The Blame Game: Domestic Violence and ‘Bad Mothers’

Stairs

I am eternally distracted by words; by what you can do to them, and with them. I delight in nuances of syntax, inversions of word formation, and just plain old beautiful imagery. For, behind all of the noise, selflessly propping up the social consciousness and gender indignation, lies a Book Person. And I have read a lot of books. If you once substituted paperbacks for meals (the chunk your life now cordoned off as the meaningless bit where you did nothing but wait for something) you end up ingesting a lot of beautiful writing. You end up, in some senses (but probably not in the sense Milton intended), ‘nourished’ by it. And I could say so much about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s descriptions of emptiness and wealth in The Great Gatsby; the resignation and desolation of the last paragraph to The End of the Affair; every paragraph of The Grapes of Wrath. But, never having been American, or spoilt by wealth, blighted by poverty or tortured by the duties of Catholicism, their power for me lies in their ability to articulate the unimagined, the not-lived.

On the opposite side of this coin lie those accounts unfettered by lyricism; those that just plain old tell the truth without regard to artifice or construction. And these mean more to, and remain solidly within, the reader to whom they speak. I think particularly, and recently, of Patrick Stewart’s interview in last Sunday’s Independent. Patrick Stewart is a patron of the domestic violence charity Refuge and has spoken frequently and at length about growing up with a violent father. I never tire of his interviews on this subject and after reading, feel a visceral urge to give him a hug, and say thank you: the type of tighter than usual hug you give to someone – someone else – who knows. Reading this:

I became an expert at judging the heat of an argument…as the temperature rose I would get out of bed and on to the landing, and, if it rose further, I would go down the stairs, sitting on the stone steps so as to be as close as possible to the door if something bad happened”

left me, for the remainder of the day, weakened. There I was too, my childhood self, sitting, hovering on those stairs, not always knowing the content but understanding the tone, waiting for it to spill over and with clumsy hands and slight body weave my way into the danger. I am moved again as I write this – not because I am upset or triggered by those words – but because it sometimes feels so freeing, seems so essential, to have someone say the words for you. Your frame of reference tightens so much that you think you’re the only one and the shame and stigma that can surround coming from a violent home often stops you in the telling. I get used to the diatribes on ‘bad mothers’ that are swiftly abbreviated, hastily backtracked, when I point out the very clear and practical reasons my mother did not leave (for even the ill-informed can be pragmatists). I get used to the startled ‘but you seem so normal‘ looks and the underlying assumption that all children who witness domestic violence themselves become absuers, or drug addicts, or underachievers or in some other way become invaluable and invisible to polite society. Of course this can happen, and the possible effects of domestic violence on children should be prominent and continue to form part of the wider narrative of protection, awareness and eradication. Yet stereotypes – as always – are limiting and unhelpful. Someone, who in all other ways elicited a huge amount of empathy and reasoned reaction, ended our conversation on this topic with ‘well, thank goodness you weren’t a boy’. As if to say it was only by accident of gender that I was prevented from turning into a virulent, alcoholic, woman- abusing mess of a human being. This ‘cycle of violence’ explanation is too deterministic and seeks to absolve the perpetrator of responsibility. If there is such a solid reason why someone becomes an abuser then they are stripped of any responsibility for their actions; they are not acting by choice but on instinct, on socially and psychologically conditioned behaviour. And so if we can’t blame the perpetrator, who is there left to blame? And aside from all of that I just found the comment vaguely offensive. Part of a lineage of mother-blaming. There was an intrinsic assumption: an assumption that were it not for the random, chance occurrences during fertilisation my mother would have, by not leaving, by not seeking help, laid the conditions and foundations within which a monster could grow. Mother-blaming, along with victim blaming, forms part of the culture within which domestic violence sits. The ‘why doesn’t she leave’ argument, in itself a flagrant misunderstanding of the nature of abusive relationships and barriers to help seeking, increases in weight and volume when children are involved. In some respects it suddenly becomes an issue of choice or of obligation. If you are childless, it’s up to you if you don’t want to leave. It’s your choice, a free-will thing. Yeah, if you like getting hit and harassed and emotionally tormented, go right ahead and stay seated. This alters if there are children in the home. It is no longer a choice; it becomes an obligation, an obligation to do the best by those children, to protect them from further harm and from an adult life which echoes with sounds and acts of violence. If you don’t do this you are a bad mother, a selfish mother who has blighted forever the lives of your children. This entirely shifts the focus away from how resourceful and prepared and actively engaged in protection many mothers are. It heaps unnecessary blame and coercion onto women who are already suffering enough of this as it is.

Of course I am not saying that child protection is not important, and I would balk at  misinterpretation of what I am saying as a ‘mothers first’ argument. I am saying that opposing a woman’s experience of abuse against her ability to function as a mother can create an environment that impedes help-seeking. Judgements such as this are the shadowy obstacles that lurk between suffering in silence and speaking out. If we are focusing, as we should, on early intervention and prevention, shutting down routes to assistance by perpetuating false ideals of motherhood is something that needs to be tackled. The focus should not be on motherhood, but on safety, protection and routes to assistance. We need to steer away from creating monsters by way of the mothers who nurtured them. Excessive mothering created the draft dodgers and the Peter Sutcliffes; neglectful mothering created the Charles Mansons; abusive, warped mothering created the cartoonish yet murderous rage of Stephen King’s Carrie and selfish mothering creates the next generation of domestic abusers. I think I always hear this narrative, even if it is absent. Part of the legacy I am left with is a constant need to defend my mother, now with an adult’s words rather than a child’s hands, and tell people how goddamn normal I am and that look! I’m completely anti violence and really quite placid and sweet. I may have suffered in some ways as a result of my childhood, but I may just as easily have suffered had my childhood been one long uninterrupted dance of wonder. In any event there would only be one person to blame in all of this. And it wouldn’t be my mother.

This is why I think we need more Patrick Stewarts, more visibility for children who have lived in a violent home. We need to be thankful for Jahmene Douglas, who uses his X Factor fame to increase awareness of domestic violence, and who never fails to highlight how brave and loving and important his mother was when he was growing up. I want to hear more people speak out and articulate the realities of living with violence. But I want it done in a way that increases the prominence of routes to help seeking, and increases that sense of ‘I’m not aloneness’ for both mother and child. I am not a psychologist or a sociologist, nor do I have any other academic validity with which I can garnish or conclude those sentiments or this piece. I write about what I see, and feel and think. My credentials lie with literature, with linguistics. I make sense of things through the process of writing. So, whilst I do not know what it is to renounce one’s faith because it robbed you of the only person you truly loved, I can take Maurice Bendrix’s lines from The End of the Affair – ‘you’ve done enough, you’ve robbed me of enough’ – and make them plain, make them stark, make them mean to me that which I want them to. They resonate as a message to those misguided perceptions, and to the past.