I was four years old when I watched my father hit my mother.1
I remember sitting in the living room, trying to play with handful of small dinosaur figurines, while my parents stood in the hallway a few metres from me, screaming at each other. I don’t remember what the fight was about. My parents fought often, then made up and laughed about it with equal frequency. But this argument was different.
As my parents screamed at each, my mother did something she had never done before; she put a hand on my father’s chest.
It wasn’t a shove, it wasn’t violent, but on my father’s face, something snapped.
I watched him as he looked at the hand and in the same motion reached to his foot and pulled off a thong, and then slapped her in the face with it.
The toys I had been playing with fell from numb fingers, the figurines falling in perpetual slow motion. Everything seemed to go still and suddenly the thing that had been just another argument between Mama and Papa, turned into something terrifying. I could feel my mother’s hurt and fear emanating out of her like the feelings were living, breathing things.
I watched in horror as my father started to raise the thong again, coming to the sudden understanding that he wasn’t going to stop at just one blow.
A smarter child probably would have run away, but as I watched the welt instantly spring up on my mother’s cheek, something snapped in me too. I had no plan, no idea of what to do, so I did the only thing I could.
In a moment of heroic idiocy, the tiny four year old version of myself, jumped to his feet… and charged.
As my tiny body collided with the back of a leg that I barely came up to the knee of, I kicked and punched my father in the calf with everything I had. My father was so stunned by the barely noticeable impact, that he dropped the shoe.
I remember him turning his face towards me, an empty open hand the size of a steel fry-pan still upraised as he looked down at me with shock-filled-eyes at my attack, and as he registered my betrayal, his eyes clouded with a rage so fear-inspiring that I stopped my attack and instead just clung to the tree-like stump of this giant’s leg.
Instead of swatting me down as expected, he turned to my mother and said, “You see, he doesn’t even love me, he only loves you.”
I was terrified. I knew with absolute certainty that I had bitten off far more than I could chew, but I was committed. My cheeks grew hot and wet and in a tiny quivering voice I interjected with the only thing I could, “I love you Papa, but you can’t hurt my Mama.”2
At my words my father slowly turned to look at me once more. I’m not sure what I expected, I just knew that whatever he decided to do next, there was nothing my mother or I could do about it. There was a true ugliness to that, the knowledge that we were each completely powerless in the face of his aggression. For the briefest moment, he just looked at me, like he’d finally seen me for the first time and as he did so, I saw the words hit home. The anger dissipated and in their place I saw the realisation of the horror he had become to his family.
My father fell to the floor in a heap, wrapped his arms around me in a grip of steel with tears streaming down his face. His whole body shook, an emotional earthquake encircling me and lifting my whole body as he told me that I was right and apologised over and over and over again. My mother just stood there, watching, as if completely removed from the reality of the situation.
In Australia, one woman per week is killed by her spouse. The violence of domestic abuse is a crime that happens in silence, seen only by the eyes of children who cannot help and are powerless or too afraid to act. In those families, the violence often becomes normalised, acceptable—it’s just part of the burden of the relationship because normalisation is the only way not to live in constant fear. Most victims of domestic abuse are controlled, cut off from their friends and family, made financially and emotionally dependent. This means when the violence occurs, the instigator of the violence is also the emotional support to recover from the abuse.
When your whole world becomes one person, a person who is the cause of your abuse, but also the support mechanism to recover from it, it creates emotional dependency. It is a cycle that is almost impossible to break.
But you can break it.
Even if you are not experiencing long term abuse, even if it’s an isolated incident—seek help. It may be the difference between a single event that is an ugly relationship scar, or the start of real, long-term abuse.
Help is available confidentially, by phone or online. If you are experiencing abuse, even if you feel you have no support network outside of your abuser, no friends, no financial aid, nowhere to go that you will be safe, all it takes is one call or one email. There are shelters for you to stay at filled with people who feel just like you, who will understand. I know—my mother ended up staying at the Salvation Army’s women’s shelter in Brisbane with my sister and I as part of the resolution of my family’s issues.
My father however, never laid a hand on my mother again.
My mother’s decision to leave and seek help was the first step in a long term resolution of my parent’s issues, it changed the power dynamic so that my mother had a support structure, and in discussions with my father, she did not need to seek resolution from a position of dependence. Regardless of the outcome, it was the first step in a fresh start for her.
It could be the first step in yours too.
Next week: A life of shame – Domestic abuse as a men’s issue
1PTSD is a serious psychological disorder and when left untreated its recipients are often left with violent or suicidal tendencies, my father unfortunately suffered both.
2Even at four years of age I had been religiously indoctrinated into male gender role – the idea that it was my gender’s responsibility to protect women and children. In this moment, my father had failed our most sacred duty and my words and actions were based on this.