Controlling behaviour is central to family and child abuse
Controlling behaviour is overwhelming, Sophie thought as she struggled to open her eyes. She wished she could rouse her leaden body to defend herself against the flashback she’d experienced, of her opa briefly clamping his thumb and first two fingers on the back of her neck. Her grandfather would do this on many occasions when he’d pass behind a chair where she sat. Every time she’d cringe but would never say anything. It hurt slightly, and Sophie used to think it was weird if it was supposed to demonstrate affection. She didn’t recall any other voluntary attention from him.
The controlling behaviour that Opa’s sister had described in her letter flashed through Sophie’s mind. She could see it happening like a movie in her head, with her mum standing meekly as Opa demanded to know everything about Sophie’s parent’s financial arrangements. Sophie felt unsure that she’d interpreted what had been said correctly, as Opa always spoke Dutch to his wife and daughters so the children wouldn’t understand. Somehow, Sophie’s dad had been made to buy a milk delivery round like Opa did. Then he’d ended up working for Opa after his day job; till he fell and a glass bottle severed the tendons of one of his hands. Now Sophie wondered if both the night-time milk delivery businesses had actually been bought with her dad’s money from the proceeds of the sale of his farm.
Huh! Sophie heaved herself up from the mattress on the floor as she linked that proposition to her former knowledge that Opa had persuaded her parents to sell the farm, on the premise that their daughters needed to attend a Catholic Primary School. The distance from the farm to the next town and the school was too great, and the farm struggled to provide any income because of a period of poor market prices for the fruit, sheep’s wool and fat lambs produced there. Her father had already been driving his tractor around the district, cutting and baling other people’s hay after his brother had sold his poultry meat business. Sophie winced as a picture came to mind, where chickens were taken out of boiling water and put into a cylinder with holes which somehow removed their feathers. The noise had frightened her as she searched for her dad in the room with the machine. He ran the chicken-processing business when his brother became ill with a type of leukemia.
Oh my God! Opa had probably forced Mum and Dad to lend him the money to buy the milk delivery business. Sophie had often wondered how her opa earned any money, because she’d never seen him work. And he probably took all the money that Oma Alida earned from cleaning the shops below their Amsterdam apartment.
The aroma of strong percolated coffee filled Sophie’s lungs as she opened the door to the lounge room where her aunt Bea greeted her. ‘Hallo. How did you sleep?’
‘Not good, I had nightmares about the controlling behaviour of my ex-partner. Then, after I woke up, a flood of memories about Opa’s power over my parent’s lives…’ Sophie raked her hair with her hands.
‘Oh, I’m sorry to have upset you with that letter from his sister.’ Bea turned off the TV and walked toward Sophie.
‘No, it’s okay. The letter’s made a lot of sense about many strange happenings in our lives. When I heard somebody else relating Opa’s controlling behaviour in their life, in a different time and place, I now know that my memories are not just imaginary. It’s real. And it takes no imagination to know what life must have been like for Alida.’
Bea nodded and Sophie burst into tears.
‘But you had such a nice day yesterday… I don’t understand why now…’ Bea pushed her fringe off her eyes.
Sophie grimaced. ‘That’s what trauma does. It sneaks out when you relax. That’s why it mostly comes out in nightmares.’
‘Now I understand. You had fun, relaxing, exploring and enjoying the company of lovely people. So did that make you sleep more deeply?’ Bea perched on the arm of her chair.
‘Yes. Exactly. The unconscious gets to work pulling out all the jigsaw pieces that look like the new shocking bits and tries to make it all fit together. So this morning it all flowed out into my conscious mind, like a tornado picking up loose ends. Lots of things coming together to make sense.’
‘You must be exhausted.’
Sophie drew a deep breath. ‘Yes. I can now see how I ended up living with my ex-partner, who also had so much controlling behaviour – this was too normal for me. What my former partner did to me felt familiar from having grown up with Opa living on our property. Particularly when it came to money. After I revealed to my partner that I’d run out of money for our house-building and needed to start drawing down on the mortgage, he tried to strangle me.’
‘Awful. How was that normal for you?’
‘Oh, that’s another story!’
Bea nodded. ‘I think you have enough on your plate coming to terms with what you have learned from this letter.’
‘Yes, and I’d rather focus on the less spectacular, but pervasive effect of the type of controlling behaviour that Opa displayed. People and the Criminal Courts don’t understand the effects of living with somebody who suddenly gets angry for apparently no reason, other than they disagree with what you’ve said or done.’
Bea rubbed her chin. ‘That must be why we discuss it often and so easily. We understand what it was like to deal with your opa; although I didn’t live under his power like you and his children did. But the way your opa and his mistress often changed things, such as whether or not they would attend my wedding, made my family question my decision to proceed with the marriage to his son. The decision began to cause many problems in my family which we’d never previously had. Your opa also said terrible things about me that weren’t true to his friends and children. Over time my husband slowly told me about little bits about his growing up years, and I saw how he’d deteriorated psychologically. It’s hard to describe. That’s for sure.’
‘Mmm… and you only have to say a little bit for me to understand, because when he left Holland…’
Alida’s children escape from Opa’s controlling behaviour
‘We were free of his games!’ Bea sang and threw her hands up in the air, ‘Hooray! It’s true. We celebrated.’
A wry grin flashed over Sophie’s face. ‘I can well imagine. But then Mum and her sisters continued to be controlled by Opa. Then Dad and us children…’
‘Ah yes, but not everyone to the same degree. Two of your aunts left fairly soon after arriving in Perth to work in the Dutch Men’s Hostel there which your opa managed.’
‘I wonder if that’s when Tante Ans joined the convent. She was certainly in a habit in some of my toddler photos.’
Bea nodded vigorously. ‘She worked with the aboriginal people, far away in the north of Australia. Tante Marie married a Dutchman who visited Australia and they went to live in New Zealand.’
‘And Alida’s eldest daughter became a nurse and managed to live at a Perth hospital’s nurses’ quarters, then she went overseas. She settled in Switzerland for many years.’ Sophie perched on the arm of the couch.
‘But then your opa convinced her to return to Perth to help care for him and his wife. She stupidly went!’
‘The fear and obedience she had in relation to him was incredible. Mum once confided to me as a teenager about her conversation with Tante Therese outside in the garden that morning. Mum said Therese was terrified that Opa would hear or see them. It would have been physically impossible because Mum said that they were way down a steep hill, and us three girls were in the house playing loudly as we did – so Opa’s wife had her hands full. At the time, Opa was deaf and mostly just sat enjoying the entertainment. Mum couldn’t believe how fearful her sister was. She described Therese’s fear that he’d find out things she said or did in the community. as if he was psychic!’
‘Incredible!’ Bea reached for her tiny brown coffee cup.
‘Yes. But when I travelled to Holland aged twenty-four, Mum was terrified that he’d find this out. I didn’t understand then how on earth he could find that out with me on the other side of the world! When I phoned her from Amsterdam, I had to explain that my enquiring at the Births Registry Office wouldn’t cause the young woman there to phone Opa in Australia to tell on me! The registry woman was, of course, much more interested in helping me find my aunts and uncle. Mum then understood how people usually did connected up with family. Not playing Opa’s games.’
Bea smiled. ‘And thanks to you for having the courage to defy your Opa; you came, and your mother starting writing to us all again.’
‘Huh! But when I returned to Australia, I found myself too scared of Opa to return to Perth for over a month.’
Bea’s jaw dropped. her mouth remaining open. She was silent.
Sophie continued, ‘Then your husband died. I’d always thought that was what motivated Mum and Dad’s trip to meet you all. Opa died a couple of years later, and when Dad retired he asked Mum to take him to meet her remaining family and see where she grew up. At last Mum, freed from Opa’s control, could entertain the idea. But she was so apprehensive that she asked me to go with her.’ Sophie choked with tears.
‘Yes, Opa’s children suffered greatly.’
Sophie’s sobbing became uncontrollable.
Bea stood and put her arm over Sophie’s shoulders. ‘I can now see how much you and your sisters suffered as well.’
Sophie wiped her eyes and blew her nose. ‘I’m so glad I started writing Mum’s eulogy last year before I came for a holiday with you. Then I began writing Alida’s story with what you could tell me. By the time Mum died this year, I’d put a lot of thought into the eulogy and felt prepared for her death. It clearly explained Mum’s difficult life as a child, and being under her father’s control until he died when my parents were in their sixties. So people understood why Mum was also difficult. But at least I honoured how resilient she’d been, despite all her suffering. I didn’t expect it to hit me so strongly now.’
‘Well I’m not surprised. You saw how strongly I sang about being free of him when he left Holland. But I only had to put up with him for a few years, and even then didn’t spend much time in his presence.’
‘The strength of that surprised me a bit too.’
‘I could imagine how your Opa was with Alida – if she’d dared to speak up. But I didn’t see any strength in her like you have. She lived in an era when women rarely spoke up or challenged anybody. I was and am an exception in my generation.’ Bea stared out the window.
Both were silent.