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Verna Bartlett

Lesson 1 – The Orphan: Denial and Self-Loathing

Goal: Learn about the isolation, pain, and harming effects of domestic violence.

Activity: Listen to Verna Bartlett’s story and review the information and questions presented in this lesson for self-reflection.  Use these links to access the available resources with this lesson:  Verna Bartlett’s Bibliography, Anger Information Sheet, Feelings Resource Sheet, and the Historical Trauma Resource Sheet.

Domestic Violence is most often an unspoken and unaccepted occurrence amongst Native Americans. It is common for Native American people to refuse to talk about or accept that this occurs within the homes and lives of Native American people.  There is reason for this denial.  The traumatic effect of domestic violence has been reinforced by years of historical trauma which is very hard to face.  Once a proud people living in balance with the Earth and all who inhabit it, the loss of this identity and the current abuses are very painful.   This pain coupled with the denial has very significant negative effects on the victims, families, and tribes. When the trauma is unspoken and unaccepted, the effects come out in rage, alcoholism, social isolation, self loathing thoughts, and harmful actions.

“My Mama said: ‘We don’t have that in our family.’ So, I just internalized it. It came out in forms of rage. I would attempt to kill people with a knife; not people, men. I was just a dirty, ugly, nasty little girl. And that’s how I thought of myself; fat and ugly and no good. I had started drinking, and in July of that year, I cut my wrist so bad that I had a cast. I really wanted to die. I saw no point in living. I would jump out of cars that were moving.” Verna Bartlett

Verna Bartlett’s story is an honest reflection of the effects of alcoholism, sexual, verbal, and physical abuse.  Raised in a family and home suffering the effects of alcoholism, she shares

“Mama suffered from alcoholism. My father died at age 50 from alcoholism. It was all around me. And for anyone to be sober, or not fighting, or all the things I lived through, they were odd.” Verna’s story reflects a life where alcohol was an ordinary and daily occurrence.  She shares how alcohol and chaos was common that there were never questions or concern that this was not a normal family environment. “My brother has scars. We weren’t just beaten with a belt; we were beaten with the buckle end of the belt. And then this man just groomed me to where, he would send my brother to his room telling him he’s not allowed to come out, and then he’d take me to his room. When I was seven years old I didn’t know what was going on. No one ever told me anything about sex or touching. So he had access to me from the time I was seven until I was eleven. Verna Bartlett

Physical violence and sexual abuse creates fear and pain that is difficult to explain for a child.  Typically the abuser is one whom the child loves and is an adult whom a child has been taught to respect.  Listening and following directions is what a child does.  When fear and pain become interwoven into this relationship, it is hard to understand and very difficult to explain.  Many times when the abuse does get addressed, irrational beliefs and ideas become the predominant message.  “Mama told me that I drove away the only man she ever loved; that it was all my fault. So, it was my fault. I owned it. Verna Bartlett It is when the ownership of the abuse becomes a part of the abused person’s life that self-esteem becomes affected.

Verna Bartlett:  “You dirty, ugly thing, you don’t deserve to live.

You’re bad. You’re nasty. You’re filthy. You know, you did bad things.”

Self-esteem is the basic attitude that one has towards one’s self.  When our self esteem is poor and we don’t like ourselves, it can be very difficult to make good choices for ourselves.   The outcome of being abused is generally poor self-esteem with a tendency to make abusive choices towards ourselves.  Self-loathing is an extreme form of poor self-esteem where self-defeating behaviors become a part of the person’s life.

Poor self-esteem and self loathing is an effect of domestic violence that separates us from our families and community.  We become an orphan.  A common definition of an orphan is a child permanently bereaved of his or her parents.  Verna’s story of her childhood provides insight into domestic violence including sexual abuse and how this separates and creates loss in relationship with her parents.  The feelings and experiences of being alone are very real to those whom experience this trauma.

Examine Verna’s story using the following questions:

  1. At what age does Verna identify being sexually abused?  How long did it last?
  2. As Verna grew up, what words did she use to describe herself?
  3. How does Verna’s story describe becoming an “orphan”? What were the factors that created contributed to this?
  4. How did family and tribal denial support Verna’s perception of herself?

Verna became an orphan without ever leaving home and carried this isolation and pain with her as she grew older.  As the years passed by, she continued to live taking personal responsibility for the hardships and pain of her family.  She lived with negative beliefs about herself and she approached all relationships, especially men, with anger and resistance.   She identified using alcohol and remaining in relationships with those whom would abuse her.

“I got married and endured domestic violence to the point of where he beat me so badly, and I crawled back in a closet, and I had four babies; I was 24 years old, and I crawled back in a closet, so he couldn’t get to me, because he kept on following. I went way back in the corner. He went to work in the morning, and I crawled out of there, my eyes were both closed, my cheekbone was fractured, my nose was broken.” Verna Bartlett

Although older, the childhood domestic violence followed Verna into her marriage.  The alcohol and chaos repeated itself in a similar way as when she was a small child.  It was through this experience she began to ask why.  Although she did not stop drinking alcohol, she fought back against the abuser to begin looking at change.   In the Hero’s journey, the orphan begins to question why something in life happens the way it does and this is when change begins.  Verna began to look at the abuse and found the courage to say no.

If you have experienced domestic violence, stop and ask the following questions:

  1. Do I live a life of chaos?
  2. Is my choice of relationships and partners similar to the time of domestic violence?
  3. Do I drink alcohol to stop the pain?
  4. Do I get emotionally or physically hurt by my partner or relationships?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, review these first steps of the orphan’s journey:

  1. Find SAFETY.  Go to a safe place.  Find a safe person who will listen to what you have to say.
  2. With safety, take the risk to BE HONEST as to what is really going on.
  3. Create a PLAN for to change the negative pattern like talking to an Elder, friend, family, counselor, or a crisis line person.

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