“Abusers were just abused themselves” sounds nuanced but is actually more of the same “monstrous villain or else sympathetic villain” dichotomy that people often force our abusers into. Someone doesn’t have to be cartoonishly monstrous to be intentionally cruel, and just because there might be a way to offer sympathy toward an abuser doesn’t mean that sympathy is warranted for their abuse.
It might make more sense if I use an example: my mother was always willing to admit her flaws only if she saw them as something she “used” to do. She used confessing her former awful behavior as a way of feeling like she was honest and moral while always shielding herself from consequences or having to change. This means that I know exactly why my mother was abusive, because she told me. “I used to like to stand on other people,” she’d say, “to make myself feel better. I’d tear them down, make them feel small, because then I felt like I was better than them.” My mother knows that it is wrong to: hit someone, gaslight them, emotionally abuse them, and sexually abuse them. She would tell you this was wrong, and if her and my family’s behavior was held up to her with names and faces stripped away, she would easily identify these things as abusive.
The other reason that I hate this phrase most especially is because the ones that use it have no idea how much abusers themselves use it to absolve themselves of guilt and responsibility. Because people treat abusers like they live in this pocket dimension where they have never learned anything about abuse, what it is, or its affects, I don’t know if people know that when they say “abusers were abused themselves” abusers hear that, and use that.
Lundy Bancroft wrote in Why Does He Do That? about how often abusive men will use “I was abused myself” as a justification for what they’ve done. And he points out that, if that were true, they should be less likely to abuse. And of course they should, for the same reason that I can’t toss a bucket of water on your head while saying, “Sorry I’m doing this because I don’t know that it’s not okay.” Of course I know it’s not okay: my acknowledgement in the act of doing it says I understand.
Holding our abusers accountable when you’re a survivor is a hard one, often because of this very justification. Survivors are not clueless to the pain our abusers have experienced, if anything we know more about it because (since they use this as a justification) they never stop telling us about it. We know where they’ve been hurt. We know their wounds.
So “I was just abused myself” becomes part of the narrative abusers build about themselves. Abusers build a narrative of sympathy for themselves to shield them from consequences, and the problem is that the easiness of that explanation means most people believe in an abuser’s lies. Our abusers playact cluelessness, they hurt us and then gaslight us into believing they had no idea the weight or magnitude of their wounds, even as their weapons were wielded with doctor precision. They hurt us, and tell us they didn’t know. They hurt us again, and tell us they didn’t know. And then they hurt us again: and all the while, their projection of themselves as ignorant, fumbling people means we’re seen and treated as cruel for holding them responsible.
My experiences are not the singular experiences of abuse, but they’re also not uncommon. A lot of abusers know they’re hurting us, they just don’t care. They know that what they’re doing is illegal, or socially unacceptable: that’s why they ask us to lie, or tell us that we’re making up what happened to us. That’s why they can transform their behavior in the presence of other people, treat us lovingly when others are watching in ways they never do in private. They have enough conscious knowledge and will in what they’re doing to even be able to make those choices, along with the wherewithal to lie.
If anything, what being abused taught them is that the weapons exist, and just how deadly they are. They are the ones who picked them up, pointed them at us, and then, with full knowledge and understanding of the damage they would cause, smiled and swung hard. And we’re allowed to say to them: you did this because you wanted to. You did this because you made the choice to. You are responsible for your actions, you are wrong for your actions, and what you did is in your hands, and on your head.