Cycles of Abuse as family norms
Cycles of abuse is something we need to confront, Sophie thought as she returned to the dining table where Bea was ready to discuss more of Alida’s story.
‘Tante Emmanuelle told me how Opa’s other woman was always around him. Even Alida and Opa’s children had to call her “Tante”, and then, after their mother was taken away to the institution, they had to call her “Mother!”’ Sophie took a long sip of tea to swallow the rising rage in her voice. ‘No wonder Alida had a nervous breakdown.’ She took a deep breath before continuing, ‘Just imagine having her husband’s mistress in her house while she was made to work like a slave!’ Close to tears she continued slowly. ‘That would have made any woman depressed or worse, don’t you think?’
‘It says a lot about what your Opa was like, doesn’t it?’ Bea’s jaw tightened, eyes focused on the distant hill.
‘Yes. It’s very hard to imagine how down-trodden, submissive, fearful, and desperate to please the man that a woman can become – until we until we experience it ourselves,’ Sophie murmured. ‘The way that Mum used to belt us has left me with the impression that as children she and her siblings didn’t escape beatings from their father. I vaguely recall Tante Emmanuelle describing how she was abused by her dad.’
‘Oh yes. Emmanuelle had great courage and was always defying her father, so she would have been punished severely for daring to challenge him, just like her older brother. And I can tell you that she was far fiercer than my husband.’
‘So Opa abused his children a great deal, and of course applied the most unbelievable abuse to Alida, by institutionalising her and taking her completely away out of family life. As far as I’m concerned, he may as well have committed murder. It would have been a living hell for Alida to be imprisoned, deprived of her children for most of her life in a place like that.’ Sophie was by now shaking with rage. ‘How dare anybody think they could commit such a crime on a woman who slaved her guts out caring for her children and working to earn money to house and feed the whole family, including her abusive husband?’ Sophie gazed out the window at Bea’s peaceful flower garden before whispering, ‘I do have a bit of an idea of how Alida must have felt, and am thankful that my life hasn’t ended up like hers.’
‘It is hard to imagine you reduced to such dismal feelings, but then again I haven’t had to live with men who are like this.’ Bea’s voice was gentle and empathetic. ‘Alida’s son, Nico, my husband, could be difficult sometimes because of his depression as a result of so much humiliation from his father.’ Bea frowned. ‘But Alida never expressed her feelings. She just briefly told the facts.’ Her face darkened. ‘Opa used to beat my husband when he was a boy, and it scares me to think that he might also have beaten Alida.’ Bea gazed out the window and Sophie followed suit, both reconnecting themselves to the present task.
‘So what happened to Alida’s children when Opa put her into the institution?’
‘All Alida’s younger children apparently went into institutional care, where the two eldest had been placed some time earlier.’
‘Why were the older ones sent away earlier?’
‘‘Your uncle was only aged twelve when his mother was put into the institution, so he wouldn’t have known where she had gone. Anyway, from my experiences with your opa, I don’t think he would have explained it.’
‘Yes, we were brought up to believe that children should not be heard, especially in Opa’s presence.’
‘I suspect that your opa didn’t want the older children around because they could think, remember or question, but maybe he just couldn’t afford to feed them. In the 1930s everything was scarce – that’s why Hitler’s ideas became popular.’
Sophie’s face reddened. ‘You know, when I first came to Holland to find the family, Alida, my real dear Oma, had died only four years earlier. I was so angry with that other woman living with Opa and emigrating to Australia with some of the adult children. By deceiving us for all that time, we missed seeing our real Oma.’
‘At the risk of making you even more angry, I have to tell you that your Opa took pride in never paying a cent toward Alida’s care in that institution. He also boasted about receiving full welfare money to feed the children when he was able to take them back home again.’
‘That fits with what we grandchildren saw of him as we grew up. I never saw that woman ever lift a finger in all my young life, growing up with her and Opa living on our property most of the time. He only ever owned a milk delivery business where somebody else did all the work, sometimes even our poor Dad. Opa could certainly talk the talk and persuade people.’ Sophie’s body tensed. ‘It’s amazing how history repeats itself, even when we don’t even know our ancestors.’ Her face reddened with rage. ‘My horrible ex, Rex, whom I tried so hard to please, used to treat me like Cinderella when his children came for the day. They behaved as though I didn’t exist, despite some really deep support that I’d given them over the years.’ Sophie shook her head. ‘It still seems unbelievable, even though I’ve now been free from him for eight years, although half that time was even worse, as I was homeless while fighting in the courts for my own house capital.’
Bea waited for Sophie to pause. ‘Do you think that you were attracted to him because he seemed familiar?’
Sophie’s face relaxed. ‘Thankfully, somebody introduced me to Imago Relationship Therapy, and, through having a lot of counselling with various therapists, I learned that that was exactly what made me keep trying to make our relationship work. The familiar patterns that I copied were those of my own parents, mainly Dad’s, who worked so hard to please Mum. She was never happy.’ Sophie looked at Bea. ‘As the years passed, Mum became more and more like Opa, by being very critical and putting Dad down constantly, even in front of others – it was so embarrassing.’
‘Your dad was a very nice, kind man.’
‘Yes, and I saw him work harder and harder to try to please Mum.’ Sophie put her hands up. ‘Then I found myself doing exactly the same with my man.’
‘And you said that Rex turned his children against you?’
‘Yes.’ Sophie’s voice was terse. ‘I called him “little Aggie” because he behaved like Mum when she got angry.’
‘Ah, I see.’ Bea nodded her head slowly, ‘Was your mother violent?’
‘Mum would come into my room with a whip or stick, even when I was at least fifteen years old. Occasionally I managed to negotiate my way out of an unfair belting, but I still have images of retreating to the corner of the room, trying to hide, taking it meekly.
‘Verschrickerlijk! Didn’t you fight back then? You would’ve been much the same size.’
‘I wouldn’t dare fight back – there would then be more punishment from an armed and irrational angry person. Oh God, she was only the first one. I could feel the same extreme rage emanating from her as from the escaped prisoner who assaulted me at gunpoint, and then there was my ex. With all of them I made myself as invisible as possible, or begged for the violence to stop.’
‘That’s terrible! Such extreme behaviour from any of them would make even you feel afraid. I do admire your ability to still be positive about life after all you’ve been through.’
‘All I wanted was normal, kind eye contact, let alone a positive word or sentence.’ Sophie looked into Bea’s eyes. ‘Now you understand why I travel across the world to spend time with you, who gives me all those things and more.’
‘I’m no angel … but I can see you don’t fear me. That I’m happy about.’
‘Mum never apologised for calling me evil when she phoned especially to tell me to remove the Violence Restraining Order against Rex. In later years when I asked her to apologise, she clearly stated she would not do so. Just like Rex. He’d never apologise, even when I would explain how hurtful something he said to me was. He’d increase the insults or walk off and do his silence treatment for days.’
‘Some people see it as an invitation to make you feel worse. They see it as a weakness to be so vulnerable.’
Sophie looked down at the tablecloth. ‘The similarity was the unpredictable, out-of-proportion rage to what they perceived was a wrong-doing. It was always non-negotiable, no matter how much I cried or explained. I was often on tenterhooks until I saw Mum and could assess her mood, but Rex was worse. He would react in an unpredictable manner in the middle of a normal interaction.’
‘What did the counsellors advise you to do?’
‘When I finally admitted to the amount of abuse being done to me, they encouraged me to leave him.’
‘Did he hit you?’
Sophie nodded and looked down.
‘I had the impression, when I visited Australia; you had to do a lot of work like Alida. I saw you with your Dad’s tractor.’
Sophie’s face lit up as she looked at Bea again. ‘You took a photo, which I finally got to present to the court after the property settlement trial was finished to show I would win an appeal as it and a few videos were evidence of the extraordinary amount of physical labour I contributed to our house-building.’ She scowled. ‘Of course, Rex had two lawyers and made sure I didn’t get to present my evidence at the trial. He had also paid a lawyer to throw out my case in the violence hearing at the Criminal Court, eighteen months previous. So domestic violence was ignored in the property settlement trial, but for me it was continuing right there in the court.’
‘Alida would have been happy for you to win. What did Rex do while you worked so hard in the yard?’
‘Watched TV, football, all weekend.’ Sophie scowled. ‘And he expected me to cook as well.’
‘So similar to Alida’s story.’ Bea placed her finger on her upper lip and again stared at the distant hill.
If you need help to escape family abuse, phone a local 24 hour helpline. If you’d like to just explore your options in counselling, ph 0417 997 016 or email