The article shows a pathway to resilience that Phil described. Not only did Phil cope with child sexual abuse and other cruelties in prosocial ways, but he had the intelligence to succeed in school, the good judgment to marry a competent woman and respond to her reasonable demands, and the social skills to succeed at work. He also did not have a sense of entitlement. This is an adaptation of excerpt from a published paper (Gilgun, 1999) and is a chapter from The Logic of Murderous Rampages and Other Essays on Violence and Its Prevention.
Much of what motivated Phil to succeed was a pushback against his father’s emotional abuse. Not only did Phil show a strong positive sense of agency in how he responded to his father's cruelty, but he had many other qualities that were factors in his success in life despite adversities. Agency means a sense of will to do or to be something. This excerpt from interviews I did with Phil is an example of how he became afraid he was stupid. He described a time when he was 16 and worked on his car with his father.
We were working on a car one time, which is kind of--it sticks out in my mind, because I was lying underneath my car and working on it, and my shoulder touched his shoulder, and it burned. I just hated it. I never touched him otherwise. We never shook hands, never did anything. It just burned. So anyway, he said, 'Give me an open-ended wrench.' I got a wrench. It wasn't an open-ended wrench. He says, 'You stupid son of a bitch.' He says, 'You fucking kids are so stupid.' He rolled out, and he went and got his own tool. So what I did is that I went and I got a Sears magazine, and I studied the tools, what was what, so I could--so he would never have to do that to me again.
Learning the names of all the tools is a positive coping strategy. This was a prosocial response to his father’s cruelty. He could have yelled at his father and done something to get back at him. Instead, he educated himself about tools to keep his father from call him names.
Phil’s prosocial responses helped him to develop a sense of competence in knowing tools. He also established affirming relationships with others. He had a life-long best friend named Dave in whom he confided most of his feelings and experiences, and, when he was 16 and had his first girlfriend, he told her his life story, leaving out only the sexual abuse. As an adult, he talked frankly to his wife about his problems at work, and she appeared to have been an important factor in his career success. In short, Phil talked to others about personal, sensitive matters and found that helped.
As a teenager, Phil found an alternate father in Bob, Dave's father, who affirmed his sense of self-efficacy. He said of Bob
I think he liked me because I was industrious. Dave and I would go to Dave's house and Bob would help us, and we'd get into conversations.
He was at their house everyday. Bob taught Phil how to repair electronic equipment, and by the time he was 16, Phil was running a small business and making good money repairing small appliances, radios, and televisions. As Phil was learning how to repair this equipment, he sometimes made mistakes, but Bob was kind to him. Phil in turn would help Bob when Bob needed an extra pair of hands: He said, "Bob was a model for me. I would watch him and help him. If I got into trouble, Bob would help me." In other conversations about Bob, it appeared that Phil consciously sought to be like him.
Into adulthood, he attended vocational school and college where he acquired knowledge and skills that that eventually led him to head a manufacturing concern. He attributed his hard work in school as attempting to prove to his father that he was not stupid. He said
I suffered from severe low self-esteem for many years. I went to trade school, and I couldn't get into the class. I wanted to be an electrician, because my father used to be a tradesman, and I couldn't study in school. I was a wreck. I was just the bottom of all the grades. I got into the Technical Institute, and the guy said, 'You're nuts.' I took the entrance exam, and I didn't know any math. He says, 'You can't be an electrician. You don't know any math,' and it was just a knife in my heart. I thought I could finally prove myself to my dad, and I couldn't do it.
So I took this other course, industrial hydraulics, pneumatics. I got in there, straight A's. I just got a job, went back to night school and did the electricity course, took the refrigeration and air conditioning course, took electronics courses. I'd get all this stuff. I kept trying to prove myself to my dad and prove that I was smart. Then I was sick of trade school, and I went to college. Anyway, things started clicking in my life, and I still suffered from this self--this issue that I'm stupid.
Phil sought tutoring in math from Dave, Bob’s son and Phil’s friend from childhood, who by then was in dental school. This shows that Phil sought help when he needed it and maintained relationships with Dave and his family over many years.
Determined to succeed in school and to show his father that he was not stupid, Phil displayed a strong sense of agency. He succeeded, and that success led to career success, a success. Though Phil had a single explanation for his school success, I believe there were other factors as well: he probably liked to learn, he may have set high standards for himself in terms of the kinds of jobs he wanted, and he probably formed some satisfying relationships with some of his teachers, as he had formed such a relationship with Bob.
A Competent Wife
His wife Sal helped him deal with work stress by listening. She also was a capable household manager, which he recognized, although he put himself down--typical of persons who feel defective:
I was like a big baby. I couldn't take care of myself. She [wife Sal] took care of me completely, totally. She was like my mother, and if I was angry about work, she'd listen. She would wash the clothes, clean the house, handle the bills. I wouldn't have to worry about the money. That was her problem, not mine. I would go to work, take my paycheck, give it to my wife.
He was married while in school, and Sal's taking care of the household as effectively as she did undoubtedly gave Phil the time to devote to his studies.
Sal may have been instrumental in his decision to join AA and to enter therapy. She fought with him and refused to give in to Phil's self-defeating decisions. When one of their infants died, Phil at first refused to go to a grief group, which was what Sal wanted. He said, "I fought. I did fight. I didn't want to go to that thing." He went, however, because Sal "fought with me" and "convinced me to go." She said to him, "You owe this to me. You do owe this much to me."
Sal's fighting with him and his becoming convinced was based on his desire to keep his marriage and to avoid abandonment. He said
I thought that if I was going to save my marriage, because I think, come to think of it, Sal had threatened to leave a couple times, if I didn't start taking care of it, holding up to my deals, she would leave. That triggered my abandonment, and that made me react, and my abandonment came from my mother [who] would get into a fight with my father and grab her suitcases and walk out the door. She'd tell us kids that we were bad, and that she was never coming back, and we were on our own.
Phil responded to his wife's insistence that he go to the grief group, which in turn led to his joining Alcoholics Anonymous and then getting therapy for his sexual issues. His response was based on a desire to maintain his marriage and avoid abandonment. In addition, as shown earlier, he had a history of confiding in others, although he didn’t connect his decisions to seek help with that history. Thus, thus with the urging of his wife, he saw the possibility that various forms of therapy could be helpful to him.
Overall, then, Phil can be thought of as displaying resilience. He overcame adversities, and he displayed many of the coping, problem-solving behaviors that have been noted in previous research and theory. His fortuitous marriage to a capable woman who was willing to struggle with him over pivotal issues and his responses to her shows the interactional nature of resilience processes. Sal was an asset, but if he had not responded to her, she would not have become part of his resilience processes.
Earlier in his life, he also showed a capacity to make effective use of the resources in his environment. Bob, his best friend's father, was a remarkable resource for him; in turn, Phil responded well to Bob, learned a great deal from him, and then was able to build a business while a teenager, a business that increased his confidence in his abilities and that could have been a factor in his adult vocational success.
Interlacing of Risk and Resilience
Phil’s history also demonstrates that risks continue to be interlaced with resilience processes. He succeeded in school, but his need to prove something to his father was a possible risk condition that appeared to be undiminished once he proved that he could succeed in school. Another example of possible undiminished risks in resilience processes is his responses to his wife after she threatened to leave him. Is being motivated by fear of abandonment, even partially, a sign that risks are still present and not overcome?
A personal quality that may have been a factor in his ability to respond to the positive persons in his life was his emotional expressiveness. Throughout the telling of his story, he is clear about how he was feeling at any point in his life. As an adult, as the excerpts from his interview demonstrated, he was able to maintain what appeared to be an emotionally expressive marriage. Emerging in my overall research program is the idea that emotional expressiveness is an essential component of resilience processes. I touch upon this in Gilgun (1996a & b).
As is clear from Phil's story and from others that I have not reported here, a person's will, or sense of determination, appears to be pivotal in how risks and assets are used (from Gilgun, 1999).
Gilgun, Jane F. (1996). Human development and adversity in ecological perspective, Part 2: Three patterns. Families in Society, 77, 459-576.
Gilgun, Jane F. (1996). Human development and adversity in ecological perspective: Part 1: A conceptual framework. Families in Society, 77, 395-402.
Gilgun, Jane F. (1999). Mapping resilience as process among adults maltreated in childhood. In Hamilton I. McCubbin, Elizabeth A. Thompson, Anne I. Thompson, & Jo A. Futrell (Eds.), The dynamics of resilient families (pp. 41-70). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Gilgun, Jane F. (2013). The Logic of Murderous Rampages and Other Essays on Violence and its Prevention. Amazon