So far in this series, we’ve talked about how the rules and roles dysfunctional families impose on their members might have impacted a young Marty Brandel. Today we’ll take a look at one of the most fundamental impacts child abuse has on its survivors- the guilt, shame, and low self-esteem these children often experience and carry with them into adulthood. Just how does this shame and blame show up in the Marty Deeks we see today?
|Before we get started
This is not an article infused with happiness (although – spoiler alert – it eventually ends pretty well for the hero of the story). I feel it necessary to issue a warning to anyone who might be triggered by discussions of child or domestic partner abuse, alcoholism, or their aftermath.
But before you stop reading, let me add that there are an astounding number of organizations, in the U.S. and other countries, which can help those needing to escape a currently abusive situation or trying to recover from a past one. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has a wonderfully thorough list of places where victims and survivors of domestic violence can get help, including resources for children, teens, men, women of color, the disabled, and the LGBTQ community. In addition, mentalillnessmouse on Tumblr has compiled an equally thorough lists of mental health hotline numbers and on-line resources. If you need help, take a look.
Just a few other disclaimers: Keep in mind that just because children growing up in dysfunctional homes are more likely than others to experience certain outcomes, it doesn’t mean they all will. Every child is unique, with unique experiences that affect them uniquely. Most survivors of dysfunctional families grow up to be happy, well-adjusted adults. Also: Lots of speculation ahead.
An Issue of Control
…Like it or not, I’m the weakest link here.
— Marty Deeks in “Personal”
Abused children’s sense of self worth can be affected by a variety of factors. The most fundamental involves the violation of personal boundaries they experience through physical abuse. Victims perceive the abuse as an invasion of their self respect- they are unable to have control over their own bodies, and their choices and desires are not respected. Their sense of autonomy, self-respect and self worth gets compromised. In its place, these children may come to feel that they are unworthy, inferior, fundamentally bad, incompetent, stupid, or ugly: inherently unlovable.
Children who experience physical abuse can succumb all the more easily to psychological abuse. Knowing the abuser can back up his threats with physical assault forces them to yield to the threats alone, but doing so from mere words can actually break down their confidence and self-esteem just as much.
When children’s feelings are ignored or rebuffed as wrong, bad or stupid, they feel rejected. They generalize this to assume that if their feelings are unworthy, they themselves are too. One of the most twisted effects of child abuse is the way its victims can come to blame themselves for their abuse. Abusive parents don’t take responsibility for their bad behavior. Instead, they find easy targets to blame. And who is an easier target than the child being abused? They can tell the child they wouldn’t have to hit them if they would only behave. When they hear that often enough, children come to believe it’s true. They may even take responsibility in their minds for violence against other family members, thinking, “If I behaved better, then mom wouldn’t get hit.” The abused parent is complicit in allowing their child to feel responsible, because it helps them avoid taking responsibility for letting their child be harmed.
Things can get even more twisted in the child’s head, as their belief that they deserve what’s happening can lead to a distorted sense of power: if they are the cause of the abuse, it is somehow within their control. This illusion of power is better than feeling completely powerless, and helps to allay their anger and fear. But that sense of responsibility carries with it tremendous guilt and shame, which contributes to lowered self-esteem.
Low Expectations and Self Sabotage
The reduced sense of self worth caused by child abuse can have lasting effects on adult survivors’ ability to have healthy relationships and to succeed at home and at work. For example, take the following questions, which come from a self-help workbook for survivors of child abuse.
Do you feel stigmatized or tainted by your childhood?
Are you endlessly critical of yourself?
Do you feel bad, unworthy, ashamed or dirty?
Is it hard to feel entitled to success or good fortune?
Are other people’s needs more important than yours?
— Journal questions in Survivor to Thriver, The Morris Center for Healing from Child Abuse’s manual for adult survivors
One of the biggest effects of low self-esteem is the reduced expectations victims have for themselves. They simply don’t believe they deserve the good things in life. This kind of thinking affects what they believe themselves capable of doing, being, and having. They don’t believe they have skills and abilities, and they don’t believe they’re worthy of love and affection. They feel worthless or damaged.
They’re reluctant to try new things, lacking the confidence that they could succeed. They may not strive for more education or a challenging job, believing they can’t succeed (or don’t deserve to succeed). They may not even believe they deserve to be lucky. This lack of feeling entitled to anything makes it hard to accept good things when they do occur.
Do you engage in life-threatening behavior?
Do you make decisions without thinking them out?
— Journal questions in Survivor to Thriver
This low self-esteem can cause survivors to act in a self-sabotaging way. If they don’t feel they deserve for good things to happen, they may take conscious or subconscious actions to undermine possible success. These actions may range from relatively minor, such as losing one’s wallet, to allowing oneself to be exploited by a boss or be swindled into a bad investment, or even to engaging in physically harmful or potentially dangerous activities, including high-risk sexual behaviors that lead to sexually transmitted diseases or unintended pregnancies.
Do you pick the wrong kind of people as friends or lovers?
— Journal question in Survivor to Thriver
One important form of self-sabotage is linked to a survivor’s increased tolerance for inappropriate and hurtful behavior. Combined with low self-esteem, it can easily place them in an abusive adult relationship. As we covered when discussing the rules of dysfunctional households, victims of childhood abuse lose trust in others. They expect to be hurt and betrayed. Their lowered expectations for what their life can be, along with an inclination towards self-sabotage, can lead to poor decisions about choices for romantic partners.
Marty Deeks: The Weakest Link?
Deeks: My dad… actually said to me one time, he said that, “If you don’t get your act together, you’re going to spend the rest of your life trapped in this town. You know, just like every other loser that’s too scared to venture out in the world and make his mark.”
Brandon: So when’d you do it?
Deeks: When did I do what?
Brandon: Move out of L.A., conquer your demons, prove the old man wrong. That’s the next chapter of this little pep talk, right?
Deeks: Uh huh. To this day, I’ve never lived farther away than two miles away from the house I grew up in.
— Deeks spinning the truth to a witness in “Bounty”
Marty Deeks has made much more of himself than someone reading the above descriptions might expect. But I think deep down, he still isn’t sure he deserves it, and until he and Kensi got together, I don’t think he ever expected to find real happiness. In the above conversation with Brandon, he may not have told the exact truth about his father (just like when he told Kensi his dad had fired a shotgun at him only six years earlier). But quoting his father calling him a loser was likely at least a paraphrase of the way his dad actually talked to him. I also see the last reference to never moving away as a reflection of what he feels he’s accomplished at this point- that he hasn’t yet “ventured out in the world and made his mark.”
I can take the crap you dish out ten times over. I’m just curious about the why.
— Deeks to Sam in “Descent”
Deeks may have low expectations for what he will accomplish or how happy he’ll be in his life, but he also has low expectations for how others will treat him. We touched on this in the discussion around dysfunctional family rules. Deeks is clearly used to being treated poorly on the job. It’s what he experienced at LAPD. It may even be what he experienced as a public defender, with his unconventional appearance even then. So having the NCIS team treat him with contempt, especially initially (“Is that the best they could do?” asks Kensi in “Fame”), must have felt like par for the course. He never backs down from them, even from Sam, but he takes far more collective abuse from this group than I ever wanted to see. Just imagine how Sam questioning his character must have felt. It’s quite possible Sam’s words prompted Deeks to actually doubt himself more than usual at this point in “Descent,” even as he put on an incredible display of courage and bravery.
Deeks: During college, and one time…twice… half a dozen times in law school, I had to creatively finance my room and board situation via the arts.
Kensi: Which arts?
Deeks: The provocative expressionistic format… Exotic in nature.
Kensi: Oh… my God. Wait. You, you were a stripper?
Deeks: I was an exotic dancer, and it was very liberating. And slightly humiliating.
— Densi in “Lokhay”
While Deeks did indeed strive for – and succeed with – a lot in his career, he also engaged in a part-time job that many of us associate with people who have limited goals for themselves and/or limited self-esteem. And while you can absolutely be an exotic dancer without engaging in a single high-risk sexual behavior, this kind of part-time work might have fit in nicely with “Party Marty’s” lifestyle.
We also know that Deeks has chosen an extraordinarily dangerous profession, where he’s shot at or nearly blown up almost weekly. But while he certainly has a major tolerance for high risk behaviors, I see his move to law enforcement less a self-sabotaging decision and more related to his drive to protect others, which we’ll talk about in a later installment.
Kensi: No, Deeks, what I’m saying is, it’s hard. You shouldn’t beat yourself up.
Deeks: Can’t help it. It’s one of the things I’m good at… Some cop, huh?
— Deeks talking about sticking to his routine and getting shot in “Personal”
We can definitely see how quick Deeks is to blame himself for problems. He normally masks these issues with humor, but likely struggles with such negative thinking on a regular basis. We see similar guilt take hold of him in “Plan B,” when he blames himself for Ray’s predicament, telling Hetty, “Let’s be honest… I turned my best friend into a snitch for $100 a week. If he gets himself killed, that’s on me.” Later in the same episode, he seems to blame himself for Nicole’s plight, telling her, “I’m sorry… I know that life has not been easy since you met me.”
I didn’t have a shot!
— Deeks to Kensi in “The Frozen Lake”
Ah, The Punch. Deeks has a history of choosing strong women as romantic partners. I see them as providing reassurance that they’d never allow themselves to be victimized like his mother was. Kensi fits this pattern perfectly. She’s tough and strong. She’s also a terrible communicator, just like Deeks is. So I always took her repeated shoulder punches as her way of expressing herself when she was unable to come up with a witty verbal rejoinder to something Deeks said. However, although they were never intended to hurt Deeks, they probably shouldn’t be brushed off quite so quickly.
Regardless of what Deeks had allowed to that point, the punch to his jaw Kensi threw in “The Frozen Lake” was another beast entirely. Kensi punched him out of sheer anger and fear that they wouldn’t be able to make their Thing work. Most people would have reacted in anger at being hit that way; most would have addressed it with the person doing the hitting. But Deeks doesn’t. He actually apologizes to her for not taking the shot. This is as close as we’ve seen him come to allowing someone to repeat his childhood abuse. He doesn’t stand up for himself, he doesn’t demand an apology. What I initially interpreted as a dramatically unexpected reaction, I now see as coming out of Deeks’ low sense of self-worth and his lowered expectations for himself. (I know, he shouldn’t have needed to demand an apology- Kensi was completely at fault and in the wrong here.)
In light of the above discussion, might we also see his failure to take the shot as a form of self-sabotage? He doesn’t believe he deserves to finally find happiness with Kensi. He doesn’t expect it to work out. So sure enough, he makes a mistake that could destroy their entire partnership. He certainly took the blame for the situation and continued to throughout the episode, also taking the blame for Thapa’s escape. At the end of the episode and for the rest of the season (and maybe through to today), sadly his belief that his actions led to Kensi being sent away could only serve to reinforce his belief that he didn’t deserve her or the happiness she could bring him.
But finally, he has found that happiness with Kensi. He has also made much progress in his feelings about shooting his father, no longer blaming himself. We’ll discuss all this progress more in a later installment. But the question that remains is whether Deeks will ever allow himself to fully enjoy all the happiness he’s capable of achieving…
Kensi: Now what’s going on? Is Mercury in retrograde or something?
Deeks: No, it’s not until next week.
Kensi: OK, so why are you going all Howard Hughes on me?
Deeks: Because things are good. Between me and you.
Kensi: Yeah, they’re amazing!
Deeks: And things at work are great, like I’m no longer being investigated by Internal Affairs.
Kensi: Seems like an improvement.
Deeks: My mom is fantastic. Even Monty is healthy for like the first time in forever.
Kensi: I’m sorry, I’m struggling to see the problem here.
Deeks: Because it’s too good. Because things are too good and at some point the other shoe is gonna drop.
Kensi: The other, other shoe? The lymph node shoe?
Deeks: The universe balancing, reality checking, soul crushing shoe.
Deeks: Why are you laughing?
Kensi: Sorry, that was funny- sole crushing?… That’s not a pun. Okay.
Deeks: You think I’m crazy. Maybe I’m crazy. Wait, am I crazy?
Kensi: Don’t, sweety. I don’t think you’re crazy at all. I don’t. I love that you think everything is fine. I just… I want you to enjoy it. If it’s good, then take advantage of that. Don’t worry about it.
— Densi in “Where There’s Smoke…”
Coming Up Next
Tomorrow, come back for a special fan fic from Divergent338 AKA Hannah, who is exploring this topic in her own unique way.
Next month, we’ll look more in depth at the varied health issues experienced by victims of abuse, and how Marty Deeks has experienced these challenges. Is his “delicate” constitution somehow related to his childhood experiences? What about his post-torture bout of PTSD?
Want to Read More?
- You can check out the Adult Survivors of Child Abuse website or their self-help manual Survivor to Thriver.
- Or, go back to the previous post in this series, Following the Rules.
- If you’d like to know how to help those who need it, check out The Pixel Project’s “16 Ways to Stop Domestic Violence in Your Community.”
- The HelpGuide has a great overview of child abuse and neglect.
Tell us your thoughts in the Comments. How do you see low self-esteem reflected in Deeks’ thinking and behavior? Do you think he’ll ever find real happiness?
A huge Thank You to my fellow wikiDeeks collaborator Brenda for her assistance with research and editing of this article. Brenda is a nurse practitioner with more than 25 years of experience in caring for individuals experiencing significant trauma, and a PhD student whose research focuses on communication, conflict and ethics in human interactions. I’m very grateful for her input and review of this series.
And thanks to Hannah for her own special contributions, with fan fics inspired by these analytical articles, designed to illustrate the topic in a very different way. I’m so happy to have her partnership on this series.