There are two backdrops to the situation in my home as a child, teenager and adult. The first is the underlying effect of domestic violence in my mother’s family. I adored my maternal grandparents because I knew, when I stayed with them, I was loved unconditionally. I’d spend hours wandering on my own in the big garden, the fields beyond the garden, and the small copse just below the house beside us which was the last along the lane. This was Blackheath where a bit of paradise was tucked away down this lane and I used to step outside the back gate, listen to the wood pigeons cooing and feel absolutely happy in my solitude and among nature.
So it was a heck of a shock when my mum told me, when she was on holiday in Australia in early 1975, that my grandfather used to beat my grandmother when my mum, brother and sister were kids, as he was a sweet old man who spoiled me no end. Mum said the kids used to run when he was in a rage to get away from his violence but my grandmother copped it the worst. I guess they must have made their peace in their middle and old age as they seemed happy together as I was growing up.
My mum did think that my grandmother had intended shooting through to her mother in West Hartlepool, in the north-east of England, but changed her mind when mum said something to her – what it was is lost in the midst of time. But the effects passed down generations. My uncle beat my aunt and he also came close to beating my cousin so hard he could have inflicted serious injury had my father not stopped in. My aunt married a violent man – again there was some sort of violence between my aunt and uncle when they were staying with us, I remember the shouting and yelling, and again my father intervened with my aunt and uncle leaving the next day.
I guess my mother felt safe with my father as he didn’t indulge in physical violence. Instead he resorted to emotional abuse because if Mum crossed him in any way, he wouldn’t talk to her for a couple of weeks, just sent her to Coventry. I never realised this as they were good at keeping up a front at home, but she told me later when they’d emigrated to Australia in 1978 after I’d moved there in 1972.
As for me, Dad was a control freak as far as my whereabouts where concerned. I was kept close to home as a kid with curfews which earned me a big scolding if I came home a bit too late. Luckily Dad had no idea of how far I used to roam and the escapades I used to get up to once I was out of sight of our home. He used to try to steam roller me if I expressed opinions but, luckily for me, I found the courage to argue back. I know it’s made me very stubborn in my opinions, mainly because I felt so threatened by his overbearing behaviour. I’ve never handled bosses well either because anyone telling me what to do instantly puts my back up and I head out to do the opposite!
Dad was, to some extent, a psychic as he used to know what upset me and he’d go for my underbelly with his words. I remember once, after Mum had died, that he told me how she’d worried about my weight. It hurt me no end and I caught a look of malicious glee on Dad’s face as he knew he’d managed to stick the knife in and turn it. He’d praise other people around him knowing it hurt me that he never once had a good word for me. In all our life, he never hugged me or told he me loved me, and never gave me praise or approval. The only photo we ever had together was when he was finally in a nursing home, and the closest contact we had was when we had linked arms at my mother’s funeral and he squeezed my arm as her coffin began to roll behind the screen after the funeral service.
I wasn’t intending to continue on the theme of domestic violence in my family’s history except something happened which reminded me of how one can be affected not just by physical violence but by verbal pressures. I found myself freezing when someone said something sharply to me (who it was doesn’t matter, more how it affected me), and it reminded me of behavioural patterns from childhood which still affect me from time to time.
So I thought I’d carry on with how a dysfunctional relationship has affected me and how I’ve pretty much worked it out of my system. I’m writing this basically to encourage other women who might come across this blog and who are struggling with a dysfunctional relationship – whether in childhood, in the family right now or in a relationship – to get some understanding that they’re not on the same leaky boat alone.
I want to let them know that they are worth a damned sight more than anyone dragging them down or indulging in violence – whether physical or mental – against them, and to say to anyone who reads this and thinks they’re perhaps over-reacting: if you feel abused in any way, if you feel that someone is putting you down, if someone is bashing you or verbally abusing you, it is okay to acknowledge you may feel worthless and a heap of shit, but it’s also okay to feel angry, to experience hatred because it’s your experience, no-one else’s. No-one has the right to say that you are over-stating things, being sensitive or whatever. You have your feelings, you’re entitled to own your feelings and know they are fine.
The next step is to deal with your circumstances and work on clearing out crappy feelings – because those feelings affect only you, not the person who caused it. I want to tell you that I ran a group once with women who’d been sexually assaulted or suffered domestic violence or been the subject of hurtful behaviour and comments designed to smash their self-confidence. Each and every one of these brave, gutsy women had finally quit a situation that dragged down their spirits. They had regained their self-esteem, their self-confidence and rebuilt their lives. Some of them were in difficult financial circumstances but not one of them would go back to the hell of the past. They saw themselves not as survivors but as victors, because they had regained their spirit and their sense of self.
The quote in the title comes from one of those women. She had been through unimaginable difficulties but never gave up hope. Every time she was down, she told herself: “I am a fine woman”. I have never forgotten that and it’s been my mantra too and I’m pretrty sure it remains a mantra for other women in her group not only for her courage but her honesty in baring her soul to us.
Before we left Australia, we saw a programme on ABC TV which was based on the fact that many women who were the victims of domestic abuse in post-war Sydney got shot of their violent partners with thallium, a rat poison readily available in the corner stores in the city, although not available in other parts of the country.
About 100 deaths were attributed to these poisonings although the figure could have been higher. In most cases the women poisoning their partners were the victims of domestic violence and in those days there was no escape. To leave a marriage meant, for women, poverty and social ostracism. If you were getting beaten up, you had to put up with it and try to survive as best you could. Enter stage left thallium which was tasteless and highly effective at putting in food and knocking off your violent partner.
True not every woman who used the poison was the victim of domestic violence, but very many were and they were desperate.
Nowadays of course there is more knowledge of domestic violence, awareness of women’s refuges and far more support than there used to be. Nevertheless, many women continue to remain in violent relationships and all too often you see the comment: “Why don’t these women just get out of this situation. Just walk out or walk away.”
But it’s easier said than done, as victims will attest. There’s the shame factor of admitting publicly you’ve been bashed. Often there’s the very real fear of being homeless or facing the prospect of poverty. And all too often it’s because women have been brainwashed into thinking they deserve what they’re getting, that they don’t deserve any better and they’re basically a heap of worthless shit who should be happy they’ve got a man in their life, however violent.
If you’re wondering if I’ve been a victim of domestic violence myself, no, I haven’t, thank goodness. But going back to the history of domestic violence in my family and to the domineering attitude of my father, it came as a shock to me in my ‘fifties to realise how much I’d been brainwashed by my father over the years.
He used to say things with so much certainty that as a child I never queried whether his comments were truthful and correct or not. And this attitude continued into adulthood because it was one I’d grown up with and I had no reason not to trust what my father was saying. Also in my adult years I wasn’t around my father very much and, if I was, we used to argue like the clappers because I stood up to Dad when he said things I didn’t agree with or sneered at my views. Looking back now, I realise that my mum was the peacemaker between us and when she died, Dad and I were face to face in our relationship without an intervening presence.
In my ‘fifties I found out that something Dad had asserted was quite untrue and was in actual fact a piece of complete fiction. I found out other untruths and I began to query just what was real in the past and what wasn’t. I really have no idea now if the stories Dad told of his younger years were real or complete fiction. It’s a weird situation as you realise you’ve been so comprehensively brainwashed when you think you’re a perfectly functioning adult!
I also learned that, as well as being a liar, my father was always ready to rip off anyone, regardless of whether they were his friends or not. And he used money to try and control people, including myself. Facing up to who your father really was – and also seeing him when he was down and out as a raging alcoholic is very painful. We all would like the perfect father who loves us and approves of us, but for many of us it’s often it’s pie in the sky, particularly with older generations where fathers were often absent due to work requirements.
I don’t know about women who’ve been the subject of domestic violence, but I do know now that whenever someone speaks sharply or aggressively to me, I still freeze. My mind goes blank, I feel I’m in freefall, and it is really hard to get together the words to respond. Often I’ll simply reply shakily and quite weakly which really pisses me off no end when I look at how I could have replied further down the line. I’m working on this because it’s only with writing about my reaction that I’ve been able to pin the source down to the verbal batterings I used to get from my father.
In my next post I want to look at my relationship with money, because it too has been affected by my reaction to my father’s miserly approach to life and my fear of not being in the least like him. Once you start digging down into your family, its origins and how it affects you, it can seem like opening Pandora’s Box. But clearing out the box is the best way to get clear of shit which has been dragging you down, and standing tall in your own right and with confidence in yourself as “a fine woman”.