Conversations for Change Part 1: Domestic Violence
In recent months I have had the privilege of attending both TEDx Queenstown and TEDx Auckland live. One of the things that really stood out to me were some of the people talking about things that happen to many people and which affect many more. In particular the talk by Ken Clearwater in Queenstown, about the sexual abuse of boys and men, and Cori Gonzalez-Macuer in Auckland about his experience of a family member’s suicide.
It led to me thinking that one of the problems with things like Domestic Violence and Suicide in this country is that it is not talked about. It thrives in the dark. But if we talk about it and bring it into the light of day there is much more we might be able to do about it. So I started thinking of this as a project Conversations of Change.
I was wondering if this is something I could do as a podcast? Or maybe as a documentary? Or perhaps I could do a pilot to seek funding, and look at a series made for TV. Meanwhile time was passing and I was effectively doing nothing. So this morning with my daily post looming, I thought about the excellent video that Mike King recently did the Key to Life charitable trust, and decided enough waiting. I will start the conversation today.
This is my own experience. I don’t share it for sympathy, mainly because it made me the person I am today, and for the most part I am good with that.
I grew up in a family self-destructing with domestic violence.
My father would get drunk. My mother would insult, abuse and cajole him verbally. Dad would hit, strangle, or get his knife.
Fortunately his violence was never directed at the children, beyond yelling and an occasional slap or smack.
I was the oldest, so I felt it was my responsibility to protect my younger brother (and later sisters). In this environment you develop your own “spidey senses”. You can feel when there is trouble brewing, and quickly remove any toys that might get in the way and bring attention to you, grab your brother, find somewhere to hide and keep him quiet. I remember we were in bed one night when a fight erupted. It was bad. What started with yelling and cursing, ended up with blows. Mum fell and her arm opened our bedroom door which was ajar.
She was lying there with dad on top of her, his hands tight around her throat. my view from the top bunk was clear. From the bunk below I heard my brother, Rob, say he was scared as we watched mum’s face turn blue. I cheerfully told him that we had been learning mouth to mouth resuscitation at school this week, so it would be okay, I could help mum when dad left. I daren’t move down to the bunk below to comfort Rob for fear of being noticed.
This is just one of many scenes that are engraved into my memory.
But that isn’t the point. What is important is how it affected me, because there are lessons we can all learn from those sorts of things.
First thing is that I quickly lost trust in both of my parents. By age 7 I knew that they were a source of danger. Yes both of them. Because Mum would wind Dad up to the point of rage. Like she was trying to become a martyr. In my mind at that time it made her a threat. Sadly this lives on to this day, and I speak to my parents (divorced 35 years or so) every 1-2 years.
I grew protective of my little brother and later my little sisters.
I struggled to find a way to do something about the situation. To have power where otherwise I felt powerless. Around 8 or 9 years of age I hit on the only solution I could think of. If I wrote a note, and I killed myself, then there would have to be an investigation (that’s what happens on TV). Someone would find the note see the danger and save my younger brother and sisters.
I couldn’t do it.
I climbed bridges and buildings and tried to steel myself to jump. But I just couldn’t. I failed.
Later in the same year another plan came to me. After Dad had smacked Mum around and passed out drunk I would get his sharp fishing knife (the one we were never to touch), sneak into his bedroom and cut his throat.
Mum would hate me, and I would go to jail forever, but my Brother & Sisters would be safe.
I remember visualising the act. Night after night after night. Even getting up after he had passed out, getting the knife and creeping into the bedroom. But at some level I realised I didn’t have the strength and I would screw it up. Make him mad and we would all suffer. So again I failed.
By 12 years old I felt like I was the adult and my ‘parents’ were children. I still had no power, but I could see what was happening, and I felt like I could out think the both of them. I was a smart ass.
This year was a pivotal one for me, as it was the year of an event where I exercised some power for the first time. Mum, myself (12), Rob (10), Audrey (5) and Valerie (2) came home to Dad in the back yard staggering drunk. For some reason he had taken all of Mum’s clothes out of the wardrobe and was burning them. Mum flipped, grabbed something close to hand and swung it at him. He raised his arms and it hit his elbow. For a moment he was pathetic. Then you could see the rage build.
Mum grabbed the girls and ran to the house. Dad looked around and got a weapon (I think a machete, but I could be mistaken). Rob ran after Mum, and I realised I needed to slow Dad down to protect them. I also knew I was no match for Dad and if I got in his way in his enraged state, it wouldn’t end well. So I thought my way through the problem. I ran through the laundry to the kitchen where there was a sliding door. Several times in the past this door had stuck. Now I shut it and kicked at it to get it off the rail. It worked and I had no sooner backed away from it than Dad had reached it and was swearing and cursing as he tried to open it and then started beating at it. I fled.
Mum & Dad split up then. He moved in with his mother, and we stayed in the house. My actions may have had no bearing on what happened that day, but the mere fact I took action and it worked was a huge boost. It was a success after so much failure.
At 16 I left school and home. I was angry. The teenage thing. Looking back I think it was this thing about being powerless in a dangerous world for so long, and as a teenager sensing that I would soon have some power of my own.
In his talk at TEDx Auckland Joseph Driessen talked about the path that boys tend to follow after being exposed to domestic violence. It all rang true to me. At 16 the next step was for me to join a gang. This is where I got lucky.
The gang I joined was the Kyokushin Karate Club. I learned about the power I had, but more importantly I learned how to control that power. I learned respect for myself and for those around me. After the Teresa Cormack murder I helped teach Women’s self defence to 250 women over the next couple of months. I continued teaching self defence over the following 20 years.
Ultimately these experiences have shaped me to be the person I am. I am independent, because I don’t want to rely too much on others. I handle extreme stress and crises well, because I learned early that to freeze or to freak out will increase the risk. Thanks to my 20 years of Karate I have great self control, and am a little more circumspect in my reaction to events.
But there are obviously negatives. The concept of love feels as foreign to me as quantum mechanics. I know it exists, I sorta get what it does, but I have no real experience of it. I have never had a role model for that part of the human existence. Of course I have had a few girlfriends, got married once, but ultimately I was flying blind, and ended up crashing every time.
Oh and my Father long since apologised to my mother. They both act much more mature now. I am sure that they have a perspective on everything written here, and I wouldn’t presume to speak for them. This is entirely the perspective of that young boy.
It is my hope that this post sparks some conversation. A lot more people around you have experiences that you wouldn’t expect, yet everyone walks around thinking this is unique to them. You are not alone. By talking about these things we can realise that, and we can reach out for help when it’s needed.
Part Two of this post (which may not be tomorrow) will be looking at Depression.
Here is one of the talks that I found so inspirational: