I was about 10 when I first realised that the beatings weren’t reserved for me and my two siblings. The knowledge that my Dad hit my Mum too was like walking through a portal into an alien landscape and the world was never the same again. Everyone I knew got hit by their parents occasionally, but adults hitting adults? Surely not. The thought of my Dad hitting my Mum sickened me and changed the way I looked at him forever. My Mum was small, 6 stone wet through, only has one lung and can’t walk without wheezing like a pair of broken bellows. I grew up carrying the shopping and pushing her up hills and never expected her to survive to see me as a woman. My Dad on the other hand ran marathons and was built like the proverbial shithouse. I spent my adolescence daydreaming about ways to kill him so that it would look like he’d killed himself, and wondering whether I’d get a prison sentence if I did.
I don’t remember exactly how I found out. I’m guessing my Mum thought I was old enough to tell me about the reality of her life. I thought she never left the house because she was too ill, but it turned out that he kept her prisoner by the power of the landline. He gave her her first black eye before they were even married, hospitalising her in the process. She must have learnt how to hide her wounds pretty quickly but he also learnt where to hit her so that it didn’t show. He was fond of beating us around the ears because it rarely bruises and fucks your hearing up for days. She told me that I’d watched from my cot as he tried to strangle her over her refusal to give up her housekeeping money so that he could buy (another) bottle of whisky. After I found out, he no longer felt the need to hide it – our house frequently erupted into a disorientating warzone in the middle of the night. At these crazy fucked up times the world turned on its head and I often felt like I was watching myself in a film – survival via dissociation.
People talk about walking on egg shells – I felt more as if we were walking on land mines. Without warning, my funny, charismatic, loving Dad would transform into an enraged tyrant and we would suddenly be confronted with our own awful vulnerability as embodied beings. Bodies that could be hit with slippers and belts, hit in the places that don’t bruise, strangled in the dark. Whilst my brother hid in his room I learnt to square up to a 16 stone man and tell him that I wasn’t scared and that I was going to call the police. I would pull my Mum out of her bedroom and knew how to lock my bedroom door without a lock. Mum and I would laugh about my Dad’s drunken ridiculousness – about the time he fell down the stairs and landed on our poor dog, the night he smashed his head open on the wall and then tried to blame my Mum, and the way that he could manage to drive a car 8 miles home through inner city London and would then fall in through the front door because he was so paralytic. We laughed about horrible things that aren’t funny because it was better than crying.
I used to pack our bags regularly and try and get her to leave but she never would. She told me that it was because she was worried about surviving on her own and the financial impact on us, but I know it’s because she loved him. She loved a man who imprisoned her physically and psychologically, believing that one day he would revert back to the entertaining joker that she fell in love with. The life and soul of the party, ‘the dedicated family man’, the respectable bobby on the beat. I never told anybody what went on behind the closed door of our 3 bedroom semi because I thought it was normal. When my sister’s boyfriend hit her when she was 17 my Mum asked her what she had done to deserve it. Men were dicks and women were victims. Deal with it.
When my boyfriend hit me I expected it. When he told me I wasn’t allowed to smoke or take drugs and that I had to wear skirts all the time I did it because “that’s just what men are like”. Then one day, years later, I realised I hated my Mum’s passive victimhood about as much as my Dad’s unpredictable violence and I got really angry. Why didn’t she leave? Why did she stay when she knew that his violence was breaking us all? How could she possibly have thought that this was in our best interests? It took a lot of time and therapy for me to see that my Mum did the best she could with the limited resources that she had available at the time. My Dad’s violence had reduced her to a ghostlike presence in our house – he diminished her with his words and his fists until she was almost invisible. He stole her sense of identity and agency and made sure that she would never be strong enough to leave him and I am sorry that I blamed my Mum for failing to protect us.
The hardest thing to deal with is and was the fact that I love my Dad too. He made me walk up mountains when I was five, dived off cliffs with me at 11 and taught me how to run long distances. He gave me my sense of adventure, my love of the outdoors and I owe him my extrovert personality and hedonistic nature. I spent years looking for an explanation as to why he did what he did, assuming something horrible must have happened to him, but I never got one. He told me that he had a great childhood, a truth that only made me cry about the way he had stolen mine. I assumed that my Dad must have hated me, hated us all, but I know that in his fucked up way, he loved me too. I continually fight with myself about whether I want any kind of relationship with him but we manage with texts and emails at the moment. I often find myself talking about him in the past tense because the Dad I loved died when I found out about what he was doing to my Mum.
I didn’t leave my boyfriend straight away after he hit me but I did eventually. My Mum waited until I had left home and left my Dad too. When I moved in with my current partner of 15 years I revelled in the knowledge that my own house would always be a safe place. The fire of domestic violence forged a determined feminist who continues to fight against the patriarchal system that produces and reinforces domestic abuse. Sometimes when I talk about my experiences I still get a sense of guilt, that I am somehow betraying my family by daring to speak out about what went on behind closed doors. People will think that I am feeling sorry for myself or that I am tainted – fucked up by my fucked up childhood. This blog post is a part of my determination to stop feeling ashamed. I was not responsible for my Dad’s violence. He didn’t hit me because I am a bad unlovable person but because he wanted to control me. He hit me because I grew up and I argued with him and I stuck up for my Mum. He hit me because he projected all the things he hated about himself on to me and told himself it was my fault. It’s my 37th birthday today and this has been the hardest thing I’ve ever written. Nevertheless, today marks a milestone: I have now been free of domestic violence for longer than I lived in it. I think that’s worth celebrating.