Experience can be an excellent teacher if we reflect on our actions and their consequences. [MC]
There are always consequences. Every action, and every choice we make in life, has a consequence. Some of those consequences are minor, some are major. Inaction also has consequences. And somewhere in the middle I live with them all. Even after leaving your abuser, the hidden consequences of domestic violence and abuse can linger for decades. Especially for children. In my case, the consequences have lingered longer than they should, due to my cavalier attitude of denial about this very dark period of our life.
I still find it hard to think, read and talk about the trauma and pain my two girls suffered during this time, but a chance conversation with my eldest daughter, now forty, made me realise just how much over the years my denial has trivialised and minimalised their own traumatic experiences. They have carried their wounds in silence for years.
But silence is not forgetting. Deep down, I have always known this part of our life will need to be dealt with. It sits unspoken between us. Like an irritating itch. Every now and then we gently scratch the itch but it feels too uncomfortable for me. I can’t go back there. It’s too dark, appallingly ugly and when I do attempt to go back I am swamped with feelings of shame, guilt and failure. My casual attitude of, ‘Others have it worse,’ or ‘We were lucky we got out so no point in going back there’ has generally been my response. I cling to any day to day success as a badge of honour to a successful life. And I have sensed my eldest daughter’s frustration and a growing anger towards my denial and silence on the matter of our abuse.
The tipping point came during our weekly phone conversation when I was chirpily discussing a book I was writing. The book, a series of articles of part insight, part hindsight, based on my life story was my first attempt at writing a book. Inexcusably, not one of the stories mentioned the abuse. Denial. Denial. Denial. After a rather long silence my daughter casually started the conversation that was about to expose the itch as a large open wound.
“Mum I just want to hear your story. Do you know what my earliest memories of you and my father are? It’s the sounds of him wasting you. Smashing you. The noise. The begging. You begging him to stop. The side of your face, your ear, all swollen.”
Afterwards she said I carried on as though nothing had happened.
“I know what it was like for me, but I need to hear what it was like for you. Your articles don’t mention anything about this,” she said.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can see how my entry into domestic abuse was always going to be a case of ‘not if, but when’. My parents were well-intentioned and well-meaning. They parented the best way they knew. Mum and Dad worked hard and were good providers. We certainly didn’t fit the classic ‘at risk’ family picture. We never went hungry, always had a roof over our heads, a warm bed and I never, ever, saw my father raise a hand to my mother in anger. There were good times living in the small rural township of Te Aroha back in the 50’s and 60’s. I spent hours roaming the countryside with friends, building huts, riding bikes, climbing trees and floating down the Waihou River on flimsy rafts. But we were an affectionless family. Anything that remotely smelled of feelings, success, desires or needs etc. was repressed or ridiculed.
Parenting styles have a huge impact on the behaviour of a growing child and like many children in the 1950’s my parents parented with a strict authoritarian style demanding complete obedience without any explanation. We were seen and not heard. I read somewhere that no matter what your upbringing looks like, the reality is, a child raised without love and affection is an emotionally impoverished adult. Behavioural experts apply a name to this impoverishment. It is called ‘emotional abandonment’. Children grow up with poor self-esteem, they are poor judges of character and will rebel against authority figures when they are older. On a more personal note the term ‘emotional abandonment’ is too clinical when describing where I come from. It’s just a term to describe a group of behaviours. It does not describe the struggle or desolation of the feeling. What it feels like to me is, the abandonment of my soul. My childhood set me up beautifully for what was to come, and my poor life choices did the rest.
I left school and home when I was sixteen. Even now, over fifty years later, I struggle to adequately describe how emotionally malnourished and under-prepared I was for participation in everyday life. I have a friend who tells me she knew what she wanted to do with her life, and how she was going to get there, when she was fourteen. When I left home I had no such plan, only my dreams and my perceptions of freedom. I had no comprehension of plans, choices, decision-making or responsibility. I only knew authority and during my teenage years my rebellion against any sort of authority, right or wrong, reared its ugly head with a vengeance. My parents found a job for me as a records clerk in Hamilton. They packed me up and delivered me to the Hamilton YWCA boarding house for girls and drove home. Adulthood had begun.
My interactions with men in those days were always about male dominated sex, consensual yes, but I didn’t know I had a choice and I didn’t feel I could say no. Sex was murky, it was gropy and felt shameful. My teachers were men who saw you as a trophy or as someone to appease their raging hormones, and I cannot recall ever enjoying or experiencing a normal ‘couples’ relationship. I drifted from one situation to another, always running from something or running to something, making crazy spur of the moment decisions until I eventually found my way into the navy. The decision to join the navy came about simply because a girl friend at the time was joining. We both sat the entrance exam – I passed, she didn’t, and before I knew it I was on the bus to Auckland Naval Base where I met my future husband.
He was an Abel Seaman and had been in the navy two years before I joined. I was attracted to his broodiness and his ‘hard to get’ attitude. He was popular with his navy peers and was always the guy with the guitar at the parties. All the girls liked him. He was always courteous and polite, the person who gave up his seat to others in public. Quite the catch. I read somewhere an abuser is a master at putting up a false front while in public. He is a ‘nice guy’ until he gets behind closed doors when suddenly the personality makes a huge shift. My husband was this guy. Even now, friends that knew him in his navy days, still see him as that ‘nice guy’, and that my leaving him was more to do with me unable to stay in a relationship than his monstrous nature.
Even before I was pregnant the beatings took place, only stopping when he knew I was hurt. He knew this because I would be crying and begging him to stop. Amazing as it sounds now, I didn’t see it as abuse. I thought I deserved it because I had retaliated at something he said. I have since learned domestic violence has a pattern typically described as a ‘cycle of violence’. The ‘cycle’ begins with a ‘set-up’ phase’ where the abuser creates a situation in which the victim has no choice but to react in a way that, in the abuser’s mind, justifies the abuse. This was often the case in our relationship. Once I was pregnant things got worse. I was trapped. Even when I wasn’t being battered and bruised which occurred almost on a daily basis there was the emotional abuse. Emotional abuse chips away at your feelings of self-worth and independence—leaving you feeling that there’s no way out of the relationship, or that without your abusive partner you have nothing. In my case there was the lies and cheating – his ‘girlfriends’ who I had to be friends with and, because he held all the money, limited financial support when he was home and away. The ‘sorry bub’ apology from him after a bashing or when his womanising was exposed, and everything was meant to be happy again. I was made to feel I had overreacted, or he would say things like, “It’s because you act that way I responded that way, you know, and it’s not really a big matter”. And I believed this. I thought it was my fault and I was overreacting. I thought I was going mad.
I think one of the things that made it so difficult for me was not understanding I was in an abusive relationship and the ramifications of this. The more his violent behaviour escalated the more I felt like I had done something wrong. It was my fault and I deserved it. I felt I couldn’t live without him no matter how badly he treated me. Even if I did decide to leave, I had no-where to go, there was no way to financially to take care of myself and my children, plus the fact that, in my navy community, my husband was the good guy and I was really proud that I had got the ‘good guy’. It was easier to stay. Then there was my own deluded pride, the shame and embarrassment and worry about people finding out. I never asked for help. I was too proud to go home to my parents. It’s one of the consequences I live with. If I had just asked for help, or told someone the truth about what was happening, my two daughters who were seven and three at the time, would not have experienced the horrors of what was to come.
Eventually I did leave. The sad thing is the decision to leave was not in any way anything to do with his abuse. Not that I recognised anyway. I just decided I didn’t want to be with him anymore. Within the navy community there was an unwritten rule where it was judged to be the lowest form of behaviour to leave your husband when he was away at sea. To have your partner arrive home after weeks of ‘serving his country’ to an empty house was considered a ‘cardinal sin’. Oh my goodness, when you are in a violent relationship this is the best time to leave, but in my deluded state, I decided to make the separation as ‘honest’ as possible. I waited for him to return home and told him I was leaving with the kids. He kicked me out, wouldn’t let me back in and physically barred me from taking the girls. Consequence number two: What happened next is a decision I have felt ashamed and guilty of ever since. I walked away leaving my two girls behind. I told myself that I would just go to a lawyer and get the kids back. The reality was, I had no plan, no job and hadn’t even organised anywhere to stay long-term. And, if I am to be perfectly honest, I was so tired and battered the thought of freedom from all this hell was enticing. So I walked off down the road.
Om the surface, in the eyes of the law, a father with a stable job, a house and plenty of baby-sitting support far out-weighed how I was being portrayed. He was the ‘Mr Nice Guy’ and I was the baddie, and I believed I was the baddie. My husband didn’t want the girls, but he just didn’t want me to have them, and so insidious was his ‘Mr Nice Guy’ persona, it took 12-15-months before authorities could see what was happening and the girls came back to me. During that separation period, my two girls were subjected to some of the most horrific, sexual, mental and physical abuse by my husband and his baby-sitting support people, including his family.
The 1994 New Zealand drama film, Once were Warriors, tells the story of a family, and their problems with poverty, alcoholism, and domestic violence. My youngest daughter, now thirty-seven was four when her abuse started says,
“Mum, what happened to us makes Once Were Warriors seem like a pretty little nursery rhyme.”
My stomach clenches when I hear how my youngest daughter was forced to lick the genitals of her babysitter. My eldest daughter forced to stand the other side of a locked door calling out to her sister. When my eldest daughter told her father what was happening she was given a hiding and returned to the baby-sitters. The feelings of helplessness and hopelessness of not being believed must have been achingly devastating. Of how they were told to take their underwear off then hung by their feet out a window. Family members beating and raping family members. Their stories are filled with unspeakable horrors and sadness and, as their mother, I deeply regret how my actions have contributed to their ongoing pain. I wasn’t there for them when they needed me most and, if I am to be brutally honest, I’m not sure I wanted to be there – the ‘slowness’ of the legal process suited me. It allowed me the freedom to be free.
The hidden consequences of any sort of abuse can linger for decades. Eventually the children were removed from their father and back into my care. I remarried within a few years and daily life became less of a struggle. I hoped the effects of abuse would disappear. Magically. Without any work from me. I thought because we were safe and secure that was it. No more pain for the children. I wanted to just get rid of it and get on with it. The reality is, with all abuse involving children, getting children to safety is only the first step. Being able to guide children through a recovery process of professional counselling and supportive intervention programmes, is crucial to their having successful a life, and it is often the first step towards healing. The aftermath of abuse for my children has been quite different. Their pain has been a long journey towards healing. They document this beautifully in their stories.
Experience can be an excellent teacher if we reflect on our actions and their consequences. Everything we think and say and do has consequences for ourselves and for others and I feel the responsibility for my actions immensely. Forgiving yourself is far more challenging than forgiving someone else because you live with yourself and your thoughts 24/7. But I discovered not forgiving yourself is like continually picking at the open wound, only making a bad situation worse. The wound is already there, but I do have control over my reaction to it. If you forgive yourself when you make a mistake, it’s easier to address the consequences of your actions in a productive way. Of course I wish, with every fibre of my being, none of this had ever happened, but try as you might, you can’t escape the consequences of your decisions, whether good or bad. The only reprieve is to learn from them. I am still working through this process.
But as painful and dark as this story is, telling it has been liberating for all of us. There is also a wonderful reconciliation and deepening of our relationships taking place as we discuss and talk about our ‘untalked about’ years of abuse. I realise keeping it silent only kept us all victims. Forcing my children to live with their abuse every day. I am immensely grateful to my eldest daughter for challenging me on this, for exposing the itch for what it was – a large open wound. Thanks to her, bringing light to the darkness, now means my children are no longer victims. They are victors.