Free with his fists: trying to make sense of it (Part One)

Carolyn McCurdie

full sleeved blouseI told myself it wasn’t so bad. After he’d knocked me down, he never kicked me. He never broke bones, never did anything that needed medical attention. In eight years, he forgot discretion only twice. Then I had the black eyes, fat lip, swollen, discoloured face that the world could see. I hid inside, rang in sick, made carefree jokes about walking into cupboard doors.

But mostly he punched my upper arms. Often it had nothing much to do with anything I’d said or done. It was stress relief, when life hadn’t gone the way he thought it should. “Pete never allows for a stubbed toe, does he,” someone remarked when she’d witnessed the beginnings of a tantrum, controlled because people were there. I bought blouses with voluminous sleeves, because at those times my arms were too swollen to fit into ordinary sleeves.

We shared a concern to keep the violence hidden. Part of this was an attempt to avoid the judgement of others. I was much more at risk of harsh judgement than he was. I judged myself harshly. I scorned my fear of the rage as weakness, told myself that the punching didn’t even hurt all that much. The more subtle wounding – the harm to my sense of self and worth – happened less dramatically, little by little. I became aware of it only years later. I didn’t notice it when it was happening.

The internal struggle I was aware of at the time had to do with cognitive dissonance. It felt like a kind of head-wobbling bewilderment. I was the well-known rabbit in the headlights. Paralysis. My situation simply was not possible. Marriage meant love. Coming from a stable, loving family, it had never crossed my mind that any relationship of mine could be different. I had no idea how to handle the emotional contradictions.

Denial, bravado were my protections. I was fine. No problems here. Any admission of the truth would have threatened my sense of myself as a person with dignity and self-respect. I went to some trouble to ensure my family never found out. My parents would have been so distressed and there was nothing they could do. We lived on different islands so this wasn’t difficult. Hiding my situation from others wasn’t hard either. Mostly they didn’t enquire. This was the 1970s when difficulties were between a man and his wife, and interference unacceptable. Only once did anyone really offer to help. He was an elderly man who saw a moment of suppressed fury and followed me to say that if I ever needed a safe place, I was welcome to come to him. I was embarrassed. I assured him that there was no need. But his clear distress about what he’d seen meant a lot. His offer felt like a statement that I had worth.

How did I get into such a predicament? Often when people think of domestic violence, they see the man (not always, but usually a man) as nothing more than the cowardly bully that he certainly is, but of course he’s more than that. Everyone’s self is made up of more than a single aspect. When I first met my husband, I saw him as larger than life, charismatic, intellectual, unconventional and exciting. He had a passion for the written word, read and recited from books he loved, loved them to the point of being reduced to tears by the power of the writing. I was in awe. Crucially, I thought he was better than me. In comparison, I saw myself as ignorant and mediocre. I saw in him a richness and intensity of living that I craved. At that stage it didn’t occur to me that I might ever recognise intensities within myself.

Read Carolyn’s reflections on ‘free with his fist’ (part two)

Carolyn McCurdie lives in Dunedin, New Zealand. A writer, her work includes poetry, short fiction and fiction for children and young adults. She grew up in Dunedin, but lived for many years in the Auckland area, and in Sydney.

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