Another day, another victim. Thousands of words, hundreds of pledges, dozens of vociferous protestations that this needs to end. But how do we put a full stop to the violence that is as old as time? How do you stop a man from becoming a perpetrator? And more importantly how do you make a woman fully aware that abuse in whatever form, cannot and should not be tolerated, ever?
Education is key, but domestic abuse is a complex, nuanced issue, which has no one fits all solution. The fact that a woman (or a man for that matter) does not simply walk away from violence, could be down to a myriad of reasons; financial security, emotional or physical threats, the fear of homelessness… But what happens when the victim has every chance of making a clean break, of walking away from violence and still chooses to stay?
As her face hardens, the woman sitting across from me tells me, “Pardon me if I’m sceptical, but I can’t stomach the fact that women tolerate, let alone endure any type of domestic violence. Like the original playground bully, violent men are cowards and are only aggressive if they have an accomplice who’s aiding and abetting them. This might sound harsh and I am in no way victim blaming, but I feel that sometimes that accomplice is the woman, who for some reason is more than reluctant to end the relationship. Look, I know that some victims really have nowhere to go and no-one to turn to, but I believe that some women while wanting sympathy wouldn’t dream of ever changing their situation”. Harsh and shocking words indeed, especially coming from a woman who has spent her childhood and young adulthood living with an emotionally abusive father. Anyone would think that, herself a witness to domestic violence, she would never blame the victim for such a tragic situation.
Maria* is in her mid-forties and reluctantly admits that her childhood still troubles her to this day, even if she has spent years in therapy, moved on and now has her own family. “I spent my childhood terrorised by father’s mood swings, trying to shield my siblings from the pain of it all and trying to protect my mother… who I’ve later come to realise neither needed nor wanted any protection. My father was an emotional bully, pure and simple, and while I can’t ever recall that he physically hit any of us, in my head I can still hear the abusive drivel spouting from him, while wrecking everything in his wake. He was a weak man who believed that the world owed him everything. Whenever he would notch up yet another career failure, which was very often, he would vent his frustration on my mother; smash anything he could get his hands on, while hurling at her a torrent of obscenities and violent threats, which to this day still make my skin crawl.
As a child, I would beg my mother to take us away, would dream that my father died, and we were free. On a really bad day, my mother would be so angry, cursing him and constantly bursting into floods of tears. I hated him for torturing my mother in this way, but then staggeringly, usually within the same 24 hours I would be chastised by her for daring to bad mouth my father. She would insist that my father was not a bad man, that we should be thankful that he did not hit us (!) and that he provided enough for us to live quite a comfortable life. Can you imagine how confusing this is for a ten-year-old? It was vicious, evil cycle; whenever my father was having one of his abysmal moods, mommy dearest would rally round her children and organise an impromptu hate-fest, while trying to make up with him and get back in his good books behind our backs.
As a child it would anger me that my mother’s family did not support her and had all but abandoned her. As I got older I started to realise just how manipulative my mother was, still is. She always made sure that she had her ‘allies’ for whenever my father was ‘in the mood’, only to drop them like hot potatoes whenever he was not. I now know that her family had tried numerous times to get her out of such a bad marriage, even offering financial support, until they finally gave up on her. But she so relished her role of martyr! She simply could not live (even to this day) without the drama. While complaining to anyone who would listen, about her sufferance, she never wanted to do anything about it. She constantly blew hot and cold regarding her relationship with my father, he was either a monster or a saint, and woe and behold if anyone would dare contradict her. And she always made sure we knew all the details of their battles.”
I’ve personally known Maria’s mother for several years and she always struck me as a serene and placid woman. When I comment on this, Maria smiles bitterly, “Of course she would be serene, she always made others fight her battles for her. I was always fighting and arguing with my father, especially as I grew older and couldn’t take the verbal abuse directed at both my mother and the rest of us siblings, any longer. The irony was that most of the time while I was battling with him she would already be in making up mode.”
Was there any reason she thinks her mother put up with his behaviour? “I honestly don’t know, although looking back I can see a pattern… whenever he gave her money, she would be more than willing to forgive and forget and treat the whole episode as if it never happened. She measured her skills as a wife and mother by her ability to keep the best house on the street and feed and clothe well her children (meaning – better than her neighbour’s). Having the best dressed kids in the neighbourhood was top priority for her.
I know it’s not fair to generalise, and I’m not one to judge but it would be only right to delve into the festering wound that is domestic violence and try to investigate not only the behaviour of the perpetrators but also of the victims, who sometimes act as enablers of such despicable behaviour,” Maria* ends on a sombre note.
Domestic violence can never, ever be justified. Educating our girls and boys on their self-worth, the boundaries which make up a relationship and trusting their instincts should be our priority. It is very easy to simply label the perpetrator as a ‘violent individual’ and be done with it, but we also need to dig deeper into the complexities of an abusive relationship and understand what is creating the toxicity within, especially when there are children present. Otherwise, the risk of fostering another generation of perpetrators and victims is simply too great to ignore…
* name has been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee
Opinion. Giselle Scicluna