This is the question that is always asked about women and abuse. I’ve even asked it to my mother: why didn’t you leave him? And even asked myself when I ended up in a bad relationship: why didn’t you leave, the first time he turned on you?
But it’s a stupid question, the wrong question. It’s not even a question that waits for an answer. This question implies it is the victim’s fault: that there is something wrong with a person for not leaving. For not getting out, right at the beginning. But as one gay male friend said to me: “Why beat yourself up more, love? Haven’t you been beaten up enough?”
If we asked the question why did she stay, then we might get a better understanding. And another question, why did he do the things he did to her, this might help. And if he claimed he didn’t do anything or she is exaggerating, then the question why does he lie or minimise things.
Perhaps, unless you’ve been there, you’ll never fully understand, but I’ll give it a go. Tell you a bit about my story. Actually one of my stories, as this wasn’t the only time in my life I experienced violence and abuse at the hands of a man. There was a pattern there, imprinted on me, things I’d picked up unconsciously from my own parents, even though I’d vowed I’d never be like them, have a relationship like theirs.
And before I go on, before I get judged or labelled as a man-hater, let me make one thing clear. Women can be abusers. I’ve come across a few vile and vicious women who have terrified me. Thankfully I didn’t sleep with them or fall in love with them. I’ve always fallen in love with men, and with this one that I’m going to tell you about, there were several things that made me stay.
The main one was that I was in love. Now I know what you are going to say, that I only thought I was in love. Or I was in lust, or co-dependent, as love doesn’t hurt. But these are just words, futile attempts to try and take away what I felt. I was deeply in love with this man, and for a while felt safe with him, opened up to him in a way I’d never done before.
The children liked him too, as he spent time with them, did things with them, even took them fishing – unlike their “absent” workaholic father who they’d hardly seen when we’d been together. This new man in our lives was even there at meal times! We’d sit down at the dining room table and eat home-cooked meals using vegetables from the garden or eggs from our own hens. It was a completely different life from the one we’d led in the city and for a while we were much happier.
Then there was the sex. It was the best sex I’d ever had. At orgasm I’d feel as if I was shooting out of my mind to some distant place, to sheer intoxicating bliss, and afterwards I’d feel so happy and loving. It was like a mind-altering drug, this sex with him. My ex-husband had reckoned I was frigid (I was always making excuses), and now I couldn’t get enough.
As well as sex, there was all the cuddling, the affection between us. And the things we did together. Crosswords, chess, walks on the beach, watching videos, gardening, fixing up the hen-house.
I thought this love, this great sex and easy companionship, would last forever. (Don’t we all think this in the honeymoon phase of a relationship? Haven’t you?)
Early on he’d told me he was very sensitive and couldn’t cope with conflict. That should have rung alarm bells. Anyway, I couldn’t imagine us ever disagreeing about anything. But we did.
Our first disagreement was over an ex-lover of his. He’d had a fling with her just before he met me, even though she was married. Now she used to turn up unexpectedly at my house, bring him gifts such as chocolate teddy bears (never any for me!) or CDs (latest “romantic” hits), and they would sit down and chat about things they had experienced or were involved in (Land Care for example) and leave me out of the conversation. I didn’t like her and didn’t trust her. When I told him I didn’t want her coming around, he was shocked. He said I was jealous. He also said I was on a “power trip” and trying to control him: her husband didn’t mind their continued friendship, why should I. Nothing I said would change his mind.
Another source of disagreement was disciplining the children, my children. He believed in corporal punishment, hitting them. I didn’t.
We never had rows over these things; we simply decided to agree to disagree. (In hindsight, I was merely “keeping the peace for the sake of the relationship”. I’m sure some of you will relate to that.)
The verbal abuse began after about six months. We were in the kitchen having what I thought was a friendly conversation. Suddenly he gave me a strange look and with a snarl on his lips told me I was crazy. He walked out the door to go to work without giving me the usual cuddle and long-lingering kiss. I was stunned and confused, but before the end of the day had put the incident out of my mind – as if it hadn’t happened.
His first physical attack was also unexpected. One night we were cuddling on the couch, when he suddenly tensed up and frowned. His arm was wrapped around me, stroking my breast when his hand tightened. He grabbed hold of my erect nipple and began to twist it. I screamed out but he continued. I thought he was trying to wrench it out of my breast. When he finally let go, I burst into tears from shock of it all. He stood up and began to laugh, told me not to be such a baby. I curled up on the floor and sobbed.
For a few days my breast throbbed and I wondered at times whether to go up to my doctor. Tell someone. Then I forgot all about it, or “put it out of my mind”.
Forgot all about it, you say. How could you? There is, I’ve found, a clinical term for this kind of forgetting. It is called dissociative amnesia, and I’ve realised that this “habit” began, for me, when I was little.
For example, once when I was about eight, I took a sharp knife, climbed a tall tree at the bottom of our place and crouched up there between some branches. I kept prodding my wrist with the knife (but not breaking the skin), and in between deep sobs muttered the words “I’m going to kill him, I’m going to kill him”. After what seemed ages – it may have only been half an hour – I heard my mother calling for me in her high-pitched voice. I climbed down, put on a brave face and went back as if nothing was wrong. I have no idea, now, what my father had done to make me so upset, but I do know that I’d have forgotten about it shortly after.
My father was the head of the house (as men were in the 1950s) but what made it worse was that he was home all the time as he was a market gardener: he grew tomatoes in glasshouses that were alongside the house. We were all terrified of him. Including my mother. He was a cold, distant man who was often angry and frustrated but seldom hit us. This was the one area my mother stood up to him, and he would complain to people, “My wife doesn’t let me hit them”. But the few times he did were enough to make me confused and frightened.
One occasion was when I was about four. I took a glass to get some water from a tap outside the back door. The glass slipped out of my hand, smashing on the concrete path and a shard bounced up and cut my wrist. My father was furious. He belted me before taking me up to the doctor to get the wound stitched. On another occasion he hit me after finding an apple core I’d chucked away which still had some flesh on it. He gave his usual rant about the starving in Africa and the Depression that we were lucky not to have lived through.
I also remember him hitting my older brother after he had gone to the toilet. His crime: my father had heard the splashing of my brother’s urine on the inside of the toilet bowl.
Now, young children don’t have the choice of leaving home or running away, let alone standing up to an abusive parent. Most often they don’t even have the awareness that the way they’re being treated is wrong. This is just the way their family is; it’s the only thing they’ve known. Sometimes they even blame themselves. And when bad things happen, they often forget about them shortly after or they don’t dwell on them. They have to – in order to cope and survive.
So is it any wonder that as an adult I’d get stuck? Each time I was hurt by my lover, within hours I’d forget about it. As in my childhood, it never occurred to me to stand up to him, ask him to leave, break off the relationship. Or even get angry. Even when things got worse.
For there were other things he did: hands squeezed tightly around my neck, smacking my daughter with a bare wet hand causing a bruise that covered much of her buttock, throwing our pet cat over the veranda at every opportunity (he hated cats and thought they should all be killed), calling me names – his favourites being crazy and stupid – and once when I was being difficult again – questioning him over his former lover who I found he was meeting secretly in town for cups of coffee – he took me for a walk up the hill at the back of my property, and then forced sex on me – to make me better, to stop my questions.
In spite of all the abuse, I let him stay. I was convinced this was the love of my life. I was addicted to the good feelings I sometimes had with him. I had left my husband for him.
Gradually I began to collapse inside. Grief (but never anger) began to erupt at unexpectedly moments and I’d spend hours howling – usually behind his back for he’d call me a “nutter” whenever he found me in this state.
At the end of the year I ran away with my children to the beach and rented a holiday unit. I realised I needed help and made an appointment with a psychologist for the following day. I also rang my doctor, told him I wasn’t coping, and mentioned the violence. I was stunned to hear that my lover “concerned about my wellbeing” had gone to see my doctor; he’d even told him he thought I needed to be committed to a mental health unit. The doctor told me that from the things his lover had told him, he himself feared I’d become psychotic, but was relieved to speak to me as in fact I sounded quite normal! He told me he’d tell my lover he had heard from me and would advise him to come down and meet me so we could go to the psychologist together.
Was I mad? Was it all me? Maybe I was a “nutter”?
We met the next day; he had driven down on his motorbike. I was pleased to see him; we cuddled and kissed. Hope was in my heart. He was worried about me, hoped the psychologist could find out what was wrong with me. Maybe he was right: it was my fault for making him upset.
The psychologist however (after we’d each told our stories, of what had been happening, and I had even dared to say he pinches my nipples) said to me, I don’t think you need any help. But she turned to him and said, I think you need help: you have a sadistic streak and need long-term counselling. Suddenly I felt as if I had woken up, or as if a light had been switched on. I was also relieved as this meant we could work things out, he could get therapy and we could stay together.
But that night was the last. He moved out the next day. Blamed me. Accused me of brainwashing the psychologist.
I was devastated. And for a while, wanted him back. I wanted to fix things up. He came and went a few times, but was switched off. Wouldn’t touch me. He tried to cuddle my daughter but she wouldn’t let him. He accused me of influencing her, turning her against him. On the last visit, he kicked the new puppy I had got for my children, smashed a glass on the kitchen floor in front of my daughter, and shouted so much I went and crawled under the blankets of my bed upstairs but he followed me and continued to shout, told me I was crazy and sick, with my daughter listening to it all downstairs.
The psychologist was wrong. Of course I needed help. Some weeks later I went to a therapist and began unravelling my life.
He suggested I do some emotional release work. The room was soundproofed and on the floor was a mattress, which the therapist said was my safe place. There was a pile of fat telephone directories neatly stacked at the end of the mattress.
He handed me a hose (to use as a truncheon), gave me some gloves to put on (to prevent blisters) and placed an open telephone book in front of me. “Put him out there,” he suggested. “Talk to him. What do you want to say to him? Show him your anger.”
My words soon turned to the most shattering shouts and screams I had ever heard. The rage that I had pushed down most of my life erupted. It was like a spewing torrent of emotional pus that gushed out of me in wild bursts. I was completely taken aback. Was this me? In me? At times I was so enraged I dropped the hose and began to furiously tear the phone books up as I howled and screamed abuse at him. How dare he? Wild shouts of “No, no” shot out of me. How dare he do those things to me and to my children? How dare he? I also beat up some of his friends who had supported him and called me a liar. Two were well known in the community and both had said, “We had a different experience with X than you.” (Well of course they did. They weren’t his lovers.)
The therapist hardly said a word, just a few whispers, sometimes reiterating what I’d shouted. “How dare he?”
Suddenly, with no prompting, I found myself beating up my ex-husband for things he’d done, and then my father: that mean, miserly man.
Exhausted, I collapsed into grief. Why had I allowed it? Why didn’t I protect my children? What had I done?
Spontaneously, some memories of my childhood came tumbling to the surface. Me as a little girl, often terrified, who seldom felt safe and who shut down emotionally. Hiding under my bed, away from the world. Crouched under a hedge where no one could find me; curled up in a cave down on the cliff or up the tree with a knife. Running inside, always running.
Deep sobs rocked me. I clung to a pillow and dragged tissues by the handful from several boxes.
There at the bottom of the well was a sense of the deepest loss …
I’d been running from my childhood most of my life. But this is where it all began. Why it was so hard to leave, decades later, when I’d had grown up and thought I’d found “true love”. This is often where it all begins, for the abused and the abuser.
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