Today is White Ribbon Day. If per chance you are not aware of its significance. You should. It’s a day we put aside to think about preventing violence, by men against women. Many speak up about it while others suffer its shame in silence.
In our Federal Parliament parliamentarians queued up to deliver their support minus a lived experience of it. Partisan politics was replaced with earnest generosity of heart.
But it is only the power of a survived experience that can move an audience. And so it was when Labor MP Emma Husar recounted her personal story of domestic violence that silence insinuated itself on the chamber.
“For many years I was embarrassed and I was ashamed” she began.
“I know that I shouldn’t be [ashamed], but I am.”
And her tears flowed with the revelation of man’s abiding cruelness.
As a writer I can only use words to protest such callousness.
What follows is a story of fiction that I hope contributes to the “choir of the white ribbon movement”
Please Don’t Hit Me Again
By John Lord
I looked up thinking I had not heard correctly. Attending as many conferences as I did often left me exhausted and I was apt to doze off. I felt an elbow nudge my arm.
‘Did you hear what she just said?’ enquired my research assistant Gabby Hyslop.
‘I think she said. ‘History is just an ongoing commentary on the incompetence of men.’
‘How does that make you feel Nathan Peacock?’ she said with a glowing look of mockery on her face.
‘Shut up and listen will you?’ I said through clenched teeth while straining to listen to the keynote speaker. My ears adjusted and I focused on her next words.
‘At some time in the human narrative…in our history, man declared himself superior to woman. It must have been an accident, or at least an act of gross stupidity. But that’s men for you’
As a journalist I had heard many a feminist speaker utter words intended to be confrontational but this was planned to provoke even if it sounded trite. She went on.
‘In Australia, the incidence of domestic violence is among the highest in the developed world.’ In 2005, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that one in three women (33 per cent of all women) have experienced physical violence since the age of 15. I leaned over to Gabby and asked.
’What was her name again?’
‘Elisabeth Summers. Wonderful isn’t she?’
‘She knows how to stir the pot.’ I replied.
In fact, she had attracted my attention completely. I sat enthralled even mesmerised not only with the empathy of her delivery but also with its understanding. There was so much juice in the content. So much that I was ignorant about. Then she moved onto the millennium goals.
‘You might remember that in the year 2000 world leaders set targets to be met by 2015. One of the targets related to Universal Education with the aim being that boys and girls everywhere would at least finish their primary education. I am here today to tell you that these targets will not be met. Girls are still far more disadvantaged than boys and if we look carefully at the trends we can see’…she went on. ‘Another target was that of gender equality with the aim of lifting the rates of women’s wages and political representation. Again, the progress will be insufficient to reach the targets set.’
At this point, she stopped indicating that it was time for the lunch break and she would be back in forty minutes. The audience applauded enthusiastically. Gabby and I stood.
‘I’ll buy you lunch Gabby.’
‘Not before time’ she protested.
When we were seated in the convention restaurant Gabby asked me what I thought of Elizabeth Summers address.
‘Excellent’ I said. ‘She does not mind being confrontational. I think it’s about time men became more responsible for their actions.’
‘That’s a narrow focus Nathan. There’s more to it than that. It’s also about how society it’s culture and how men have related to women historically’.
‘I’m going to rely on you a lot for this story Gabby. I’m not well versed on domestic violence issues. I hope you are’. As soon as I said it, she looked at me with a sadness that made me look away. ‘Have I upset you?’ I said.
‘No it’s something from the past. Will you excuse me? I need to visit the ladies room. I thought I would be able to handle this.’
When she returned, she was composed and relaxed. I tried to apologise again even though I was uncertain as to what I had said to upset her.
‘Nathan’ she said. ‘I am eminently qualified to assist you for this story. I am a victim of domestic violence.’
Too say I was staggered would be an understatement. I had been working with Gabby for a little over six months. I knew that she had been out of the work force for some time and was recently divorced but this came as a complete surprise. She was always fun to be around and seemed to be well-adjusted emotionally.
‘Did Bert Flannery know about this when he assigned you to me?’ I asked.
‘No’ she answered. He is unaware of my past. (Bert was our editor and handed out all the assignments.)
‘That’s good to hear. It’s just the sort of thing he would do. Do you feel like eating?’
I ordered for both of us and made a small joke about being chauvinistic in doing so. We ate in silence for a while and then I asked her if she would be prepared to tell me her story.
‘Off the record or do you want to quote me in your piece?’
‘I want to write the best story I can and you don’t need to research this one. You are the story.’
‘Just a small part of it’ she said adding.’ There are thousands of women. No millions of women who are mistreated by men throughout the world’.
‘Then let me write your story?’
‘Can I trust you?’ she said looking deeply into the recesses of my eyes.
‘I believe I can Nathan Peacock’ she said with a smile. ‘I have seen you stand up to Bert Flannery on matters of principle. In fact I will give you the ending now. It will give you something to think about’.
With that, she made the following statement. ’The way you think and feel about yourself affects every aspect of your life. When you love, accept, respect and approve of yourself, you validate your existence’.
‘That’s the end.’ I said. It sounds like a beginning.
‘Yes’ she answered. Well it’s probably both. However, it’s a journey we should not have to take. Can we have dinner tonight and I will tell you my story? A bell rang to indicate that the lunch break was over.
I opened the door to the conference room to allow Gabby through. She thanked me and a very attractive sophisticated woman of about twenty-five went through. As she passed she said.
‘Oh, you didn’t need to hold the door open just because I’m a woman.’
‘Well I didn’t open it just because you’re a woman. I opened it because I’m a gentleman.’ I said with a trace of heightened annoyance. When we sat down I told Gabby that I was all for women asserting themselves so long as they didn’t lose their femininity. Men must be allowed the indulgence of appreciation. Gabby congratulated me on my handling of the situation.
‘Some of them take it a bit for granted. Instead of being equal they have a need to be superior.’ she said. ‘They seem to confuse equality with assertiveness where as both require each other.’
Elizabeth Summer’s first words after the lunch recess were. ‘Women need to be free to be strong and men have to be free to be gentle and vulnerable. The Church will never be complete without the fullness of femininity.’
Now it’s the Church’s turn I thought.
When the church shows less inclusiveness care and love than society then it is time for it to re appraise itself. Let me refer you to some recent decisions of the church. In the United States last year, the Southern Baptist Union officially declared that according to scripture women were inferior to men. This decision led to former President Jimmy Carter resigning from it. More recently, Pope Benedict declared that anyone promoting the ascension of women to any form of ministry equal to that of men would be committing a sin equal to pedophilia. She went on to criticise the church for it’s hypocrisy and inaction on women’s issues. I looked at Gabby seeking confirmation of Elizabeth Summers accusations. She gave me a ‘let’s talk later look’ and I returned my attention to the podium. She now launched into a historical summation on the progress of the women’s movement, concluding that in terms of equality women had advanced very little over the centuries. She even mentioned how the early church had debated for almost a century what the correct position was for women in intercourse. ’Wow’ I thought. I am going through a steep learning curve. Her address ended to thunderous applause from a predominately feminine audience. Gabby and I made our way into the lobby where I brought us both a coffee. We agreed to meet at seven for dinner in the hotel restaurant.
Dinner was relaxed and pleasant. Gabby had the most engaging personality and I failed to see how any man could be abusive toward her. When we finished I reminded her that she was going to tell me her story.
‘I haven’t forgotten. It’s just that I may become a little emotional and I don’t want to embarrass you here. Can we go to your room?’
‘Are you okay with that?’ I said.
‘I said I trust you Nathan’ she replied.
She asked for a glass of water and began.
‘I believe he was a product of his upbringing. All the signs were there. His temper was on display early in our relationship. He pressed me to have sex with him and when I refused; his temper got the better of him. He would put me down in front of people and call me all sorts of offensive things using the foulest language. He didn’t abuse me physically, that came after we were married. In fact, at twenty I decided to marry in the hope that he would settle down.’
I interrupted and asked why she didn’t break it off if she knew what he was like.
‘Well Nathan’ she answered. ‘Love can be so blind.’ Even intelligent women are fooled by it. It was only later when I was forced to look back on our relationship, that it all became clear to me. I lived in an alien surreal world of denial. I had been a fool not to see it but my story is common to many women. His temper tantrums at the football club were but one example. In the end, the club banned him. I thought it was only when he was drinking but it wasn’t. He would become extremely angry at the slightest provocation. Everything was always someone else’s fault and his parents seemed to condone his behavior by always making excuses for him. I think his father had a big influence on him. He didn’t treat his wife very well insisting that women needed to know their place in the scheme of things. I think that probably had a large effect on his behavior. He had issues at high school and was eventually expelled. But he could talk. By God, he could talk and he could wrap me around his little finger. He was often sweet and kind and made me laugh at the simplest things. I overlooked his bad behavior mistakenly believing that I could change him. I even ignored my friend’s advice when they doubted the sincerity of our relationship, saying that they were not privy to Paul’s other side. My parents were distraught at the thought of me marrying him and only agreed after my father had spoken firmly to him.’
The first night of our marriage was a disaster. Paul had given a poor speech at the wedding and people were offended at some of his crass references to my family. I told him how spiteful his comments were and that was the first time he hit me. That night I lost my virginity in unspeakable circumstances. Then he told me how he expected me to behave in our relationship. I became pregnant that night and when I later gave the news to Paul, he seemed genuinely excited. He even gave me reason to believe that he might change. It was short-lived however. When the pressures of fatherhood became apparent to him, he drank more and slapped me around.
When Kelly was born he resented her saying he would rather have had a boy. His drinking increased and so did my beatings. I became expert at hiding bruises and cuts. I always carried dark sunglasses to hide my black eyes. As he drank more the less money, he gave me for food. Then he took it out on me when there was no food on the table. He demanded sex whenever it took his fancy and I hated the thought of him coming near me. On many occasions, I asked him to take counselling but this always ended in a tirade of vile abuse that left me with a guilt complex. My husband was really an animal masquerading as a man.
I put up with it for twelve years. I learned to live within myself. To hide within my thoughts and sorrows. Strangely, though, there were some good times. Paul seemed a little more attached to Kelly, as she grew older. Well until she was old, enough to know what was happening. Then she would have nothing to do with him. When she was ten, he made sexual advances. She rejected him by footing him in the crown jewels.
‘Good on her’ I interjected. ‘How did it all end
‘Well I left him a couple of times but he always sweet-talked me into returning. Then one Friday night he came home drunk and demanded his dinner. Because he was late, his had gone cold and when I re heated it he said it was crap. He flew into a horrible rage, threw his plate at me hitting me on my left cheek. I began to bleed. Then he started punching me. I fell to the floor and he kicked me repeatedly. He broke some ribs and my right cheekbone was shattered. The rest is a little hazy because I kept going in and out of consciousness.
‘The next thing I remember was lying in a hospital bed with Kelly and my parents looking down at me. My mother was crying uncontrollably. I found it difficult to put all the pieces together. Then it all came flooding back. I remember Kelly screaming. I saw her hit Paul over the back of his head with the steel pan I had used to reheat his meal. For a girl of twelve she was strong and when she connected, Paul collapsed on top of me and I couldn’t move. That’s all I remember. Apparently, Kelly phoned Dad who in turn called the police. My father told me how courageous Kelly had been. When he arrived, Kelly had let him in and returned to try to get Paul off me. Paul had recovered enough to get to his knees, Kelly hit him again with the pan, and he was out like a light. Dad quickly summed up the situation and called an ambulance.’
‘So what was the wash-up?’ I asked.
‘The wash-up is that Paul got three years for assault causing grievous bodily harm and a fractured skull. Kelly received a bravery award; I got a divorce and a new life.’
When she closed the door to return to her room I knew that something in my life had changed. I wondered if I could ever look at a woman in the same way again. I began to think about my relationship with women. I had been married and divorced twice. I thought I loved both of them but they both complained about the one-sidedness of the relationship. I went to bed and drifted off to sleep with a troubled mind.
I arose early and went down to the restaurant for breakfast. I took a table near the window overlooking Sydney Harbor Bridge, and ordered a coffee. While I was looking through the menu, I heard a voice say.
‘Mind if I join you?’
I looked up to see the smiling face of Elizabeth Summers. She looked even more attractive up close than she did at the podium.
‘Of course.’ I said. ‘I should think it an honour.’
‘How chivalrous.’ she said. ‘Even old fashioned but lovely at the same time.’
‘I guess I was raised on manners of the traditional kind.’
‘Why did you say an honour?’
I told her I thought I had learnt more about women at the conference than I had in two marriages.
‘Now I recognize you. You were sitting with Gabby yesterday.’
‘You know Gabby’
‘Yes we attend the same Church.’
‘Church.’ I said with some trepidation.
‘But yesterday when you mentioned the church I took it to be in a derogatory manner.’
‘Well I’m sorry if it came over that way. It wasn’t my intention. Perhaps I should explain. You see churches in general do magnificent work in many areas of need but sometimes they think they have ownership of righteousness and that’s not true. Many institutions have similar values. Institutional Churches shouldn’t be beyond criticism. The Church that Gabby and I attend is progressive in terms of understanding women’s rights and our search for equality. Gabby is in fact attending a course run by the church for women who have experienced abuse. Her daughter also attends. The course is very successful especially with reintroducing victims to the real qualities of men.’
‘And what might they be’ I asked.
‘I think it’s what I said in my address yesterday. Men need to be free to be gentle and vulnerable’
‘Can you expand on that?’
‘I think some men because of their culture or their upbringing find it difficult to love themselves because society tells them they are superior from birth.
‘I can relate to that’ I said.
‘But there are others who are weak because they inherit all the faults that parents, teachers and other significant people in their lives heap on them in their childhood.
‘That’s fascinating. I said. ‘Would you consider an interview? I’m writing a story on domestic violence. Gabby is my research assistant.’
Before she could answer, Gabby arrived at the table.
‘You’re looking particularly radiant this morning’ I said as she took a chair.
‘Why, how complimentary Nathan’ she answered.
‘Yes but does he understand that gender equality is a moral challenge’ said Elizabeth Summers. ‘That’s the point.’
My thought for the day.
’The way you think and feel about yourself affects every aspect of your life. When you love, accept, respect and approve of yourself, you validate your existence and give approval to it’.
Maria I called
I awoke with a throaty dankness
Of alcohol overindulged
And unmitigated sorrow
The why of it deserted me
Memories vague but real
I had committed a sin
Of unforgiving evil
Then my conscience
Spoke with morose meaning
I had hit her a cowards punch
Destroying her exquisite smile
Maria I called to the silence
But it prevailed
God I said as if to mock my
I pissed and staggered
Through my regrets
To the kitchen
The stench of myself hit me
Where was she and
The noise that children make
Regret insinuated itself
On the absence of love
She had written with miseries ink
Just three words
The last time, on pristine white
I cursed the grog but
Pathetically I sought the
Next bottle of my degeneracy
And took it to bed
Contemplating the me I used to be.