Opinion: Silence Is The Abuser’s Greatest Weapon
A few days ago I sat with three of my friends. These three women all differed in age, personality and background, but they had one significant factor in common - each of them had experienced serious domestic abuse.
One had suffered physical abuse at the hands of an ex-boyfriend, the other experienced mental abuse at the hands of her father and the third was almost beaten to death by a former partner.
None of them spoke about it. In fact, none of them were even aware of the others’ stories. It was just a regular social occasion for the four of us. However, they’d each confided their stories to me and in that moment, I realised that the 18 years of physical, mental and emotional abuse I’d endured at the hands of my own father meant that all of us had something very sinister in common.
A group of four very different women all of whom had experienced serious levels of domestic abuse – it made me wonder just how many people out there were staying silent.
Growing up, I was told that this was how every family was. Every family lived in terror and just never spoke of it. Once I became worldly enough to know this wasn’t true, I was then threatened into keeping my silence and so I continued to suffer alone. When I was finally out of reach of the physical abuse, the mind games began and my parents tried to tell me it was never as bad as I thought it was, that I was exaggerating and after all, wasn’t I a stronger person because of how hard they were on me?
I distanced myself from them but I continued to keep silent for a few more years. It was the only way I had to deal with it and I still felt scared to talk about it. My father wasn’t a stable man and I worried he’d come after me as an act of revenge.
There was also the issue of my own state of mind at that point. You don’t come out of a life like that with a healthy sense of perspective. I had spent my whole life being told I deserved the treatment I’d received and on some level I believed it.
But the thing that strikes me most now is the fact that one of the main barriers that prevented me from talking about it was shame. I was ashamed I’d been treated that way. Ashamed of the experiences I’d endured. Ashamed of the things that were done to me and the things I’d done out of fear and a sheer lack of help.
Depression hit me badly during college and every minute was a struggle. I got gradually worse and to this day I attribute my survival to a former boyfriend who is still a good friend now. He was the first person I told and he reacted with horror – not at me but at what was done to me.
I’d never heard anyone talking about domestic abuse. It was a dirty little secret swept under the carpet. Don’t air your dirty laundry in public, we were all told. What happens in the privacy of your own home should stay there, they said.
People make off-the-cuff jokes about ‘wife-beating’ and slapping children around without a second thought, not realising the impact those words could have on present company or even how it contributes to a social attitude that is both ignorant and wrong. But that casual way of handling the issue only served to strengthen my silence as I assumed I wouldn’t be taken seriously and that someone else would tell me to get over it.
By that time that I was able to reveal exactly what had happened, all I could do was try and heal the damage done to me. I was long past the chance to get any justice for what had happened. The legal system does not lend itself to protecting the innocent in these cases and unless I turned up with a broken arm or bruised face, I hadn’t a leg to stand on. In fact, even if I had the visual proof, a case could be made against me claiming that I’d provoked the reaction. It may sound unbelievable, but that was the exact case built up against my friend who barely escaped with her life - and she had more than enough injuries to legitimise her story. When she initially attempted to press charges, she was asked by the garda she dealt with if she really wanted to go ahead with it. Guardians of the Peace indeed.
I was incredibly lucky. Very few children experience what I did and manage to not only escape, but to build a life for themselves. I’m in the minority. Even now I’m not sure how it happened. I never had any outside support. Extended family members, teachers and neighbours were either completely oblivious to what was going on or they turned a blind eye. As a society we ignore any suspicions we may have when it comes to this issue. We whisper and gossip and then we pretend it isn’t happening. It’s not our place to get involved.
And so you might be wondering why I’ve written this. It’s very simple – I want an end to the silence.
I don’t imagine that generations of ignorance can be turned around by this one article. I also don’t think our justice system will miraculously fix itself any time soon. But there is something that can be done – it’s time to speak out against the abusers.
If it was just me to think about, I would put my name on this piece. However, while I’m aware that what I’m saying would carry more weight with a visible person behind it, naming myself also names my siblings and I’m not going to force anyone to publicise their own experiences until they are ready to do so themselves. They are not.
But I will ask you all to start small, as I have.
I am in a place mentally where I can be open about this issue with my friends and will discuss the topic with anyone who asks. And it helps. It helped me and it opened up a lot of eyes to what might be going on behind closed doors. It even helped a few people discuss their own experience of domestic abuse.
And that’s how we’ll change things. We’ll make little splashes in our own ponds and as we change the perspectives of people around us, that effect will spread. People will talk about it, people will become aware of the issue and eventually people experiencing the same thing that I did – that my friends did – might actually have someone there to help them escape when they need to.
There is no shame at all in being a recipient of abuse. It’s not your fault, regardless of what you’re told. It. Isn’t. Your. Fault.
Silence is the abuser’s greatest weapon – let’s take it away.