My educated and charming father beat my mother regularly and had her committed her to a mental institution. As a child, I played the role of ‘peacekeeper’ and the memories haunt me still.
My mother was committed to a mental hospital when she tried to escape being beaten by my father. This is not something I spoke to anyone about at the time, or now for that matter. So why didn’t I yell and scream, run out into the street and tell someone. Tell who? This was embarrassing and I was ashamed.
My father was not an alcoholic, a loser or any of the stereotypical terms associated with wife beating. He was a well-educated, charming man.
Levelling a charge of [mental] instability is a way of silencing and controlling women dating back hundreds of years.
I was one of four children and we were all loved and cared for. We were never beaten, but home was an angry place, always waiting for the explosion between our parents. While the arguments took place in front of us, horrible, angry adult arguments with loud noises, we would huddle in another room covering our ears, silently praying for this to stop.
The real beating was done while we were away – at school. So why didn’t my mother escape, go away, as has been suggested by some commentators. A number of reasons. This was in the late 1950s early 1960s. My mother couldn’t speak English very well, being one of the refugees who fled a ravaged postwar Europe, and she was socially isolated as we lived in the bush. I am not referring to a regional town, but an area where there were a few farms, a general store, a church – and lots of bush. You could go years without seeing or talking to anyone.
So why did my mother stay? Back then, there were no services that would have supported her, especially with four children, literally no money, and no extended family to go to for help. I don’t think she would have broken her silence in any case, as it would have been too shameful. Admitting to being beaten would have reflected on her dignity. Maybe there was a European cultural aspect to this – all of which conspired to keeping this a secret.
The real story started when she tried to “escape”. She planned to move into a deserted shack nearby. She started cleaning it up ready to squat in. All she wanted was a quiet spot, a peaceful life free of the violence. She wanted, as she called it, “peace” or, as Virginia Woolf wrote, a room of her own. It was a desperate and fanciful act, but to her, it seemed feasible.
Of course, my father found out and refused to allow this, as he would have been shamed. I was too young to recall how he arranged this, but he called a GP who lived in a country town some 20 kilometres away, established that she had had a mental breakdown and had her committed to a mental institution.
She was kept there for many months where, as old family correspondence reveals, she was “treated with a range of drugs as well as “electroconvulsive treatment” (we called it electric shock treatment). When she eventually came home, which needed the consent of my father, she was calm, almost docile, and suffered some memory loss. But for the rest of her life she was unable to trust anyone and lived in fear of being taken away again.
This provided the perfect alibi for my father. On the worst occasion, we children came home from school to find the kitchen in a mess, flour scattered on the table and floor, where my mother had been preparing dinner. She was nowhere to be seen or heard. I looked around and went into the bedroom (not shared with my father) where she was in bed with her head wrapped. She moaned when I came in and I saw that her head was swollen, and her face beaten black and blue. My father said she had fallen down the stairs.
After a few days, the same GP who had signed the papers to commit her to the mental hospital came to the house. I can only speculate that my father was scared that she might die. The GP would have recognised the signs of a beating but accepted the story that she had fallen. Why didn’t he ask questions? Call the police? Talk to the children (the oldest about 14) to find out what was going on? Well, after all, my father now had evidence that she was mentally unstable.
I stayed home from school for some months to look after my mother and younger brother – I was the “peacekeeper”, chosen for this role. To be honest, I did anything to keep the “peace”, to provide no cause for anger, arguments or violence. When my father did speak to us, he would refer to the fact that she was mentally unstable and needed to be “looked after”, whatever that meant. I was 10 years old. I wanted him to die.
Which brings me to the current debate on family violence, and what appears to be the lack of action by police and the community to act in such situations. It pains me to see that over 50 years, little has changed. There’s a lack of follow-up on intervention violence orders, and a reluctance to interfere with family matters. Sure, in the community generally we have lots of talk, meetings, statistics and, in Victoria, a royal commission. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced he will place domestic violence on top of the COAG agenda, but in the same breath has cut millions from services which help women to leave violent relationships. Go figure.
The language says it all – these are “domestic” matters. The violence is also “domestic”. All a bit messy, not stuff anyone wants to get involved in. Besides, she probably “asked for it”. To illustrate, in 1993, a judge in the Supreme Court of SA, directed a jury: “There is, of course, nothing wrong with a husband, faced with his wife’s initial refusal to engage in intercourse, in attempting, in an acceptable way, to persuade her to change her mind, and that may involve a measure of rougher than usual handling.” Hideous but I believe he was reflecting a community attitude, buried in a deep dark place we can’t admit to.
Why did my father beat my mother? I wish I could ask him, but he is no longer alive, and nor is she. I want him to know how much of my childhood was taken from me by his violence, forcing me to take part in the cover-up, in my role as the “peacemaker”.
And what of the GP? He could have frightened the hell out of my father, shook his fist, threatened him, instead of closing in under a veil of male complicity. Levelling a charge of instability is a way of silencing and controlling women dating back hundreds of years. But the physical violence is just one aspect of what occurs. There is financial disempowerment, emotional and psychological control.
All my mother wanted for herself and her children was a safe place or, as she put it, peace. For women and their children wanting to get away from violent situations, this should be a basic right.
Elizabeth Potter is a freelance writer.