Wednesday, October 7, 2009
So I have been a little preoccupied over the past couple of weeks. (And no, not just with Green Eyed Man, although he is still on the scene and I promise to update with inappropriate details purely for your entertainment shortly.)
Now I am not sure that this blog is truly the right forum for this post. It is not something that I have ever put down in writing before, although it impacts my life every day and is never far from my thoughts. The one thing that I am pretty sure about from the outset is that this post is probably going to be long. Think of it like the blogging version of War and Peace. I am pretty good at verbalising the short and snappy - almost dismissive - summary, but selfishly I need to record this in writing. (Just a friendly warning: if you are sneaking a cheeky look at blogs whilst multi-tasking and are pressed for time, don't even bother reading any further.)
My preoccupation began with a thought-provoking post by Frog in the Field. In it she expressed her horror and sense of betrayal at discovering that her teenage daughter had been given a book by the school librarian which dealt with the harsh realities of child abuse, in graphic detail. This was followed by the Roman Polanski rape debate, so intelligently addressed by Noble Savage and Potty Mummy, amongst others.
This combination of posts struck a deep chord and stirred up strong emotions. I might torture myself on a daily basis about the emotional scars I am inflicting on my innocent offspring (caused by my recent marital split and general inability to parent consistently without screaming like a banshee at them at any given moment). However, heaven forbid they ever experience violent or sexual abuse of any kind.
Like the type of abuse that my sister and I were exposed to for several years, at the hands of my stepfather, for example.
Up until the age of 14 I had a pretty normal, verging on innocent, childhood. I lived with my parents and sister in a small town, was excelling in school, still loved ponies, was a member of a swimming club and had just begun to get interested in boys. That was soon to change.
In the summer of 1981 my mum left my dad for a man she had been having an affair with for 9 years. We left without warning in the middle of the day, while my dad was at work, taking half a house of furniture and all our personal belongings. He returned home, completely unsuspecting, to a virtually empty house - no wife, no girls, just a note to say we had gone. That experience in itself was sufficiently traumatic and emotionally damaging. Hardly a healthy demonstration of how to deconstruct a family with the least possible emotional impact.
Now up until this point, I would describe all the men in my life as 'good guys'. Salt of the earth. Pillars of the community. My dad himself was the sweetest and most gentlest of men, very strict (that's what years of the army does for you) but fair. It wouldn't be true to say that he'd never hurt a fly - his athletic prowess is only truly demonstrated when you witness him in action with his electric zapping fly swatting gadget. But he comes pretty close. As a result I was very trusting and had only had positive male role models as a frame of reference.
So on first appearances I perceived my mum's new husband to be handsome, intelligent, charming and charismatic. He had a full head of hair. (Unlike my dad.) He also had the physique of his 20 yr old self. (Unlike my dad.) My mum was totally besotted with him and, even though I felt treacherous, part of me as a teenager could see why. This was a man who could charm birds out of trees and visually was as dashing as a movie star.
But right from the start, something about him just felt a bit off. Intuitively I found him to be a little repellent, verging on creepy. I was uncomfortable with his over-familiarity. It felt vaguely inappropriate for him to hug and kiss and touch me at every given opportunity. Inside I was, in many respects, a sheltered young girl. But at 14 I was already very tall and, while still innocent verging on naive, I looked older than my age (a trend that, I like to kid myself, started to reverse, Benjamin Button style, when I hit 25). I tried to keep my distance from him, but was accused by my mum of being aloof and standoffish and hurting his feelings. It didn't help to lessen my unease.
Gradually he began to touch me more inappropriately - it was quite subtle and would quite often happen in front of other people. He would slide his arm around me and tuck it under my armpit, so his finger tips grazed the edge of my breast. Or he would put his arm around my waist and pull me close to him, gliding his hand down to rest on my bottom. If he hugged me face-to-face I would feel the whole of his body pressed against mine. He would walk into my room unannounced when I was getting ready for bed, catching me half undressed. I remember one time he came in to kiss me goodnight and, instead of kissing me on the cheek or the lips, he lent over and kissed my breast. It was all so insidious, but also so smooth, that I almost convinced myself that I was imagining it.
I began to withdraw to my room and immerse myself in homework every night, to avoid being around him. I kept to myself at school. I wasn't allowed to go out to youth club or socialise because 'we all know what kids your age are getting up to!' (said with an insinuating and repugnant leer). I knew I wouldn't be allowed to go over to a friend's house - and certainly couldn't face bringing a friend home - so it was easier to adopt the demeanor of class swot and be left alone.
There wasn't the option of voicing my concerns to my mum, who was in a blind state of adoration and clearly thought the sun shone out of his arse. And I couldn't talk to my sister about it, because she was only 11 and, like me, was fiercely trying to adapt to this new family situation and fit in. So I kept stum and used avoidance as the best policy of protection, whilst trying not to be too obvious about it.
Then his drinking escalated and the violent rows started. There was a period of time when the fights were predominantly verbal, which was terrifying enough in itself. The fights tended to start late at night, when my sister and I were in bed, and I would lay awake listening to the shouting, stomping and the crashing of inanimate objects. I was sure my sister was awake, too on edge and frightened to sleep, but we never spoke about it. Finally it would become calm again. And in the morning it was if nothing had ever happened. There was never any reference to any fighting. Cereal would be poured. Cups of tea drunk. I would go to school as normal, utterly exhausted but, again, almost successful in convincing myself that it was all in my imagination.
And then the violence became physical and I would be awoken to the sounds of my mum being pushed around, slapped, punched. Mostly I would lay inert, with every molecule in my body on high alert. Frozen into immobility but poised to react at lightening speed, should it become a fight or flight situation. I would listen intently to the nuances of the fight, trying to decipher its depth and intensity. My heart would pound frantically in my chest, blood roaring in my ears, every muscle tensed to anticipate any eventuality.
Typically the fight would eventually end and, again, the next day would start just like every other. Toast and orange juice. With mum sporting yet another fresh bruise on her arm, body or legs. Never on her face of course. That would be far too obvious and hard to cover up and ignore. "Take X his cup of tea", mum would request, with the words please just do this and don't cause any more trouble unspoken in the air. I would traipse upstairs, to take X his cup of tea in bed. Without fail, he would sit himself up, pushing the bedclothes down low so the top of his pubic hair was visible, one hand outstretched to pull me into a hug disguising a quick grope, the other under the blankets presumably on his groin. To all intents and purposes still this charismatic, handsome, loving family man. I hated him with a vengeance but understood how dangerous he was and how vulnerable we all were. So I learned to mask these feelings and do as little as possible to upset the apple cart.
This pretty much became the pattern of our lives for the four years I lived there. I didn't ever tell anyone about what was happening at home. For one thing, I was too ashamed. But mainly I didn't think anyone would believe me and I knew for sure that the truth would not be substantiated by my mother. He was the type of guy that had been the President of the Debating Society at University and could talk you into believing black was white if the mood took him. Also, I almost couldn't believe it myself. Despite living it almost day to day, it seemed too surreal, like something that you might watch on a documentary but that never happens to people you actually know. And which definitely couldn't be happening to me, personally.
The worst part of my day wasn't actually the morning after, scanning mum surreptitiously for fresh wounds, observing her make a conscious effort never to look us directly in the eye. Having to face our abuser with a smile and a kiss, before escaping the house for a blessed 8 hours of peace at the lonely hell of school.
No, the worst part was, without question, the walk home from school. There was no point dawdling because he had timed the journey and knew exactly when to expect us. But I cannot describe the utter dread and trepidation I felt as I reached the end of my street every afternoon. This would be the moment of truth in my day. What was I going to find when I got home? Would my mum be okay? Would he have downed 3 pints of beer and be relatively jovial? Or 8 pints and counting, already belligerent and looking for a fight? Would he sink into melancholy late evening and pass out? Or would the night bring a new round of terror? There was no way of knowing until the front door was open and every day I would steel myself to deal with any eventuality.
One night the violence got out of hand and, for whatever reason (a hair in his soup at dinner? It was possible) he went over the top and I think for the first time my mum actually feared for her life. She screamed and screamed for help. As usual, I had been listening to the intensity of the fight increase and as soon as I heard her cry for help I raced out of my room to try to protect her. I don't remember feeling any sense of danger - just a mix of terror and rage that he was finally going to kill her. I charged into their bedroom, to find him sitting on top of her, his knees pinning her down on the bed, repeatedly punching her in the face with both fists while she screamed. It almost seems funny now to remember how I reactively jumped onto his back to pull him off. It didn't occur to me that he might start hitting me. Maybe in a way I almost wanted him to. In that moment I was so consumed with pent up rage I felt capable of killing him with my bare hands.
As it turns out, he immediately shrunk away from the bed and curled up in a ball sobbing like a baby. My mum was covered in blood, face swollen and unrecognisable. I held her and soothed her, convincing her we needed to go to hospital, with a sense of utter relief that now it would all come to an end. I don't remember how we got to hospital although I do remember he was there. I also remember listening with complete disbelief whilst my mum made up some cock and bull story about falling down some stairs, while her face was being stitched back together. It reinforced the sense that there really was no way out. There was no cavalry. It was just a matter of survival and being there to protect my mum as best I could.
After that I intervened more frequently. One time my sister and I met on the stairs, uncertain about what to do. So I grabbed a bucket from the bathroom, filled it with water and went into the living room and threw it over him. It stopped him in his tracks for a few seconds, before he chased me, my mum and my sister into the bathroom with a crazed glaze in his eyes. We locked the door and sat huddled together against it, whilst he pummelled it repeatedly with his fists and feet. He succeeded in creating two large fist sized holes in the door, which were never repaired, but ultimately retreated. We slept on the floor of the bathroom that night, covered in a couple of damp bath towels. And then in the morning we continued the usual routine, as if there was nothing out of the ordinary in starting the day lying in a heap on the bathroom floor. As I left for school I saw mum tending to his bruised and bloody knuckles, removing embedded splinters with her tweezers. It didn't surprise me. Nothing much surprised me any more.
Another time, when I could no longer bare to hear the sound of his fists connecting to my mum's body whilst he screamed abuse at her, I rushed downstairs and grabbed one of his shotguns from the rack he had in the bedroom. It wasn't loaded. Unfortunately. More's the pity, I had no idea where he kept the cartridges or even if there were any in the house. Still. It made a pretty imposing weapon to yield and it frightened him out of the house, careering blind drunk in his car down the street. I silently begged God to place an inconspicuous lamp post or brick wall in his path, while externally begging mum to call the police and report a raving lunatic behind the wheel of a family estate. She was too frightened and I didn't have the gumption to do it myself. And by morning I was back to taking him a cup of tea in bed, whilst he leered and cupped his genitals under the covers.
However, the funniest incidence has to be when I went intervened in a fight and he chased me upstairs to my bedroom. Now at this point in time I had a lock on my door for security, so I locked myself in while he screamed abuse and rammed his body against the door, trying to break it down. In desperation I looked around but the only thing to hand was my hairdryer, lying plugged in near to the door frame. I turned the hairdryer onto the highest setting and directed the nozzle through the gap in the frame and the door, screaming at him to leave me alone. I think I intended to sock him with it, if he had broken the lock, and not just blow dry him to death. Luckily, the lock held.
The part of this experience that now, as a mother myself, I find the hardest to understand is not how my own mother continued to expose my sister and I to such danger, day after day. She was in denial and being cruelly manipulated and victimised. It was as much as she could do to survive every day as best she knew how. The most damaging part of my experience was the emotional abuse. The fact that I was repeatedly told that I was responsible. That if only I could be nicer to him, none of this would be happening. She was my mum. I predominantly believed her. Ultimately, despite being scared of her safety, I did leave when I was 18 and at the time I was convinced the violence would stop. It didn't, of course.
I didn't see my mum for a couple of years after that, or my sister. It was only after my sister finally left home at 18 and we reconnected that I discovered that, not only was he a violent alcoholic, but he was also a pedophile. Turns out I got off lightly, in that respect, which is something I'm not sure I will ever come to terms with. Why didn't I realise what was going on with my sister? Surely if I had, I would have been able to do something - would have had the balls to take her and just leave?
My mum eventually left him a couple of years after my sister. We've rebuilt bridges but never addressed what happened during that time. My mum just isn't able to talk about it. I think it would mean a lot to both my sister and I if we could hear her apologise, but I don't believe it's ever going to happen and, deep down, we both know that she feels the guilt of it deeper than she could ever express.
So, the point of this post?
Well, in response to Frog's post, I know this is a sensitive subject and one that we would rather not expose our children to in any degree. But some children/teenagers are not lucky enough to just be exposed to this as a piece of fiction or some vague, far off understanding that 'shit happens'. In fact, there are hundreds of thousands of children who are being exposed to this type of abuse right this second. And the more people who are aware about it, and are willing to talk about it, the less taboo it will become and maybe more children will find the confidence to speak out about it. I'm not sure just yet how I am going to broach the subject with my own boys - but I certainly don't want to sugar coat it or protect them from the harsh realities of some of their peers (and indeed, mother's) experiences.
With regards to Roman Polanski, well, there are no prizes for guessing which side of the debate I am on. He was a man in his 50s who confessed to raping a 13 year old girl. It doesn't make any difference that he is talented, successful, charismatic. I am pretty sure that worked to his advantage. It is also irrelevant that the girl looked older than her years, as if that implies that secretly she yearned to be sodomised whilst at the same time saying NO. I bet to the casual observer I appeared to be a well-adjusted teenager from a happy family. It couldn't have been further from the truth, but I masked it really well. Just as I continue to today.
As for his traumatic childhood, well, I might not have endured the holocaust but my formative years were not a piece of cake. Can that successfully excuse any illegal actions, as an intelligent adult, that I might choose to make? Yep. Didn't think so.
With regards to his supporters, who point to the fact that his victim, now aged 35, has since 'moved on' with her life and isn't particularly keen to revisit the traumatic episode in the full media spotlight, all I can say is this. I, too, have moved on with my life. And I can't imagine that I would ever want this whole ugly episode of my childhood publicised to the point where complete strangers the world over think they have sufficient information to make judgements on whether or not I am a) telling the truth or b) in some way caused the abuse.
But given the opportunity, even after 24 years I would still gladly remove his penis with a rusty, blunt butter knife and take my time feeding it through a shredder. I sometimes wonder how many more years of therapy it will take before I can picture this man in my mind's eye without my entire body flinching with utter revulsion and my stomach gagging reflexively with the fear that I was never truly able to express as a child?
Anyway, to end (finally!) on a positive note - after reliving memories triggered by these fellow bloggers posts, last week I took the opportunity to start working as a volunteer with a local domestic abuse agency. I know this is something I am now ready to do...start to use my personal experience as a means of helping other women and children who are in the midst of a similar situation, in any way I can.
And who dares to say that blogging isn't life changing?