Parental Alienation as seen through the lens of Autism
At the risk of angering disability rights advocates I have adapted the title of this blog from a popular slogan: “Once you have met one person with Autism, you have met one person with Autism.”
The philosophy behind the original slogan is admirable. Disability rights advocates want to emphasize the importance of honoring and respecting each individual regardless of their diagnosis or disability. They caution against painting with a broad brush, the entire population of those with NeuroDiversity.
Obviously, this is an important caveat. Equally true is that the topic of parental alienation should be handled delicately. Can we say that all parental alienators are not the same? Maybe. But I maintain that parental alienation is not only child abuse but that it is a crime — regardless of the alienator’s personality or disability.
In this blog I want to describe how the NeuroDiverse mindset can cause, contribute to, and be abused/manipulated by parental alienating methods.
In this first in a series on Autism and Parental Alienation, I describe the painful awakening of an ASD adult to parental alienation efforts by his ASD father. Further, you will see how my client’s childhood is contributing to the abuse of his own young ASD son.1
Fortunately, this client and his family make it and I will discuss their success in later blogs. For now, I want you to read the following vignette to learn the basics of how the autistic mind can be trapped by the vicious abuse of parental alienation.
Danny and La Mar: The not so simple story
In the following vignette, I introduce you to Danny (NeuroDiverse) and La Mar (NeuroTypical). They are married and came to me for guidance with their NeuroDivergent relationship. As we explored their problems, the frightening story of parental alienation surfaced.
In this vignette, Danny has only recently learned the facts surrounding his father’s alienating efforts. It is shocking and he is still reeling from the discovery that resulted in severing the ties with his mother for thirty years.
Danny squeezed back the tears in his eyes and gritted his teeth, in an effort to hold back his frustration. He said, “It’s not that! It’s not that! I get it that my father lied to me, but what does that have to do with my marriage?”
Danny’s wife La Mar has been trying to break through his denial for a long time. Of course, denial being what it is, this is no easy feat. When someone is “in denial” they don’t have a conscious awareness or objective view of the problem. It’s as if what the other person is talking about doesn’t even exist.
La Mar tried again. “Danny, you treat me just like your mother. You despise your mother so much you haven’t seen her in 30 years. We get along just fine except when you start attacking my mothering with our son, Charlie.”
Shaking his head vigorously, getting red in the face, and squeezing back more tears, Danny said, “You always bring that up. It’s just that you won’t let me parent either. You are always rescuing Charlie — from me. I’m a good father!”
“I’m not questioning that you are a good father. I am asking you to consider that your father’s lies — his parental alienation — shaped how you treat me and your son. And I want it fixed, or I want a divorce!” La Mar was just as emphatic as her husband about his distress over the topic.
At this point, I offered to help. “Danny — La Mar — let me help. In one way Danny is correct. There are two different topics and he just wants to better understand the connection La Mar is making.” People on the Spectrum like Danny do better when you take one thing at a time.
I continue, “La Mar is correct too. She knows that the trauma of parental alienation from so many years ago, is somehow connected to the present. Yes, these two topics — Danny’s childhood and Danny’s and La Mar’s marriage, have one common denominator — Danny.” I attempt to help Danny see that there are two issues but that they are related.
Both are looking at me, with a tiny inkling of light beginning to dawn in their minds. While they are thinking about the distinction I am making, let me summarize the history.
After much prodding by La Mar and encouragement from his therapist, Danny finally approached his father to find out what happened when his parents divorced. The truth was ugly.
When Danny was young, the family lived in India. Danny’s father was a professional (with an advanced degree) who decided to relocate to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to make more money. He left his wife and three young children with her mother and was gone for two years. Although he sent money home, he made few visits back home. In the meantime, Danny’s mother suffered under the separation. She eventually had a short-lived affair.
When Danny’s father returned to India, and discovered the affair, he immediately filed for divorce. Even though Danny’s mother begged him to forgive her, he refused. Danny’s father engaged in a plan of retribution. He paid the divorce judge $100,000 to find in his favor and grant him full custody of Danny (and the other children). He encouraged Danny to believe the worst of his mother by calling her names in front of the child — such as “cheater.” To this day, Danny refers to his mother as a “cheater.”
As if this weren’t harsh enough, Danny’s father remarried almost immediately upon divorcing Danny’s mother. Then he moved the family to the USA when Danny was just age 11. He has had no contact with his mother in three decades and is even unsure of her whereabouts or if she is alive.
Even after discovering the truth about his father’s machinations, Danny struggles with accepting his own inner conflicts. For example, he describes the judicial bribe as necessary, “…since all my mother cares about is money. That’s why my father went to the UAE in the first place.” He still carries the beliefs he acquired as a child.
Back in the session with Danny and La Mar, I offer to connect the dots. Before I could start, Danny offered more defensive denial.
“Everyone knows my mother is cold and unloving. The only warmth I got was from my grandmother when I lived with them. In fact, my mother was so lazy she had a nanny.”
“Danny,” I said. “You might want to consider that there is a lot more to this story than the memories of a little boy. For example, your parents were fairly wealthy by Indian standards. They could afford a housekeeper and a nanny. In fact, isn’t that pretty standard in India?”
La Mar looked at me with surprise. “I never knew this.” La Mar is American born, so she hadn’t considered the cultural differences.
“Yes, La Mar, it is quite common for the upper classes in India to have servants. Housekeepers and gardeners and nannies all work for very low wages. Not like it is here in the USA,” I explained.
“So, Danny, is it possible that your father wanted you to believe your mother was cold and unloving — for an ulterior motive?” I asked.
Again, Danny shook his head, a bit more slowly this time. “No, No, you don’t understand,” he repeated. “She was a cheater!”
Even La Mar could detect his childish outburst. She looked at him and her eyes widened. Then she looked at me inquisitively, as she was getting a handle on the devastating parental alienation her husband had suffered. La Mar had not fully comprehended how brainwashing occurs with a child under these pressures.
I tried to be comforting as I guided Danny to consider a more mature way of looking at the problems of his parents. “Danny, I want you to consider what it might have been like for your mother to be raising you by herself — yes, even with the help of her mother and the nanny. Wealth and status provide some support, but don’t you think she may have been lonely without your father? Don’t you think she may have struggled to find resources for you too? After all she didn’t know that you (and your father) are on the Autism Spectrum.”
La Mar, Danny’s NeuroTypical wife, got it! “Bingo,” she said. La Mar looked relieved that an answer was emerging. “That’s exactly how I feel and Danny is not working thousands of miles away in the UAE. I feel like I am parenting Charlie all by myself. Both Charlie and Danny are on the Autism Spectrum, but Danny acts like this is irrelevant. And then he blames me for being fatigued and asking for his help. He calls me lazy too — just like he believes of his mother.”
Danny sat there in a puddle of tears, his head hanging down so that I couldn’t see his “shame.”
While La Mar can understand the interaction of the past and the present, I need a more transactional explanation for Danny.
I offer this solution to Danny and wait to see if he gets it. “Danny, your father decided to leave his family to make more money abroad. I wouldn’t be surprised if he never asked your mother how she felt about the decision. Then when he returned after two years, he expected to step back into his family, as if nothing had changed. When he discovered your mother’s affair, he made another solo decision to divorce. In his black and white thinking, your mother had wronged him. He took no responsibility for the marital problems. She was wrong. He was right.”
“Are you following me so far Danny?” He nodded a silent affirmation.
“OK,” I continued. “Because your father believed these things of your mother, he had no reason to keep them from you. You were only 11 when he told you she was a “cheater” and that this justified a divorce. You were only 11 years old when he expected you to abandon your home and travel with him across the world, never to see your mother again. You were only 11 when he convinced you that your mother was cold and unloving and only wanted your father for his money. You believed him, why?”
“Because she didn’t fight for me!” Danny blurted out. “My father showed me a letter from her that she didn’t have enough money to take care of me, so she agreed to let me go.”
I said, “That sounds like a letter from a mother who feels beaten down and has no resources left. She didn’t write that she stopped loving you. Sadly, she accepted that she was outmatched by your father.” It was tough going at this point. Danny still couldn’t break the denial.
La Mar broke in. “Your father hates women, Danny. You know this. You were shocked at what he has said to me and about me behind my back. Like when he called me a ‘c—.’ And you didn’t defend me or anything!”
Danny responded. “That wasn’t right. I know. But I told you not to have conversations with my father. I knew you two would tangle.”
“Danny,” I wanted to bring him back to the connection — the connection between his childhood and his marriage. “Danny, what happened to you all of those years ago when you were just a little boy — when your father paid a judge to help him get rid of your mother — when he convinced you that your mother didn’t love you because she was a ‘cheater’ — that is called parental alienation. And it is a terrible form of child abuse.”
“Wait, wait!” I admonish Danny as he tries to break in. “Your father is willing to call your wife the ‘C’ word, in front of you, just as he called your mother a ‘cheater’ right in front of you, what kind of man is he?”
“I know, I know, Dr. Marshack. I have already told my father that he is not allowed in my home again, or to speak to my wife. That he went too far with La Mar.” Danny had taken one tiny step out of denial.
I continued. “Danny, your father went too far with your mother too.” Danny looked at me with a quizzical look, but a glimmer…
“Parental alienation destroys the whole family, Danny. Your father was hell-bent on destroying your mother. And it didn’t matter if he destroyed you along with her. By destroying a child’s love for his mother, he locked away a part of you. That part is screaming to be set free every time you criticize your beautiful wife for her mothering — especially when you know there is no reason for the negativity.”
La Mar is excited. “Tell him, Dr. Marshack. Tell him what part is locked away.”
I smile at La Mar. She dearly loves her autistic husband and wants him to grow. “Danny, do you want to know what I mean?” I asked. Danny said nothing, but he waited.
“I take it that you are ready,” I said. I chose carefully my next few comments. “You are not your father’s property Danny. You are a whole person. Even as a child you were a whole person, who loved his mother and his father. Even if they fell out of love — even if they hurt and betrayed each other — you loved them both.”
“Your father made you choose sides in his war with your mother. He stole your childhood from you. You were innocent. You didn’t understand the complications of a NeuroDivergent relationship. You deserved to have love for both of your parents, even if they didn’t love each other anymore. Your father’s anger frightened you. Your mother’s weakness frightened you. So, you chose sides to make peace with the conflict. You turned your back on your mother, just as your father planned.”
“But I decided I didn’t want to see my mother anymore,” Danny argued. “It was my decision.”
“I’m sure that suited your father,” I said. “In your father’s transactional world, he had won. He was right. And you were doing the right thing to cut off your mother. He never thought about how it made you feel. Winning is important to your father, not healing.”
“So, for the sake of argument, Dr. Marshack, let’s assume you are right about all of this. “What does my father’s parental alienation have to do with my wife and me?” Danny’s challenge was simple, straight forward — and transactional — the standard often used by the NeuroDiverse. Now that he had accepted the logic I outlined about parental alienation, he was moving onto the second topic — his marital problems.
“It’s very simple Danny. Your father encouraged you to hate your mother. Your mother, whom you loved. In order to resolve the conflict imposed by your father, you turned your back on your mother as a child and have kept it turned away even as a grown man. Only when you became the parent of a little boy yourself, did you have to turn around. The feelings are emerging once again of the conflict you felt all those years ago. In other words, how do you keep the hatred going amidst love for the mother of your son? You didn’t resolve those conflicted feelings from your childhood, Danny. You haven’t healed. You buried them, only to resurrect them with your wife when you argue with her over mothering.”
I continue. “It’s not La Mar’s mothering that alarms you. It’s that she is a mother (flaws and all). Your own mother could not save you from your father. She wasn’t capable or brave or who knows what? She loved you but was flawed just like La Mar. Only when your father shows his misogynistic side by calling your wife foul names, do you wake up and realize something is wrong with the man.”
“One more thing Danny.” This is where I bring it home. “Do you realize that disparaging La Mar, even if it is out of your son’s ear shot, — that you are imposing on Charlie the same conflict your father imposed on you? Has it occurred to you that Charlie may feel as you did — that he has no choice but to shut down the conflict between his parents by choosing sides? Why would you want to put him through that suffering?”
More. “It’s not your fault, Danny. You were conned. You were psychologically abused by your father. But you can fix this. I will help you. You and La Mar and Charlie deserve a wonderful life where we allow for mistakes. In fact, mistakes help us grow into better people, if we forgive and work toward resolution. It’s not the transactional model of win/lose, Danny. It’s the interactional model of loving the other person enough to give second chances.”
Once you’ve met one autistic person, you need to meet the rest of the family
This may be the first time I have shared such a long vignette, but I know of no other way to untangle the mystery of parental alienation in a NeuroDivergent family. Honestly, I could have told you more, but I will save that for the next blog in this series.
It is just as important to learn about how Danny healed from the devastation wrought by his father. But for now, I want you to reread this scenario to fully understand how autism filled in the gaps of this cruelest of abuses.
I am not saying that autism causes parental alienation. Parental alienation is a cruel form of abuse (to children and adults) that is perpetrated by mentally disturbed and unethical people. Autism is a risk factor that can’t be ignored if we are to help NeuroDivergent families survive this devastation.
In order to comprehend the full extent of parental alienation in NeuroDivergent families, you need to know much more than the diagnosis of autism, or even the dynamics of parental alienation. You need to analyze the interacting systems composed of the Autist and their family members. It is the interaction of these systems that breaks down the child, the mother or father, and the family.
This is why I offer yet another way to think about autism: Once you have met one autistic person, you need to meet the rest of the family.
NeuroDiverse individuals lean heavily on the transactional method to problem solve. For Danny’s father it was a simple matter of math that he should leave his family for two years. It never occurred to him that this might disrupt the family system. Making more money seemed to be his agenda.2
If he had taken a more interactional approach, he would have weighed the value of the increased income against the emotional/psychological well-being of his family. For example, he may still have chosen to work in the UAE but to travel home more often. He would have earned less money but may have kept the love alive in his marriage.
By choosing to make a transactional decision, rather than one of the heart, the message to Danny was confusing too. He was influenced to believe that his role as a husband and a father is more about financial support than emotional support.
Of course, many people can make this mistake, but Danny’s father went further. When he did return home, to find his wife had been unfaithful, he took no responsibility for the breakdown of his marriage. Without empathy, he couldn’t fathom how his wife felt being left alone. All he could process is that he had been wronged. This is characteristic black and white thinking often seen with NeuroDiverse individuals.
Context blindness comes into play here too (another characteristic of autism). Danny’s father didn’t recognize how his actions affected his children. He didn’t evaluate the toll on the development of his children. Danny’s response to his father’s absence was to work hard to be a perfect child. He got stellar grades in school and helped his mother with the younger children. But his perfectionistic tendencies could not make up for the loss of his father.
Danny would still have missed his father for those two years but he didn’t have to feel all alone with his grief had his father stayed in contact and visited more often. Danny’s father acted like all that mattered was the job, not affirming those he loved. Danny accepted his father’s decisions all of these years without questioning his own feelings. This is very common for those on the Spectrum who have alexithymia.
The family may have been able to recoup from all of this turmoil, but Danny’s father destroyed that opportunity. With Empathy Dysfunction, he thought of nothing except punishing his wife. He convinced Danny that he was totally justified in taking him away from his mother because she was a “cheater.” Never once did he consider how damaging this would be to his children, let alone the mother of his children.
You might be asking why Danny would accept his father’s logic? Or why he could turn away from his mother and never look back. As an autistic child, Danny added up the numbers similarly to his father. In his mind, if his mother committed a sin, she deserved to be punished and banished from the family forever, regardless of how much this pained him. He had no idea that his father paid the judge to make sure she was cut off from her children. Rather he believed that she was a cold-hearted woman who walked out because she was a “cheater.”
It was La Mar who forced the issue. Months before Danny found out, La Mar discovered the truth about Danny’s childhood from his step-mother. Danny’s step-mother was also terrified to confront her husband over what he had done to his children. However, she wanted the truth to come out and offered it to La Mar.
Love is not a transaction. Love is a conversation.
Most of you will read this tragic story with disbelief that anyone could be as cruel as Danny’s father. You are just as likely to believe that you would never be as gullible as Danny — not with your mother, whom you love. However, I want you to consider the vulnerability of an autistic child, or any child for that matter.
Danny was on his own to make sense of a tragic situation. As an autist he accepted a simple transactional answer. This acceptance worked for many years. It made it possible for him to let go of his suffering. Of course, deep down inside the problem was not resolved and surfaced with angry outbursts toward his wife.
If NeuroDivergent families are to face the heavy toll of parental alienation, they will need to come to terms with the transactional decision making that handicaps recovery. Love is not a transaction. Love is not something that you give or take away.
In fact, love is not a thing at all. Love is a dynamic process — an energy — that is exchanged between people when they affirm each other. The process of affirming and connecting with each other helps love to grow and mature and survive.
I think of love as a conversation that ebbs and flows. When we interact with our loved ones, this ebbing and flowing energy rises and falls with the words and perspective shared with each other.
Danny’s father parked love on the side of the road when he left his family to work in the United Arab Emirates. He thought he could pick it up again when he returned home. That’s not how love works, but transactional people can lose track of this principle. If you act as if love is a commodity, then a NeuroDivergent family may be vulnerable to parental alienation.
1. I have protected the identity of this family with changes of name and minor details. Essentially the story is typical of NeuroDivergent families where parental alienation occurs.
2. To learn more about some of this terminology I refer you to my book “Empathy is More Than Words.” I describe several terms in the book such as transactional, interactional, Empathy Dysfunctional, context blindness, alexithymia and other traits of autism.