As a kid my childhood is cleaved in two. BD and AD. That’s before the death and after the death of my father. I was six when he drove his powder-blue Valiant into the oncoming car of what I was to later discover was a school friend’s grandfather, killing him as well. Of course he was drunk. He didn’t drive any other way.
The police came to our house to deliver the news and I quietly watched it all play out while the adults in my life sobbed and writhed in a spectacular hysteria. It was like watching TV with the sound off. I was small but I understood what being dead was. He wasn’t coming back. Ever.
Good. Better than Christmas. I didn’t cry. I didn’t ever experience grief. Only profound relief. This was the day I had prayed to arrive. And it had. I remember taking my mother’s hand and whispering, “It’s okay, Mummy, at least now we’ll have peace’. She remembers that, too. A kind of chilling thing for a child to say on learning of the death of her father.
Back in 1974 in regional Australia there were no domestic-violence services. There were no refuges. No counselling lines. There were no safety strategies. No-one ever turned up to see if you were okay. I was a child who wasn’t afraid of monsters. Nothing was more terrifying than the monster I lived with.
My dad was a classic Jekyll and Hyde alcoholic. When sober he was warm and affectionate and funny. When drunk he was cruel and violent. He was a binge drinker. He’d drink past being wobbly or embarrassing; he’d drink for days headlong into full-scale blackout. It was a madness. He wasn’t slurring or stumbling. He was demonic.
You wouldn’t have known he was drunk. He was a tower of rage seeking to torment my poor mother. To humiliate her. To degrade her. One night he smashed all her things on the floor. He held up each piece of crockery and would ask ‘who gave you this?’ And she’d say ‘my father’. She loved her father and he’d just died so then my dad would smash the plate on the floor.
Then he held up the next piece and repeated the question, ‘Who gave you this?’ until the entire dinner set was in pieces on the floor. He tipped sugar on top. Then milk. Then flour. She was up cleaning the mess for hours. Another night he threw her clothes outside and locked her out of the house. That night we slept in the bush behind our house. There was nowhere to go.
No-one wanted to get involved. We had neighbours just 20 metres away on both sides, the police station was maybe 100 metres away, but no-one ever came to see if we were okay. We had no phone. It didn’t matter because there wasn’t anyone to call. She had her collarbone broken. She had black eyes. He pushed her. He threatened to kill her.
Home was hell. I can’t even explain what it feels like to not feel safe where you live. To be terrified of your own front door. As a small child I lived with a heavy sense of dread. Every day. It was no wonder I ended up with OCD. I was the child at preschool who never wanted to be picked up.
I remember thinking that everyone lived like this. I thought every family had a monster who broke doors down with chairs while you were sleeping. Who punched holes in walls. Who came home with cops in hot pursuit screaming for his gun: ‘There’s only one way out of this – I’m going to shoot my way out’.
That day Mum had taken the gun and hidden it. If she hadn’t acted on that impulse I’m certain that day would have ended with his shooting us and then himself. About 12 cops tranquillised him and dragged him out. But it didn’t stop the violence. It continued. It escalated. He was never charged. There were no violence orders. Either we’d die or he would.
Luckily for us it was him. I finally had a chance at a childhood. A lot has changed in the 40-plus years, and thanks to people such as Rosie Batty, domestic violence is no longer seen as a ‘private’ issue. It’s moved to the forefront of the public domain.
Domestic violence is now a political issue. And it should be. These days women have options. With innovative strategies such as Staying Home Leaving Violence, instead of women being removed the violent offender is removed. Police and workers engage in safety meetings to assess risk levels.
There are programs for violent men. There are places to go. There is support. And there is a growing conversation asking bigger questions about domestic violence, and how we, as a community, perpetuate a hypermasculine culture that continues to support it. But even with that, women are still dying. Two a week. We need to get that statistic down to zero.
DV Hotline is the first point of call if you want to know what to do – 1800 656 463 – and for counselling ring 1800 737 732.