A MOMENT TO CHANGE A LIFE
There comes a moment in a woman’s life, it comes quietly and without even knowing it is the time or her time she will remember her voice. She will reclaim her voice and she will banish all societal, cultural, and perhaps even self-inflicted shackles, which bound and gag her into living a life half lived and burying her truth, to make the world around her more comfortable with the woman she is.
My moment, my time, it came. it took more than a decade, but it came. The truth and pain and the absolute undoing of who and what I was, bided its time in the deepest parts of me, seemingly gone, seemingly forgotten, it even had me fooled and lulled into believing I was living my most authentic self. That I had erased that young girl, everything her body and soul and brain endured. I convinced myself it was a thing of the past. Plus, I reasoned, what would be the point! It’s over and done. I am okay and alive and thriving. I am living as I have never lived before. I lived so large that I dwarfed the girl and the victim that resided within me into virtual nothingness.
Or so I thought.
But you see trauma, both physical and emotional is something that can never be forgotten or erased. It is ingrained in the very pores of your skin; every fibre of your being. In your every cell, the memory of trauma not just lingers, it festers, it rots, it poisons, and it kills. And you won’t even know it. Those feelings of helplessness, of utter and complete hopelessness, the tears that ebb and flow with the slightest provocation, the physical pain that you feel in your chest, the waking up to face a new day with such rage inside your heart, then dissolving into a dark abyss that beckons for you to come to lay there and never leave. The voice that cajoles inside your head, that to stop breathing, to stop living would be the ultimate high, the only way to end this inexplicable thing that you are feeling.
And it was inexplicable to me for a long time. I had a great job. As one of a few Indian female television news reporters on a national television station at the time between 2005 and 2012, (ETV now ENCA) my face was a recognisable one, my name a respected one (at least that’s the feedback I got) I drove a beautiful car, I lived a good life, I had my pick of intelligent, successful, beautiful men. I partied hard, I worked even harder. Man, my life was good. Better than good. I made sure I was seen and heard. I made sure I was felt. I made sure I was in control.
I knew just how to vanquish and remain willfully vulnerable to keep men and women around me comfortable in my presence. Knowing how to dominate and yet remain docile enough to ensure men and women around me would never know who and what I was, was something I did well. So clever and so in control; so why would someone like me feel I was constantly being held in a stranglehold by emotions and feelings of complete and utter worthlessness and desolateness?
LIVING WITH TRAUMA AND PAIN
Trauma travels. Pain sits patiently. These things cannot and should not ever be denied. Not to oneself and not to others and certainly not to the person or people who have inflicted it. Trauma waits. Pain travels. Through time, through all the spaces and roles you live and fulfill, these things cannot and will not be denied or doused. Because anything suppressed must and will erupt. It is in nature as it is inside our bodies.
My name is Vanessa, I am forty-four years old. I am a mother of three and an author; I am a journalist (even though I quit mainstream journalism in 2012 anyone in this profession knows you can leave journalism, but it never leaves you). I am so many things to so many people and have been so many things to so many people. And for the greater part of my little more than four decades on this earth, I have been nothing to myself. A fake and a fraud, living and lying to keep the façade of the woman I convinced myself, the world would rather see and know. And I excelled. Man, I was damn good. So, I thought.
But the cracks were showing and soon it would rip open, and it would be both a profoundly powerful release and the most debilitating thing, that would compel me to finally acknowledge and see myself in all my nakedness, every fading scar both on my skin and the ones that remained stubbornly in my brain.
It was December 1999, I was 22 years old when one word; YES, would come to kill that young, naïve, and dare I say wonderfully wild-spirited girl I was.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
I was a rookie radio news reporter at the SABC based in Durban. I was damn lucky to have gotten into one of the biggest broadcasting companies in the country, fresh out of Technikon, a diploma to my name and big dreams in my head.
That is where I met my boyfriend. He was a DJ on Lotus FM (a radio station owned by the SABC that catered to a predominantly Indian audience). He would become my first intimate partner. He would become my first boyfriend. He would become my worst nightmare. It was barely a month into our relationship when he first struck me. I was sitting in the front seat of his car, he was ranting and shouting like a madman, saliva flying out of his mouth. This was new to me. I had no reason to feel that I was in any danger when his arm with a fist formed at the end reached out and punched me in the chest.
I am not sure if that hurt or whether it was the fact that he had just punched me that hurt more. Time is clever that way, it can make you forget the physical pain, but it will never let you forget every minute painful detail.
Of course, I couldn’t believe what had just happened to me. Perhaps more shocking was that this person who portrayed himself as such a charming, affable, affluent man, this DJ who never missed an opportunity to talk about his fame or the women that would throw themselves at him, had just done something that surely men of this caliber and stature didn’t do!
He cried, he apologised. He even said that he wouldn’t blame me if I left him. So, I did what every good girl is subversively conditioned to do; I apologised, comforted him, and promised that I would not leave him, because you see shortly after delivering that punch, he also declared that he loved me. Two big, monumental firsts within minutes of each other. My first punch from my boyfriend and the first I love you from the same man.
By accepting both, I had made a pact with a human being so profoundly evil that it would become impossible to leave, to walk away. For a little more than five years, this became symptomatic of our turbulent and deeply troubled relationship.
Don’t get me wrong for one second, there were good times and great times during our years together. We drank. We partied. We laughed. We talked. There would always be extravagant gifts, soft-spoken beguiling words gently handed over after the manic, violent barrage of slaps, punches, kicks, and vile insults. He was always sorry. You see he loved me so much that when he felt he couldn’t get through to me, it would drive him to these violent displays of his love and passion.
Deep inside me, the anger and hatred grew. Insidiously snaking its way, poisoning me, suffocating me…… killing me. Slowly I began to shift and continuously shape myself, making myself smaller, lowering my voice, quietening my thoughts and opinions, stifling my spirit. Together we worked to all but destroy me. Him with his violence. Me with my desire to please and keep the peace.
I am starting to feel sad now, angry again, remembering this. Every time I do this I purge myself a little more. But where I once tried to suppress pain and emotions, where I once convinced myself silence and forgetting is the bitter salve to soothe the shredded soul, I now know, this myth that women are force-fed is not to serve them, not to help them, but to protect not just their abusers but the toxic system that enables men to perpetuate their evil with carefree abandon and their gatekeepers (some of whom are women).
You see even after releasing my memoir Beaten but Not Broken, I thought there would be some miraculous healing. Like all the bad emotions and the tears and the feelings of wanting to end my life would be over. Boy was I wrong. Remembering and writing not only resurrected every horrible thing that was done to me during my violent love affair with the radio jock, but it also forced me to face myself. To finally embrace all the trauma and pain and to mourn and grieve. And it was a catastrophic revelation and cataclysmic release.
The body and brain demand of us not to deny and deprive but to hold space for ourselves. Healing is not meant to be a seamless and clean process. It is messy, it is crippling, and it is monumentally debilitating. But in all of that you remember you, you remember yourself, who you were before someone tried to break and bind you, kill and quell you. From ashes, beautiful things can be built and beautiful things can emerge. A little spent, a little bent, but hey what can be more powerful and more breath-taking than being able to live with absolute truth and honesty. To not be held hostage or blackmailed by fear and trauma.
But I omitted to tell you one minor detail in all of this. For all my bravado. For all the courage I was praised for having to write this book and speak my truth. I was still being dishonest. And dishonesty my friend does not have to be a blatant lie. Dishonesty is also the withholding of information.
I wrote about losing my virginity in the back seat of his car (bearing in mind I come from a very conservative community where sex before marriage is seen as a disgrace for young women) I shared intimate details of everything. But one thing. And without even knowing this withholding that one thing still kept me enslaved to my fears to the system that demanded I shut up. That I go quietly.
And when eventually I would say the name of my abuser during an online web discussion, that was when I had finally been able to stand up and say I have spoken my truth. It was only then I felt this sudden and overwhelming release. I could breathe again; I could taste the air and inside a quiet stillness settled. I had taken back my power. I had finally remembered who and what I was.
Oh, saying his name did come with some drama. He threatened to sue. He issued a statement claiming I had a vendetta and was obsessed with him. Hell, he even got his wife to speak on his behalf to a local newspaper in which she claimed she did not know me, and I was making a public spectacle of myself. A woman who proclaimed to be an advocate for women’s rights and against gender violence, publically condemning another woman for daring to break the silence. I was not quite sure if I should find it funny or fundamentally tragic.
You see I did the very same thing for him back when we were together. When my own family would ask about the bruises and scars that often adorned my face and body. I lied. When I was confronted with questions if he was abusing me, I lied. I said he couldn’t do that. That he would never do that. So, I feel for this woman. I was once her. I want to judge her and be angry with her. But I am looking at her through the eyes of the woman I have become and not the girl I used to be. And that is not a fair thing to do. She has not done anything I didn’t once do for this man.
But there are far too many people claiming to be gender activists or against GBV but when faced with assertions of the crime against men they may know, who are family, friends, or even current partners are quick to shun survivors.
If we are to accept rape and gender violence exists and it does because the mangled bodies, some burnt, some strung from trees, some tossed in rubbish heaps like garbage, some that are never even found, tell us it exists, our own experiences prove it exists, then we must also accept that men we know are guilty of this. Yes, we know it’s not all men but seeing as we don’t know which men, we will assume all men for the sake of our safety. Women are not raping and killing themselves. Women are not beating themselves up.
NO MORE SILENCE!
When my abuser’s lawyers’ letter did come some months later asking for an apology and retraction, I told my lawyer he could “f-off and die” of course she found a more eloquent way of putting it in our responding letter. We also urged my abuser to pursue the legal action he threatened both on social media and in the newspapers, as it would allow all the facts and my assertions to be aired and vented in a court of law. We also requested an address to which we could serve an application of our own.
That letter was sent in late last year. It’s now nearly June 2021 and we have yet to receive a response.
You see abusers never stop. Just look at how many so-called influential men have been outed. Social media had provided a powerful platform for survivors to break the silence.
No, we are not looking for attention! We just no longer want to keep the secrets of our abusers and rapists. It’s not our job to protect these miscreants.
NO, it is not a trend for women to speak out! We just get courage every time one of us breaks the silence, we realise justice cannot always be found in a court of law and that the system is not designed to help women get justice but rather to make it intrinsically difficult for them.
NO, we don’t want to destroy our abusers and rapists or their happy families. We believe they did that themselves the moment they decided to physically or sexually hurt us. And the moment they raped, abused, or killed; they lost every single right to carry on their lives as if nothing happened while women are forced to carry the cross of trauma every single second they breathe.
No, we are not looking for pity! We have shed our tears, sometimes some of us have even tried to permanently forget by trying to end our lives. We don’t need pity. We need the good guys, the good people, those around us to act!
My abuser despite also having had charges brought against him by another woman and for revenge porn and assault and which was later dropped, despite the written indictment of my experience, was still employed by a local community radio station.
NO, we don’t need the bullshit rhetoric that’s spewed out during every 16 days of activism or women’s month. Yes, the radio station called on women to break the silence yet chose to ignore women when they spoke out against their newly acquired DJ.
Some may say what is the point then of breaking the silence. Some may say move on. Some may say get over it. Some may say tone it down. Some may say mind your language. Some may say forget about it. Some may even try to gaslight you “you have a good life now. You have everything now. Why bring up the past.”
I am here to give you some well-earned advice; Screw them!
STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GREAT WOMEN
Anyone who has your interest would never try to silence you. It serves no one, least of all you, to remain silent. I may never see it in my lifetime. A world where women can walk safely, can go out at night without fear of being raped, wear what she wants without being blamed for any violence meted out against her. A world where even our babies won’t be violated. A world where men who rape and beat up women, who sexually harass, and harangue women are shamed and shunned and become an extinct species.
I will not see that world before I die. But I am going to do all I can to make it easier for even just one other woman to reclaim her power, remember her voice and break the barricades they have been building around us for centuries to keep us suppressed and subjugated.
I will always be in fear of my abuser. Men like that never change. I am no martyr, but I am a mother. And I am obligated because of that to speak and never stop because I am you, young lady reading this.
The shame is not yours. It never was. The fear, yes totally understandable and very necessary. Because without fear we cannot act to save ourselves and those around us.
That which you have feared, who you have feared, must now live in fear of you. The truth does indeed set you free. I no longer live with the threat of someone outing me. I did that myself. And it’s the most damn powerful thing I have done.
There comes a time in a woman’s life when she must and will abandon propriety for ownership of herself and her life.
The voices of survivors are shifting this world on its very axis…. but it requires more and more, and we know there are so many more out there, fighting back tears, keeping up the façade of their lives disintegrating because that’s just not what GOOD GIRLS DO!
Don’t be a good girl. Be a damn GREAT WOMAN …. And speak, take your time, breathe, remember, mourn, grieve, speak…. We are all here waiting to take your hand and hold you. Heal yourself and save another. It is not weakness to weep, it is to show yourself the ultimate self-respect.
So, speak. Others have gone before you, they are your shields. We have taken the barrage of criticism, of denials, of threats, of disbelief, we have dodged the venom of judgment and we are still standing. They are afraid of the voice of your truth of what you have survived of what you embody. Our very existence is a damning indictment of the ordeals we have endured and the people who have inflicted them on us.
Do you know whilst you tremble in fear, it is you who are being feared? Slay the monster, defeat the devil, use your words, use your voice, it is far more powerful than any fist raised against you. Your tears are never in vain, they will stain more than the blood drawn from you. They can violate your body, desecrate your soul but you always hold the power, because you are a walking living testimony to the genocide you have survived. The genocide on women of this country and world. Nothing can erase that truth. Nothing can diminish that power. And therein lies the salvation of every single survivor.