Writer and poet Paula Harris reflects on a childhood friend’s experience with abuse – and how her own upbringing affected how she viewed that abuse.
Content warning: this essay discusses the physical and emotional abuse of children.
Her name was Allie. Well, no, actually, it wasn’t. Despite never having changed a name for anyone in my writing before, this time I am. Because she needs to be protected. So I’m calling her Allie, having tried calling her a dozen other names. Allie.
I’ll tell you right now that I don’t know what happened to Allie. She slipped off my radar sometime during our second year of high school. She wasn’t in any of my classes anymore and I was distracted by having a boyfriend and trying to find new friends after my best friend moved away. I don’t remember anything dramatic, just that at some point Allie wasn’t around anymore.
We were in the same group class together for our first year of high school. Which meant that for all of our compulsory subjects, we were in the same classroom. For an entire year, there we were, a peripheral part of each other’s daily lives.
Allie wasn’t the kind of girl you messed with. She tended to scowl a lot and kept to herself the vast majority of the time, although I remember times when she would say something and laugh and she had a damn glorious smile. She had short hair and wore her winter jersey all year round and was a natural at sports and would routinely be the fastest/longest/highest during PE. I never remember seeing her get in a fight, but there were rumours. She spent a chunk of time in detention. She didn’t seem to hang out with anyone during lunch time. I can still picture her sitting in the back corner during science.
As a bunch of 13-year-olds, our class knew that Allie was getting beaten up at home. She never said anything. We didn’t talked about it amongst ourselves. No one ever said anything. But we knew. We knew why she kept her winter jersey on all year round. She’d try to keep it on during PE, but sometimes the teachers would get exasperated and force her to take it off. Maybe that’s how we first knew. Underneath, mid-bicep, visible with her only in a short sleeved shirt, there was a bruised ring around her arm. Even a bunch of hormone-high 13-year-olds know how that kind of bruise gets there. We all looked away.
Sometimes there were rings on both arms. Sometimes there was a black eye. Sometimes her leg would be mottled with a bruise. We saw them. We saw them all. We’d flinch for her when the PE teachers would insist she take off her winter jersey. The popular girls would sit on the wooden benches down one side of the hall, sitting there in their uniforms, not doing PE because today they had their period again, for the eleventh time this month, giggling and gossiping. Allie would keep her jersey on and go to detention, or take her jersey off and harden a bit more towards all of us and then be the fastest/longest/highest again.
There came a point where all of us knew that our teachers knew. I don’t remember any particular detail or day. No, wait, I do. Allie was called in to talk with our school counsellor and rumour was that she told him about the abuse. I remember that Allie was away from school for week or so afterwards. I remember that one of our classmates overheard the counsellor telling another teacher that Allie was being beaten. I remember our sense of betrayal at him that he would tell on her, when he always promised us confidentiality (we all avoided him; even as 13-year-olds we never believed him after that). I remember Allie coming back to school and being furious to find out that he’d told other teachers. I remember her throwing chairs around a classroom.
And I remember nothing else happening. Our class of 13-year-olds knew that all of our teachers knew about Allie, and we waited for someone to do something about it. And no one did. We were thirteen and didn’t know what to do. If the teachers weren’t doing anything, what could we do?
We were protective of her. Even before the school counsellor made things worse. Allie wasn’t stupid, but she wasn’t big on participating and she often fell asleep during class. There was no discussion among us – as a group, overall we didn’t really get along and just tolerated having to spend our days together – but if a teacher was calling on Allie for an answer, calling her name over and over again, someone else would shout it out. Or we’d slip Allie a look at our own book or whisper her the answer. If a teacher turned and caught a glimpse of a dozing Allie from the corner of their eye, one of the class clowns would do something stupid and distracting, while someone else nudged Allie.
We were 13 and we didn’t know what to do, so we protected her the best we could. We probably didn’t do a good job. But we were 13.
Allie was probably the stereotype of child abuse, in a lot of ways. She was from a poor family. She was Māori. I don’t remember ever seeing her mother, but I do remember once her father coming to school and he was a big, intimidating man. I don’t know if Allie’s father kept things to just the physical abuse, or if he told her that she was shit. I’ve always assumed it was her father, but I don’t know for sure.
I came from a lower-middle class family, an only child at that. We weren’t rich but we did okay. My mother worked, back in a time when mothers usually didn’t work. My father worked in management-type roles, as well as working on radio. Both my parents had grown up poor. We lived in a house that wasn’t super flash, but it was nice enough. It had white carpet, because my mother loved the idea of white carpet. We went on holiday to Australia once a year.
My mother was careful not to leave bruises. Words were her specialty, but she’d still lash out physically whenever she felt the need. She’s either hit with care – a thoughtfully shaped hand, a well-chosen spot – or she twist my body. My arms were a particular favourite; she would twist an arm behind me, twisting it around and around until I was waiting to hear the bone snap. The bones never did snap, but they were pushed to their limits. If I forgot to bring in the washing or didn’t do well on an assignment or left the hose running on the garden… those would all get me a hiding.
The words were harder, and for a wider variety of failings. My mother had two particular preferred hits: reminding me that she should’ve had an abortion and I was her biggest regret, and her favourite refrain, “You’re ugly and unlovable and no one will ever want you.” I don’t remember a time when she didn’t tell me either of those things. When you’re told that over and over again, let me reassure you, it’ll fuck you up.
My father stuck with my teachers’ philosophy and never did anything. I don’t know if he ever fully realised the extent of the verbal abuse, but on at least one occasion he stood there while my mother tried to break my arm (I clearly remember that the trigger for that one was that I had failed to bring in the washing after school). He just stood there, saying “Now now, don’t do that.” He never tried to stop her. He never pulled her off me.
For years I waved it aside. At most I’d say I’d had “a clichéd childhood with a shitty home” because, compared to Allie, it felt like a nothing. Because I could see Allie’s bruises, but I couldn’t see my own – literal and figurative – so mine seemed like nothing. Or I’d say there was physical and verbal abuse, but, y’know, nothing that bad. Sure, it fucked me up, I could see that, but it wasn’t that bad.
For the last year I’ve been seeing The Lovely Harry. He’s my hospital psychologist. He has, by his own admission, spent his career seeing far too many patients who’ve been through child abuse in a variety of forms. During one session I confessed to him that I had always wondered if I’d made things worse, because I’ve never been one to take shit lying down, so I always fought back against my mother. Which meant the arm twisting got a bit more full-on. More prolonged. More painful. But she always taught me to give as good as I got. So maybe in some way she respected the fact that I fought back? Did I make things easier for myself or worse? Could I have saved myself if I’d just taken it?
Harry listened to all of this quietly, and when I finished talking, sat quietly while I twisted into myself. After a few moments he said, in his softly-spoken Irish accented way:
“I think you’re overlooking a simple fact here, Paula. This was child abuse. This was wrong. Your mother was doing something illegal and heinous.”
And then he went quiet again. And I sat there realising, for the first time properly realising, that this wasn’t my fault. Nothing I had done or not done would’ve changed anything.
Just like Allie. Just like our 13-year-old selves all recognised the innate need to protect someone we knew was wounded, even if we didn’t know how.
I’m sorry, Allie. I’m sorry that we were a bunch of 13-year-olds who didn’t know how to save you. We did our best. I hope someone at some point protected you better.
What to do if you suspect a child or vulnerable adult in another household is being neglected or abused
If you think someone is in immediate danger, call the police.
Concern about child abuse or neglect
If you have concerns about the safety of a child, you can call Oranga Tamariki (Ministry for Children) on 0508 326 459 for advice. The family won’t be told who contacted Oranga Tamariki.
Read more about what you can do if you suspect child abuse at childmatters.org.nz
Concerns about domestic violence:
Shine has a Domestic Abuse Helpline (0508 744 633).
The Campaign for Action against Family Violence (It’s Not OK!) has a help line (0800 456 450).