Getty Images
Getty Images

OPINIONSocietyAugust 22, 2020

My childhood was branded by shame. I’ll no longer let it define me

Getty Images
Getty Images

If we want to address family violence in Aotearoa, we need to change the way we act and think about shame, writes Leilani Tamu.

The following includes discussion of child abuse and trauma.

When I was six years old, my mother’s boyfriend  told me to eat on the floor with his dog, a German shepherd, because I was too messy and clumsy to eat at the dinner table. My hands used to shake. His dog was fierce and I was scared of it but I remember being more afraid of what would happen if I didn’t do as I was told.

When I think about this time in my life, I see the trembling hands of a child. In those hands I see the energy of terror that brings back memories of ear flicks, smacks, slammed doors and pots, shouting and shoving. But more than anything, what I recall most is the feeling of never being able to do anything right, no matter how hard I tried. I felt useless.

As much as I would like to extricate myself from its presence, the rot of family violence is part of my story, the making of myself. This is a chapter in my life I would prefer to forget, to permanently staple closed in order to mute the white hot anger of a man conditioned to believe in tough love, obedience and discipline. A man who believed that effective parenting meant to teach and control through the use of fear as a tactic to bring about compliance in my sister and me.

I often think of this man when I am in the kitchen at home, looking for a serving spoon. On those days I avoid using the long-handled wooden ones, because they bring back too many memories of his weapon of choice. He didn’t use it often, but the terror of living under the constant threat of its existence was enough to have me bedwetting until the age of 10.

Shame, what shame I feel to admit that.

To publicly speak about a source of humiliation that I have kept secret and tried to forget for well over 20 years. A manifestation of the impact of the terror he inflicted on me.

Yet I know it is necessary. I know I need to look it in the eye. Not for me but for every other victim of family violence who feels shame as a result of what was done to them. Because shame sits at the heart of it all. It is isolating and demeaning, self-replicating and self-justifying, and it gives perpetrators of family violence power they don’t deserve long after the damage they have done has been inflicted.

Shame researcher Brené Brown defines it as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection”.

I wish I had this understanding of the nature of the shame I carried as a result of his actions a long time ago. It’s only now in my late 30s that I’m finally able to understand the consequences of what occurred and what I need to do to heal. I also now understand that shame has a role to play on either side of the scales of justice, and that if we want to change the conditions where family violence thrives in New Zealand, it’s all of our responsibility to keep it in check in our households and communities.

This means that we need to start talking about how shame enables toxic masculine stereotypes – “don’t cry” and “harden up” – which affect how our men and our boys, in particular, feel about themselves and how they treat others. We need to talk about how when our husbands, uncles and brothers are fundamentally “good men”, there are those of us who choose to avert our eyes when we see them issue the odd ear flick to the little one because they were being “uppity” or “mouthy” or “getting out of hand” and needed to be brought into line. How shouting and yelling at our children because they frustrate and annoy us – and not doing anything to check ourselves and reset how we respond in the future – can have lifelong consequences for how they feel about themselves, manage their anger, and relate to others.

In an article about the prevalence of family violence in Aotearoa last year, acting police superintendent Bronwyn Marshall described it as New Zealand’s “dirty little secret”. But shame loves secrets – it needs secrets to survive, which in turn is what keeps people from seeking help and talking about what’s going on. Framing it as a secret also reinforces minimisation of harmful behaviour, on the basis that it isn’t that bad.

In my case, the narrative was to keep moving forward because my mum’s boyfriend eventually left us and overall was not a “bad man” (actual bad men did worse things). While it allowed us as a family to move forward, that belief reinforced my own sense of shame for being weak. I think this is something that’s strongly tied to our national culture and identity – we’re meant to be survivors, to be strong, to be silent, to keep going and fighting, despite our trauma, not talk about it. For children especially, this can lead them to invalidate their own emotions – a convenient nest for shame.

Turning one last time to that stapled chapter in my life, I remember the man threatening to leave. And I remember begging him not to, trying to convince him not to go. I recall being so nervous that he would leave us that I bit my nails down to the cuticles until they bled because the pain helped to distract me from the fear he would.

Little did I know that leaving us was his one redeeming act. I’m grateful he did.

Where to get help

Are You OK (family violence help and support) or call 0800 456 450

Kidsline 24/7 support line for kids. Call 0800 54 37 54

Keep going!