I hope that we are teaching our children that despite our fights we still love them and each other.
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  • Sassy0

    It's sometimes the hardest work I've ever done, NOT saying the things my brain is screaming.

    And smiling even when my Ex-husband's girlfriend comes in, carrying the birthday cake for MY child. (thank goodness I have some acting experience under my belt!)

    But I promised myself 2 years ago that I would always take the high road, and I take my snark to my friends and family in private.

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    • Private snark is healthy and cathartic! Biting back viscous retorts ain't easy, baby, and it was really sweet of you not to throw the cake at Ex's g.f.