Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Book Review: The Shattered Oak by Sherry Genga


This involving book, based on a true story but with some facts altered, is written as a first person account (although it is not the author's story) from a woman involved in a severely physically and emotionally abusive marriage. The author takes the reader on a fascinating tour inside her mind and thought processes.

The book strongly implies that she made no effort to leave for many years, and says that her parents refused to help her do so, under the rationalization that they were too afraid of her husband. She finally does leave and files for divorce. The narrative does not discuss the husband’s behavior during the divorce, but it appears that it went fairly uneventfully and without any stalking by her ex. She received the house and custody of their three daughters in the settlement, and her ex seems to have made alimony payments regularly.

Three years later she has a “nervous breakdown,” and describes in vivid terms her overwhelming sense of doom due to her depression. She makes three serious suicide attempts, and describes her ambivalence over abandoning her children and leaving her eldest daughter to take care of the other two, while all the while also feeling tremendous guilt over her daughter having had to take care of her in a parent-child role reversal.

She finally gets committed to a horrible mental hospital and given ECT against her will. Although she does not say she was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, her disturbing descriptions of her thoughts and feelings while in the depressed state are impressive, and give the reader a sense of what it might be like to have been in her shoes. It later turns out that she did not have a typical major depressive disorder, but one caused by a medical disorder, Cushing’s disease, which leads to very high level of the stress hormone cortisol, a steroid. A major depressive syndrome is seen in 50%–70% of the cases of Cushing’s syndrome. 

She opines that the high levels of cortisol may have come from high levels of stress, which, she implies, seems to have increased rather than decreased after she got out of the marriage. As it turns out, however, that was not the case at all. Her disorder was caused by a tumor of the pituitary gland.

It does not mean that anyone is “blaming” her for the severe abuse she suffered, but it is extremely important in the mental health field's attempts to prevent others from following in her footsteps, to pose the question of why she stayed with her husband for so long, and why she felt more stressed out after the divorce than during the time she was with her husband. There is no way we can know the answers to this question for certain just from the descriptions in this book, but there are several tantalizing clues.

The usual excuses offered up to justify the behavior of women who repeatedly return to an abusive relationship often do not hold water, but especially so in this case. As per her own description, she was in far more danger of being killed by him over the long run if she stayed than if she left. While they were together, he constantly threatened to kill her and even fired gunshots at her, narrowly missing her head on purpose. There were literally bullet holes in the walls.

She also knew very well that he was violent before they were married, because there were episodes of it back then.

And why would she be more stressed out after she left if, as it seems, her ex was not stalking her? The narrator admits that she still loves her husband even after the divorce despite all the pain he put her through. She offers a very interesting hypothesis about why he abused her: he came from a highly abusive family himself, and was taking his anger out at them on her. The question she keeps asking herself is how she could have helped this man to become less bitter. Presumably, how else. What she had been doing clearly did not work. Her question is consistent with my hypothesis about  this case

Readers of this blog can probably guess what that hypothesis is: the odds are pretty good that she was sacrificing herself so that her husband, whom she loved, could continue to channel his destabilizing anger away from his own parents, and that her doing something like this might have also been her role in her own family of origin. You know, the family that refused to help her leave her husband. At the end of the book we find reasons that this hypothesis would certainly necessitate further exploration. 

She was treated like a servant by her own parents growing up, especially compared to her two siblings, who could seem to do no wrong in her parents' eyes. Her older brother finally tells her that she was the result of an affair that her mother had had with a neighbor, and she was not her father’s biological daughter. Might the father have taken his anger at her mother out on her, with her mother going along with the program in order to keep the family together? You be the judge.

I wonder what her parents' upbringing might have been like.

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