When I read about Rachel Canning the New Jersey teenager suing her parents for child support and her right to remain dependent upon them despite reaching the age of majority, my FIRST reaction was she was 18 years old and needed to get over herself. Like most, I fell prey to the surface reporting in the media and the sensationalized headlines that influence reader’s perceptions even before they read the article; but, something inside led me to dig a little deeper in an attempt to find the truth because something did not sit right with me.
It is impossible for anyone to really know where the truth lies in this case; however, in my opinion something about this case is not adding up. We are all left with a he said/she said situation, one that has even left the Judge in a difficult position which involved his ruling against Rachel Canning. He asked a rhetorical question: “Do we want to establish a precedent where parents live in basic fear of establishing rules of the house?” I believe his ruling was proper, even if on some level it fails to protect alleged victims. I use the word alleged because I am not privy to personal facts, nor have I been witness to any of the allegations from either side; however, in reading court documents there are many unanswered questions.
Rachel Canning alleges she was kicked out of her home and abandoned by her parents for failing to follow house rules and ditch her boyfriend, while her parents allege that she engaged in her own alienation and placed herself in that position by her behavior, rebellion and running away.
The media potrays Rachel Canning as an obnoxious, self entitled, rebellious brat; however, in her certification she makes certain allegations which give rise to concern:
- My father left the house during the summer in approximately mid-July. There was ongoing discord between my parents. They reunited AFTER I left the house and jointly decided to cut me off from all support both financially and emotionally.
- My school advised me not to return home after hearing and observing their abusive conduct towards me.
- I have been subjected to severe and excessive verbal and physical abuse by my mother and father.
- My mother was always demeaning towards me. She called me “fat” and “porky.”
- My father demanded I get a basketball scholarship. My father spent a lot of time with me on weekends while I was in basketball tournaments.
- My mother seemed angry about this.
- In my sophomore year I developed an eating disorder and my weight dropped to 105 pounds. In my junior year I was down to 92 pounds.
- My mother kept screaming at me saying I was mentally messed up.
- My father was angry that I wasn’t going to be able to play basketball because I needed to gain weight.
- During my parent’s separation, my father said that if it went to divorce he was going to say that my mother was mentally abusive towards me.
- My father gave me a sense that he was inappropriately affectionate with me. He mentioned frequently that my relationship in his eyes was not one of a daughter but more than that.
- In the summer before my senior year, he got me drunk at a wedding and said that I was his date.
- He kept giving me shots and mango martinis. I blacked out that night and woke up at the toilet bowl in our room and he was passed out on the bed.
- He constantly put his arm around me in public and would kiss me on the cheek.
- When we moved out of Hackettstown, he once woke me up at 2:00 am to come downstairs to drink and play beer pong with him. The refrigerator was always 75% full of liquor.
Rachel also shares an incident involving her suspected intoxication at her school’s Homecoming dance where it was later discovered she was not intoxicated; however, the school did require she call her parents who were away in Las Vegas. She reports the first time she called her father hung up and during the subsequent call, both of her parents screamed obscenities at her, in the presence of a teacher whom she identifies as Kathleen Smith.
The rest of the story we pretty much know, as it’s been played out in the news media. Her parent’s account of course tells a different story. A story of a teen gone wild who refuses to follow rules, gets drunk, breaks curfew and fails to perform chores. It’s an easy sell, what parent isn’t driven mad by teenager rebellion which is a normal aspect in one’s search for identity in the midst of impending adulthood?
Nonetheless, even if Rachel’s parent’s allegations are true, I am concerned about the lack of insight a majority have in terms of what seems to be glaringly abusive behavior towards Rachel and may be what has contributed to the alleged rebellion. Even if Rachel has conducted herself in a manner that is unbecoming in the Canning’s eyes, I question their version of facts simply because it appears if what they say is true Rachel is troubled and in light of her version of events it seems she’s being used as the scapegoat to deny their accountability for perhaps failing to orchestrate effective interventions. Now that things have spiraled out of control they have elected to point fingers, it appears to be a dysfunctional household with elements of splitting, idealization and discard and Rachel is “IT”. I suspect there might even be some elements of pathological parenting involved, possibly narcissism which even if her parents are not full blown narcissists, can present as such when under the influence of substance and/or alcohol abuse. I am not a mental health professional and I do not wish to allude that I have any authority to diagnose; however, in my study of abuse as it pertains to domestic violence, there is something at my gut level that screams Rachel is the victim in this scenario and as usual, the signs are being missed by everyone who does have the ability to protect and defend her.
“Narcissus is the self-centered parent who looks for their idealized image to be reflected in everyone and everything around them. Echo symbolizes the child, who is a mirror for the narcissistic parent, and must reflect back their idealized image in order to hear the words “I love you”. The child never learns to develop a separate “voice” that expresses who they are or what they need. What they do develop, however, is an uncanny ability to know who their narcissistic parent wants to be, and what they need. In a narcissistic family system, the parent-child roles are reversed: if the child can correctly meet the emotional needs of the parent, then maybe, just maybe, they will be loved in return. In a healthy family, parents are able to see their children as separate individuals -they allow them to express their own opinions and feelings; to make mistakes, to grow, and discover who they are as people. John Bradshaw, the author of Healing the Shame that Binds You, writes: What a child needs most is a firm but understanding caretaker, who needs to be getting his or her own needs met through other adults. Such a caretaker needs to have resolved the issues in their own source relationships, and needs to have a sense of self-responsibility. When this is the case, such a caretaker can be available to the child and provide what the child needs.” (Donaldson-Pressman, & Pressman, 1994, p. 94) A narcissistic parent, however, is incapable of giving their child this understanding and freedom. Just as the echo child needs someone to reflect in order to exist, the narcissist does not exist without a reflection -and that reflection better be flawless or it will make the parent look,and feel, like a failure.The parent’s emotional needs are met by appearing perfect; they will spend their lives striving for superiority in order to mask their deep feelings of inferiority.”
She also asks:
“What if the narcissist happens to be your mother, father, or primary care giver? A parent who manipulates a child into meeting their own emotional needs is no longer “charismatic, charming, exasperating or downright ludicrous“, but cruel and abusive; the effects of which are rarely diagnosed or treated in the children or adult children of narcissists. The symptoms of a narcissistic family system are exactly what make a diagnosis so difficult -everything seems so “perfect ”. The emotional damage done by a narcissistic parent can, in many ways, be even more devastating to the healthy ego-development of a child than overt abuse, because it is so insidious. Although many of the same symptoms occur in the client’s life that stem from the incest family, the alcohol troubled family, the physically abusive family, and so forth, none of those issues were present in the narcissistic family. In fact, the family of origin seems to have functioned quite well – at least on the surface. Like “a shiny red apple with a worm inside”, the narcissistic system hides its dysfunction, even from the people who grow up inside of it. This masking is what makes treatment so difficult; you cannot heal what you do not understand.”
The media went into a feeding frenzy over the discovery that Rachel Canning left a rather disturbing voice mail message to her mother:
“Hi Mom just to let you know, you’re a real fucking winner aren’t you? You think you’re so cool and you caught me throwing up in the bathroom after eating an egg frittatta (Rachel is alleged to have suffered from anorexia and bulimia), yea sorry that you have problems now and you need to harp on mine because I didn’t and I actually took a shit which I really just want to take a shit all over your face right now because it looks like that anyway, anyway I fucking hate you and um I’ve written you off so don’t talk to me, don’t do anything I’m blocking you from just about everything, have a nice life, bye mom.” (Source: Court Documents)
This is an example of how media reacted when that information leaked:
There is no denying Rachel’s message to her mother is shocking and most would agree disrespectful; however, no one is asking: WHERE did this anger and alleged ‘vitriol’ coming from?
In Rachel’s statements to the court, she alleges that her mother’s verbal and emotional abuse was the catalyst to her developing an eating disorder. Susan Cowden, MS in her article: “The Influence of Abuse & Trauma on Disordered Eating” shared:
“Many people who suffer from eating disorders report that they have experienced physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse prior to developing a disorder. In fact, some studies estimate that as many as 50% of eating disorder sufferers have experienced some type of physical or sexual abuse or assault. While there are certainly many people who experience abuse without developing an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder, it is well-accepted that trauma can place a person at higher risk.
Abuse during childhood is thought to be especially problematic, since children process information in a different way than adults. They are developing their sense of self and their core beliefs about how the world around them works. When someone is told over and over again that they are not loved or that they are a problem, eventually they begin to believe it and take it on as their identity.”
Although it is impossible to determine whether or not the allegations are true, it stands to reason in light of what Rachel shared it’s possible her symptoms including her alleged drinking stems not only from a dysfunctional family dynamic such as splitting as evidenced by her reports of her father’s alleged inappropriate behaviors towards her including violating personal space boundaries, alleged statements about seeing her ‘more than’ just a daughter, encouraging her to drink alcohol to the point she passes out on Mango Martinis but also a mother who allegedly also played a hand in eroding her self esteem by name calling and using words such as “porky.” I question what exactly led to the temporary separation between her parents and find it interesting Rachel shared that her parents got back together after she left. Was Rachel used as the scapegoat in the family?
For those who are unfamiliar with the term of scapegoating, Lynne Namka (Scapegoating-An Insidious Family Pattern of Blame and Shame on One Family Member) explains it well:
“Scapegoating is a serious family dysfunctional problem with one member of the family or a social group being blamed for small things, picked on and constantly put down. In scapegoating, one of the authority figures has made a decision that somebody in the family has to be the bad guy. The mother or father makes one child bad and then looks for things (sometimes real, but most often imagined) that are wrong. (Rachel drinks, Rachel breaks curfews, Rachel still throws up in the bathroom, Rachel has a loser boyfriend, Rachel did not get a basketball scholarship, Rachel disrespects her mother etc.) albeit none of the dynamics reported are ‘small’ but we’re dealing with a situation that has come to a head and spiraled out of control.
Victims of consistent abuse at a certain point hit rock bottom, and many are found to have suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Oftentimes because the abuse becomes normalized victims lack the insight or even the words to register it as abuse because of the conditioning they received and the chaotic patterns of idealization, devaluing and discarding. Society has a very rigid view of what constitutes abuse. There are some covert abusers however, who are able to escape the radar. Covert and pathological abusers appear normal, loving, and even charming and so people including mental health professionals, educators, child welfare workers and our justice system miss the signals. For a victim of this form of covert abuse, when the ‘unconditional love’ naturally expected from their parents or caregivers is withheld and they are rejected and abandoned for being ‘bad’, ‘not good enough’ or a ‘failure for meeting expectations’ (such as in this case failing to get a basketball scholarship for not gaining enough weight and failing to follow the ‘rules‘ abuse), victims oftentimes, especially if they cannot register or articulate begin to act out. Their whole world comes undone. Lacking an ability to articulate also serves to thwart a victim being able to express their plight to others who might be in a position to help. This is what I believe is at the core of Rachel Canning’s dilemma. I believe her testimony is valid and she may be a victim of pathological abuse. Most victims at a certain point instinctively engage in a fight or flight response when the abuse has become too much. PTSD complicates matters and causes victims to engage in many behaviors that involve self harm, such as substance abuse, cutting and they can even develop eating disorders which are a manifestation of feeling a lack of control. It appears Rachel chose flight (left home) but still had enough in her to fight for her right to ‘survival’. She reached out, she found a source of support and is defending what she considers a right based on an implied contract with the reasoning that a college education is SURVIVAL. She was not consistently truant, she attended school on a regular basis and is an honor student with a 3.5 grade average. No one is focusing on her potential or what Rachel is saying. The masses are being swayed by the media and not looking at the details. A college education would allow Rachel to carve out a life for herself. Rather than playing the victim or spoiled, to the contrary she is choosing to sever ties with abuse. She is fighting the fact that her parents electing to subsidize her education is conditional upon continuing to co-exist in what appears to be a very dysfunctional if not abusive environment. I fail to see how that makes Rachel a spoiled brat. It takes courage to take a stand and to say No-more.
There are many dynamics involved and many layers to this story. Our legal system does it’s best to uphold the laws and provide justice; however, there are instances where because of the technicalities involved, it’s not always cut and dry. In this case the law states that the age of 18 is an adult and in light of the evidence presented, Rachel Canning leaving home regardless of the details or the truth of what led to that action, along with damming evidence of a phone message to her mother which is without question disrespectful, it seems that Rachel Canning like many victims is having a difficult time establishing her credibility. As a survivor of abuse it appears to me that this story has all the elements of pathological abuse, no one is questioning the possibility of her father having a problem with alcohol abuse or the family dynamics. No one is questioning the appropriateness of his getting his daughter drunk or whether these allegations are false – moreover how can anyone prove it? It’s a mess all around and a very tragic situation. As a parent I expect my child will disappoint me at times. I also understand that my child is not an extension of me and in his quest to find his own identity, my dreams for him may not come to fruition; however, when I was blessed with the honor of being responsible for his journey, I knew that was part of the deal. Even if the allegations pertaining to Mr. Canning getting his own daughter drunk is a fabrication, there is still the Canning’s disclosing they were aware of the Inglesino’s involvement with teenage alcohol parties. I question why Rachel Canning’s boyfriend is being targeted as a bad influence and not Rachel’s friend Mr. Inglesino’s daughter. Again, I don’t have access to facts, nor am I intimately involved, but based on information in media reports, I would think that competent parenting would not pick and choose bad influences but ban any and all of them. If the Cannings suspected Rachel had a drinking problem that was out of control, what interventions were put in place to help her? If Rachel is spoiled, who made her that way?
With regard to the Canning’s separation, what was the source of that rift and what brought them back together in the midst of Rachel leaving? Is this a Karpman Drama Triangle laced with splitting where Rachel is the scapegoat and blamed as the source of the strife? I note in her father’s response to her when she asks to come back home he states the home is in so many words now problem free. Something is very wrong with this picture and while Rachel may very well be troubled, there is a reason behind it and that is what is not being explored.
Rachel makes her position very clear:
“My therapist indicates I should not return home. I do not believe it is a viable option. I am not willingly and voluntarily leaving a reasonable situation at home to make my own decisions. I had to leave to end the abuse.” She further states she works part time, and of course is an honor student. This is not a teenager with a profile that screams defiant, but troubled. She shares she is living with the Inglesino’s and without their help she would be homeless and on welfare. She admits to suffering psychologically and wishes to continue to employ the help of a therapist in order to heal. While our children may sometimes do things that hurt us, I cannot wrap my head around drawing a line in the sand, especially if I believe my child is in crisis or “mentally messed up” as her mother allegedly puts it. Something is not right in this picture, and while the law states that her parents are not legally liable to support her, the laws are not always just. I am struggling with cognitive dissonance on how her parents are, it appears without empathy willing to witness the potential lifelong damage that can be done by denying her the opportunity to continue to pursue her studies without the burden of vasts amounts of debt – especially when they can afford to provide for such accomodation. While not everyone has the privilege of going to college or a trust fund, most who have been able to achieve a level of success understand that a degree is usually a part of the package. It serves as a ticket to entry for a career. Rachel dreams of being a biomedical engineer. It would be tragic if that dream is cut short because of the dynamics involved. I think most parents understand that at the end of the day, our children may rebel; however, a healthy sense of love understands that over time, as they move into adulthood they gain an awareness of the complexities of life and they come around. Abuse is about control. Sometimes tuff love is warranted; however, in this case, I have a hard time calling it that. It seems more like the Cannings are diffusing the situation, painting themselves in a bright light and using Rachel as the sole source of discord. It seems more like ‘projection’ which is another typical element in pathological relationships. In healthy situations, all parties rise to the challenge of admitting their part in a breakdown of family dynamics. I fail to see anyplace in this scenario where the Canning’s have done this. For that reason I am skeptical and conclude that even if Rachel has done things that were out of order or hurtful, she still is the victim in this scenario.
This was the Justice system’s conclusion in spite of Rachel Canning’s raising serious allegations in her petition:
Bonnie Sludikoff of Liberty Voice sums it up well:
“It may very well be that New Jersey teen Rachel Canning is as spoiled and rebellious as she is being painted by the media. However, it may also turn out that Rachel’s accusations against her parents are true. If this turns out to be the case, what is perhaps most disturbing about Canning’s story is that it displays a serious problem running rampant in the way U.S. journalists depict young women. The media is constantly calling out teenagers as “rebellious” in lieu of taking a closer look at the realities they are living in. In cases where there are claims of abuse, the practice of the media labeling teens as “bratty” or “spoiled” is an absolute disgrace. This is a dangerous narrative for society to write.”
NOTE: I don’t think Rachel’s parents are on the spectrum, I think there are problems, I think we learn patterns, and I think we sometimes parent based upon how we were raised. No doubt in my mind teenagers can also manipulate. Clearly everyone has a hand in this situation. There is a learning curve to overcome in terms of education as it pertains to abuse. Sometimes abuse is unintentional in that one may not even be aware of how their actions may be interpreted and/or experienced as abusive. Ultimately I hope that justice prevails. By justice I mean that the truth comes out whatever that may be, even if the truth is discovered to be that the Cannings are model parents and Rachel is a spoiled brat…but like others have shared and I agree…the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Narcissistic Father : Narcissistic parents often damage their children. For example, they may disregard boundaries, manipulate their children by withholding affection (until they perform), and neglect to meet their children’s needs because their needs come first. Because image is so important to narcissists, they may demand perfection from their children. The child of a narcissist father can, in turn, feel a pressure ramp up their talents, looks, smarts or charisma. It can cost them if they fulfill their Dad’s wishes – and it can cost them if they fail. No winning here.
Final Note 3/24/14: The aforementioned article “Is Rachel Canning a Victim of Abuse?” was written in the midst of media frenzy and it was the opinion of the author that perhaps other elements were at play. Rachel Canning has returned home and the Cannings have requested they be allowed their privacy and time to heal. It is the author’s hope that the family is able to resolve their differences. Whether or not abuse has taken place is anyone’s guess, even the media have admitted it is a case of “He Said/She Said.” With that in mind, perhaps this event served as the catalyst for change, and it is with hope and prayer the Cannings are able to find competent, compassionate and knowledgeable sources of help along their journey as they travel the path ahead in search of peace and family unity.