Special Reports

Behind closed doors all bets are off

Liz Broughton

There is a woman around every corner facing domestic abuse.

Abuse. (AFP)

Here’s a fun game to play in a gathering of South African women: have one too many glasses of wine and let it slip that your last partner was abusive and is still harassing you. Very few will be appalled. On the contrary — most of them will sadly nod their heads and tell you their own abuse stories. If it didn’t happen to them, it happened to their sister, mother, daughter or friend. 

The stats vary widely, depending on your source, but official guesses are that anywhere between 18% and 50% of women have suffered violence — sexual or otherwise — and usually at the hands of men they knew. But because it’s shameful, because our society blames the victim, most of us shut up about it. Ironically, by doing so, we may also be encouraging it.

It’s an unwritten rule that you don’t tell people about abuse unless the marks are on your face this time, or he’s liable to kill the kids. But if it’s just blows to your self-esteem and social standing, and bruises you can cover with clothing, you keep quiet about domestic violence. Because you have an image to maintain, a job you need to keep, and you don’t want people thinking you’re that sort of person. If people regard you as strong and professional, they may lose faith in your ability to deliver on work projects when you’re revealed as a pathetic victim. 

I speak about the abuse only because I couldn’t cover it up forever. People were there, and they saw. Most of them did nothing. I’ve been the woman cowering with my kids in the car in the driveway in winter, afraid to go back inside, with nowhere to go. I’ve been the one whose child has run screaming for help so that all the neighbours could rush to stare at my torn clothes and bleeding mouth (and then turn away in disgust). I’ve lied to family about how I’m doing, to cover my shame at doing badly. 

I do not eat red meat but I’ve dipped into my kids’ varsity fund to feed an abusive man steak we couldn’t afford, because overfeeding him and plying him with good red wine sometimes slowed him down and made him go to bed early, leaving a precious hour or two of peace. I learnt not to have heavy ornaments on display, because those hurt the most when they’re thrown at you. I learnt that my own dignity is a small price to pay when my children’s peace and quiet are at stake. 

I’ve groveled on my knees, begging for mercy, and slept countless nights on the floor inside my kids’ room, blocking the door with my body so he couldn’t get in. I’ve apologised for being me, said sorry for having had relationships before I met him, promised never again to wear jeans so as to look “decent”, buttoned my shirts up to my neck, apologised for causing him to lose his temper over my bad cooking, been sorry for not earning more to provide him with better quality wine. I’ve been broken down, degraded and blamed for his mood swings. For years, I thought it was just me. 

Then women around me started recognising the signs: my new, overly-conservative style of dress; the way I didn’t talk to men anymore; my excuses to get out of socialising so I could rush home and perform all the duties he imposed on me. Many of these women gently asked probing questions about life at home, many shared their own abuse stories with me. Independent, professional women told me horror stories of domestic violence straight from the trailer park. My daughters started bringing home tales of what was happening behind closed doors at the homes of their comfortably middle-class friends. It was just as bad as at my house. I started noticing it at gatherings: once, I saw a drunken man tell everyone at a middle-class event that he didn’t enjoy sex with his wife anymore, because she “had a c**t like a horse”. 

I’ve had similar insults directed at me, to the point that I’ll never feel comfortable in my own body again. God only knows what witnessing all this has done to my kids. In a shop, I watched a man drag his wife out by the scruff of her neck because she couldn’t choose sewing thread fast enough. All the women there looked quietly at the floor, knowing that to intervene would make the poor woman’s beating that much worse when the couple got home. 

I started to become one of those women who can spot the signs of abuse on others: those women in Woolies, finger bruises on their upper arms, apologising to their partners for the slowness of the queue; that unconscious cringe when airing a view; the subservient downward glance when “the master” speaks. Men were demeaning, shaking, humiliating and abusing their partners all over town. All over the country.

Why did I stay when I knew what he was doing to us? I thought I was protecting the people he threatened to hurt if I left. And it made financial sense. It takes a lot of “last straws” before you realise you can start again and replace every possession you own, but it’s hard to rebuild your dignity when it has been completely shattered, and it’s impossible to overwrite your kids’ formative years.

When dear friends finally took charge of my life and rescued me and my little family from the abuser, I found the domestic violence office at the local magistrate’s court jam packed with women. It was Monday morning, their busiest time. There we queued to apply for protection orders: old ladies with faces misshapen and bloodied, young girls trembling with eyes like saucers, busy professional women on the phone, trying to articulate through swollen lips why they couldn’t come in to the office. “I just need to attend to an urgent personal matter,” one of them was saying.

Every demographic was represented there, all of us in the same boat – wondering what the hell we were going to do next. Just another Monday morning, the woman at the desk told me. “I see all this, and I never want a man,” she sympathised. One by one, we got our interim protection orders and went out into the world armed with little pieces of paper with which to protect ourselves and our kids. Mine didn’t work, though. The local police were too busy eating their sarmies to help me, and said I should go and find him myself if I wanted it served. I was too afraid.

He took my lack of decisive action as permission to keep dominating my life. Months passed, years. He never quite went away. Whenever one of his new relationships folded, or he was out of his mind drunk, or he needed an admin task carried out, he’d call or email or text me. Mainly to hurl abuse at me long-distance, but often to demand something. Refusal or hanging up was not an option – he started threatening to track down and harm my kids and family members if I didn’t comply. One night, more than 300 vicious, angry texts arrived on my phone. He harassed my family. He sneaked in past security in my complex and left threatening notes on my property to prove he could do whatever he liked. I blew thousands on lawyers who couldn’t help, and found myself up against a wall of indifference from the police. It seems in some areas, you won’t get official attention unless you’ve already been murdered.

The reign of terror has tapered off slightly over the years, but I’m still a little afraid. He’s still out there, and he’s still crazy angry, so I still don’t speak about it. I keep my head down and lock my doors, praying he will never act on his threats to come back and get me.

I’m one of the lucky ones, though: I don’t have to dread going home anymore, because I no longer share it with him. Somewhere out there, hundreds of thousands of women still have to go home to situations just like that – or far worse – tonight. Their kids are still witnessing the horror. And too often, nobody will help until it’s already too late.

Liz Broughton is a single mother working in the marketing industry. She used a pseudonym because her abuser is liable to come back and “punish” her for speaking out, again.


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