Following an online discussion with Vidyut, I said I would post something about my experiences with domestic violence. Late though it is, here we go. Apologies for this being a really long and rambling post.
I have been lucky. My experiences with domestic violence have been very mild, but my life has been very much shaped by it. For this, I need to go back a generation. What follows is the best my memory can provide.
My mother grew up with a violent and alcoholic father. She was never beaten, but her mother was, and her elder siblings were too. Mum tells me of how one day, when she was quite young, she stepped in front of her father and told him “You will not touch her again!!” And he did back off for a while. Recollection tells me she felt this was the main reason she was never hit.
Within the same household, her sister married a man who was the same. He was violent to my aunty, to her kids, and everyone else around them. My darling cousin grew up in a violent family – and wow – you would be hard-pressed to find a nicer person anywhere.
Along came my father. A man who openly deplored violence against women. Pause for a moment there. He appeared on the scene shortly after my mother came into her inheritance. Pause again. My mum was so taken with him because of his attitude towards violence . They met, fell in love (I guess) and married. Although apparently at the wedding ceremony he was chatting up women in front of his new bride.
Despite his opposition to violence against women, he had no such issue about violence against children, or against psychological oppression. As was “the way” at that time, I guess, punishment was always physical. Ranging from a strap, to “banging our heads together” if we were fighting.
But the worst of it was the way he treated my mum. With contempt. Constantly telling her how useless she was. Expecting her to be in her place. At parties he would vilify her in front of everyone. Little wonder she ended up a chain-smoking alcoholic, with suicidal wishes. She told me a few times that the only thing that stopped her taking her own life was the thought that us kids would be brought up by our father.
Years go by, we grow up – sort of. Mum and Dad finally separate and eventually divorce. Dad re-marries, Mum kicks the bottle, gives up smoking unaided.
Dad would often announce his arrival in town (always for horse-racing) and declare how we are having dinner. An audience with my father. It would usually start well, but invariably it would turn and he would get really nasty and treat people like utter shit. Yet still we keep running back. But then, IT happened.
It was the first time I went away with the woman who would, years later, become my wife. A beautiful trip up to the Coromandel. We stopped off overnight at my Dad’s place on the way back, and it just so happened that my brothers were there too. I warned my wife a number of times about my Dad. About just how bad he can be. About how she needed to be careful of what she said. She thought I was being melodramatic and exaggerating things. She found out the hard way I was understating things.
Wifey and I were newly in love and full of cuddles.
After dinner, we were in the lounge and Dad was telling us his story (yet again) of how his father (or was it grand-father) was the last person to have anthrax in New Zealand. And we were all expected to sit there and listen attentively. I was sitting, wifey was standing next to me and we were cuddling while Dad was telling his story. She got told off for interfering.
“Oh, sorry. I’ll just go and sit over here then”
“Yeah – you do that!”
So the story continues. Same old fucking boring shit we’ve heard so many times, and as we’ve been conditioned, just sit there and let it happen.
Wifey says to Dad’s second wife “There is this really interesting program coming up on television. Would people like to watch it?”
She responds: “Oh we don’t watch television in this house. We read books“.
The television was on (horse-racing). My wife was a librarian at the time.
The story continues while wifey sits there silent as she is obviously expected to do. I get increasingly uncomfortable. Then it happens.
“Would you mind if I change channels on the TV?”
Dad: “I think it is the height of rudeness to come into someone’s home and suggest the channels be changed”
I saw it coming before I heard it and couldn’t do anything to intervene.
“No, it would be the height of rudeness to just change channels, I just….”
“Yeah and if you did that you’d be out of the house in two seconds flat!”
At that, wifey burst into tears and ran out of the room. I went after her muttering “Thanks a fucking lot, Dad”
We wanted to leave then and there. The brother I get on best with came into our room to check on us. He said it would just play into our hands. So we stayed. I went to breakfast the next morning, but wifey stayed in her room. Dad was “disappointed it took something so small for our bond to be broken”. Fuck him!
As an interesting back-drop to all this, during this stay, when Dad was drunk (as usual) he blurted out for some reason something about he and his brothers all used to fuck each other up the arse. Shocked look from his wife. A fairly ho-hum expression from the rest of us (there is a history of incest in his family).
My father has a habit of announcing his arrival in Wellington, and instructing us we are to attend a dinner with him. I went. Twice I think.
Every. Single. Fucking. Time. He really lays into one or more of us. How terrible we are. How useless we are doing while his wife’s sons are just brilliant. Every time – makes people feel like shit. It really didn’t take much for me to realise I never want to be with him again.
I love him – he’s my father and of course I love my father. But he is an utter shit. He hurts people. He knows it and is just unable to stop.
I know this is very typical of families of the time. And it may sound like typical family fighting. But to us, it damaged us. For me, it took a very long time for me to stop hating myself. My mum was eventually able to regain her self. And my brothers keep running back for more.
Not me. Not ever. I know my psyche is fragile. And I simply will not allow myself to be in that position again.
So what can people do when faced with domestic violence?
Well, I really can’t say it any better than my dear friend Vidyut does in her post.
If you go there, you might see a comment from me. In it, I talk about the recent public service advertisements shown here a while back. How everybody knows that abuse is happening. But we all act like cardboard cut-outs. One ad always makes me cry. A woman is obviously in an abusive relationship. She drifts through life unable to connect to anyone. Internalising all her pain. And then someone asks if she is OK. It is a good ad. You can see the dam begin the break.
And sometimes that is all it takes. When you see that someone is troubled, reach out. Sometimes it is all it takes. And believe it or not, you really do know how to save a life.