‘…My father never gave me reasons for his abuse other than it was all my fault…’
My father had an awful temper and I think he would have had an awful temper regardless of the cultural background he came from. On the other hand, he had attitudes towards both my brother and I, or men and women, that were cultural – or stronger because they were cultural. Some men use their culture as an excuse for violence. However my father never actually gave me an explanation for his treatment of me other than it was always because of me, things that I did or didn’t do. It was always about me rather than about him but on the other hand I was always supposed to be a ‘good Greek girl’ and I am definitely not a good Greek girl.
So while my father never gave me reasons for his abuse other than it was all my fault and nothing to do with his behaviour, his cultural expectations of me were used to make me feel as if I was failing him. Those cultural expectations also had an impact on my brother. My father, like all Greek men, had served in the Greek army. I can vividly remember my brother being quite young, I don’t remember what he was doing, but I remember him getting Greek army discipline for it. My father thought this was a reasonable way of punishing a primary school-aged child because he was a Greek boy who needed to grow into a Greek man.
My father experienced a lot of conflict within his family because he fell in love with my mother who was German born so he married outside of the Greek community. My mother wasn’t accepted by my father’s family. The first acknowledgment of her was when she gave birth to my brother, a son, but she spoilt it in their eyes by refusing to follow Greek tradition when naming him. I think it was one of the very few times she put her foot down and my father did not want to go back to his family and tell them his son was not going to be named properly. My brother’s birth was registered at the last possible moment.
My father’s conflict with his family was just another reason for his temper. Being Greek influenced his expectations of what proper behaviour was. The fact is that I am not a ‘good Greek girl’ – so the further I drifted from his image of what I should be, the more I copped it. Mind you, I think if he wasn’t Greek he would have still found fault in me and he had a rotten temper. There were less expectations of my mother than there were of me. I was the one that had to be the good Greek girl. My overwhelming memory of my mother is that she was in her bedroom with the door closed.
Speaking about my experiences
As a child and an adult the willingness of people to listen to and engage with my story has been a problem. It makes people really uncomfortable. I do quite a bit of training around brain injury, and when I used to say I got my head injury through violence, people could not hear what I said after that because it seemed to traumatise them. People might say to you “If you don’t want to talk about it that’s OK because I don’t want to make you upset” but what they really want to say is “I don’t want to make me upset.” I almost find that you can talk about the violence or you can talk about disability but if you put the two together people can’t hear it, people can’t manage.
I remember at one point feeling very alone in having the sort of experience that I did and being quite desperate to find somebody else that had had a similar experience. Now fifteen years on from then I have met or know of an unfortunately large number of women and men too that have had those sorts of experiences but because most people out there in the community can’t hear these stories there is this silence and it makes you feel quite alone.
People can hear stories about disability being caused by road trauma or a long illness but not by being abused by a family member. People can handle it if you say your disability was the result of an assault on the street. I mean it’s getting into the area of ‘that’s not nice’ but people still react better than if they know the assault was from a family member.
The violence was happening to me at a time when children weren’t encouraged to disclose their abuse. Hopefully things have improved now. You would hope, for example, that if you were picked up as a runaway and taken to the police station and said you were willing to go anywhere rather than return to your father, they would ask questions. In fact when I and my brother turned up in hospitals, I’m not sure what was asked then, but you would hope that hospital staff are better at asking questions now. You would hope people were more aware now. You would hope people were more attuned to the things that aren’t said by survivors, let alone when you actually do explicitly ask for help. If you walk into many doors you would hope someone would at least ask you the question. You may or may not be ready to disclose, but you would at least hope the question was asked. It’s hard to know where to go, apart from wanting people to ask you what was happening to you, even if you want to reach out for help you don’t have a clue where to go.
How services and others can help
Thinking of some of the reactions I had when I did talk with people it is hard to put into words how to respond because it’s about how the response makes the person feel. The ‘what not to do’ stuff comes out as motherhood statements or the ‘what to do’ stuff also comes out as motherhood statements.
I remember once talking to my teacher about how I would be killed if I did something – now I didn’t necessarily mean I would be killed but I did mean I was worried I would cop it from my father, and the reaction was ‘it won’t happen’, but I was absolutely panicked and could not be reassured. I guess that’s another example of asking the need to ask ‘What is really behind this fear?’ I know that some people’s stories are difficult to listen to but if you can’t hear the person’s story it makes it even harder for them.
If you need to get someone to help you with what you have heard, then absolutely get assistance. As a worker you may need talk to someone after about things that have been said to you because you may not know what to do with what people have given you and the best way to go with it, or because it’s difficult and distressing.
It sounds like motherhood statements but the reality is to allow someone to tell their story and respectfully listen is the most important thing. From here it’s about what can we do now and if the answer from the worker’s perspective is ‘I don’t know’, then the best response is ‘I will make some enquiries and I will get back to you.’
My experience is that sending women to the police is not the best answer – often it is probably the worst answer. Maybe the police have got better but I remember that at one point when I didn’t want to be anywhere near my father I learned he was about to buy a business near where I was living. Obviously what I needed at the time was an Intervention Order but I didn’t know what to ask for. So when I went to the police station I began to tell my story. I ended up being taken to this interview room, being interviewed by two cops. They decided they wanted someone else to talk to me, and they left me there in the interview room for half an hour. They came back with two detective types, they got me to say my story all over again. They got me to say it so many times I got confused. They were asking me all sorts of questions that had nothing to do with why I was there, like questions about my disabilities. They were then asking if I wanted to lay charges but then said I couldn’t because it was too long ago. The way they interviewed me was appalling. I left not getting the information I needed because I didn’t know what to ask for and the police didn’t understand what I needed. The problem was I didn’t know that what I actually needed to ask was “Can you tell me about Intervention Orders so I can decide whether or not this is what I want to do.” This was a number of years ago so hopefully police practice has improved.
Women with disability don’t get access to information about gender violence; everything is so bloody siloed. If you are a woman receiving disability services you receive information about your disability but almost no general community information. There are exceptions and some individual workers are great, but if you use a day program, work in a business service, or live in a Community Residential Unit (CRU) the chances of you receiving information on family violence are minimal.
When thinking about broader community services it’s better, but apart from the physical access issues, there are workers who don’t think they have the skills to work with people with significant cognitive and communication difficulties. The issue of having to take longer to work with women with disabilities is a problem when you work for a service that is overstretched. Information in alternative formats is an issue – they do exist but how do you get your hands on them? There is still the ‘It’s too hard’ thing and for example how many underfunded community organisations can pay for deaf interpreters?
The resource issue is a problem. I think there is greater awareness and greater willingness – that varies from worker to worker – but the resource barriers are there, like how many physically accessible refuges are there? And what the hell can they do about it?