If you have ever faced abuse as a child, you know how it changes the fibre of your soul and the atoms of your body. Studies corroborate how abuse impacts not only the structure of children's brains but also their behaviour patterns. They slip into a state of hyper-alertness propelled by the instinct of protecting themselves from predators. Some live in a shadow of constant fear, while others find it harder to trust adults. Few develop learning disability, are unable to sustain healthy relationships and struggle with failing self-esteem. Each child processes the trauma of abuse differently and in cases in which the trauma is not dealt with, the unprocessed trauma has emotional as well as physical manifestations. Studies show how untreated trauma gets stored in our body tissues and can cause chronic diseases in later years.
According to a World Health Organisation estimate (published on June 2020) globally, up to 1 billion children between the age of 2–17 years have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence or neglect in the past year (2019). That is a much higher number than those who have suffered from the coronavirus this year. Yet, child abuse remains a 'silent pandemic' that continues to affect all countries, racial and ethnic groups, and strata of society for centuries, without much attention being paid to the issue. Author Rituparna Chatterjee calls it a 'plague' that can only be entirely obliterated through cultural and societal changes.
In her recent book, The Water Phoenix, Chatterjee delves deep into the crevices of her memory and revisits the incidents of abuse she had faced as a child, and explains how it has shaped her life. The book, a memoir, is hard-hitting, and emotionally wrenching in parts where Chatterjee reconstructs episodes of abuse, but in its essence, it is filled with compassion and hope. It runs chronologically, as we meet Chatterjee as a young Ritu -- the lover of Peepul tree and all things magical -- who loses her mother early and is pushed to a life of parental neglect in which she encounters sexual abuse several times. Through the story of her life, Chatterjee not only addresses the more widely acknowledged forms of abuse -- like sexual and physical violence against children -- but also the subtler types of emotional and psychological abuse like neglect, constant criticism or judgement, emotional manipulations, taunting and bullying that children often face but don't know how to label.
In an interview with News18, the author explained that it is tough for kids to cope with emotional abuse because they have no resources to do so. Every part of society encourages emotional abuse, invalidating children's feelings, thereby making them more vulnerable and turning them into victims or prodding them towards abusiveness and violent behaviour and changing them into bullies.
"Children feel their way through the world before they are taught to think, therefore, they are instinctively sensitive, and we don't need to sensitize them (about these subtler forms of abuse). All we need to do is to respect their inherent Sensitivity," pointed out Chatterjee. "Sensitivity is our compass, for it tells us what is safe and what isn't. So, we need to hone it instead of suppressing it. Only then will we have a society more tuned into humanity, which in turn will make for a kinder, better world," she added.
Chatterjee's book is essential because it not only speaks to many who have lived through abuse but also plugs a big literature gap. Although approximately one kid is abused every 15 minutes in India, there aren't many first-person accounts of such cases in the public domain so far. Therefore, it doesn't come as a surprise that The Water Phoenix has already garnered a lot of interest.
"The response has been tremendous and deeply humbling. I am drowning in a tsunami of stories from other abuse survivors, many of whom are men. If I could rewrite the book, I'd write about them too because I feel it is even harder on the men. All the men have said I must talk about how little boys too, are targets and victims," said the author.
"Needless to say, I am overwhelmed with these messages pouring in, mostly from strangers, but many from people I thought I knew my whole life. They feel it has inspired them to share their own stories, confront their own families about their abuse and begin their journeys towards healing. I am so moved…The Water Phoenix maybe my memoir, but it isn't just my story. It is the story of millions, if not a billion or two," added Chatterjee.
Another reason that Chatterjee's book has resonated with so many across the world is because it is as much about abuse as it is about healing. In her case, the path to healing was paved with forgiveness. In the book, the author writes, "Forgiveness is the most selfish choice you can make. It is the most self-loving choice you can make. Forgiveness is the last step, but you cannot rush or force it. You cannot just wake up one morning and decide to forgive. Contrary to the pressure in spiritual circles, it cannot and must not be forced. That wouldn't be self-loving would it? You can only forgive when you are ready. Forgiveness often comes naturally when you have healed enough to truly know your own Power and realize that there is nothing left to forgive. Why? Because it isn't about the abuser at all. It is the only way to fill the void within you, no matter the trauma. And so it is often the only choice that works. It takes a minute and a simple decision to shift. (But this state of resolution arrives only after a lot of healing – including physically distancing one's self from the abuser – has already taken place.) What happened does not matter, what matters is what you do with it. With the power of awareness, we alchemize suffering into gold. We realize that no matter our stories, no matter how great our suffering, freedom is in our hands."
For Chatterjee, forgiveness is an act of 'radical self-love'. "If we forgive because we are supposed to, then it's an act of self-hate. My reasons to forgive were to set myself free…because it was about me and not about the abuser at all. I had grown up and spent three decades or 90% of my life in this hell which had occurred only when I was a child. I had reached the brink of insanity and such deep imprisonment that it was becoming impossible to stay alive. I had to finally die or to rebirth myself. I chose the latter, and the way was forgiveness. It was as important to forgive myself as the people who were supposed to take care of me," she added.