Tue | Dec 11, 2018

Ishena Robinson | Dalton, scars and confronting abuse

Published:Wednesday | December 5, 2018 | 12:00 AM

With Dalton Harris' meteoric success on The X Factor and the accompanying controversies that Jamaicans had varied opinions on, his disclosure of childhood abuse and his mother's response to those revelations have shone a light on a harmful norm that we historically haven't been willing to probe: our cultural acceptance of 'tough love' parenting and its traumatic effects.

Dalton's revealing profile in The Sun, which outlined the abuse he suffered as a child in Jamaica, including being put out on the streets at 15, led me to reflect on my own experience and to wonder how many Jamaicans have similar ones.

Those experiences have their roots in many things: our adherence to the belief that violent discipline is key to raising a child, absent fatherhood, and persistent poverty that makes for simmering discontent and hair-trigger tempers, the idea that children are to be seen and not heard, and that parental decisions are beyond question.

Though Dalton's revelations about the abuse he suffered detailed both the physical and mental scars it left behind ("When people tell you to go and kill yourself, after a couple of years, you feel like you probably should," he admitted), his mother told THE STAR she didn't think she should apologise.

 

CULTURE OF VIOLENCE

 

She admitted to telling her child to go stand in front of a truck so he could be run over, but says that is "scolding" that "people move past". This kind of cruel, dehumanising "scolding" is something I suspect many Jamaicans - including me - have received from the people who brought them into this world and are formative in their development from child to full-fledged adult.

To not question the wisdom of our parenting customs, many of them harmful, is a self-indulgence we can't afford, and that future Jamaican children can't either.

Proof of this can be seen in the culture of violence that successive Jamaican governments have struggled in vain to mitigate. Our people are undeniably quick to anger and disconcertingly comfortable with depravity and brutality. Whether you've been on the receiving end of these performances of rage or carried out a degree of it on your own, it's clear we're a nation of the walking wounded.

But why wouldn't we be? Our hereditary pains have barely been examined because, for the most part, no one wants to acknowledge them. And so the connection of those pains to the pain we continue to inflict on each other is uninterrogated.

Jamaican parents don't want to admit to any wrong they may have done to their children, though there's no perfect person or parent on earth. For their children who still grapple with the deeply ingrained by-products of their complicated childhoods, it's difficult to move beyond it when you're told what happened isn't significant enough to apologise for.

Apologies, though admittedly symbolic, can be incredibly healing. Instead, they are often sidestepped by parents' loud affirmation of what they did right, i.e., fed and clothed their child.

Though both can be true - that a parent deeply hurt their child and that a parent was also beneficial to the child in other ways - dismissing the former and implying only the latter matters is cowardly, nonsensical, and detrimental to us all.

Dalton was victorious on the X Factor stage because he was scrappy and fought back against the limiting narratives he was told about himself. That's a hard-won battle that survivors of child abuse often spend their whole lives grappling with. Alongside every story of overcoming is the silent suffering of Jamaicans still shackled with trauma of their childhood.

Providing for a child is a responsibility you choose when you bring them into this world. Providing for their emotional well-being, or at least not being the person who eviscerates it, is another responsibility you take on when you conceive a human being.

Though it was unfortunate that Dalton's triumphant stint on the X Factor stage was clouded by a public dissection of the complex relationship with his mother, I'm hoping his bravery and our shared pride in his win will inspire more Jamaican families to have these difficult conversations.

Let's not leave our aching hurts buried, and let's not exhort others to do so, because what's buried but not dealt with comes out in damaging ways. Let's not urge for forgiveness while forgetting to call for the acknowledgement and healing that gives birth to any lasting form of it.

An honest reckoning of the relationship between Jamaican parents and their children, along with meaningful reconciliations based on shared respect and empathy, is a critical component in crafting the Jamaica we hope to be.

- Ishena Robinson is a public-relations and communications specialist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ishenarobinson@gmail.com.