“The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep”
These two lines were extracted from a favourite poem of mine, The Breeze at Dawn, written by Mewlana Rumi. They’ve been speaking to me as I have drafted this post over the past several days. I read an incredibly moving blog post from Kris over the weekend and my mind has not stopped since; families, stories and words – and how we construct them ethically – have been jiving in my mind for days, so here it is. This is a story which belongs solely to my family and me.
Disclaimer: this post will discuss themes of family violence.
A massive hug to my mum for not only giving me her consent for this piece to be written, but her fullest support ♡
I was sitting in a plastic green chair in the middle row of my year 11 legal studies class, shaking and pale-faced. We’d spent the class learning about domestic violence; a topic I’d heard of along the grape vine but never stopped to contemplate nor consider. By the end of that hour, I’d come to a life-changing realisation: domestic violence was infested inside my own family home. Prior to this, I’d known something was wrong; I knew that I and my siblings were scared, I knew that other families were different to mine. I had noticed that my dad’s concoctions of bourbon and coke were steadily growing paler in colour until he almost consumed it straight. You could smell it on him from the front door.
I had noticed the irony of the relief I felt when I saw him passed out in a field or on the couch and curiously saw this reflected in my mum, brother and sister, because we didn’t have to worry about making him angry whilst he slept. But, I didn’t realise (consciously) that it was wrong and I didn’t realise it was crime. I was only sixteen and I had no idea what to do with this information. I didn’t even know if they realised what was happening; my younger siblings certainly didn’t. Would they hate me if I called the police next time something happened? Is that what my mum even wanted? I never asked any questions; I think, because I was afraid of every possible answer. I did nothing. The situation grew worse.
Two years later, toward the end of my first year of university, my parents separated.
It’s almost been two years since we left my dad. What’s of interest to me now is the storification of what happened. We live in a small town and people have a pathological need to know everything which occurs in another’s life. My mum’s incredible. She was determined not to dishevel my dad’s image in this small town, despite what he had done. The story she put out, when questioned, was “it’s sad, but it’s just one of those things”, implying they just sort of grew apart. It’s a wide stretch of the truth but I copied it nonetheless. I sort of struggle with that, though. I’m quite a private person. One of the hardest things about the separation for me was the questioning from people whom I would normally never share important things about my life with. Colleagues at work, my bosses, friends of friends and more wanted to know why. I just mumbled Mum’s answer because I didn’t want to get into it. It was just easier that way.
One day a colleague at my workplace at the time said to me “I saw your Dad earlier. He looks so sad, so down. He’s living in that house all by himself, you guys never visit him!” I mumbled something about being busy all the time. How could this be happening? How is my Dad, the perpetrator, the person who single-handedly destroyed our family, receiving sympathy for being alone? If it was physically safe for us to live with Dad, we would. It’s that simple.
From that moment on, I’ve been pretty upfront about the whole thing, when asked (that doesn’t mean I like to be asked, or that I want to talk about it). If there’s one thing I am sure of, it’s that my Dad is not a victim in this scenario.
I asked my mother tonight why she made the choice to keep our story hidden;
“When our marriage ended after almost 25 years I couldn’t tell most people the real reason. I still loved him, we had been together since we were 17, and I felt I needed to protect him. I didn’t want people to think badly of him. In some weird way I had a feeling of embarrassment in admitting to others what I had been through. It took a long time for me to realise I cannot be responsible for something I have absolutely no control over. A part of me still loves him. A part of me always will”.
About Violent Stories
The complicated thing is, if there’s a random burglar who breaks into your home and starts to abuse your family, you’d recount the incident as horrendous. He’d be painted as the enemy in every recount. When we hear of indicted criminals, we think and say bad things about them, just like the antagonist of a fictional novel or film. When that person is part of your immediate family, it’s really different. We didn’t live with a hardcore, violent criminal. We lived with a loving dad by day who became a monster by night, fuelled by bottles of alcohol he couldn’t live without. That made it really hard for us to leave him. As soon as you mention alcoholism or domestic violence, a very negative picture is painted of an antagonist, even if they have a good heart deep down (in a sober sense).
What are the implications of this when it comes to ethical and reflexive family storytelling? How do you portray the ‘bad guy’ in your story ethically? When I think ‘ethical’, the first value conjured in my mind is honesty (it’s a Sagittarius thing, look it up). That’s a problem. Honesty means telling the truth, right? How do you tell the truth in a story if it means making someone look really bad? Even if they are really bad (sometimes, not always)? Is it unethical to make someone look bad? Is it more ethical to just not tell my story at all – even though that kind of goes against my value of honesty?
Does this mean that not all stories can be told?
I really don’t like that idea. In a domestic violence scenario, saying no to the telling of a story is the same as saying to a victim, you have something to be ashamed of. We don’t want to listen to you. That’s a powerful push in the wrong direction.
A quick web search tells me that autoethnographic literature in domestic violence is extremely lacking. Is this because of the latter question? Is this something I can contribute to? Current literature is predominantly victim-focused rather than perpetrator focused, and relies on hard facts and statistics rather than qualitative storytelling.
I’ve skimmed the surface tonight, writing this blog. I have years’ worth of journals which contain really powerful, honest and sometimes scary stories. I decided against publishing anything concrete on this post, tonight. I don’t know if I’ll write more on this topic, but we will see. Maybe one day I can write something much more substantial that might have an impact on somebody’s life.
He still lives in the same town as us, some thirty minutes away. If it was any closer I would be scared. We try to have a good relationship and do things as a family. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. He’s still unpredictable and scary. The difference is, now we can escape it. I’ve learned to take each day as it comes and follow my gut instincts. Normal for me is keeping my car keys really close to me when I visit his house so I can escape if I need to, especially if my sister is with me. This doesn’t mean forgiveness, it means dealing with it on a daily basis, however we see fit. It doesn’t get easier; I don’t think it ever will. Nobody should have to experience what I, my two younger siblings and my mum have lived through. If there’s one silver lining, it’s that the four of us are closer than I ever thought possible. We are unbreakable – and that makes us a story worth telling.