He did what he did, and she did what she did, but sometimes Amanda Thompson wonders who she would be if her mother had never met him.
The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand
Original illustrations by Daniel Blackball Alexander
Content warning: This piece includes reference to child abuse
I love fairy tales as a genre, always have. Not so much the milky Disney versions – I was more of a Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen, Arabian Nights type of girl, me. I liked the long ones with a quest, the ones with a pattern, where you know already that the road will be full of pitfalls, and that one of them will be an easily offended fairy disguised as a poor old crone. Each porphyry room filled with bronze coins would be followed by one filled with silver, and then by one of gold. The first-born son was doomed, the dragons could all be tricked, the sword would soon be found, the populace rejoice.
The most delicious thing about fairy tales is the justice in their endings. To be sure, the hero will go through some trials, that’s normal, that’s fair; the soles of your dancing shoes will not actually magically repair themselves for free, there is always a price to pay. But kindness and truth in the face of all the cruelty and mischief of the world will reward you in the end. Just look at Cinderella. The OG poster child for having lost everything, being given nothing, being surrounded by literal ashes and shit, and still coming up roses.
But that’s not how this story goes.
My mother did not like fairy tales and she didn’t much like me liking them either. Of course she was brought up in The Church, the proper one, she would sometimes say sniffily, not one of these modern churches, which is a hilariously weird flex, but OK. Religion sells fairy tales of a very hurtful kind, so I can forgive her for that. But not for anything else she did. I don’t believe in the forgiveness of evil deeds. She does – she once told me that I needed to experience the unforgivable to learn how to forgive, which is the most appalling kind of apology, if nothing else. Who will this forgiveness really help? Not me, only her, and I’m sick to the absolute back teeth of that narrative. My therapist says it’s good to know who you are, and I’m comfortable with knowing that I’m more of a righteous anger kind of woman, me.
Often, all the time, I do this: I torture myself by wondering who I would be if she had never met him. If she had never invited that monster into our house, the man who locked his own son in cupboards and led everything with his fists, tortured her children with perversion. What if she hadn’t kept him? I imagine myself turning out confident, with personal boundaries, with a well-thought-out career, no gap in my identity, my family. It’s nice to imagine that. Probably I walk around all day, just enjoying living without anxiety, never skittish. I probably look forward to public speaking and giving hugs, going to parties and laughing with my head thrown back, freaky shit like that. Touching. I bet I sleep soundly, with no fear of what happens in the night because I know the world is a fundamentally safe place, and I say things to my kids like, “There are more good people in this world than bad!”
It’s a stupid, cruel thing to do to myself, because he did what he did, and she did what she did. It will always be like that. She picked the wrong side, not just then but on every day since. Surprisingly, outrageously, there has been no fair ending. She gave up nothing but me and I gave up everything I ever knew. Me, all the way over here, in exile, never showing my face around her town so she can pretend that it never happened at all, can tell everyone the lie that she is the victim. Her, waking up every morning and going about her day, unblemished by my anger, living her comfortable life, choosing him. Making him tea. Making excuses. She’s not even my wicked stepmother – she plays that part in someone else’s story. I lost all of my collected past, abandoned it to the wolves when I fled, but I hear that they have a big house with three bathrooms and a pool along with all my baby photos. Taxpayers have paid for a lot of therapy for me, the lost girl, while the bad guys loll about in that pool, slippery as smirking seals.
For a while I had a job where I helped other kids like me, kids who had what my do-goody organisation called “challenges at home”. We ran little group sessions that were supposed to “build resilience”, a phrase I grew to hate as I realised it was a nice way of saying that we weren’t going to change any of the crappy things going on for these kids, just teach them to suffer with good cheer. We meant well. The kids didn’t seem to mind coming to my groups, anyway, and I gave them contraband lollies if they turned up. They were the mischief kids, rough kids, the cheeky little shits. Sometimes they would laugh and sing, sometimes they were quiet and sincere, sometimes they would play tricks and steal my stuff. Always they broke my tiny hollow heart. There are a lot of kids out there with “challenges at home”, more than you think, and there are not that many people trying to help them. So many less than you think. Just me and a couple of old churchy ladies, teaching children to be OK with their mums being strangled, with watching drunken fights, getting hidings, dicks shoved in their mouths.
A nine-year-old once told me that they never wanted to see their dad again because of a beating that left them with two broken legs. We were colouring in a little daisy chain made of paper dolls just then, meant to represent the people in your family for a session called some unironic bullshit like “People I love, people I trust”. My young friend kept colouring in, carefully making a paper doll representation of themselves, their mum, their brother, while we talked. Their paper-doll-dad had angry black hair and no eyes. At the end, they took a pair of scissors, and carefully cut the paper-doll-father’s legs off. “Do you know what it says in the bible?” they suddenly asked me, looking up. I shook my head. “The truth, the truth,” they said, still busily hacking at the paper-doll-dad. No way was I stopping them. “The truth shall set ye free.”
My mother believed me when I told her, but she didn’t stop it, she just sent me away and covered it up, which is the truth. Saying it then, like now, has not set me free because it always will have happened, but on the other hand it will mean I am not a prisoner of a secret either. It’s a truth you don’t hear talked about much. Who the hell does that to their daughter? Why? I can help you with the first thing, but your guess is as good as mine on the second. You know there are girls who get told they are making it up, who are told they are attention-seeking sluts and liars. I was ready to be disbelieved and to have to fight my corner at the time. But who is prepared for those they love and trust deciding that, yeah, it’s true, but you know what: I don’t care? That shit will knock the fight right out of you (maybe there’s the why). One of mother’s favourite sayings was “You’ll understand when you have your own children” and the problem is, I do. I do have my own children and I do understand. I understand that I could never, ever even dream of doing what she did.
Sometimes the truth does not actually, literally set you free. Sometimes you give up on the very idea. But sometimes you get resilient, and you learn that shouting loud, firm and persistent in the face of that never-ending whitewash of forgiveness and forgetting the world loves so much means you will exist, that you will stay real and true. An important lesson the abused sometimes learn too late, if at all.
“It could be worse,” my therapist told me once. “At least you’re here.” I asked her where else I would be and she shrugged. “On drugs, on the streets. Dead.”
I had a good, kind detective called Zane who helped me. He was quiet and serious and endlessly patient when it took a long, long time for me to tell him my story. My sister came with me and she cried all the way through it, just cried and cried because she hadn’t heard it all yet. Nobody had. I felt like a piece of shit for doing this to her. Zane plots my litany of sad, bad, frightening scenes into a sort of timeline diagram with a pencil and infinite patience, frowning. Each time I see him, we are in a different dark little room, dirty and wrecked, stains on the chairs. It must be some kind of standard police station decorating scheme. I couldn’t work there. Outside, the police dogs are kept in little kennels next to the building and the noise is horrific. They all bark and bark and whine and howl, throw themselves at the mesh covering their crates, never stopping, never giving up hope someone will come to let them out. Zane loses his cool a couple of times and jumps up to yell out his window at the dogs to shut up! but they don’t. They’re not afraid of him. Good, resilient dogs.
I only ask him one question because that is all I want to know – do other mothers do this? Zane tells me this is the part of his job that keeps him awake at night, all the people who will lie to protect an abuser. He says it happens all the time. They’ll have a big case all lined up and it’s so obvious the poor kid is telling the truth, and the most important witness – he means the mum, of course – will change her story at the last minute. She will forget about her own children, about what is right and what is wrong. She won’t give a shit about justice, or stopping the person who hurt her baby from hurting anyone else, she will get up on the stand and lie and lie and lie, for whatever reason is more important than her kids – for safety, or money, for saving face perhaps. Zane doesn’t know why. Maybe it’s because we are expendable, I think, because you can always just make more kids if the first lot are a disappointment, a pain in the arse. I keep that thought to myself, though. It’s important to me that Zane sees me as strong, like him. He’s my fucking hero. I will be a good witness, for him, for me, for the other kids who are being resilient in the dark too. I’m terrified and sad but I’m not a kid any more. As long as I don’t think about it too much, I’m resilient as all holy hell.
Ten years later I write Zane a letter to tell him it was all worth it, that I want to thank him for helping me be free. I tell him my life is great, so much better, the best, such is my need for him to believe it was all worth it, too. I feel guilty that I added another lying mother to his sad list that keeps him awake at night.
For a long time I didn’t feel safe even all the way across the country from her, or him. I looked for their car, I waited for the jolt of terror when one day they would finally find me. And she would bring him, because she always did. I truly believed one day he would come for me and kill me. Why not? If he could do what he did to me then, what else is he capable of now? I used to have an urge to carry a hammer everywhere I went, a ridiculous conceit I once had that I could smash his head in if he ever tried it again. I could never. I’m not like him.
Not being made safe then proved to me there is nowhere safe, ever. I’m really good at looking over my shoulder, under the bed, behind the doors. Jumpy, wary. I secretly hate going to the pools because I’m always watching everyone else’s little kids, always certain they are about to drown. Or get kidnapped, or slip and fall and smash their baby teeth on the dirty tiles or a million other pieces of bad luck that I know are always hovering, just waiting to land on their sweet little wispy heads. You’d better keep an eye out. I watch, all the time, everywhere. Bad things – bad people – happen to good people all the time, that’s what I know.
My therapist calls my hypervigilance a survival tool. I call it fucking exhausting.
Back before it all went to crap, Sister Anne taught us art history, well, her kind of art history. Lots of nice fat baby angels, crucifixions and crowns. Annunciations, Adorations, Descensions and Despairs. The mothers in those paintings were so holy, the holiest, so much holier than thou. Sister had seen them for herself – people thought travel was good for you, back then. Listening to her stories of the Uffizi by day and the alleys of Florence by night felt like an important part of our lessons; she had never once been afraid. “Girls, all you need is to have a pair of good running shoes and if you stay alert, you’ll be fine.” Nice advice, if it had been true. She didn’t tell us what to do if it’s all waiting to pounce on you at home.
It would be nice to find some kind of support group for people like me, the kids even a mother couldn’t be bothered to help. I know there are others. Wondering why me, but too ashamed to ask. But that’s the clever part of making your kid feel like they are worthless, isn’t it? Worthless people are humble. They will never ask – not for anything. They would never dare join a support group and give away your shame. Instead, they will give away everything of their own, hang their heads and say sorry when you hurt them, spend a lifetime tying themselves in knots trying to win back that love of yours that you eked out so thinly, erratically. They will keep the humility of their unlovability to themselves. They’re not going to rock your family boat.
It’s a fine line, though – go too far and you end up with kids who believe they are worthless – and that’s a whole other story. Worthless kids are dangerous, an ultimate own goal. Worthless kids beat those who try to love them by preference, or any stranger they can in consolation. They smash their stolen cars, drink, drug, cut and starve themselves dead because they think they have nothing left to lose. They destroy anything good, make it as worthless as them, drag it down to their level, because worthless loves company. Worst of all – they might even tell the whole world what you did. Whoops.
It is nerve-racking if I get a friend request from a cousin or an aunty on Facebook because I don’t know if she’s gotten to them first. They might not want to reminisce and or let me know uncle thingy is in hospital again, they might just want to have a go at me for “being mean” to my mum. That’s another trick to keep you worthless, though – isolation. Keeping possible supporters away. We all get together, us siblings, clinging on to the concept of family with our very fingertips, trying to stretch the tattered remains back around the gaping hole. It’s difficult for everyone, but we are resilient. It’s worth it. I meet up with the brother who got it worse than any of the rest of us, beaten and starved and a whole lot more, but he’s still here and I am so glad. Another brother says he didn’t know, that he was told a whole different story, and he got it too but nowhere near as bad, o god he didn’t know, but it doesn’t matter. Another doesn’t want to talk about it all but he’s here and I am so happy to see them all, the first time in decades. And then there is the sister who was sent away, the other half of me. We’re all here. It’s fun and sad and difficult, still worth it when we get found out later. “Mother,” texts my youngest brother, the one she still sees, “is not pleased.”
I took a trip back to her town, where I grew up, just to prove that I don’t care what pleases her. Resilient as fuck.
I hated the journey. It takes forever. I have to pass over the spine of the fish, go into the middle of nowhere on my own. It’s probably spectacular if you like that kind of shit. The frosted trees are so thick and shaded, the roads so empty, it is more like passing through the belly of a fish, populated only by the skeletons of abandoned trucks and blackberry snarls that give no shelter, no fruit. The places where hunters hunt. On and on, through the dark woods towards nobody’s house.
I’ve told myself I’m here to see an exhibition, paintings by an old woman who remembers the land of her childhood and paints it again and again by memory. She has a way of seeing a sense of place, a dream of what was, that is familiar to me. Vivid recurring dreams of my home populate my every night of sleep and I’d like to paint them, I think. But now I’m here again, I’m not so sure. The whole place seems smaller, less significant than it was in my unconscious mind. The exhibition is beautiful but the paintings are just like my dreams – from a long time ago, only half real and really, what was even their point?
I make time to visit the beach. I’ve missed the sand. Over here, in exile, the sand is golden white and beautiful but did anyone ever tell you it is so cold? I can’t tell you how disappointing that is. Out of all the things I might miss, a beach with glassy black sand where we searched for those seahorse skeletons. Black sand silky and full of iron, like blood. You can drag a little magnet through it and the magnet gets coated in the softest iron fur. I remember the wind, because it was always windy, would pick up the tiniest pieces of that sand and make swirling black haze that would burn your face on a bad day. The sun, the trees and everything lean sideways. Stay too long and you grow crooked. Crooked and wrong.
That beach is worn almost unrecognisable by erosion now, and I feel guilty as I slip a small stone in my pocket to take back to my blank canvas life, the new one with the cold white beaches that have no stones at all. I can’t go back with nothing to show for all this. The beach stones are all perfectly round and bold, throwing shadows exactly, exactly like they do in a Michael Smithers painting. I pass by my old family church where he made those god-awful ugly Stations of the Cross and a painted mural over the font. A fresco of swimmers, who might be people tired of living in shame and sin, about to willingly humble themselves in the waters of forgiveness to be washed clean again. Or they might just be smalltown sinners, liars and perverts, lolling about like slippery smirking fucking seals in my sea, on my beach, claiming it for themselves, not giving any shits at all. You can’t always tell just by looking.
I like researching mother-and-child relationships. It’s really hard to find a story of a mum who gets her comeuppance for behaving as badly as mine, but I keep looking for that validation. Mostly they exist only in fiction. I watched a documentary once about a meth head who beats a little girl to death and then dumps her poor little body in a ditch. Only she’s not quite dead, so she slowly dies out there in the cold, all alone. A born loser, it doesn’t take the meth guy long to blub it all out to his mum, who does the right thing and dobs her precious, awful child into the cops and now she is his only visitor in prison. “He’s my son, I still love him,” she sobs, mascara streaks down to her chin. “He did a bad thing, but he’s not a bad person!” which is the kind of thing only the mother of a kiddy killer could say with meaning. Does this make me worse than her son, or her better than my mother? I’ve always wondered.
My mother was – it’s easier to talk in the past tense and let other people assume she’s only dead, you get less pity – always here. She has lived her whole life here, will be buried here (although not by me), like her mother before her, and her mother before her. I don’t accidentally, horrifically, hilariously bump into her on this trip, not that I would recognise her by now anyway. I’m relieved. I haven’t come here to find her but to find my place in the past and that, too, fails to happen. Everything is still here but it’s also gone forever.
I visit my great-grandmother’s headstone before I leave, to see if there is anything, something. There is nothing. The inscription on the headstone reads simply Our Mother, both dramatic and tantalising in its brevity. Sentimental. Probably you paid by the letter for that kind of stuff in those days and probably nobody had any money to write anything else. Or maybe being a lovely mum was the only thing she did that was worth carving into a stone. I hope it was that. I don’t think about what will go on my mother’s headstone, or even mine, because I don’t really care. I feel nothing but a furtive sadness, like a trespasser or a thief trying to claim these dusty bones to prove that I belong here too, because I don’t. Goodbye, goodbye, was all I thought.
And then I went home.
Where to get help
- Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
- Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or online chat.
- Are You OK – 0800 456 450 family violence helpline.
- Shine – 0508 744 633 confidential domestic abuse helpline.
- Skylight – 0800 299 100 for support through trauma, loss and grief; 9am-5pm weekdays.
- Women’s Refuge Crisisline – 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE) (for women living with violence, or in fear, in their relationship or family).