Talk Decoded

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The Anatomy of a Victim-Abuser Reversal

The Anatomy of a Victim-Abuser Reversal

Reading "My Family's Slave"

Illustration by Joy Lau 

Illustration by Joy Lau 

 

“My Family’s Slave” went viral quickly after The Atlantic published the story online in May 2017. In the essay, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning Filipino-American journalist, Alex Tizon chronicles how a woman was enslaved for a lifetime by his family. Offering a rare, intimate insight into the dark universe of modern-day slavery, Tizon’s piece has provoked strong and controversial reactions worldwide. 

While many appreciated the writer’s aim to come to terms in public with his family’s past, others accused him of romanticizing slavery. Particularly ambivalent reactions came from the Philippines where besides the condemnation of Pulido’s enslavement, concerns were also raised that the story can harm the image of a society in which highly unequal power structures have been historically widespread but the consequences of which are not often openly discussed. Tizon’s piece has, for instance, a particular and important present-day relevance in the Philippine context, as millions of the country’s population still work at home and abroad, often in miserable, slave-like circumstances as domestic helpers to ensure the upward mobility of their families.

It comes as no surprise that most discussions about Alex Tizon’s essay focused on those crucial and complex questions that concern the historical legacies and contemporary forms of slavery in various contexts. However, “My Family’s Slave” has some more general implications as well that are also worthy of attention. This article highlights how the story can enhance our understanding of how abusers sustain the vicious circles of abuse across time and space through using a manipulative speech strategy: the victim-abuser reversal.  

Background

According to Alex Tizon, Eudocia Tomas Pulido was given as a “gift” to his mother by her father when the family still lived in the Philippines. The 18-year-old poor village girl, Pulido, was initially lured to work for the Tizons as a nanny in exchange for food and shelter during World War Two when millions of Filipinos faced dislocations and material deprivation. This was also a way for her to escape an arranged marriage. Yet, in reality, the offer meant the beginning of her enslavement that eventually lasted for 56 long years. 

In the 1960s, after getting married, Tizon’s mother moved to the US with her husband. The couple took Pulido, whom they called Lola — a Tagalog term for “grandmother” —, with them. They made her work restlessly (she did all household chores and took care of their four kids) and denied her the right to any private space and life. Yet, despite their initial promises, the Tizons never paid her an allowance and did not help her to obtain a US visa or citizenship. Pulido was also verbally and physically abused by the couple. In “My Family’s Slave”, their son Alex, who was raised by Pulido, describes all this in great detail.   

Tizon also discusses how careful his family — cherishing “the American dream” and being eager to be seen as model-immigrants — was to hide from outsiders the fact that they kept a slave: “We never talked about Lola. Our secret went to the core of who we were and, at least for us kids, who we wanted to be.” While censorship was their speech strategy in public, Tizon’s parents adopted a different communicational repertoire in private to deal with their roles as enslavers.

The analysis of the elder Tizons’ discourse — as presented in their son’s essay — indicates that in general they talked with Pulido in a blatantly abusive manner: “Mom would come home and upbraid Lola for not cleaning the house well enough or for forgetting to bring in the mail. “Didn’t I tell you I want the letters here when I come home?” she would say in Tagalog, her voice venomous. “It’s not hard naman! An idiot could remember.”

At the same time, the couple — and especially Tizon’s mother — also frequently used a more subtle abusive speech strategy when they talked to or about Pulido. Namely, his mother and father tried to justify the enslavement of the woman by reversing the victim and the abuser roles. In “My Family’s Slave” at least five incidents of victim-abuser reversal can be identified:    

1. “Don’t you have any shame?”

Pulido lived as a slave in the Tizon household who was never paid for her work. Yet when her own mother fell ill and she brought up the issue of allowance in order to send money home to assist her family, the Tizons were quick to assign the role of the victimizer to her.

“Pwede ba?” she said to my parents. Is it possible? Mom let out a sigh. “How could you even ask?,” Dad responded in Tagalog. “You see how hard up we are. Don’t you have any shame?”

Through such victim-abuser reversals, the Tizons could maintain a positive self-image in general and justify their cruel rejection of Pulido’s request for payment in particular. The reversal helped them to create the false impression that it was not they who abused and exploited the woman, but she was the one who victimized them. In this particular case, the Tizons used Pulido’s desperate and shy appeal for allowance to portray her as a heartless person who is a parasite on their family. 

The father even asked: “Don’t you have any shame?” This question can be considered the textbook example of the victim-abuser reversal. What happens here is that an enslaver who deprives another person from all her basic rights, accuses the very same individual of being immoral. The determiner “any” in front of the word “shame” even dramatizes the accusation, implying that Pulido lacks basic human decency, has no shame at all.

2. “That’s what happens when you don’t brush properly”

The Tizons also deprived Pulido of health care. When she struggled with teeth pain, for instance, Tizon’s mother refused to take her to a dentist. To justify this, she came up with a twisted and manipulative claim, known in social psychology as the “just-world fallacy”. 

This fallacy suggests that victims bring their suffering on themselves. It is noteworthy that Mrs Tizon employed the “just-word fallacy” in the context of slavery. Indeed, she argued that Pulido actually deserved the physical pain in her mouth and the loss of her teeth.

She used to get angry whenever Lola felt ill. She didn’t want to deal with the disruption and the expense, and would accuse Lola of faking or failing to take care of herself. Mom chose the second tack when, in the late 1970s, Lola’s teeth started falling out. She’d been saying for months that her mouth hurt. “That’s what happens when you don’t brush properly,” Mom told her.

The “just-world fallacy” made it possible for Tizon’s mother to deny and minimize her own responsibility for Pulido’s miserable health condition. She aimed to shift the blame from the circumstances (the slavery) onto the victim (the slave). This way, she could present Pulido negatively, as a careless and irresponsible person. At the same time, she could completely neglect the real issue: her own immoral behavior. Actually, the use of “just-world fallacy” allowed her to present herself as the victim of Pulido. It falsely implied that Pulido is trying to make Tizon’s mother to pay the price for her own negligence. All this provided a justification for her to deny Pulido the proper medical care. 

3. “Your Lola”

The possessive form “your” also helped the Tizons to reverse the victim-abuser roles. Arguing about Pulido’s situation with their kids, they frequently referred to the woman as “your Lola”. For instance, when the young Alex Tizon tried to defend the woman after she was punched by his father, he got this response: 

“Are you defending your Lola?” Dad said. “Is that what you’re doing?”

The father’s use of the possessive form (“your”) in front of the name (“Lola”) suggested that he felt the child is biased towards the woman, having a bonding with Pulido that was so special and intimate that could even undermine his loyalty towards his own parents. The threatening tone of the father’s voice signaled a suspected betrayal of filial piety.   

Talking about “your Lola”, the elder Tizons could reverse the victim-abuser roles in a powerful way. The reference implied that Pulido is making them suffer unfairly by “kidnapping” their children. The next excerpt demonstrates well how the possessive form supported their narrative of self-victimization.

Mom and I argued into the night, each of us sobbing at different points. She said she was tired of working her fingers to the bone supporting everybody, and sick of her children always taking Lola’s side, and why didn’t we just take our goddamn Lola, she’d never wanted her in the first place, and she wished to God she hadn’t given birth to an arrogant, sanctimonious phony like me.”

As a response to her son’s concerns for Pulido’s situation of enslavement, the mother constructed herself as the victim of the Tizon family. The mother’s narrative completely ignored Pulido’s point of view and situation. By suggesting that her “children always taking Lola’s side”, she presented the woman who worked for her as a slave for decades as an unjustly privileged member of their household. She referred to “your Lola”, to create the impression that her kids betrayed her. 

Mrs Tizon also implied that Pulido had been a burden on her. By stating that “she’d never wanted her in the first place”, the mother indicated that Pulido was forced on her. Through this suggestion, she could not only deny her responsibility for the enslavement of Pulido, but also ignore the fact that she willingly and greatly benefited from having a slave.     

4. “Your Kids” 

While talking to their kids the Tizon parents referred to “your Lola”, whereas in their communication with Pulido they used an analogical speech strategy to highlight their victimhood. Speaking to Pulido, Tizon’s mother identified her own children as “your kids”. Again, the possessive form (“your”) constructed the mother as a victim. 

“The fight only fed Mom’s fear that Lola had stolen the kids from her, and she made Lola pay for it. Mom drove her harder. Tormented her by saying,“I hope you’re happy now that your kids hate me.” 

As the previous excerpt illustrates, Tizon’s mother not only implied that her kids abandoned her in favor of Pulido, but also suggested that Pulido is gloating about this situation. This way she could reverse the victim-abuser roles in an even more powerful way, constructing Pulido as a person who enjoys the suffering of others. 

5. “You’ve been working too hard.”

The victim-abuser reversals possibly took the most bizarre form in the discourse of Tizon’s mother when she utilized the tool of sarcasm. 

When we helped Lola with housework, Mom would fume.“You’d better go to sleep now, Lola,” she’d say sarcastically. “You’ve been working too hard. Your kids are worried about you.” 

Sarcasm enables us to say the opposite of what we mean in order to hurt or ridicule people. Accordingly, the sarcastic voice of Tizon’s mother indicated that the woman who was her slave for 56 years, was finicky and fussy. She described her own kids as Pulido’s kids (“your kids”) to highlight another time that the woman took her children from her. The mother’s sarcasm also presented their care for Lola (“your kids are worried about you”) as overprotectiveness. 

In other words, she suggested that Pulido enjoyed undeserved special treatment from her kids. All this supported the construction of Pulido — the slave — as a privileged person and herself — the enslaver — as the victim of the household.    

Implications

Alex Tizon’s essay has been approached and scrutinized from various historical, political, and social aspects. This article has attempted to contribute to the ongoing discussion with a novel perspective. The linguistic analysis of the piece reveals that an underlying rhetorical mechanism — the victim-abuser reversal — was used by the Tizons to justify the enduring enslavement of Eudocia Pulido. However, it is also important to stress that the speech strategy that Tizons used to save their face is not unique to this particular tragic case. Alex Tizon’s essay teaches us a universally relevant lesson. 

“My Family’s Slave” demonstrates in an exemplary fashion that political regimes, institutions, communities, families, and individuals can indeed abuse and exploit others in the most brutal, oppressive, and dehumanizing ways; yet, in order to justify their deeds, they will present their actual victims as abusers and assign the role of the victim to themselves. “My Family’s Slave” can be an alarming reminder for the readers to notice and firmly resist whenever they come across or feel tempted by using this powerful manipulative device. If there is any instance of victim-abuser reversal used in a discourse, one will not need to look far to realize it is an abuser who is speaking to others - or to us. 

 

 

A Rhetoric of Victimhood

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