They Saw a Monster, I Saw a Man
I was four years old the first time my father threatened to kill me. I was 13 years old the first time I spent a night in emergency accommodation. But it wasn’t until I was 15 that I began to recognise this as domestic violence, and it wasn’t until I was 19 that the media acknowledged families like mine were worthy of public attention. I only heard reports of the extreme: “Man kills partner with axe”, “Woman hospitalised following severe domestic abuse”; no-one wanted to tell the story of the all-too-common reality I was living. No-one wanted to tell the story of the tireless yelling, the empty bottles, the bloodied sheets.
No-one heard about the nights I hummed myself to sleep in the backseat of Mum’s car because it wasn’t safe to go home. It wasn’t clear to our guests that, “Save that drink for another night, Darling,” was a plea, not a request. And when Mum finally booked a moving truck for midnight and fled my dad’s abuse for the final time, not even I knew it wasn’t her first attempt, but her fifth.
Though the media has begun to lift its silence on domestic violence reporting, it retains a victim-focused lens. Common are the articles promoting awareness and calling for better support for women and children – a call I am proud to say I answer in my work within the community legal sector – yet all too few are new men’s counselling initiatives, anger-management programs and movements in our communities that challenge the gender expectations shaping today’s young males.*
The reality is that abusive behaviour doesn’t come from nowhere. Some of the primary risk factors for domestic violence are substance abuse and toxic attitudes toward violence against women. In America, where research into domestic violence is more established, the National Institute of Justice has also linked intimate partner violence to severe poverty and unemployment – each of which are complex issues often absent from the public discussion surrounding domestic abuse. A discussion which is wholly centred on the abused, and does little to acknowledge, nor resolve the problem at its origin.
In my case, Dad’s mistakes were born of struggle. He was just a boy when his father’s body was found hanging in a relative’s home and he was only in his early 20s when he began working as a police officer in rural Queensland, hauling bodies out of ditches and navigating the scenes of violent disputes day in, day out. Safe to say life hit my dad hard, and I have no doubt these experiences are part of the reason he lost control when he did.
Yet no reporter will ever broadcast his story. Because if we empathise with him, then who will we blame?
For me, growing up in a family where abuse was prevalent wasn’t the hardest part of my story. Coming to terms with those events has been. I wonder if my childhood has fucked me up in ways I’m yet to realise. I’m terrified that I will make the same mistakes my mum did. But most of all, I struggle with the relationship I keep with my dad.
Before I fully saw the physical abuse and the emotional manipulation that tore my mum to shreds, my dad was just my dad. He was the man who worked hard hours, who cooked burritos, who indulged my sense of wonder and let me watch NCIS in secret. He was the buyer of bicycles, the editor of school assignments, and always had a Seinfeld quote at the ready. Dad challenged me to question things, to debate politics, to dare.
But the day my name was typed onto a domestic violence order by a tired woman that had seen it all before, I lost sight of the man I thought I’d known as my dad, and I was introduced to an aggressor. Suddenly he was dehumanised. Suddenly he wasn’t just my dad anymore.
The way society painted men like my father told me I shouldn’t speak to him, rather, I should run. Run from the man that wrote poems for his children’s birthdays, who taught me not to bow down to anyone else’s expectations and was patient every day of my turbulent adolescence. I was told it was impossible for him to still be the man I had always thought he was. But the reality is, my relationship with my dad is different to his relationship with my mum.
The media asserts, quite rightly, that those who have experienced domestic violence in any of its many forms, are not defined merely by those encounters. They are not victims, but people. Nevertheless, it seems too far a leap for most to suggest that if my mum is more than a victim, then my dad is more than an abuser. He is just a person, too.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from my work in social justice, it is that pigeonholing people is misguided. A person is never just an alcoholic, just a drug-addict, just a criminal. I’ve felt frustration on behalf of prisoners who remain patient within a system that labels, demonises and isolates them far longer than it should. I’ve commiserated with homeless persons who were once prominent professionals, but had life get in the way of plans, and are fighting harder than they should have to because their communities stopped believing they were strong enough to get by on their own. And I’ve empathised with men and women accused of abuse that struggle to pinpoint where things went wrong, and who want to change, but are grappling with how to do that under the weight of social stigma.
The media calls for Dad to change, but if I label him an abusive arsehole and discard him, how can I expect that he will ever grow beyond that past?
It’s easy to cut people out when they don’t serve you. I do this a lot with clingy friends and overbearing right-wing family members. But despite everything I hold against the man who raised me, I can’t bring myself to say adios for good. Not when it clicked that he was the reason the Department of Child Services showed up at my door. Not when I found out this man had invited friends to rape his wife. Not even when I found out he might not be my biological father after all. Because if I do this, I am abandoning the dad I grew up with; I am forgetting one half of the truth, and I am doing nothing to alter the cycle of abuse in my community.
*Though this article focuses on the issues leading to domestic violence perpetrated by men, it does not intend to presume that domestic violence is not also committed by women. Women have not been associated with this discussion purely because the risk factors for female perpetrators are very different to that of men, and this is a separate topic.