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“I, Tonya” Reminds Us That We Can’t Afford to Ignore Child Abuse

Wednesday, February 07, 2018


“I, Tonya” Reminds Us – We Can’t Afford to Ignore Child AbuseWhy do people do what they do? What makes them tick? As a psychologist, these are questions I often ponder. An award winning movie I saw recently sparked these questions again. It was “I, Tonya,” a true story of a downtrodden girl and woman who had no idea how to handle abuse and it ended tragically.

If you watched the news in 1994, you couldn’t miss the scandal that rocked the Olympic skating world. You may remember how Tonya Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly hired a friend to crush the knee of her rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Sentiment was pretty hot in Oregon at the time, since Tonya was an Oregonian and the disappointment was fierce. So you might not agree with the way everything is portrayed in this movie.


However, I’m looking at this movie as a reminder to show insight and look beyond behaviors and see why people act as they do.

When children are abused and grow up feeling insecure, unloved and unwanted it will change the way they live. Here’s an excerpt from Tonya’s New York Times interview:

“People don’t understand that what you guys see in the movie is nothing,” she said. “That was the smallest little bits and pieces. I mean, my face was bruised. My face was put through a mirror, not just broken onto it. Through it. I was shot. That was true.” Mr. Gillooly shot at the ground, she said, and it ricocheted onto her face. (He has denied this and other abuse.) She said her mother threw a knife at her. (Her mother has also denied allegations made by Ms. Harding.) But “that’s all true,” she said.

Whether her entire story is true or not, what is true is that child abuse is all too common. According to Child Welfare League of America 2016 Oregon State Fact Sheet during October 2015-September 2016:

  • “76,668 reports of abuse and neglect were received. 
  • 38,086 of these reports were referred for investigation.
  • 37,320 investigations were completed, which includes reports that were referred in the previous year.
  • Of all completed investigations, 7,677 were founded for abuse or neglect and involved 11,843 victims. 
  • Of all victims, 46.3 percent were younger than 6 years old.
  • Of all types of maltreatment incidences, neglect was the most frequently identified type of maltreatment (42.9 percent), followed by threat of harm (40.7 percent).”

I’m not advocating that victims of abuse should be excused from their bad or criminal behavior. However, if we want to stop the behavior, we must break the cycle of abuse. If we see evidence of abuse we must speak up.

In January, we saw the shocking account of the Californian couple who beat, shackled and severely malnourished their children to the point that the 29-year-old daughter weighs just 82 pounds. When asked, neighbors reported that they thought something odd was going on, but they did nothing about it.

A man who attended third grade with one of the girls wrote on Facebook: “I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame. Of course, none of us are responsible for the events that ensued, but you can’t help but feel rotten when the classmate your peers made fun of for ‘smelling like poop’ quite literally had to sit in her own waste because she was chained to her bed, It is nothing but sobering to know that the person who sat across from you at the lunch table went home to squalor and filth while you went home to a warm meal and a bedtime story.”

Rather than passing judgment on people you meet, take the time to get to know them better and gain insight into why they behave as they do. It may be the first time anyone has every bothered, and your kindness could be a turning point for the better. In fact stepping up to confront child abuse isn’t always so difficult, even though it requires courage. Don’t blame; offer help.

It sickens me when the ones who are out to get you are the ones who should care the most about you. That’s one of the reasons I wrote my book, When Empathy Fails – How to stop those hell-bent on destroying you. The first chapter, “No One Calls Me Mom Anymore” is now available for free download. After you read it, I’d love it if you’d visit my Facebook page and tell me what you think.



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