First published – Sat 4 Dec 2021
Children are often invisible in coverage of domestic violence, but the trauma trails us our whole lives. It is excruciating to write, but it is time our voices be heard.
(This article contains depictions of physical abuse)
A hand up against glass
‘We grow into adults and even then, from time to time, for no real reason, we find ourselves tormented by fear. It’s usually at night.’
I am about to break a pact of silence, a pact that has long bound my family.
I am a child of domestic violence.
I write as an adult, and yet I speak in the present tense: I am – not I was – a child who grew up with domestic violence. One is a child of domestic violence for life, locked into that role in part by the unspeakable effects of a trauma that is there from the beginning, so that there is no before or after trauma, so that trauma is the kernel around which one develops from early infancy.
As research has shown, domestic violence shapes the development of the child’s brain, informing how the child thinks and feels, informing how the future adult conducts themselves in their relationships and in the world. It becomes almost impossible, in adulthood, to separate oneself from that original violence in order to speak of it as a separate thing.
Trauma itself is silencing. But there are other reasons why the silence around domestic violence feels inviolable. There is the problem of shame, the social stigma still attached to those sorts of families – as if such families aren’t hiding in plain sight in every neighbourhood, judging by the statistics. That shame is exacerbated by the fact that stories about our experiences are so rarely told. It is as if the story is too sordid or obscene for public consumption. It is as if we are being expected to deal with the experience alone, as if, despite being mere children, we are somehow responsible.
There is also the problem of loyalty and love. Because in families like mine, there is not only violence, fear, ugliness and injury. There is also laughter, resilience, pity and, yes, even love.
Publishing this anonymously is my only recourse
It is a truism today that you should speak your truth. But when you speak your truth, you also violate someone else’s, because none of us lives alone. I am violating the truth of my family in writing this. It is a fact that makes me profoundly uncomfortable, even though I know that domestic violence is not a private problem. It is a social (largely gendered) issue of public provenance. In fact, to get this message across, to shift the burden from the private to the public, is one of the greatest motivations for writing this.
Publishing this, however, has been challenging. News publications are morally and legally bound not to publish unsubstantiated criminal allegations. My sister was willing to substantiate my story, but I have to confess that it had never occurred to me that what my father had done was criminal, such was the normalisation of violence during my childhood. Another problem became apparent: what if my father saw this published under my name? How would he react? It became clear that my mother’s safety would be jeopardised.
Thus, while a collective movement of testimonial storytelling by child victims of domestic violence – following in the example of the #MeToo movement – would have enormous power to give perpetrators pause and alleviate victims’ trauma, speaking out under our names is next to impossible. Publishing this anonymously is my only recourse.
But publish I must. As a writer, as someone with a public voice, I have an obligation to break the silence that hides the suffering of children of domestic violence. That sense of obligation is intensified by my privilege, as someone who has been able to afford 10 years of cognitive behavioural therapy as an adult to deal with my complex PTSD.
To say I was privileged to receive this treatment is not to say I didn’t have to work hard – harder than I ever have at anything else – to identify the trauma inside my brain and to neutralise its power through a strategic form of self-alienation.
I had to second-guess every seemingly natural thought or reaction, slowly and laboriously forming new patterns for thinking and acting. How much easier would it be if some kind of therapeutic intervention was made early on? And should treatment be only for those who can pay? Mental health interventions should be available for free, perhaps in schools. Such change can only happen if we first commit to breaking the silence around this issue.
Public silence… confirms our sense that our story is not something to be told
There is another reason why telling our stories is important, though it is potentially more controversial. Women are said to inspire less sympathy than children among male perpetrators of domestic violence. Research has shown that abusive men are more likely to change their behaviour when the impacts of domestic violence on their children are presented to them in counselling. But how many men ever undertake that kind of counselling and obtain that kind of information?
Reading news reports on domestic violence obsessively, as I am wont to do, it strikes me that the experience of children – unless they are (tragically) killed – is conspicuously absent. Speaking as a child of domestic violence, that public silence makes us feel as though we are invisible. It confirms our sense that our story is not something to be told. It isolates us in our misplaced feelings of shame and guilt.
Enough. Let me share what some of us live through. The below experiences are mine, but I am using the plural “we” to acknowledge that I am far from alone.
Our earliest memory? The primal scene? We have crept down the hallway, after being woken by some disturbance. From the doorway to our parents’ room, we glimpse our mother, smeared in blood. She has been beaten unconscious. Our childhoods rarely afford opportunities for nostalgic remembering.
As we grow we learn that our role at night is to listen: for the sound of flesh attacking flesh, for the raised voice that might indicate the violence to come, for the sudden scraping back of a kitchen chair. Then we must leave our beds and act as guardians or at the very least witnesses, our bodies shaking with cold or fear – for who are we to understand what’s happening to us? We are just children, even though we act like soldiers, putting our bodies on the line while knowing we can’t really make any difference.
Sometimes our mother takes us to a police station, still in our pyjamas
Mostly it is our mother who cops it. Sometimes, though, our father turns on us. He denies that we are his children, throws things at us and threatens to murder us in our beds. On those nights, we are sent to hide outside, after being instructed by our mother to call a friend. When we are taken away to safety, we don’t know if we’ll ever see our mother alive again.
Sometimes our mother takes us to a police station, still in our pyjamas, and from there to a shelter, where beds are crammed into tiny rooms, and where women swap stories in a kitchen that belongs to no one. This is a refuge, but it is also a distressing place.
We see Once Were Warriors as teenagers in the cinema. We don’t feel triggered. We feel privately seen. We feel braver because of it.
Nicola Adams once said: ‘I had a hammer under my bed in case I needed to help my mum’
The gun-law reforms that come after the Port Arthur massacre are a godsend. We no longer have to hide guns and bullets – only the kitchen scissors and knives.
We grow into adults and even then, from time to time, for no real reason, we find ourselves tormented by fear. It’s usually at night. We become convinced someone is coming for us. We slide furniture across the floor to barricade our bedroom doors. Veterans of war have been known to do the same.
There are nightmares. Afterwards, we keep the bedside light on. In the morning we feel ashamed of our childish fears.
We drive to work but end up somewhere else. Such dissociation once served us well, but in this world it’s a liability.
Our boss suggests that we should get emotional intelligence training. Colleagues ask if we have been tested for autism. We often have trouble fitting in. It seems clear to others that there is something wrong with us, though we have no idea what it is. As it turns out, comorbid disorders often accompany our kind of post-traumatic stress.
On those nights it seems like there is a supernatural entity, made up of rage and pain, buried somewhere inside us
There are other comorbid behaviours too. We drink too much, or we abuse some other substance, finding liberation in those moments when we are lost to the world or when we feel invulnerable.
When we argue with our partners, we want to tear the house down. At other times we want to hide in a cupboard. On those nights it seems like there is a supernatural entity, made up of rage and pain, buried somewhere inside us, waiting to burst out. In the worst-case scenarios we become perpetrators of domestic violence. Or victims. It is a well-known cycle.
We never say anything to our children. Our parents are their grandparents after all.
In the happiest ending, a partner convinces us to seek counselling. We go out of love for them. In the psychologist’s office, we are trapped by our silence. Having been forbidden to speak as children, having never heard our kind of story before, we have no idea what to say.
Poetry, rather than psychology, was my first path to speaking about my childhood experience of domestic violence. Poetry allows for hesitation. It allows you to feel your way into an expression of things that you don’t even understand. The techniques of metaphor and persona also give you some cover. Creative writing, generally speaking, is a way of both revealing yourself and hiding yourself away.
What I am doing here is something else. Even though I am writing anonymously, this is as close as it gets, at least for now, to coming out. It’s what more of us have to find a way to do.
Domestic violence thrives under the cover of silence, as do the lifelong problems to which it gives rise. As children, we are domestic violence’s key accomplices, silenced by loyalty and fear, as well as by a social culture of denial around the issue. We are also among domestic violence’s key victims, though in the media we are largely invisible or presented as collateral damage, marginal to the real scene of gendered violence between adults.
For so many reasons, domestic violence is not something children, even grown-up children, tend to speak about. I am certainly aware of the complex reasons for that silence. This piece was excruciatingly difficult to write. Making the decision to publish it was harder still.
But surely it’s time for the children of domestic violence to be heard and seen.