Erin Pizzey founded the first nationally and internationally recognized refuge for battered wives in England in 1971. Here she shares serial excerpts from her seminal work on domestic abuse, "Prone to Violence." AVfM-UK is serialising this book every Monday.
This installment: Chapter 3: Is it Love or Addiction?
Chapter 2, can be found here.
Prone to Violence, first published in 1982, is classic book. This book is a must-read on the subject of domestic violence, and is what people from the former Soviet Union would call “samizdat,” as the book was subjected to concerted campaigns to make it unavailable for publication or distribution in the UK or United States. Over 30 years ago, gender ideologues were already trying to hide the truth–that men and women are equally prone to violence. Although parts of this book are dated, what’s most shocking is how fresh and timely most of it still is: little has changed in the last 30 years, except that the vast majority of peer reviewed scientific research done since its publication has only bolstered all of Erin’s most salient points. When it comes to domestic violence, women and men are about as violent as each other, just in somewhat different ways, and its primary victims are children.
Chapter Three: CHILDREN OF VIOLENCE
I often feel that some middle-class children have a much harder time at the hands of their parents than do working-class children, yet it is a common feeling that violence to children does not happen in ‘nice’ families – by which most people mean the white middle classes. I remember, in the early days of women’s aid, trying to persuade an agency worker that a woman was not only being very violent to her three children but was also neglecting them. The agency worker promised to go round to the house, and I telephoned the next day to see what had happened. She was very hesitant. ‘You didn’t tell me her husband was a dentist,’ she said. ‘It’s very difficult in these cases., I saw her point. II is very difficult, because middle-class people have professional resources like lawyers, whom they can use to sue anyone who dares suggest they are less than perfect.
It seems harder for a middle-class parent to ask for help. I still painfully recall going to a psychiatrist, when my daughter was little, and asking him to help me with my violent feelings towards her. I remember the shock on his face. He considered my successful husband, a national television reporter. He looked at my two well-fed, well-dressed children, and then he looked at me. ‘Mrs Pizzey,’ he said, sitting back in his chair, ‘the problem is that you are a bad mother.’ What he meant was that, firstly, I had everything anyone could want; secondly, violence, he had been trained to believe, results from bad social conditions; therefore if you could not lay claim to social deprivation, then you must be intrinsically evil or bad.
On another occasion I was in a neighbour’s house. I had always suspected that it was a violent family, particularly because of the elder child’s behaviour. I knew this child was being seen regularly by a child psychiatrist for educational problems. One morning I was in my bedroom, with the window open, when I heard terrible screams coming from a house in the square. The cries of a desperate child. I ran barefoot down the stairs into the street and down the pavement until I stopped outside the door of the house from which the cries were still coming. ‘No, mummy! No, mummy! Don’t do it . . . Don’t . . . ‘ The screams had such ringing intensity that they must have been heard by at least a dozen of the houses round about, yet no one stirred out of a single door. The people already on the street merely turned their heads and hurried by. I banged on the front door. No answer. I banged so hard that the frame shook. The battered child in me was screaming – it was the battered child in so many people crying out for help.
Sheila finally opened the door. She was panting with rage. She was speechless. Her eyes were bulging, and her hair was sticking out in sweaty strands. She stood in silence, shaking. I pushed past her and ran upstairs. Rodney was standing in the doorway of his bedroom. He was naked, and there were red finger-marks across his chest. It was his shocked little white face that broke my heart – the dreadful acceptance by a child of six that it was his fault, he’d been naughty, and he deserved what had happened. He already knew that if you upset your parents, they beat you. He explained what had happened. His father had gone off yet again with another woman. Rodney had gone into his mother’s room to phone his father, but mummy had come in and overheard him. She flew into a blinding rage, tore the telephone off the wall, and then laid into him. I cuddled him gently.
That sort of incident can happen with any parent pushed beyond endurance, but the difference here was that in Sheila’s family it was a regular occurrence. The children of this family were often battered, but it was covered up by both parents. Rodney’s abnormally violent and psychopathic behaviour at school was explained away as his ‘giftedness’. The outpatient clinic he attended never even suspected that he was being battered.
I went downstairs to Sheila, but I felt an enormous rush of sympathy for her. ‘What are you going to do?’ she asked. ‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘All you must do is to go to the clinic and see Rodney’s psychiatrist and tell him the truth. I will phone him myself once you’ve told him, because I need to be sure you’ve phoned, for your own protection and for the children. Now we’ve been through this together, and you know I’m nearby. It will be a measure of control for you.’ Poor woman. It must have been hard for her, but at least the clinic, although they had missed the signs before, had a reputation for being good and sympathetic.
But it is a mistake to think of violence as a collection of bruises and broken bones. It is not the physical attacks that do the worst of the damage; it is the slow destruction of a human soul in the hands of people already suffering from their own violent natures. Until it is accepted by everyone that verbal violence can do far more damage than even the most savage physical onslaught, we will continue to react only to stories and pictures of visibly battered children, and comfort ourselves that it only happens among the poor and the feckless.
In my experience of cases which range from one end of the social scale to the other, the truth is that the more primitive the personality, the greater the likelihood that they will lose control of their rage and batter or even kill. You will find these people in all walks of life. Among the middle classes, however, with their highly-developed methods of social control, the violence will, for the most part, be physically restrained but will acquire a mental sophistication that is far more dangerous to the survival of the other members of a family. You can destroy the physical world of other human beings by smashing up the house and beating up the inmates. The home can be mended and the bruises will fade. But in bringing up children, although you may never physically attack them, you may instead slowly decimate any sense of self they have, so that their inner world is destroyed. And then you commit the equivalent of soul murder, and the resulting adults will be the walking dead.
Middle-class violence is still a taboo subject. Because it remains largely untold and is a highly skilled vice, it goes untreated and unchecked. I see it in the eczema, in the migraines, in the epileptic fits, in the asthma. I see the violence in all the stress symptoms of childhood: in the child up the road that constantly has a red ring round his lips because he nervously sucks at them all the time; in the child that blinks furiously when you speak to her; and all the other cases taken to the doctor’s surgery for him to recommend treatment for the symptoms. It would probably never cross the doctor’s mind that Richard’s nightmares about his mother were a result of her incestuous overtures. That Melanie’s migraine was a result of the silent battle of a ten-year-old to keep her father out of the bathroom because she recognises that his feelings towards her are more sexual than paternal. Or, in the case of an eight-year-old boy attending the hospital for ulcers – his own father a doctor – that his bleeding stomach was a symptom of the family meal times when everyone round the table sat in terror of the father’s moods and continual acid remarks to his son reminding him of his failure at school, on the sportsfield, in life, as a human being.
You have a greater chance of coming to terms with your own violent childhood, which often includes sexual as well as physical attacks, if the events are actualised and visible. If you have parents that act out their damage in front of you, it is all seen, heard and experienced. The most difficult cases to treat, however, are where the violence is never all openly said, seen or heard. This is the case in the majority of middleclass homes. It will continue to be the case until enough middle-class emotionally-disabled people have the courage to get together and work to prevent it.
Just recently I became involved with a grandmother who was extremely worried about her grandson. Her daughter, the child’s mother, came to see me as a result of a hideous beating from yet another violent boyfriend. I have seldom seen a face so badly smashed up. Her little boy was three years old, but in his life he had known nothing but drugs and violence. When he was a baby he had even been taken to India on a heroin smuggling operation by his mother and a previous boyfriend. This girl had been a deb of the year, and her godfather was one of the world’s richest men. Her mother was frantic with worry about her little grandson; she knew her daughter to be an alcoholic and incapable of coping with a child. She approached her local Social Services for help, and they promised to go round right away. ‘Sophia fooled them,’ she told me later on the phone. ‘She completely fooled them.’ Well, Sophia may well have fooled them, but to her own cost. A few weeks later she was found dead on the floor of her kitchen with the little boy sitting beside her watching television. The verdict was death by misadventure, and her death certificate stated that she had died of a combination of alcohol and drug abuse.
In my work I learned, to my horror, how soon children become physically and emotionally addicted to pain. I think the youngest example of this I found in a baby of three to four months old. His mother, Frieda, was well known to us at the Refuge, and was probably one of the most violent women I have ever known – at least I thought so until I met her mother. We despaired of Frieda’s behaviour, but she was such a life-force, and such an intelligent, funny human being, that we all persevered with her. With the help of her social worker, Frieda moved out of the Refuge into a New Town. She was pregnant again at the time, and she visited the Refuge to reassure me that, in spite of all my gloomy predictions, all was well. Of course, everything looked wonderful. Frieda was always a spotlessly clean, wonderful home-maker, and a good cook. Baby Joss was all dressed in white, and looked just like his father. He lay on my lap kicking and cooing, and seemed a very contented baby. There was a sudden moist patch on my knee, where Joss had wet through his nappy. Frieda took him back and undid his terry-towelling nappy. The baby lay contentedly on her lap, looking into her face and smiling.
Frieda then began to pinch his fat little cheeks, and he smiled and gurgled. Then as she pinched she began to twist his flesh. Any other baby would have been screaming with pain, but this baby just gurgled happily. I was horrified and glanced round at Anne Ashby, who was looking aghast. ‘Stop it, Frieda,’ I said, ‘you’re hurting him.’ ‘I’m not,’ she protested. ‘See, he’s laughing.’ She was right. But realising our disapproval, she turned her attention to changing his nappy. Within a few minutes she was pricking his bottom with a pin. Again he laughed and gurgled. ‘Stop, Frieda,’ I said again. ‘You’re being cruel’. Frieda knew that – but mother and child were sharing a moment which excluded people who used words like love, tenderness, and affection. They were bonded in their addiction to giving and receiving pain. We could only tell her social worker of our anxiety. Several years later I heard that Joss was up for adoption. I felt sorry for the uncomprehending family who would take him in and never understand why this beautiful, healthy baby would probably grow up to be a dangerous violence-prone man. But I know why: I saw it for myself.
The observer in me often watches such interactions with fascination even while my human side is outraged and appalled. I clearly remember sitting with a young couple, both of whom were violent, as we talked about how he could alter his need to inflict pain on Jenny and she could perhaps learn to enjoy making love in preference to having a good fight. Their eighteen-month-old toddler, Anthony, on seeing that we were absorbed and ignoring him, decided to put his head on his father’s knee. ‘See,’ said John, pleased with himself, and looking at me. ‘See how much he loves me?’ (Actually the child was not his, which served as another source of conflict in the family.) Jenny immediately became defensive. ‘He loves me better than you. Come here, Anthony, Come here.’ She stretched out her arms to him.
Anthony, who at eighteen months had already survived a series of adult fights, and attacks upon himself which would have killed most babies, looked coolly across at his mother and did not move his head. Jenny became more agitated. ‘Come here, you little cunt,’ she insisted. The child, gauging the situation decided to go over to his mother. When he moved over to her and sat in her lap, John felt betrayed, and began to swear at Jenny. She then raised her voice, and the situation escalated. The child sat watching, his eyes shining. he found the scene exciting. Soon he would get punched by one or other parent, then he would join in the drama. Other children watch television for excitement; but he had live drama all day and all night in his family. I intervened and put a stop to the quarrel. Yes, they admitted that was sometimes how the rows developed. Shamefaced, they could see what they were doing to the child. They acknowledged their own violence and brutal backgrounds, and they did sincerely wish to change. The last I heard, Jenny had remarried, but still kept Anthony. I pray she has changed it can happen.
It was not only my own observations that led me to believe that pleasure and pain can be crossed in early childhood, but also observations by the staff. Nicky Hay came to see me one day and described how a three-year-old girl had come into the Refuge with a dreadfully burnt hand, encrusted in a filthy bandage. It was necessary to cut the bandage away from the hand which involved tearing away pieces of burnt skin. Nicky had expected the child to scream and struggle. But no, the child sat impassively and patiently while the doctor cut the bandage off. ‘I couldn’t believe it,’ said Nicky. But I could. I had watched for years our children falling off walls, breaking limbs, walking into the Refuge covered in bruises, with black eyes, split lips. They did not feel pain like ordinary children.
Tony and Billy came into the Refuge with their mother. Marge lashed out at anyone and everything, particularly at her two uncontrollable boys. She had just left an extremely violent man – so extreme that he had been locked up in a hospital for the criminally insane. Although recognised as a troublemaker in his youth, he always got off any charges against him because his adopted mother was a middle class Justice of the Peace. Nobody noticed how seriously disturbed he was until it was too late, and then he was sent to the hospital for the criminally insane.
Tony the elder boy spent his time in the Refuge fighting.
He was only really happy and content when he was punching or being punched, preferably by someone bigger. I was opening my house in Bristol at that time, and I needed to take five families with me to begin a new community. I chose Marge because I needed her administrative abilities, her energy and her humour. She could drive, and also I suspected she was not physically and emotionally addicted to violence. I believed that, given a clean break and an opportunity to achieve something in her own right, she would not go back to a violent relationship.
Tony, however, was a different matter. At five he was a bully and a thug. Living with him was a nightmare, since he smashed everything in sight. Marge, so used to years of dreadful violence from the father and then from the son, would sit at the kitchen table and throw her wooden Dr Scholl sandal at him and it would crack him on the head but he wouldn’t even notice. Then Marge and I would fight about it.
‘You can’t beat children better,’ I’d yell.
‘How else can I stop him?’ she’d yell back.
Finally we instituted a daily pocket-money system. Pocket-money belonged to each child by right, and could only be removed for violent behaviour. It worked. We devised a long-term reward system for the children in the house, and slowly they calmed down.
Then Jimmy came into Marge’s life. She could not believe that such a kind good man would ever want her, after all she had been through. The boys adored him. One day you would catch Tony leaning against Jimmy. Then another day he took his hand. They moved out together and set up home. A baby daughter was born. Marge rang up and asked if they could come to the Bristol house to see me. The boys went out into the garden to play. I was delighted as I sat in our sitting-room admiring the baby, thinking how lucky she was to be born in peace. There was a loud howl from the garden and Tony appeared, clutching his knee. It was grazed. ‘Come here, son said Jimmy. Tony flew into his new father’s arms, and buried his head in his chest. Tony was crying. He could now feel pain. He had grazed his knee and it hurt and he cried I cried, too. Those are the little miracles, the times when you know it is all worthwhile. People can change, but the younger you treat violence the faster you can effect the changing.
Amanda was two when her father Francis died. He was knifed by her mother in a moment of rage that even she could barely understand. One or other of that couple was bound to end up dead in their violent relationship, and it turned out to be Francis. Christine, the mother, was distraught. She sat beside me in the office going over and over the dreadful moment when the knife slid into his throat, when he staggered to the bed, and then fell to the floor. Amanda banged around the office, tore at her mother’s skirts, sang, walked round and round in circles. ‘Are you sure she didn’t see what happened?’ I asked. ‘No. Amanda was asleep next door.’
Two or three days later, I was sitting with Christine when Amanda came banging into the office. She indicated that she wanted to draw on my large drawing-pad. I spread out my coloured pens as I always do, and she chose the red one and handed it to me. ‘Draw Francis,’ she said, gazing at me very intensely. I know that when a child has that sense of urgency with you, they are about to let go of something which to them is momentous. As soon as I had drawn a not very good cartoon figure of Francis, she took the pen from my hand and drew lines all round the figure, and then began stabbing the paper, over and over again, meanwhile looking at her mother. As I suspected, having encountered so many, many children who were witnesses to killings, she had been there and seen it.
I know Christine did not deliberately lie to me. She would have had no real memory of actual events in that moment of murder, because violence fuses realities. She and Francis would have been in a world of their own. This fusing of realities affected her recounting of the stabbing to the police. By the time she was talking to them she was no longer in that heightened shared reality, but was suddenly in their world. Our police and our courts should remember that when a person describes a crime he has committed, he is often not lying, but is simply speaking from a reality that is totally different from the one he was in when he committed the crime. Each different reality has its own distinct set of memories.
Christine would just not have noticed Amanda in the room at the time. But it was vital for the child to be able to tell someone what had happened, to share what she had seen, and also to he angry with her mother. When the knife pierced her father’s carotid artery, the blood hit the ceiling and sprayed around the walls. The last she would have seen of him was lying in a heap on the floor. It was now important for her to see him at peace. I explained to her that Daddy was asleep and would be going away. She listened intently with her head on one side.
Anne Ashby took Christine and Amanda to the funeral parlour where Francis lay quietly at rest in his coffin. Al-though Christine was hysterical with grief, Amanda looked at him very quietly. Anne took Polaroid photos of Francis in his coffin, and I was waiting for them both when they got back. After comforting Christine, I looked over at Amanda, who was sitting on the bed in the office. I took the photograph and sat down beside her. ‘Did you see your Daddy sleeping, your Daddy dead?’ I asked her. She slowly nodded her head. She put two fingers into the comfort of her mouth, and two huge tears rolled down her cheeks. She knew. She understood.
It took a year for the mother to come to trial. Christine lived at my Bristol house while she slowly came to terms with the dreadful reality of what had happened. She stayed with us in London during the trial. After three days the jury unanimously declared her not guilty. The relief was enormous, but she will still have to face the day when the children, having repressed their memories, will ask how their father died, and they will know that it was their own mother who killed him. Christine knows that when that day comes, wherever we are, we will have that knowledge of their history, and we will help her.
We will always keep in touch with Christine, and hopefully she will have learned enough about herself to he able to help Amanda come to terms with her father’s killing. As she grows up, Amanda will need to work through again and again, with us and with child guidance, her memories of Francis’s death. If the memories are not dealt with, they will sink into her unconscious. In later life, picking up a knife could then become a reflex action if she is fighting with a man. We hope that we have caught her young enough and can work with her thoroughly enough, so that she may recognise and understand the murder, and then use that understanding to break the pattern of violence in her own life.
The Richards family arrived at the Refuge in the middle of the night. They had travelled overnight from Yorkshire. Jody, their mother, was distraught. It took some considerable time to sort out the details of what had happened. Steve and Brian took the children off to playschool to let them talk out and draw their grief and confusion. I sat down with Jody. Jody had been living with the father of her youngest child Michael, who was seven months old. There were three other children: Julia who was two, Tyrone who was four, and Peter, aged five.
Jody had adored her own father, who seemed to have been a kind gentleman, but her mother was a monster. She hated Jody, who had been a very pretty, lively and intelligent child. Unfortunately, her father, her only protector, died when she was quite young, so she was left to the mercy of her violent bully of a mother. Jody soon decided that she would only survive if she fought back. Soon she was not only in trouble at home but also at school. The school showed little under-standing, and continually punished the already abused little girl. Slowly she was transformed into a furious, intractable adolescent. Everything she did was in reaction to her mother. She deliberately dated West Indian boys, knowing how racially prejudiced her mother was. She took drugs, she drank herself silly, and soon became pregnant. Her mother fought back. All her life her mother had devoted herself to fooling the neighbours. The image of the little God-fearing woman who went out to work and scrubbed her house clean was a camouflage for an embittered, violent woman. She was one of the few human beings I found it difficult to like.
Jody was always with a new man, continually going back to her mother to scream and yell and demand attention. The first two children were born and she moved into a council flat supplied by the borough. But she could not cope with the two small children, so they were taken into care, and then returned to her, and then received back into care when she broke down again. Her restlessness made it impossible for her to stay indoors at night. She needed to be out and roaming the estate. Sometimes she would come back with men, for money and for company. Sometimes she would come back with a bottle, to drink herself into oblivion. The flat was sparse and the children had very little to wear. It was impossible for her to cope with all her own chaos.
Peter the eldest boy did his best to look after Tyrone and Julia. He learned very early to expect nothing from life and he got on with the business of seeing that they had enough to eat. He would nag and shout at his mother by the time he was three. He was used to being hit so he felt no pain.
Then Jody met Ralph. He was a giant of a man and very kind to Jody and her children. He was already living with another woman with three children, but he spent more and more time at Jody’s flat. She became pregnant, and Michael arrived, but she could not bear the nights on her own when Ralph was with the ‘other woman. Soon she became obsessed with the images of Ralph somewhere else without her. She would beg and plead for him to stay. Ralph was rarely violent, but if pushed too far, he was known for his ability to explode into violent rage.
No one will ever know what it was that took him over to the other woman’s house that night, and caused him to mutilate and then stab the woman to death. According to Jody, he came back to her flat covered with blood. He complained of dreadful stomach pains and told the children to wait for dinner, while he had a bath. He went into the bathroom and locked the door. Jody waited, then, hearing no sounds from the bathroom, and getting no answer to her knocks at the door, she broke it open. Ralph was lying dead in the bath. The children crowded into the room to look at him. Jody called the police, and Ralph’s body was taken away. Jody was by now in an incredible state of fear. The neighbours, many of whom were Jamaican, were openly hostile to her. She picked up her children and ran to us. Now it was up to us to make sense of what happened both for her sake and for the children’s.
This drawing is by Peter; he was explaining to my colleague Steve the complexity of the family relationships, as it involved four different fathers. He also showed in his drawings how he saw Ralph dead in the bathroom. He was also clearly aware of the other woman’s death, but he agreed with Tyrone that they were not there when she died. Peter was a very intense, moody child given to sudden outbursts of rage. Like most small children who have been robbed of the innocence of their childhood, Peter was frighteningly precocious.
Tyrone, however, was a professional charmer. He quietly got what he wanted from life by a mixture of friendly manipulation and cunning. He also was able to describe the sight of Ralph’s nose under water, and he remarked on the bottles on the floor. Where as Peter showed grief and sorrow, Tyrone seemed quite cheerful, but he was the one who let me know he had a secret.
At playschool Julia spent hours stabbing at the walls and her drawing paper with a brush dipped in red paint. The play staff were all fairly new and had not worked before with any children who had witnessed murders. They were amazed at the ferocity and intensity of her attacks on the walls. Although Jody insisted that the children had not seen Ralph stabbing the other woman, Julia’s behaviour was an accurate acting out of a violent event. When she raised her little hand in a stabbing motion I warned the staff, if she were left untreated, this event would go deep into her subconscious, only to reappear in a moment of crisis when she herself felt attacked. Then there was a very real possibility that she would stab someone.
It was several years before Tyrone was able to tell me that they had all watched the stabbing, as I suspected.
My immediate concern, however, was the baby, Michael. He seemed to be sleeping his little life away. At seven months he had the typical look of a neglected child. As he was unable to sit up or turn himself oyer, he constantly moved his head from side to side, and the friction from the sheets had made him bald. I noticed that his only form of play was to clutch his bottle with his feet which he used as hands for lack of ever being taken out of his cot. If I held him up, his little legs would dangle helplessly. I thought that if we kept him in the main sitting-room, where there were plenty of people to pick him up and cuddle him, he might be stimulated enough to come to life. It was soon apparent, however, that he did not want to join the human race. Life for him was all too painful, so he was sleeping his life away.
I talked it all over with my daughter Cleo, who was at home with a baby of the same age. I then talked to Jody who agreed that something must be done for Michael. Of course, we were in touch with the Social Services in her area, but they had nothing to offer Jody which was realistic in terms of support, so were unable to suggest any solution except to let us cope the best we could. In spite of all her problems, Jody was a woman with many excellent qualities. Because her relationship with her mother was so intense, there was really no room for anyone else. She had never trusted anyone before. Her life had been a kaleidoscope of agency workers who, one by one, gave up on her.
Her mother came by at this point, full of Hail Marys and poison. I listened to a catalogue of Jody’s sins, and when the mother sat back, her eyes sparkling with malevolence, I took the wind out of her sails by completely agreeing with her. ‘But,’ I pointed out, ‘here she is much loved. We might not like what she does, but we love her.’ The old lady did not feel much like conversation after that. Swearing loudly on the heads of her babies and the graves of various departed relatives, she left the room. I then asked Jody if I could take Michael home each night and bring him back to her during the day. Not only would I have concentrated time to give to him this way, but it would also mean that Jody could have an uninterrupted night’s sleep. She agreed and I took him home.
Feeding him in the peace of my own house, I noticed how fierce he was when he was sucking his bottle. I held him close to my breast with my face close to his so that he could hear me talking to him. He would suck furiously at the nipple of the bottle, and stretching out his hands he would pinch and scratch my face. I had noticed at the Refuge that he had a large area round his navel that was constantly sore and covered in half-healed scabs. Our wonderful health visitor Cilia had given us a special cream for it, but now I saw why it would not heal. As he drank from his bottle, he would tear at his skin until it bled. His pain and pleasure were already confused. I took him to the bathroom and gently lowered him into the bath, as I have with hundreds of babies before him. It was sad to watch his face completely dissolve into a pained grimace as the warm water immersed him. It was not fear; he was not afraid. He could not bear the pleasure – it hurt him. Cleo remembers from feeding and changing Michael, that he was incapable of holding food in his system. As soon as food went in one end, it came out the other. His digestive tract was as immature as a new-born child’s. Michael had given up on life, so his body refused to develop and take nourishment.
Now the real work began. Cleo and the rest of the community at my house pitched in. We realised that it would take time, but in fact I always forget how wonderfully resilient children are. Given the right climate, like a drooping plant, children revive at a startling rate. My grandson at seven months was sitting up, pulling himself to his feet, and shouting garbled commands at everyone in sight. Every evening Keita and Michael would lie on the carpet together. Keita was thrilled with him and gave him all the benefit of his advice. Michael suddenly began to smile his funny, painful, crooked smile. I still had to let him pinch and scratch me when he sucked. I did not pull his hands away; I just rocked him on my rocking chair, and sang to him, and stroked his rigid little body.
Gradually he began to pinch less and less, and within a few weeks the change was dramatic. Michael decided that the world was not too bad a place at all. He became a friendly, outgoing baby. He put on weight and smiled at everyone. The day of the inquest arrived, and Anne Ashby took Jody along. It was a long, protracted affair because no one could make sense of what had happened. The coroner gave an open verdict, because they could not decide how anyone with as much alcohol in their system as Ralph could have died without vomiting.
The next hurdle was the funeral. We were very anxious about the event because there were many of Ralph’s relatives who felt Jody should not attend. But Jody was determined to go. I felt that it was vital for the children to see both the coffin and the grave. I have treated so many cases of adults who were denied access to their parent’s graveside by well-intentioned relatives, and these people grow up to feel forever that the parent has abandoned and betrayed them. I always advise excellent and dedicated people working for the mothers and children. If I asked them to risk themselves, they did. This occasion was no exception. However, the funeral turned out to be fairly uneventful in terms of aggression towards Jody, and it gave us a chance to talk to the children and to explain exactly what was happening to Ralph. Tyrone, in his in-credibly practical way, was fascinated by detail. Peter dealt with it all by changing moods, from racketing around noisily to withdrawing suddenly. Julia was fairly impassive, but the two moments that united the family were when Ralph’s coffin was brought in and they all knew that he was in that box; and when the coffin went down out of sight into the grave, and they realised Ralph was truly gone. He had not ‘gone shopping,’ or run away from the children. He was dead.
Unfortunately, now that the drama was over, the Housing Department began to harass Jody about returning to her flat. Some of her social workers insisted she should return to ‘normal’ life, but if you are emotionally disabled, you are far too insecure to face such people who argue that you must return to what they regard as real life, and say ‘No. I need support. I need a community,’ because saying this would be tantamount to recognising and admitting that you are disabled. We had not yet got that far with Jody, to a point where she could feel comfortable and accept herself as a good, warm, loving woman. She still slipped back into her lifetime pattern of feeling bad about herself. So it was in one of those dark moods that she returned to her flat. We heard from her from time to time, and then we learned that all the children had been taken into care.
Jody came in to see me, and explained that she had not been able to cope on her own. I pointed out that very few women could cope on welfare with four children under six. I said that I, for one, would take to the bottle immediately. That made her laugh. I was glad that the children were at least safe for a while, because she needed time and space to herself. It was sad that her borough saw the care that we offered as such a threat to themselves that they preferred to put Jody in a position where she was forced to fail. Their solution was to put her very small children into care in Yorkshire. It must have cost the tax-payers at least four hundred pounds a week to maintain her kids in care. It would have cost only Jody’s social security contribution for the whole family to stay with us.
When I went over with Jody, to see the children, it was the usual bleak children’s home. The children, mostly black or half-caste, were looked after by sympathetic young girls, but the mountains of rules and standards of hygiene required left the girls little time to play with the children. I asked to see the matron, and discovered that she had been told nothing at all about Jody’s children’s history. She did not know anything about their traumatic experiences, or about the deaths they had witnessed. Various members of our staff subsequently visited the children, until we got a letter from the matron asking us not to come again, as we were ‘disturbing’ them. We weren’t surprised by this – very few children’s homes like or encourage visitors. I did not argue, because I knew that Jody would soon get the children out, and would still need us. So I waited.
The next time she came she had them all with her. They were delighted to be back. Tyrone went straight for Brian and tried to hustle him for money. He got tenpence and a hug, which was what he was really asking for. They had all grown taller, and the only one I was worried about that time was Peter. He still had mood swings, and could rapidly turn from a happy smiling child to a violent and sullen thug.
I was able to spend some time with Tyrone and Peter, and at one point I asked them to draw for me the story of Ralph in the bath. This session took place about eighteen months after the event. Peter, much as I expected, was still confused and angry about the event. Jeff, who was with me at this session, felt as I did: there was great danger for Peter because he could not make coherent sense of his violent past.
Tyrone was quite different. He not only drew his version of what had happened on that night, but he asked for a second piece of paper and drew what happened at the dead woman’s place. They had been there and had seen it all; that was the secret he was now willing to share with us. It must have been an awful burden for a little three-year-old to carry. When he had finished drawing the body, he carefully drew Ralph, his mother Jody, Peter and himself. He said that Julia and Michael were left at home. He then drew some bottles rolling on the floor. ‘What did your mummy do when Ralph stabbed that lady?’ I asked. ‘She turned her head away and ran out of the room.’ Tyrone had all the events sorted out in his head. There was no confusion and no fantasy. His emotions were appropriate to the event he was remembering. I felt far more concern for Peter, who could well grow up to reach for a knife reflexively in any state of confused rage.
I begged endlessly for these children to receive child guidance. But as it takes much arranging and trudging through red tape, those children who most need child guidance are normally too peripatetic to ever stay in one place long enough to start the process. After this drawing session, Jody took the children home again. After a while they were back in care. She visited me and we talked about her feelings. The good sign was that she was on her own, with no violent men in her life. The last time I saw her, things were looking distinctly hopeful. She came back with another marvellous woman who had been at the Refuge. They brought their children, too, for Jody’s kids were now out of care again, and they all looked well. Jody told me that she had met a really nice kind man who loved her and the children. He was a steady worker and she did look relaxed and happy. So far so good. Fortunately I am an optimist.
Drawing with children is an art form in itself. Talking to children is also something that adults have to be re-trained to do. Usually I take the time to get to know children before I ask them to trust me with their secrets, but sometimes I do not have much time.
In Jenny’s case, I knew the mother was not going to stay long, so I had to work fast. Jenny was seven, and extremely articulate. The conversation started with me asking her about her father’s violence. This is part of the transcript from my taped interview.
ERIN: I’ve been having a long natter with your Mum about life at home with Dad, and the fact that Dad hits her, doesn’t be?’
ERIN: What do you do?
JENNY: I say ‘Stop it’.
ERIN: Does he stop?
JENNY: He still goes on.
ERIN: Why does he hit her?
JENNY: I don’t know. Only when he’s drunk he hits her.
ERIN: Yes. What starts it?
JENNY: I don’t know what starts it.
ERIN: Well, you do, because you’re sitting there watching, aren’t you?
ERIN: All right give me an example.
JENNY: He’s sitting down on the couch, and my Mum’s sitting down, and my Dad comes over and says ‘Stand up’, and my Mum gets up, and then my Dad gets hold of her arm – and that’s what starts it. Because he’s drunk.
ERIN: Yes. He’s burnt her with a cigarette, hasn’t he?
ERIN: Did you see that happen?
JENNY: I didn’t see it happen.
ERIN: How did you know he’d done that? Is it on her hand where you can see it?
JENNY: Yes. It’s on my Mum’s hand. My Daddy done it.
ERIN: Did you see him do it?
ERIN: Where were you?
JENNY: I was in Jean’s room.
ERIN: Who’s Jean?
JENNY: She lives down there (in another room in the house).
ERIN: Oh, wait a minute, yes. You share a room with your Mum and Dad.
JENNY: Yes. And the other lady lives in another room.
ERIN: So you all sleep in the same room. When they start fighting, and you’re in bed, what do you do?
JENNY: I just go back to sleep, because I can’t hear them sometimes.
ERIN: You do hear them. You’re pretending you don’t, aren’t you?
JENNY: Only sometimes. Sometimes I’m fast asleep, but when he starts shouting I wake up.
ERIN: What does he say when he shouts?
JENNY: He says ‘Leave me alone’. My Mum, she knows that he’ll do it again (batter her).
ERIN: Are you glad she’s left him? Yes? Are you nodding your head or shaking it?
JENNY: Nodding it.
ERIN: You are glad. How do you feel about leaving him?
JENNY: It’s all right.
ERIN: Really? Do you miss him at all? No? Because you know your Mum’s not been well recently. She’s having another baby, isn’t she? And she’s been in hospital. Now she’s been talking to me a lot about your Dad, and she wants to try and sort it out with him – whether they can live together or not. What would you like to happen?
JENNY: I’d like to stay here.
ERIN: And not go back to him? Does he hit you?
JENNY: Not very hard.
ERIN: What does he hit you for?
JENNY: Once when I was sitting in bed when ‘Crossroads’ was on, Dad said ‘Get into bed.’ And I wasn’t doing anything, because I was only sitting on the bed with my Mum, and then I got in and my Dad slapped me.
ERIN: On the other hand, he also gives you lots of toys and things, doesn’t he? And if your Mum tells you off, he lets you off.
JENNY: Yes. He bought me a monkey, and that went missing.
ERIN: A real monkey?
JENNY: A pretending one. When you squeeze him his arms move.
ERIN: What happened? Why did he go missing?
JENNY: Because we were in this other hostel, where my friend lives, and we stayed there for a day, but then we had to come back to my Dad.
ERIN: Why? Because he found you?
JENNY: No. He never found us. In case something happened to him. And so we went back, and we left our clothes there (at the hostel), but when we came back in the morning there was no monkey, because this boy took it away from me.
ERIN: Do you think your Mum loves your Dad?
JENNY: I don’t know.
ERIN: Honest? How many times have you left?
ERIN: How old are you now?
JENNY: Seven. It was my birthday when we got over to Ireland, and then my Dad had to come.
ERIN: So you went to Ireland when it was your birthday? Which birthday was that?
JENNY: That was when we were over in Ireland. But my Mum had no money, so I didn’t have my birthday, and I had it in care, because I didn’t want to have my birthday, because my Mum didn’t have any money.
ERIN: How badly have you seen your Mum hit?
JENNY: Twelve times.
ERIN: What was the worst you’ve ever seen?
JENNY: When he was punching my Mum.
ERIN: Yes, but where?
JENNY: In the face.
ERIN: Was there blood?
JENNY: No blood.
ERIN: Where did he hit her, then?
JENNY: On the hair.
ERIN: What stopped him?
JENNY: When we was living in this other hostel, my a was fighting my Mum and then I heard them shouting, and then I came up and said ‘Stop it, Daddy’, and he stopped.
ERIN: Your Mum said she fights back, too.
JENNY: Yes, she does fight back, too.
ERIN: What does she do?
JENNY: She tries to calm him down, to stop doing it.
ERIN: She says she throws things.
ERIN: You sound like the grown-up. Do you think sometimes you are more grown-up? I wonder sometimes. I know you’re only seven, but you know alot about it, don’t you?
JENNY: Because I’m always awake. I never go to sleep at all.
ERIN: No? You lie there all night, just pretending, eh?
JENNY: I fall asleep sometimes after the film.
ERIN: What happens when they start fighting?
JENNY: I wake up and get out of bed.
ERIN: And what do you do?
JENNY: I say ‘Stop it, Daddy’, and my Dad stops. But sometimes he doesn’t stop and he says ‘Get out of my way’.
ERIN: Then what do you do?
JENNY: I get out of his way, because he might stop if I get out of his way.
ERIN: Do you ever get frightened he might kill her?
ERIN: Really? How long have you been frightened he might kiliher?
JENNY: Twelve days.
ERIN: Just recently then? It’s got worse has it?
JENNY: It’s worse.
ERIN: It’s always been bad. So you’ve always been afraid your Mum might die. What do you see happening to you?
JENNY: You mean in my own life?
ERIN: What happens if she dies?
JENNY: My Dad will cry, maybe.
ERIN: What happens to you if she dies?
JENNY: I’ll cry.
ERIN: Where will you go?
JENNY: The two men up in the office, I’ll go and tell them.
JENNY: Then I’ll phone the police.
JENNY: And then an ambulance will come, because I would have told them that my Mum had died.
JENNY: And then they’ll come up, won’t they?
ERIN: What will they do?
JENNY: They’ll get her in the ambulance because she
She had another little girl, you know, and she had to
give her away.
ERIN: Did she? How old were you when she gave her away?
JENNY: I don’t know. She just told me. We have to call her my cousin now because she gave her away. And she’s a lot bigger.
After that interview, Jenny produced her drawing of family life. As you can see, it shows two beds and a very wide-awake Jenny. She knew her father had another girlfriend, so I asked a question one does not normally ask a seven-year-old child.
ERIN: How do you feel when they are making love to each other?
JENNY: All right.
ERIN: Don’t you feel embarrassed? You’re used to it, I suppose.
JENNY: I’m used to it.
To Jenny that is what normal life is about. She has already worked out a contingency plan for her mother’s death, as the interview shows. No doubt she will go on to become tomorrow’s violence-prone woman unless somewhere, somehow, someone gets her mother in a position where she is able to confront the fact that not only was she herself a battered child, but she was also raped by a bunch of youths when she was fourteen. The baby that came from that crisis in her life, whom Jenny describes as the little girl given away, was passed over to another branch of the family. We couldn’t hold Jenny’s mother, and she moved back to the husband. However, I know that sometimes all it takes to rescue a child is to give that child a glimpse of a possible alternative. That is why the Women’s Aid playgroup staff put so much of themselves into the loving of the children.
This next interview is with five-year-old Curt, talking td me about his mother being beaten by a new boyfriend. We knew for a fact that she encouraged the children to watch her making love.
ERIN: When he hit your mother, what do you do?
CURT: I don’t know.
ERIN: Do you cry?
CURT: I was in the bedroom when he done it.
ERIN: How many times does he do it?
CURT: Twelve. (Children often use twelve as the biggest number they can imagine.)
ERIN: What does your mum do? Does she scream?
ERIN: What does she do?
CURT: She shouts.
ERIN: What does she shout? Go on, what does she shout, Curt?
ERIN: What does she shout like? Show me.
CURT: A cissy.
ERIN: A cissy?
ERIN: How does a cissy shout? Go on, tell me.
CURT: Like a girl.
ERIN: And what do girls shout?
ERIN: Loud! What words do they say?
ERIN: What languages?
CURT: Don’t want to tell you.
ERIN: Oh yes, you do. I’ve heard your languages before. Go on.
ERIN: Just once.
ERIN: You’ve got your funny secret squirrel face on.
CURT: No, I haven’t.
ERIN: Yes you have. I know why you’re smiling, too. (meaning his mother and her boyfriend.)
ERIN: Why your Daddy and Mummy used to smile at each other – same reason.
ERIN: Do you watch now? (Watch his mother and her boyfriend making love.)
ERIN: You used to, didn’t you?
ERIN: Oh, oh, oh, that is a lie. Isn’t it?
CURT: I do really.
ERIN: You do?
ERIN: You still watch?
ERIN: How do you watch now?
ERIN: How do you watch now?
CURT: I don’t know.
ERIN: Yes you do. Do you creep out of bed and listen? How can you see?
CURT: Because the light’s on.
ERIN: Oh, I see. Yes, that’s how you see. Well you’ve worked very hard for today
Curt and his mother were with us for quite a while until, again, the borough saw her problem as a housing problem and gave her a flat. We lost them in spite of endless arguing with the Social Services over the fact that she was not ready to go. It is frightening to see how Curt already reckons it’s cissy to cry if you are being battered. The ‘secret squirrel’ face refers to a certain look on his face which shows a mixture of mirth and sexual perversity. Seeing that expression was like looking at a deviant old man, which is what Curt will probably become.
His four-year-old brother had this to say:
ERIN: Do you want to tell me your secret?
ERIN: Why do you watch?
BOBBY: Just feel like it.
ERIN: You just feel like it. How do you feel when you’re watching?
BOBBY: It makes me very happy.
Here are two small boys of four and five already taking an active part in violence and sexual abuse. They were violent to each other and to other children, and their perceptions of relationships were totally distorted.
This is Eddie talking to me about his mother. He was wild, and had an obsession with blood. The sight of it excited and stimulated him.
ERIN: What does he hit her with? (‘He’ here is Eddie’s father.)
ERIN: His fists?
EDDIE: No. Stick.
ERIN: Does she have blood on her face sometimes?
EDDIE: No, she had blood running down her nose.
ERIN: Did she? What did you do?
ERIN: Did you cry?
ERIN: How often does that happen?
EDDIE: Er. It kept coming down all the time.
ERIN: What, the blood?
ERIN: Do you often see blood?
ERIN: Do you like blood?
EDDIE: I don’t.
ERIN: I can see you smiling and laughing. Yes?
EDDIE: No. I don’t.
ERIN: When you go to playschool you can draw pictures of it.
Even when Eddie decides it is getting unsafe to go on talking about it, he is wriggling on his chair, his face alive with glee. One has to remember that he has just described his mother’s face after a beating.
This next little boy, specially asked to talk with me. When he came in he got right down to business.
ERIN: Right. What is it you want to talk about? Why are you here?
FRANK: Because Dad fights.
ERIN: Yes. With who?
FRANK: And she bites things. And he won’t stop. And Mum wants him to go, and he won’t go.
ERIN: Do you love him?
ERIN: What’s nice about him?
ERIN: He’s good to you, is he?
ERI N: What happened to you? What happened to your eye?
FRANK: Because Dad picked me up and shook me, and this eye went blind.
ERIN: How do you know that?
FRANK: I’m right.
ERIN: How do you know?
FRANK: Because Dad done it, really.
ERIN: How do you know?
FRANK: I know when
ERIN: Who told you?
ERIN: Did he?
ERIN: Why did he tell you?
FRANK: Because I wanted him to.
ERIN: Are you upset?
FRANK: Because I’m all right.
ERIN: But don’t you mind that he made you blind?
ERIN: He didn’t mean to do it, did he?
FRANK: No.1 only wanted to be blind.
ERIN: Did you?
FRANK: Because I like it.
ERIN: What does it feel like?
FRANK: Good. It’s lovely.
ERIN: Explain it to me. I’m not blind, so I don’t know what it feels like. What does it feel like?
FRANK: It feels like it’s nice.
ERIN: What’s better about being blind than being not blind?
FRANK: Then you can cry over everything then – when I’m not blind.
ERIN: But you can’t when your blind, though. Isn’t that true?
ERIN: So what’s good about being blind?
FRANK: About being blind is that when you can’t see – and I can see a little bit.
ERIN: How much can you see? For instance can you see the tape-recorder?
FRANK: Yes. This eye. (Frank had totally lost sight in one eve, and only partial sight remains in the other.)
ERIN: Yes. Perfectly can you?
ERIN: Not that well. So you can see most things, can’t you?
FRANK: Yes. That’s with that eye.
FRAN K: That eye
ERIN: How long are you going to stay here, Frank?
FRANK: About . . Mum said about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.
Later on, when the tape-recorder ran out, he suddenly let go of a secret grief. ‘I won’t be able to drive cars,’ he said. He felt so much love for his father, who really did love his son. The blinding was an act the father would regret all his life, so the little boy took it upon himself to remove as much guilt from his father as he could. ‘I like it, really.’ In the quiet of the office he did not have to pretend. He could allow himself to be a hurt, bewildered, blind child. Fortunately for this boy, he is at a very good special school where people truly care for him. Also, both parents, although they have a destructive addictive need for each other, separately are intelligent, and genuinely do love him. With some pluses in his life, he may just transcend their violence. I hope so.
On the 13 November 1980, I wrote an article for New Society, with Michael Dunne from the Refuge, on the subject of incest. I was amazed by the total silence that greeted it. I have listened over ten years to families in the Refuge pouring out their stories. I have seen the damage done to the children exposed to their parents sexual demands. I have watched adults kissing and caressing their children in a totally sexual manner, and have then realised yet again that the parents’ reality shapes the reality of their children. If your father used to kiss you lasciviously on the mouth, then, unless some-where along the line someone points out the inappropriateness of this to you, you will probably do the same to your children. I remember my first moment of shock when I saw one of our mothers lean over her nine-year-old son, who was sprawling on a sofa, and kiss him passionately on his mouth. ‘Belinda’, I said ‘that’s your son, not your lover.’ She looked at me m surprise and left the room.
Father/daughter incest is a social problem that is now recognised, if not understood. Mother/son incest is still a strictly taboo subject. In fact I continually read books that state quite categorically that mother/son incest is so rare that it is virtually nonexistent. Those of us who see mother-damaged men all round us, and have suffered at their hands, would do well to raise our voices and object. Certainly it is rare for a woman to actually have sexual intercourse with her son. This, I believe, is because women do not want to risk the social stigma of getting caught in what is still a totally unacceptable act. Men seem to have an urgent sexual need to penetrate in order to achieve maximum sexual pleasure. At some point they lose control, and then they may be caught, and the matter is made public. Women get a more diffuse sexual pleasure from just touching and stroking. So many of their incestuous acts with their sons are usually very subtle and very difficult for the son to deal with or describe. A girl can say, ‘This is what my father did to me,’ and feel outraged at the event. A boy, however) has to say to me, ‘This is what I think my mother did to me.’
Furthermore, mothers tend to disguise sexual acts, if they do want to penetrate their children through their role as loving nurses, giving rectal suppositories, rectal thermometers, and enemas.
Naturally, in a healthy family, the parents will kiss, cuddle, touch, and, when necessary, nurse their children. The difference, however, between the normal affection of a healthy family and the unsaid sexual acts of incestuous family is not the outward act itself but the charge behind the act which the parent feels. A kiss may be fine in one family, but in another family, when the parents act with a heavy sexual charge, and the child instinctively picks up on that charge, then the same kiss becomes an incestuous assault. One boy described how his mother had his brothers hold him down when he was as old as twelve, to push an enema tube into his rectum. He was constantly in hospital for constipation. The hospital quite unwittingly encouraged the mother to commit this gross act of indecency upon her child.
The whole subject of incest is so huge that it will be the subject of our next book, but suffice it to say that incest is endemic in our Western society. It has always been said that incest is the last taboo which, once removed, heralds the destruction of a civilisation. The Criminal Law Revision Committee suggested in its October of 1980 Working Paper on Sexual Offences that a father should no longer be prosecuted if he has sexual intercourse with his daughter, provided she is over twenty-one. If society follows this pattern of moral decline, the future for children in this country looks even bleaker than the present.
The major problem is that many of the people who organise this country and make all the major decisions, both morally and financially, do so not out of an altruistic love of mankind, but out of a deep greedy need of self-service. They got where they are by a ruthless driving ambition which is the by-product of a violent personality. Happy, contented human beings seldom seek high office. They prefer the warmth and love of good relationships to long hours spent in meetings or in offices. The people who run our society are the last people to listen to any attempts to organise changes, to improve and to protect the lives of children. Such prospects threaten their lives, their personal power over their own families, and above all, their control over the defenceless and frightened children.