Marilyn Beech grew up living with a monster, but hopes her story will inspire others in similar predicaments to know there is hope through solidarity.
AS A CHILD, I witnessed and suffered horrific domestic violence and abuse of all kinds. As someone who has worked in the area of women’s and family policy, as an engaged citizen who comments on horrific instances of domestic violence and posts about them and about child sexual abuse online, most of all as a survivor, I am weary of being preached to about the risk of "triggering" a psychological response in "someone who has been abused".
I am that person and as a child, I lay awake and prayed that someone would intervene. A bright child, I knew that good books reflect real life, so I searched literature in my school library and then the public library for other instances of what had been done to me and to my mother. I found none. That lack of evidence made me feel utterly alone. If this reality was not in literature, surely that meant it happened only in our house, only to me. Something about us was making this happen.
I saw my beautiful, refined, loving mother treated with unspeakable brutality and no one spoke up for us; no one protected us. People in our street knew and no one did anything to help us. From the age of eight, I stood between my mother and a wicked man’s fists and the result of this was merely that he knocked me down first, that the first tooth knocked out was mine and that, stepping over me, he continued to beat her.
He slammed my mother into a window full of open louvres, then coached her on the way to the hospital to tell a story about falling from a ladder while changing a light globe. He rammed my head into the wall more times than I could count, threw his dinner on the floor and told us to eat it, pushed our faces into it. He punched my head until my ears rang. He killed or gave away to others every pet I loved, including the puppy I brought home from school in my pocket and the little goat I raised by hand.
I carry physical and psychic scars from my childhood. My beautiful, gentle, cultured mother carried them until the day she died.
If you think posting the truth and the words actually spoken by men who abuse women and children, who tell them every day – as my father did – that they will kill you, is in poor taste — too bloody bad. Thank your lucky stars you did not live this reality.
I did live it. I survived. When I speak about surviving physical, emotional and sexual abuse, I am not speaking from a textbook.
To people who object to the posting on Facebook of brave testimony, whether from schoolboys like Paris Street, who was groomed at 15 by a paedophile, or from women and children escaping murderous violence in the home, I say this: if you can’t handle the truth and find posts that present it too confronting, don’t read them. We have been politely ignoring the truth for long enough.
I will not stop saying what I have to say. I will not stop posting what other survivors have to say. I know what good and poor taste are and they are of no consequence whatsoever to terrified children or beaten, humiliated women. Truth matters. Survival matters. I survived.
I knew I had to. I also understood that I needed to survive psychically, as well as physically. My greatest fear, apart from the fear that my father would kill my mother, was that I would lose my mind.
I doubted very much that my father, an ex-policeman, would ever face a court (and, as an adult, I went to court only to obtain restraining orders to protect my mother) but I felt I had to hold on to my sanity by remembering everything — the dates, the places, the circumstances of every assault, even what we were wearing. The assaults were every day. My memory, despite the thousand times my head struck a wall, remains excellent.
How do I know that people in our street knew of the agony that was "normal" behind our door? I know because decades later, a former neighbour told my mother there had been a proposal my father be made a Justice of the Peace. Officials from the relevant government agency called on neighbours to ask what they knew of the man in the house on the corner. The neighbours said, “We hear screams and things being smashed”. The proposal was dropped and we were unaware it had ever been made.
People heard screams and no one called the police.
Decades later, also, on the platform at the Perth Railway Station in 1990, a man who was a family friend approached me. He asked how my mother was. I told him she was doing well, that she was now safe. He said, “We all felt sorry for your Mum. She was such a great lady and it wasn’t right the way your Dad treated her — or you”.
“Yet you never once said anything,” I said.
He blundered on: “Do you ever see your Dad?”
“No,” I said, “I haven’t willingly seen him since 1983. I do sometimes think about sending him my psychiatry bills, though.”
The friend said goodbye and I never heard from him again. He can’t have been at my father’s funeral in 2005, however, because only two people attended that. Both had known him for less than six months.
My whole life, I’ve felt I walked on a knife-edge, above a precipice. As an adult, I’ve wrestled with the issues of when to speak, whether to speak, how much to say, what to continue to leave unsaid.
We survivors are not all the same. We do not look the same, speak the same, act the same as each other. We do not all wish to speak or to be known for who we are. We do not all approach our intimate relationships with family, lovers, friends, children the same way.
I do not presume to speak for others. I can only speak my own truth — I am close to 70 now and still, I cannot speak it all.
30 years ago, as a policy officer in the State Government, I wrote a statement for inclusion in a government policy document about domestic violence and child abuse. It was rejected out of hand by my manager, herself a bully (who went on to great things), with the comment: “No one wants to read stuff like this — even survivors and women suffering abuse now don’t want that language to be used”.
A survivor stood before her, having written the words.
A bit later, after we had met with a woman activist who was angry and wild with it, the manager said to me: “You can’t take too much of what she said on board. She is a very damaged person.”
My response, that was only possible, I think, because of work I had done in coming to terms with my own past:
“We are all damaged. All of us are damaged. It’s a question of what we do with the damage and whether or not we damage others.”
I decided at the age of 11 to be nothing like my father. I resolved to be as unlike him as possible and to protect, honour and love my children. It’s a decision that has guided me for 57 years. I wish I had known, even at 20, how many other children had lived in terror as I had done for eight years of my life.
Knowing now that we were none of us alone, suffering because of something unique in us that invited cruelty, I am grateful for the solidarity of others.
There are millions of us. We are here. We have survived. We know how to love. We have chosen not to hurt others. We are stronger than we thought we could be. We are damaged because everything on Earth suffers damage. It’s a condition of our existence in the world, but we do not have to pass the damage on.
The flame inside us did not go out.
Marilyn Beech is a former civil servant and a tutor in English Literature and Communication Skills at The University of Western Australia.
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