The House My Father Built

Negative patterns formed in childhood can become like a merry-go-round out of control in adulthood.


My father’s hand reaches into a loaf of bread left over from dinner to pull out its soft white heart. His fingers deftly roll and then coil it into a snake that sits up to stare at me as if with beady eyes. Then he places it in the wood burning stove’s still hot oven to bake it hard.

Within the house he built, my father shaped my life as powerfully as a skilled sculptor creates a new form from clay before firing it in a kiln to make it a solid, durable, work of art that will long outlive him—unless of course, something happens to make it break. I had one function: to be the keeper of a man’s life by pacifying his pain, loneliness, fear, rage, and self-hate. And usually that meant sex. It became the only thing that imbued my life with worth or value. Eventually it would cause my heart to break. Perhaps, therefore, it was lucky I was born under the sign of Scorpio, for Scorpio also represents the phoenix rising from the fire of its own self-transformation.

I am writing this book to save lives. More importantly, to save my own life. From a very early age my father’s misogyny and violence taught me well how to fear and hate men. But as many little girls do under such circumstances, I created a fairy-tale fantasy that I was “Daddy’s princess” to hide this deepest, darkest secret of hatred I have kept all my life – even from myself.

Looking back over my life from the vantage point of my seventh decade, I can clearly see how hatred spreads out from its source like a huge oil spill at sea. It contaminates, suffocates and disables one’s life like the black oily stickiness from which even seabirds cannot escape into flight. With oil coated wings they are doomed to a slow, creeping death – as was I.

Misandrist is the term for women like me who hate men. For years I didn’t know such a word existed, and only recently was I able to acknowledge that the venomous hatred from some of the men I had tried to ‘fix,’ matched the hidden hatred and fear I had of my father, which I unconsciously projected onto men in general. This awakening has been slow and painful. I tried to understand the violent actions of the people who hurt me most within the context of the family and social conditions that developed them psychologically. I opened the still raw wounds and felt the pain. But most tortuous for me, was to find the compassion and forgiveness necessary to regain my health and well being and bring peace to my soul.

Although I was born in Australia, I have been living in New Zealand for fourteen years. It is a country where violence against women and children is just as endemic as in Australia. Not only does New Zealand have one of the highest rates of child abuse in OECD countries, but we too often turn a blind eye to abuse and fail to report it when we see it happening – even when it is right in front of our eyes. With each horrific death of a baby or child we throw up our arms and vociferously protest that the government needs to do something about this terrible state of affairs. But each time the headlines disappear that brought us the latest grizzly details of death and violence a child endures in the so-called safety of their home, so too do our protesting voices quickly fade…and nothing changes.

Just before Christmas in 2010, our newspapers published an outcry from Paula Bennett, our then Minister for Social Development, over the nearly two years of ongoing torture of a nine-year-old girl found by police hiding in a cupboard in her home. Bruises covered most of her body. Part of her scalp was torn off and a toenail ripped out. She also suffered from starvation and dehydration. And it was abuse five people knew about, including her teacher. Outraged over this, Paula Bennett wrote:

We undeniably have a problem that is ugly and unpalatable. If we don’t face this together as a nation, we turn our backs not just on the truth, but on those thousands of children who deserve to be protected from harm…

We let them down by not stepping in when we suspect abuse. We let them down when we simply look the other way…

I will continue to drive change at a Government level, but let’s be clear – the Government cannot tackle the causes of child abuse alone. We have to do this together as individuals, as communities and as a nation…

Child abuse is difficult to deal with. To make a difference, we have to think differently, act differently and respond differently.

A long-time friend of the girl’s mother who knew of the abuse, described the girl as “kind, bubbly,” and that she “likes to help out.” The same newspaper article reported that she was “likely to need regular counselling for the rest of her life.”

After my own work as a counsellor I could tell many stories of abuse that go on behind closed doors unnoticed, and where child victims as adults need regular counselling for the rest of their lives, but cannot afford to pay for it. Along with the emotionally and psychologically crippling burden of abuse, the financial cost of seeking help to integrate it is just as crippling. The anguish of why they were abused, unloved, abandoned, and one woman’s gut-wrenching understanding that her mother made herself unavailable by smoking and knitting every night after work because she was still stuck in the childhood trauma of being raped by her father, becoming pregnant, and then her father burying the baby in their back yard, haunts me still. It is what propels me to write this book, though not to tell their stories, but my own in the hope that greater awareness of the enormous life-long harm done (even within one single moment of an adult losing control of their emotions), can create a shift in the way we see and treat the most vulnerable members of society: our children.

And if by chance you are thinking that perhaps I am somewhat dramatic about writing my book to “save lives,” what I want to show you through my own story is that violence against children can create a ripple effect that can impact not only the present generation, but generations to come. An extreme example is Adolf Hitler. I have often asked myself that if he had a happy and loving family life as a child, would he have unleashed his desire for vengeance against the Jews millions of times over? And did he make them suffer the degradation and humiliation he had suffered at the hands of his violent father who beat him mercilessly at the age of twelve when Hitler told him he wanted to be an artist? Hitler’s father, who was illegitimate and suspected of being half-Jewish, was determined that his son would follow in his footsteps and become a civil servant. Gloria Steinem writes in her book, Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem:

Think of such current examples as Saddam Hussein, a boy beaten and tortured daily by his stepfather, who grew up to enjoy the close-up torture of others; or President Ceausescu, whose police state normalised his own earliest years of living in one room with nine siblings and an alcoholic and sadistic father…or George Bush, whose biographers describe a well-to-do childhood with an aristocratic, religious father who used a belt for discipline, controlled every aspect of family life, and insisted his sons compete, win, and become leaders, whether they wanted to or not.

Further she writes:

…if anyone is willing or able to go back and confront those earliest years, feelings can be directed at their real sources instead of being expressed in bigger and bigger ways. But changing the way we raise children is the only long-term path to peace or arms control, and neither has ever been more critical.

An International Conference on Community Education held in Melbourne, Australia in 1979 first exposed me to this shift in thinking when I picked up a flyer produced by the Fitzroy Community School, entitled, The Whole Child, in which it boldly stated:

We devote a lot of time to adult policies, trying to make a better world. But every reform is frustrated or perverted. The quality of life is not improved, because the people are the same. What changes people? Well any one adult can recuperate from his childhood if he is dedicated to go through sufficient personal torment. But the population will generally behave according to their upbringing. The greatest power over human life is parent power. How you raise a person has a more potent effect on their ability to achieve happiness than any other influence or circumstance.

The statement resonated on a deep level for me. Instinctively I sensed the truth in it, for I kept the flyer and even copied the above words that, years later, would remind me that I had a job to do. The statement also resonates with Caroline Myss’s words in Defy Gravity: Healing Beyond the Bounds of Reason:

The difference between the domain of the senses and the soul…parallels how our ego drowns in the experience of humiliation and how the soul then takes that action and examines how it has given us a desire to make another person suffer because we have suffered. In the depths of our soul, we discover our true source of pain, which is our desire to cause pain because we have experienced pain.

…In the vast, deep, secret, and silent recesses of our soul, we discover why—why do we desire to put another in pain, to transfer our suffering to another? Why are we compelled to hand it down to another generation, from parent to child, from nation to nation?

By refusing to revisit the pain of the past and heal the suffering of the self-pitying victim within us, that ‘victim’ will consciously or unconsciously seek revenge—even if only against ourselves. Not only does this destroy the quality of our lives, our health, well-being and happiness, but it also destroys the well-being, health and happiness of those we profess to love—especially our children.

I came to the realization in 1984 that being stuck in the self-pity of victimhood was a destructive way to live. The sympathy I was given kept me stuck in the role of ‘star of the show’ of yet another soapy that enabled people to live out their misery through me. My anger also kept me stuck, for as a child my parents forced me to repress under the threat of punishment if it ever dared to erupt in an unguarded moment. Although I ‘forgot’ about it over time, it remained dormant, waiting for someone to unwittingly trigger it in my adult relationships. And then a screaming shrew materialized out of the ether with anger shooting lightning bolts from her black eyes. At a time when I thought I should be happy, free from my childhood home at last, marriage unexpectedly brought up memories of my parents’ bitter divorce and no matter how much I tried to shut them out, they began eating holes in my fantasy of ‘living happily ever after,’ like the holes snails ate on the cover of the Cinderella book I left outside in the rain. In the same way that trauma leaves indelible imprints on the amygdala in the brain, the memory of the first day I ever heard the word “divorce” etched itself there in deep grooves as well, for the psychological wounds it caused have still much healing to do…

It is 1959, the year DeGaulle was proclaimed President of the Fifth Republic in France and Tom Dooley and He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands played over and over on the radio. It was also the year that the U.S. Postmaster General banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover from the mails on the grounds of obscenity. Except for the songs, I am mostly oblivious to what is happening in the world. I am ten and enjoying a game of hopscotch within the muted sounds of autumn rain-soaked earth, where the wind through the pines growing overhead sometimes sounds like the surf at Rye back beach, where we have our holiday house. The shrill ringing of the school bell summons us to assemble in the school courtyard in front of the flag where, each Monday morning, we place our hands over our hearts and recite the pledge, “I love God and my country, I will honour the flag, serve the Queen, and cheerfully obey my parents, teachers, and the law,” before singing God Save the Queen.

After arriving breathless to line up, there is frantic whispering that a girl in our class will not be returning to school. “Divorce… It is all because of a divorce.” A ripple of fear sweeps through us like a chilling wind that makes us shiver. Divorce is like some sort of disease that can strike anyone at random, suddenly and unpredictably wrenching us from those we love and the life we once knew.

A month or so later under an Indian-summer-blue-sky, the weatherboard house my father recently built at 11 Janice Avenue collapsed within the earthquake-like destruction of my parents’ marriage, entombing me within a labyrinth of family secrets, illusions and fantasies, terror and fear, lies and guilt-laden angry silences.

Staring at me from the rubble is a bold canvas with a surreal-like image of a little girl sitting on her father’s knee. He is helping her read the very first book she brought home from school: a story of Mickey and Minnie Mouse going on a picnic. It has a picture of a blanket covered with slices of chocolate cake, sandwiches, and pies. On the next page huge ants are carrying away all the food.

Then the ants march off the pages and into my life to carry away all the people and things I dearly love. They steal my memories and create a big, blue hole of nothing. The hole swallows my father after the boy with no name disappears. It sucks in the boy’s laughter and leaves behind a deathly silence as if the whole world has gone to sleep and won’t wake up. My teacher is in there too, telling me to take home the things in the boy’s locker. All I find are some crumpled pieces of paper with messy writing, and a small box of broken pencils. “Don’t cry,” my father says when I take them home. “He ran away because he didn’t want to live here anymore.” He insists that what I saw never happened.

I see my mother peeping out of the window from behind the curtains before the ants come to carry her into the big blue hole, where she disappears forever.

Your mother’s a whore,” my father’s voice echoes from the hole as if it is stuck in a track on an old vinyl record. My heart goes numb and freezes solid to protect it from shattering like brittle glass from all the pain. In dreams the boy leaves footprints on perfectly made beds while running through a secret apartment inside our house I can no longer find. In nightmares I hide in chimney pots while monsters lumber over rooftops trying to catch me, taunting, “You have no mother…”

A creeping death called ‘bitterness’ consumed the rest of my childhood following my mother’s sudden illness a doctor was called to attend, the holiday she needed, my father’s disappearance into the night, a kidnapping…and divorce.

He found her at Nagambie, he said, naked in bed with another man. It was where, years ago, he and my uncle threw my mother into the river during a camping holiday and she packed her things into a small suitcase and left with my little sister. The four-year-old me watched the road swallow them up while she screamed in panic, snot and tears dripping off her chin.

“Whore” he called her. I knew it was something bad. The shame of that word contaminates my life still like the key that would not stop bleeding in the Bluebeard tale, where a young wife disobeyed her husband and unlocked a little chamber which hid the gruesome remains of his previous wives.

And then I am centre stage in a play after the leading lady quits and unexpectedly, the role is mine – even though I do not want it. My father directs me to wear my mother’s costume of shame and I wobble in her high-heeled shoes and trip over the too-long dress that winds itself around my legs, like her dresses did when I was five. Then, like a thief in the night, my father forces his way into the private gallery inside my mind and slashes my mother’s canvas images with a knife. “Bitch Face” becomes my mother’s new name. He says she has a split personality.

I take my mother’s place in her husband’s bed when my grandmother comes to stay. It is where my mother finds me the night she returns to collect her things. I stare at her wide-eyed when she bends down, her pretty face framed with blond, curly hair. Her blue eyes I love so much look into my brown eyes to ask if she can take the little ballerina picture I gave her on her birthday, hanging on the wall near the bed. After she leaves the room I sob into the pillow with an agonizing pain in my heart I had never before experienced. Then angry voices shouting at each other pierce through the walls from the lounge like daggers to completely sever me from the only life I knew.

My father is drunk when he climbs into bed to clutch me tightly like a teddy bear. But then the anger comes. In place of his wife is a little girl. Ten… He initiates her into womanhood with the vicious and angry thrusts of his hatred towards his wife…his mother…all women, as if he is stabbing them all to death.

My mother died inside me that night. It was my father’s misogyny that killed her. And its rapaciousness obliterated my childhood like jasmine which smothers a garden after it grows wild and untamed, twisting and spiralling to weave a thick mat of leaves and vines through and over shrubs and bushes, climbing the heights of trees to create a smothering and oppressive canopy which blocks out the sun and stunts the flowers that struggle to grow beneath it.

While my father angrily pulls bloodied sheets off the bed, I heave my mother’s corpse over my left shoulder and carry her as a soldier carries a fallen comrade out of enemy territory to mourn her death with dignity and respect back at base camp. But I never find base camp, or a place of safety, and wander lost for decades with my burden.

Until now…

You see, there was one thing my father could not destroy: the memories of the stories about the Greek Heroes my mother read to me along with the usual fairy-tales of living ‘happily ever after’. Within the story of Jason and the Argonauts an adventurer within me was born who gave me the courage and inspiration to set off on a journey to discover my own golden fleece, slaying the dragons of fear along the way so I could make peace with my past and have peace in my soul.

Promiscuity: Loose Morals or Searching for Love?

July 26, 2011
Promiscuous behaviour, the drinking and the drugging we see around us everywhere says more about the lack of love in our lives and the brokenness caused by abuse, violence, neglect, abandonment and…

How Can We End Family Violence?

December 07, 2010
Along with steadily increasing incidences of family violence, are the spiralling economic and health costs it creates – not to mention the huge problems caused when drugs and alcohol are used to self-medicate the anxiety family violence creates. What can we do to end these cycles…

The Antidote to Violence

August 31, 2010
Violence in the home can create psychic wounds that may never heal. It can cause children to ‘harden their hearts’ by shutting down their feelings to enable them to survive it. It has also, I believe, created a silent epidemic of PTSD…