16 Days Of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (Day 10)

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Content warning: Coercive Control, Intimate Partner Abuse

It’s Day 10 of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence and I’m reminded of the SAFE Ireland Conference I attended last year: That conference brought home to me how the violence and abuse I endured when I was married had affected me more than I’d realised. It was listening to other women and their stories that finally brought home to me how much damage had been inflicted on me by my exes.

I’d been single since the second week of August, 2003 (two days after I found out I was expecting my second child). For the most part, I’ve been very happy to be single. I live a full life, enjoy my children, have wonderful friends and am always busy.  Every now and again, though, I think it might be quite nice to have someone who regularly accompanies me to events, who can hold a conversation, who is blessed with intelligence, and who might be a contender for romantic partner. When I get into one of these moods, I end up on one or other of the (frankly, horrendous) dating apps. I rarely stay very long, but the last time I peeked over that particular parapet, I was pleasantly surprised.

At this juncture, I want to tell you that I thought long and hard about publishing this post: I felt that, having been through what I’ve been through, and knowing what I know, I am the last person who would end up in yet another abusive relationship. My reluctance to share this was multifaceted:

I’m ashamed.

I’m ashamed that – given how much I research, speak, and write about, abuse – I didn’t see it until it was too late. I’m ashamed that I managed to ignore the signs – or that I didn’t see the signs in the first place. I’m ashamed that I acted in exactly the same way as so many other women in abusive situations do. Not because I think I’m in any way better than they are – either in the superior, or the recovered sense – but because I thought I’d learnt that lesson already. I thought I’d figured out how to stand up for myself in situations where there was even a whiff of nastiness. I was wrong.

As well as that, my pride is squirming slightly. I am writing in full knowledge that there are those who will read this and gloat. I know there are those who will read this and bloat with puffed-up delight that I have fallen foul of yet another man. There are those who will gleefully share this post and rejoice at the fact that I have been involved (again) with a man who has scant respect for me (or, come to think of it, women in general).

I’m also feeling a bit dim. I didn’t spot the coercive control that I was subjected to for what it was. I could kick myself. My marriages had been so dreadful – my life had been in danger on more than one occasion – that I thought anything less than the overt abuse (verbal, psychological, financial, physical, sexual and others) I’d been subjected to in those relationships wasn’t really abuse. I was wrong.

More than these, however, I am aware that every time I write, or speak, about my own experiences, I speak directly to other women who have experienced similar. I speak directly to women who felt their own shame; experienced their own bruised pride; questioned their own intelligence; blamed themselves for their own abuse. I reminded myself that every time I open up – other women open up to me. And that is why I do this – because abuse thrives on secrecy and abuse thrives on keeping the victim shamed, and abuse thrives on the silence of the abused. Knowledge is power, and the sharing of knowledge empowers those with whom it lands.

To give a very specific example of what I mean when I write ‘coercive control’:

The man I was with said he was very pleased I was pursuing my PhD. He said he was very proud that I was working on such an important project. He said he was aware that I needed the time and space to work. He said that he understood it was the most valuable thing – apart from parenting my girls – that I was doing.

That’s what he said. 

I know enough, though, to know that what a man says is not nearly as important as what he does. What he did was interfere with my study time as much as he could – and he always presented his demands, expectations, and manipulations as perfectly reasonable, in some cases as downright loving, so it was hard to argue with him.

I am quite the night owl, and I enjoy reading and writing late at night. He, however, was not a night owl – especially not during the working week. That was fine with me – I was quite happy for him to go to bed before me.
‘But I can’t sleep without you,’ he would whine.
‘You slept perfectly well without me for nearly 40 years,’ I reasoned.
‘Yes, but now I know you’re there, so I don’t want to have to go to sleep without you. I’d miss you too much. I couldn’t sleep if you weren’t there.’

I thought about this, and decided I could manage a compromise – I’d go to bed at the same time as him, and just read in bed. But he was having none of that.
‘I can’t sleep if there’s any light in the room,’ he explained. ‘That’s why I have blackout curtains.’
‘Can you wear a sleepmask?’ I asked.
‘No. That wouldn’t work. They’re never dark enough.’
‘They are if you get a decent one. I’ll get you a proper one.’
‘No.’

Proffering my next solution, I agreed to go to bed at the same time as him, I agreed not to read while he was in bed, but said I’d get up early in the morning and get a few hours’ work done then. That, however, wasn’t acceptable to him, either.
‘I can’t sleep at all if you’re not there. If you get up, I won’t be able to sleep on.’
I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to suggest that he didn’t necessarily deserve more sleep than I did.

When I was home and trying to work, he would constantly interrupt me – and then berate me if I displayed irritation. I explained that my research involves getting into a particular ‘zone’ and working there. I need to engage my brain in order to make sense of what I’m reading, to make connections across literatures, disciplines, my own research, and my own lived experience. Then, I need to figure out how to make sense of all of those resources, and write that down in a comprehensive manner. He had no understanding of this –
‘That’s just too far beyond what I’ve studied,’ he told me. ‘I’ve never done anything like that.’
As if, because he hadn’t done it, it wasn’t valid. I was less and less able to do what I needed to do with him around.

On a few occasions, I stated that I had a particular, specific piece of work to do and needed a specific period of time in which to get it done. After agreeing that I would have the time – uninterrupted – to do what I needed to do, he broke that agreement every single time. He was doing something to keep himself out of my hair – but would suddenly need my help. Even if I explained that I was busy, he would assert that what he was doing was for my benefit (or for our benefit), and I needed to muck in.
‘It’ll only take ten minutes,’ he said to me one time, when he knew I was up against a hard deadline.
Two and a half hours later, the job was finally finished, and I was released from my obligation.

So – I had to go to bed at the same as him, and I wasn’t allowed to read or write in bed. I wasn’t allowed to get up early. I wasn’t allowed to carve out time for myself at all if he was in the same physical space as I was. If we were in the same building, he demanded every drop of my time, my energy, and my attention. I literally couldn’t expect to go to the bathroom on my own. Expectations of such privacy were called out by him as indicative of my inability or unwillingness to ‘share myself’ and ‘to be intimate’. I shouldn’t, he told me, ‘be so shy as to want to hide anything from him’. (This was also why he used to seek out my old journals, correspondence, and even notes from my kids to read and pass judgement on – in spite of my repeatedly telling him that unless something was addressed to him, or given to him, he was not allowed to read it.)

To deny any part of myself that he wanted would, he told me, be ‘just selfish’. And we all know that women are trained – from birth – not to be selfish. We are trained to be selfless, giving, accommodating, generous, self-sacrificing. It is expected of us. I should have remembered that. I should have remembered that the first time I felt uncomfortable. But, here’s the thing, I couldn’t quite articulate why I felt uncomfortable. What I’ve realised since, however, is that that doesn’t matter. Why I felt uncomfortable was not nearly as important as the fact that I did. I didn’t need to qualify, or quantify, my levels of discomfort. As someone once said to me ‘If it feels wrong, it is wrong’.

While I didn’t remember it in my most recent relationship, I will remind myself that ‘I don’t feel comfortable’ is enough. ‘That makes me uncomfortable’ is enough. If someone wants more details it is enough to say ‘I’m not sure. All I know is I don’t like it.’ Anyone who presses for more, can just jog on.

I have been silenced and censored before and, falling prey to the strictures of the societies I have lived in, I have even silenced and censored myself.  On occasion when I knew I couldn’t explain, or articulate what I needed to say, I have said nothing – feeling that unless I could produce hundreds of words arguing my position, or unpacking my feelings, they weren’t valid, and didn’t deserve to have life breathed into them.

What I didn’t quite realise when I was living through it was that this jealous demand for every ounce of me, and this intrusion on my precious time was a form of coercive control. I had come across coercive control before, but it was in conjunction with other types of abuse – so I didn’t recognise it this time. I’ll recognise it for what it is the next time, though! (Even as I fervently hope that there isn’t a next time).

 

Narcissistic Mothers

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Yesterday, I spoke with PJ Coogan, on Cork’s Opinion Line about what it’s like to be the daughter of a narcissistic mother. You can listen back (from 12.00) here.

Being the daughter of a narcissistic mother is hugely damaging; not least because our society tells us that a mother’s love is unconditional, all-encompassing, and never-ending. When your mother is a narcissist, however, you know that to be untrue, but you can’t articulate it because you feel strongly (and, usually, correctly) that you won’t be believed. You will be treated as though there is something wrong with you because your mother doesn’t love you – but the truth is that there’s nothing wrong with you but plenty wrong with her.

If any of this resonates with you, please feel free to get in touch.

PSA: This Is What A Rapist Looks Like

CONTENT WARNING: CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE, RAPE, INCEST.

Cormac on Tinder Tweet

This is a tweet I sent nearly two years ago. I’d joined Tinder to see what all the fuss was about, to see if I could find someone to you date because I was fed up going to events on my own, or with a friend, or one of my own kids. Not that there’s anything wrong with my friends, or my kids; but sometimes, it’s nice to have a straight, male, companion. It can be fun to have a straight, interesting, intelligent man to share experiences with, to discuss cultural events with, to look forward to seeing – to flirt with.  Anyway, there I was swiping left more often than right, and up pops one of my brothers.

Now, of course anyone who wants to be on Tinder can be there – but I got a huge fright that night when my own brother was suggested as a potential match for me. Not least because he is one of the brothers who abused me for years when I was a child and a teenager.

Of course, we all have stories of coming across friends, friends’ spouses / partners, neighbours, colleagues etc. on Tinder. What additionally startled me about seeing my brother pop up, however, was the fact that he a) lives in France and b) claims to be happily married. Of course, he was clearly home to visit his mammy (if you look at the date, you can see it was just before Christmas), and of course, people can separate, divorce, or have open marriages. But knowing that this particular person is a rapist (he sexually abused, and raped me – orally, anally, digitally, and vaginally for years); abusive; manipulative, and has a number of personality disorders, I was concerned for the safety of any woman who might come across him and innocently agree to meet him.

Two years ago, I didn’t have the presence of mind to take screengrabs, but when he popped up on October 1st last, on another site, I did. They’re reproduced below:

Badoo #1 Badoo #2Badoo #4Badoo #3

 

The only good news here is that Cormac claims to live on his own – which means that his wife, Orna, has finally seen sense and left him. If that is the case, it really is a shame she didn’t do so ten years ago, when their children were still young, and she learnt of the abuse her husband had inflicted on me. It’s a shame she didn’t do that before she decided to stand with him during the days of his trial in the High Court. The only other possibility is that he’s lying and trying to cheat on her. Either way, their marital situations are of no interest to me – but protecting other women from a predator is.  Like all abusive men, he is attracted to ‘kind’ women; a phenomenon that Don Hennessy discusses in his book ‘How He Gets Into Her Head’.  It’s also interesting to see that he declares he’s ‘gentle by nature’ – I’m not entirely sure that any rapist can be ‘gentle’. I remember him using torn bits of black sacks as ‘contraceptives’ when I was a pre-teen and young teenager. There was nothing ‘gentle’ about that. I remember his fingernails tearing my vagina, and I can’t say it was ‘gentle’. I remember his penis tearing my anus, and there was certainly nothing ‘gentle’ about that, either.

Maybe we just have different definitions of the word.

In any event, consider this blog post nothing other than a public service announcement – women (and men) please avoid this abusive man at all costs. You’re worth more. You deserve better.

 

 

Safety Device

SAfety Device

(Content Warning: References to Child Sexual Abuse, link to graphic piece on the effects of Child Sexual Abuse)

It’s been an interesting few weeks. As some of you may know, there is a Fear Nua* in my life and I’m enjoying all sorts of things that, for many people are ‘normal’ but for me are beyond any experiences I’ve had to date. It’s all good, though. It’s all good.

I’m not about to gush about him, because he is a far more private person than I am – and I respect that – but also because so much of what’s going on is private and personal to us and to the third entity that is our relationship.

 

I will, however, say this much: I’ve been learning an awful lot from him. One of the biggest lessons I’m learning is my own value, my own right to be, and my own right to be who I am. I’ve also been crying a lot more than usual, but they have been happy, and / or healing tears. Like last week, when I suddenly had a thought that had my eyes leaking; I’d resigned myself, years ago, to the thought that I would die without ever knowing the love of a good man, without ever knowing what it would it be like to be in a relationship with a man that wasn’t abusive. I really believed that I would die without being in a relationship where I was valued for who I am – or that I would ever be with a man who enjoyed being with me, rather than one who merely wanted to possess me, and crush me. Now, I know that’s not true. And, oh! The joy of that. The absolute fascination with being with someone who values my ideas, my opinions, my thoughts, my mere presence is something I know I can’t adequately explain.

 

A few days after we met, he mentioned, in the course of conversation, that he had been researching how to be with a woman who had trauma as a result of child sexual abuse. He wanted to know how best to react, how best to treat me, taking my history into account. Reader, you could have knocked me down with a feather. Never, ever, ever, has a man I’ve been with, or even a man I’ve been married to, shown the slightest bit of interest in finding out how they could make being in a relationship easier for me. I knew, then and there, that he was A Keeper.

Then, yesterday, he presented me with the bracelet you see pictured above. It’s a safety device, and I’ll explain why.  Having already read this piece, he was anxious to work with me to ameliorate the effects any way he could. We were making progress, but then he had an idea. He reminds me that I have chosen him. That I choose him, repeatedly, every day, every hour, every moment that we are together. That I could choose to walk away, but I am choosing to stay because I am choosing him. As he is, likewise, choosing me. He needs me to feel safe. To know that I am safe with him, everywhere, all the time, no matter what. He would prefer if I stayed present when we’re together, because he is no threat to me, and I need to know that, and be able to remember that, and remind myself of that any time I feel I need to.

 

This bracelet serves that purpose: by simply seeing it, I am reminded of him, reminded that I am always safe with him. Touching it has the same effect, and – if I move my wrist slightly – the tags you can see chime gently, providing an aural reminder.  As my friend Jane Mulcahy noted, tweeted to me ‘It’s v lovely & delicate, H. Like affection, intimacy & trust.’  I think she put it perfectly. This piece of jewellery has the added bonus of being beautiful. A bit like himself, really.

 

 

*In Irish, Fear Nua (pronounced Farr Nooa) means ‘New Man’.

 

 

A Surge of Pain

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I’ve written before about language, birth, and women survivors of child sexual abuse. I’ve mentioned how words matter, and certain words are very upsetting for those of us with a history of child sexual abuse.

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of sitting with a pregnant woman and her husband. As a survivor herself of child sexual abuse and multiple rapes in her teens (sadly, revictimisation is a phenomenon that is not uncommon), she’s doing all she can to prepare herself for her impending birth. Part of that preparation included having a chat with me. We spoke about language and how words matter in labour. She used the word ‘surges’ and I had a reaction to it that I didn’t quite understand. Until now.

 

‘Surges’ is a word that is used to describe uterine contractions in labour. It was popularised by Ina May Gaskin and adopted by many in the birth community in the past few decades. It is deemed more ‘positive’ than using ‘contractions’, and sold as a reframing of the pain of labour, and it’s never sat comfortably with me. Here’s why:

As abused women, we had our experiences – our lived, physical, experiences – ‘reframed’ by our abusers. They would touch us and say things like ‘That’s nice, isn’t it?’, ‘You like that, don’t you?’, ‘I would never hurt you,’ etc.  Their words were incongruent with our experiences and that – in and of itself – is damaging and needs work to undo. Telling abused women that calling contractions by another name will make them a more positive experience isn’t helpful. For the vast majority of women, labour hurts. That’s the bald truth of it. The extent to which it hurts, and how we deal with the pain, is individual. Personally, viewing labour pain as ‘pain with a purpose’ helped me. It wasn’t like a migraine (migraines are more painful), where pain doesn’t produce anything except more pain for at least 24 hours.

I think that midwives and doulas working with women who have a history of abuse might want to discuss the merit of using ‘surges’ instead of ‘contractions’ with their clients. Then, the women themselves should use the word that suits them best;that they are most comfortable with.

Labour hurts, and it doesn’t do women who have experienced abuse any good to tell them otherwise. What is helpful is talking about how to get through the pain, how to be present for it, and how the best thing about labour is that it ends. And that it ends with a baby in your arms. The wonderful woman I met with earlier this week also made the point that there is a difference between ‘pain’ and ‘harm’. As abuse survivors, we associate pain in our bodies with (often long-term) harm, yet the pain of contractions is not harmful, and reminding ourselves of that can be hugely helpful in getting through it while still remaining present, grounded, and participative in our own labours.

It Takes A Village (To Abuse A Child)

It takes a village

CONTENT WARNING: Child Sexual Abuse, Incest, Incompetent Agencies, Child Neglect

In much the same way as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse a child, as well. It takes adults in positions of trust and authority to turn a blind eye. It takes people who have concerns not to voice those concerns. It takes family members who have a feeling something is wrong to do nothing about those concerns. It takes professionals who know based on information they are presented with, and privilege to have, to do nothing with this information. It takes people who know the child is not lying to intimidate, and (attempt to) silence that child. Even when that child becomes an adult (as is the case for many adult survivors of child sexual abuse).

For me, my family was the first site of abuse: I was sexually abused by my father, Christy Talbot, and my two elder brothers, Nigel Talbot and Cormac Talbot.  Sexual abuse was a part of my life in the home from the time I was three until I was 19.  I was sexually assaulted (up to, and including oral, anal, digital, and vaginal rape), by one or other – sometimes more than one – of these males up to five days/nights a week when they were living under the same roof as I.

With apologies to Tolstoy, each dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way, but a  hallmark of all dysfunctional families is that it is static. A static family dynamic means that in order to ‘protect’ and preserve the family norms, each member must resume the role assigned to them when the family is together.  To people who were not raised in toxic, dangerously dysfunctional, abusive families, this may seem bizarre, but collusion is very important to the family members who so collude because it means:

  • They don’t have to confront their own part in the abuse – for example, my mother does not have to deal with the fact that she took, and continues to take, the side of the abusers (my father and brothers) over the side of the abused (me)
  • No confrontation of their own possible abuse – I was not the only one in the family who was sexually abused, although my abuse was the most severe. If they refuse to admit that I was abused, then my abused siblings don’t have to deal with the fact that they were, too. Their ideas of who they are remains unchallenged because they are not confronting all of their own realities and histories
  • They don’t need to seek help for their own psychological disorders / mental health difficulties. By continuing to deny that they were were abused, that they abused, and / or that they facilitated abuse means my siblings and extended family members do not have to work on their own healing. This is hard, ugly, work and not everyone is able to – or wants to – commit to it. 
  • Their childish view of people as binary – ‘good’ or ‘bad’ remains unconfronted – casting people as either heroes or villains, rather than looking at their complexities, allows my family to cast themselves as ‘heroes’ and me as a ‘villain’. They think that, because there are so many of them, and only one of me, they must be right, and I must be wrong. But – remember Galileo?!
  • Appearances are kept up – for narcissists (like my mother), this is hugely important. When all that matters is what other people think, cruelty to your own children is an acceptable trade-off to keep up appearances. Their health and well-being can easily be sacrificed on the altar of public opinion, if the opinion will view you favourably.

Collusion within the family was aided by collusion on the part of clergy, medics, social workers, and the psychiatrist I was sent to in St Louise’s Unit in Our Lady’s Hospital in Crumlin. As you can see from this document there were a whole slew of people having meetings about me – but none of them (save Imelda Ryan) ever actually met me. Highlights from this ‘Case Conference Report’ make the following observations: 

  • This is a very disturbed Family who need (sic) help – That help was never provided.
  • They are all under enormous strain, and playing very dangerous games – This is not elaborated on, and there is no indication what the ‘dangerous games’ were, or why the vulnerable children (of which I was one) were removed. 
  • The Gardaí will have to be involved – to try to maintain a control over the family – the Gardaí were never involved until I went to them as an adult. 
  • Joint interview to be arranged – Rosemary being present to obtain an objective sense of the situation – Rosemary was, apparently my social worker. I never met her. 

 

Mind you,  according to her LinkedIn profile, Rosemary is still in practice. Maybe I should contact her and ask her if she’s actually learnt how to do her job in the intervening years.  

 

Imelda Ryan – who is so incompetent and ignorant with regard to the effects of child sexual abuse, and how it presents that she is a real danger to children – was appointed to TUSLA’s National Review Panel. (I’ll have more to say about her and it at a later stage.) 

 

Given that child sexual abuse is endemic in Irish society, those of us who value children and want what’s best for them need to step up and speak out. Every child is the responsibility of every adult. Children are not (just) our future. They are our present – they are their own future. We, as adults, need to treat them as the precious beings they are and be the village they need to support them, to nourish them, to ensure that they are provided with what they need to thrive and reach their potential. Ignoring their pain, colluding to keep them in sites of abuse is a far cry from being that village.