Tuesday, 28 March 2017

An intelligent woman with a network of friends (Warning: Blog contains descriptions of domestic violence)

My Parents 1956. Kenya

My father was a tall man 6’ 3” and I often wonder if the Parkinson’s tremor my 5’2” Mum developed along with her dementia, was a result of the blows he dealt to her head, during the 21 years in which they were married and apparently, fairly soon after they met.

A few years after I was born my mum became pregnant for the fourth time and whilst in hospital after a miscarriage, brought on by his violence towards her, my Grandma, his own mother said to my mum, “I love my son, but would you really want another child with that man?”

His violence, as is routine, extended to his children too. Once when my brother, Michael was getting out of the car at the supermarket, his car door touched the door of the car parked beside us. The driver leapt out and started complaining. He hadn’t even checked to see if there was damage, he just launched into a complaint.

My father turned to my brother who at 16, was almost as tall as he was and without a word, slapped my brother very hard across the face in front of everyone.

The angry man looked horrified. My father said, “There, are you happy now?” and walked into the supermarket.  We followed. We knew not to speak or to complain. My Father said to Michael, “I’m sure you understand why I had to do that. Be more careful in future” My brother said nothing.

The last photo taken of my brother summer 1978

We knew the anger my father carried meant that violence was always a real and present danger. Even over the simplest of things. As a child I hated combing my hair, so it would sometimes form huge knots. Mum would painstakingly and gently comb the knots out, chatting and laughing with me about it all. She knew it wasn’t deliberate on my part. This would irritate my father.

He decided I was being spoilt so on one occasion he combed it for me. His “combing”, literally meant pulling clumps of hair out of my head. It took ages and it was one of the most painful things I remember. I didn’t cry. I was seven and I knew that if I cried, it would make it much worse. So I just sat there while he did it. He didn’t even seem angry.

The violence was physical but it was also emotional and verbal. He liked to demean us. Sometimes with “jokes” always at other people’s expense, sometimes by telling us how stupid we were but also he would criticize one of us and encourage the rest of us to agree. This would extend to other people outside the family who would usually protest. 

me, my sister and my brother 1970 Chester.

 He would sometimes be hysterical over some perceived slight at work. Memorably sending an anonymous gift-wrapped wooden spoon to one of the secretaries who he had decided was causing trouble for him by “stirring”. He was very pleased with himself, when he’d heard she’d burst into tears.

Rules were everything. We weren’t allowed downstairs in pyjamas, except on Christmas morning. We had to put things back “where they lived”. We had to do our jobs without excuse and to a high standard. We couldn’t criticize, complain argue or “showoff” All standard stuff except the consequences.

Once when I was told to tidy my room, I was practicing ballet instead. Little girls often get distracted like that. I remember the door opening and my father slapping me so hard across the face that I fell over. Again he didn’t seem angry, just white faced. “I said tidy your room” he said and walked out.

He was capable of huge emotional cruelty too. After the last time that he left, which, over the years was a frequent event, my brother was diagnosed with a terminal heart & lung condition. My father had refused to allow Mum to go with him to the diagnosis. When they came back from the consultants in Stoke my father walked in and said to my Mum “He’s had it” and walked out.

Michael was in his room playing his guitar and Mum obviously didn’t want to ask him, so in terror she’d phoned the GP and asked if she could speak to the consultant herself.  He explained that Michael had a very rare condition, which would last ten to fifteen years, before he died.

He was wrong, Michael died six weeks later after getting a cold and part of Mum died with him. My father had to be found by the police on Christmas Eve, as he’d taken a woman to a hotel.  I don’t know who the woman was. My father always denied having an affair with anyone. Always, no matter how much evidence my Mum found to the contrary.

After Michael’s death, my Father refused to allow Mum to participate in choosing the wording on Michael’s gravestone. “It’s my six foot of ground, not yours” he said to her, to his wife of 21 years, to the mother of his dead son.  He wouldn’t even walk beside Mum, behind their child’s coffin into the church. After Michael died, Mum divorced him.

In 2011 after Mum died, my father transferred his anger onto me. In the days after he’d died I’d asked him if Mum’s ashes might be interred in Michael’s grave. He said yes. Mum was cremated and we’d chosen a casket for burial. It was one of the few times I’d ever felt gratitude towards him.

Then my Father changed his mind. He’d been causing trouble with family members and for the only time in my life, I’d told him exactly what I thought of him doing that. I think like Mum, the pain of grief made me unafraid of anything, even him. I didn’t swear and I didn’t lose my temper, I just told him to stop causing trouble and to stop being the puppet master of other people’s pain. He put the phone down.

A few days later, before the funeral I walked into the house and a friend was with me. I played the answer phone messages and one was from him and he was almost screaming with fury

My friend said, “I thought you’d been exaggerating about your Dad. I know now you weren’t. What father does that to their own child when their mum has just died?”

He followed this up with a letter revoking permission for Mum to be laid to rest with my brother. There was no discussion, no conversation, no debate. There never is with an abusive bully. If you stand up to them they act as though they’ve been attacked. For bullies the world is full of enemies and they’re always vigilant.

That final cruelty was one too many for me. I never spoke to him again and five years later he died.  I was told that I was not welcome at the funeral, by his widow, who I hadn’t spoken to for over 30 years, but I went anyway. It appeared from the moment we arrived that his first family had been a secret.

I needed to see his coffin. I needed to know he was really gone and I needed more than anything not to allow his abuse & bullying to continue. 

I’m not sure that domestic abusers every change. There is denial and huge shame experienced by victims. A refusal to allow the truth to be known, allows the history of the abuse to be rewritten. No one wants to believe that the people we love, the people closest to us can cause us such pain. Fear is the primary driver in silence though. I can only write and speak about this, now that he's dead. That's the length of the shadow that is cast.

Irrespective of the monster that he undoubtedly could be, I loved my father. I have no idea if he loved me or in fact anyone. I think he had needs and I think he was capable of affection, but I believe he was a true narcissist, for whom his own comfort was an imperative. 

Illness frightened him, “weakness” appalled him and poverty disgusted him, yet his own human frailties belonged to a capacity of self awareness he didn’t wish to learn. I wish the man being described in the speeches in that church, had been my father. He sounded like a wonderful man. No mention of us was made. Not even of my brother who’d died.  I expected nothing more and I got nothing less.

I knew nothing of the extent of the cruelty of my father that I hadn’t personally witnessed until many years after he’d left. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t care about me or my nieces and nephews. I thought there was something wrong with me that meant he didn’t want to know me. Gradually over the years, Mum explained.  The code of silence was broken and she was able to let go of a lot of the blame, through the catharsis of talking. I’m detailing this all here for the same reason.

In the six years since my Mum died, she’s stayed at the funeral home who took care of her. The idea of a family argument over my brother’s open grave didn’t appeal in the least to me. Mum would have loathed the idea too.

After my father died, I waited a year out of respect, before, In January asking his widow to transfer the deeds of Michael’s grave to me or my sister. She said she had no idea where the deeds were but would transfer them to my sister who after a break of several years had re-established contact with our Father, after Mum had died.

I discovered today that, shortly after this request from me, my sister transferred the deeds into her name. I also discovered that she is choosing to respect my father’s wishes and not allow our Mum’s ashes to be buried with my brother.

My sister is a devout Christian. She believes in forgiveness of sin. I love my sister, as I loved my father. That isn’t always enough though. Grief is different for us all and it can take a long time to work through.

Possibly he apologized to her in the years before he died. Possibly she is honoring her father. 
Perhaps she remembers our father differently. Perhaps she has forgotten what he was capable of.
I remember though.

I remember the night my sister as a teenager came home fifteen minutes late from a night out.
I remember him telling her to get upstairs and clean her “pigsty of a bedroom”.
I remember her, emboldened by cider, saying, “Why should I?”
I remember thinking 'he’s going to kill her this time'
I remember my father dragging my sister up the stairs by her hair.
I remember the sound of the dog barking and my Mum pleading with him not to hurt her.
I remember the sound of my sister’s nose cracking against the banister rail.
I remember my sister screaming as he threw her into her room.
I remember him running down the stairs, the back door slamming and his car screeching off the drive.
I remember going into my sister trashed room with my brother and the blood running from her broken nose.
I remember Michael telling me to go back into my room, in case he came back.

We were all his targets. Everyone who loved him, was ultimately hurt by him, let down by him and left by him, to pick up the pieces, on their own.