With her new book, Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving and Redemption, sociologist Deborah J. Cohan explores the complexities of caring for an aging parent with a history of abusive behavior.
When she was growing up, Cohan’s father was at turns a loving and kind man—but also one prone to unpredictable, vitriolic outbursts of shaming criticisms that cut to the bone.
As he got older and Cohan began to observe memory loss and a decreased ability to care for himself, the responsibility fell to her. Before long, she knew it was time to find a nursing home to offer him more continuous care. The realities of caregiving meant that Cohan was challenged to reconcile her love for her father with the pain of the trauma he caused her.
What Cohan offers readers is not so much a narrative of trauma, as a narrative of caregiving; it is unique in that Cohan doesn’t make the abuse the focus. She does share some of the most heinous things he did and said to her, such as, “You’d make my life easier if you’d commit suicide.” The entire chapter, “Messages,” is a list of voicemails left to her by her father; they run the gamut between, “I love being your father,” to “You ungrateful little bitch.”
By her own admission, her father could be as kind and gentle as he was loud and critical. He never hit her, but the threat of it was real and constant—breeding in her a fear and hyper-vigilance that is seen in many survivors of abuse. This is what made reckoning with caring for him so difficult. While she has experienced trauma at the hands of her father, she also experienced his compassion and love.
Another strength of the book is Cohan’s dedication to exploring the gray areas that often exists in families that have experienced abuse. For many, these situations aren’t as black-and-white as other, more extreme cases.
Cohan experienced the contradictions of loving someone who was awful to you, of wanting the abuse to stop but the relationship to continue, of others’ experiences of your abuser’s generosity while you experienced his dark side. Cohan is particularly adept at explaining and examining the challenges that come with these shades of gray.
As a sociologist and domestic violence expert writing about her own trauma, Cohan is able to provide professional insight into the personal aspects of surviving abuse. Most helpful is her discussion of the cyclical nature of abuse. We know that abuse is often passed down from parents to children and that cycles of abuse are challenging to disrupt because of this.
But Cohan also confronts the daily cycles of violence and forgiveness that occur within abusive family contexts, as well as the guilt that often accompanies these patterns. She examines how abuse is reproducible by survivors within their other relationships, using her own marriage as an example.
Cohan questions how we find our voice and safety, especially as survivors of abuse or neglect. She describes how trauma can also alter memory, can affect body image, can cause a need for perfectionism and can even challenge a survivor’s concepts of space and time.
Cohan graciously offers personal examples of her own struggles with these issues throughout her life—including her hyperawareness of her father’s comfort at the expense of her own. She knows what it feels like to make herself small and quiet, in order to appease her abuser and avoid potentially devastating hazards.