A critical disaster;Friday's child;Parting Shots

5th June 1998 at 01:00
Reva Klein on the scars left by perpetual parental put-downs.

Think Woody Allen without the one-liners, Marilyn Monroe without the looks, Stephen Fry without the urbanity. Poor self-image can be found among the most witty, the most gorgeous, the most intelligent - and among the most ordinary.

Everyone has periods of self-doubt. Even Hitler, poor sod, felt a failure when he was rejected from art school. Whether his subsequent actions were a result of a manic desire to get even with the world is debatable. But what isn't in doubt is the deep and lasting scars left by rejection and continual criticism.

Rebecca is a case in point. She's 14, clever, funny, presentable and blessed with a few good friends who are also clever and funny. But instead of being the sunny, sparkly girl she should be, she holds back from everyone but those whose affection she's sure of - or as sure as any 14-year-old girl can be.

She'll occasionally contribute to classroom discussions, but refuses to take part in school activities. She's good at drama and writing, but studiously avoids joining groups and clubs that would draw attention to herself. And socially, she steers clear of the popular clique in particular and boys in general.

She blushes when a member of one group or the other speaks to her. It's not that she's shy, because she gets on with a wide variety of people, including some supportive teachers. No, it's something else.

She's got a problem, and only her two sisters, both younger than her, know what it is. It's her father. He's hyper-critical of her, putting her down for everything from a miniscule weight gain to the television shows she likes, from the company she keeps to the way she walks. He makes it clear by his facial expression and his sarcastic, vituperative tone of voice that her very existence is an irritant to him.

Her diary is a journal of despair, mixed with occasional bursts of anger. "Yesterday , just as I was leaving for school he said my hair looked greasy and how could I go out looking like that. The day before, he took the mickey out of my voice while I was talking on the phone. Nothing I do or say is right. Why can't he leave me alone? Why can't he just go away and never come back?" But he doesn't and he won't. Her mother is blind to what's going on. She's got problems of her own. And her sisters don't intervene for fear of his sharp tongue rounding on them. So everyone cowers and watches.

If this continues, the writing's on the wall that Rebecca will rebel - not just against her tyrannical father but against her own best interests. She's already begun to internalise the years of criticism, believing herself to be useless, ugly and stupid. The next phase - self-destructive behaviour - could be much worse.

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