CW: Domestic violence and abuse, mental illness, suicide.
Alternative Sex Ed Week: Saskia Bamber recounts her own story of domestic violence as she criticises the lack of education surrounding what makes a healthy relationship.
I am going to tell you a story. It is my own and no one else’s and I must stress that I am sharing this because I need to speak out; not only for myself but to break the silence that surrounds the subjects of domestic violence and abuse. As a person who grew up with domestic violence and abuse I feel that there is a shocking lack of education on what constitutes a healthy relationship, and the difference between a loving relationship and an abusive one. Most sex education focuses on anatomy and STIs, (putting the condom on the banana that kind of thing). There is nothing to teach young people what they should look for in a partner, what the warning signs of domestic abuse are and how to recognise abuse within a relationship.
When you grow up with a parent that frequently exhibits the hallmark behaviours of an abuser, it can be very difficult to make this distinction between love and abuse. My father is one such example. Obsessed with himself and fulfilling his own emotional needs, usually at the expense of others, he wreaks havoc wherever he goes, displaying the requisite charisma and gregarious friendliness that would gain him the affirmation and approval that he so desires. Presenting a front of the easy going and lovable family man, our family unit had to be in line with his ideas of perfection, selling the brand of Bamber to those who were naïve to his true nature.
The perfect wife, the perfect children, the perfect life, nothing was ever good enough as he pigeonholed each of us into a role that he had devised for our aforementioned purpose. The intelligent yet subservient wife, the four children with varying themes on his face, and high paying job at a hedge fund, he had it all. Yet behind the scenes we all suffered in this gilded cage.
I do not remember when it started, but as a little girl I worshipped him, unaware that my superhero was a fundamentally damaged and troubled man. After what I now know to be abusive behaviour occurred, he would tell me that he was sorry and that he loved me, knowing that I would believe him. As I grew older I realised that my family was not like the ones my friends had, they seemed at ease around their fathers, able to sulk and cry without them stiffening and lashing out so silence them.
Sunday lunch, that staple of upper middle class Englishness was a weekly torture. Until I was about eight I sat next to him at table with broken plates, blazing arguments and beatings being a regular occurrence. If I didn’t hold my fork correctly my face would be slammed into the table, if I said something wrong I would be kicked hard in the shin or pinned up against the wall. My mother tried to stop it by swapping seats with me, creating a physical buffer, but it just changed the venue of him letting out his frustrations. I would always say something that he didn’t like or challenged his authority, and he would change like the wind. One moment we would be having a lively conversation about politics, life or something as mundane as the weather, the next I would be bewildered and afraid, as he morphed into the spectre of my nightmares. In that split second, between his change from Jekyll to Hyde I saw in his eyes all the rage, resentment and anger he had pent up inside and sure enough, later that afternoon he would remind me that I was nothing but a piece of shit on his shoe.
When I got older, around puberty the nature of the abuse changed. It became more violent and often sexualised. It also was more secretive, as it became less acceptable to use physical force as a ‘disciplinary’ measure. He made constant comments about my body as it changed and developed, naming my breasts and body shaming at every opportunity. Whenever I walked past him he would grab me from behind, feeling my bum like it was a fresh, succulent piece of fruit ripe for the picking. Sometimes he would grab my breasts and squeeze in a similar fashion, always laughing it off as though it was all so innocent. I had always avoided having my back to him, but now it was for a very different reason.
Whenever he hit me it would often be targeted at certain areas like my chest and lower abdomen. I would have bruises everywhere but I never associated them with what was happening blaming it on being clumsy. In hindsight, the severe abdominal pain and migraines I was also experiencing was as a result of this, but at the time I had no idea. No education I had received on sex and relationships told me that this was deeply dysfunctional and abusive. I would come inside with a bloody nose and my mum would look at me in horror. I never had to say how or why, she just knew. She would send me upstairs to bed and five minutes later screaming and shouting would erupt from the kitchen as she confronted him about his ongoing behaviour. He would be contrite and momentarily see what he was doing was wrong, restrain himself for roughly two weeks before he relapsed and lashed out again. The genie was out of the bottle, if it wasn’t already, as things got worse and worse.
I could write a book about the last five years of my life, it has been both beautiful and terrible, but I know one thing is certain; life would be very different if it hadn’t been for my mother’s nervous breakdown four and a half years ago. I do not want to reveal too many details, because none of my family knows I am writing this and out of respect to them I am omitting a few details from the narrative. In essence, after suffering from chronic pain for years and sustained emotional abuse my mum broke. There is no other way of phrasing it; her depression saw her spiral downward into an abyss of mental illness. She saw the cracks before the event, admitting herself into a psychiatric hospital, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was my father telling her that if she ever left him he would destroy her, that he would take her home, her money and most devastatingly her children. At this point the depression took over; she smuggled seventy tramadol pills into her room at the hospital and overdosed.
She survived, and I am so thankful for that. I do not know what would have happened if she had died that day and I don’t know what I would have done. However she kept going and came back for us, doing what she always does best: surviving. My father was finally told to leave by my mum when she returned home from hospital, which was a miracle in itself. From this point, things got better. Not necessarily easier as we were on benefits for the next four years, but I can say with assured certainty that being happy poor far surpasses being miserable and wealthy.
I hope that by sharing my personal experiences it will help draw attention to the lack of education when it comes to relationships in general. Domestic violence among young people is on the rise, and as anyone who has experienced abuse can attest, it leaves a mark, one that leaves you to be vulnerable to the manipulation of others in relationships. Understanding the difference between control and love can be a hard lesson to learn; the process of realising that what has happened to you was wrong and was not your fault is excruciatingly painful taking me many years to process. I was never made aware that what was going on at home was not normal, conversations about parental discipline with my peers always left me feeling as though something was not quite right.
Like many people who have experienced abuse, I felt a kind of misplaced loyalty or even allegiance towards him, internalising what had happened. I was numb to what was happening to me and around me, so far in denial that I have spent many years coming to terms with my own femininity and identity as a survivor. Understanding that my sexuality and identity are not defined by who I am in relation to a man, as I was taught to believe also has taken time to unlearn. I am not there by any stretch of the imagination, but I know that I am not broken, I never was, just a work in progress.
Understanding why he is the way he is, how he became the monster I loved is a question I will probably never have answered, but my life is so much better without him in it. Being free, having room to breathe and explore my own identity has taught me that to face my demons, and that I and every other person who has come out of an abusive situation as well as those who are still in one are worthy or love and a relationship with someone who will love and respect you in equal measure.
Photo by Chloë Maughan