I’ve been sharing the stories of other young women over the past few weeks, but I think it’s high time I shared my own. That is, the story that inspired my novel, Purlieu, to be what it is today – a story of the snowball effect of abuse. It’s a long story, but I felt that I couldn’t really tell it justly if I left parts out. I hope you will bear with me as I delve back into the depths of my teenage years.
My high school boyfriend cheated on me at Schoolies. Even though I had no intentions of marrying the guy, I was pretty upset by his betrayal and spent the entire night thereafter drinking myself stupid and bawling my eyes out. I think I was looking for a rebound because a few weeks later I remember complaining to one of my friends that there’s “just no decent guys out there.” I was determined to find one.
I started a new job but didn’t have a car and the place was difficult to get to. It turned out one of the guys from work lived one street over from my house and he quickly offered to drive me each day. With each day that I journeyed with him on the way to and from work, I grew to appreciate his company, to the point that when he announced a month later that he was leaving that job, that I mentioned we should stay in touch – see a movie some time. I think he took it as an invitation for a date, because when we went for that movie, we sealed the night with a kiss and it was silently agreed that we were an item.
I was sure that he was exactly what I was looking for – a decent guy, the kind that opens doors for you. I thought my family would love him, that they’d see he was a true gentleman, just like I did.
He took me on picnics and continued to drive me to work when he could, even though it was in the opposite direction to his new job. I thought I was so lucky to have found a guy that was Christian and willing to wait for marriage.
He met my family a month or so later at Easter and I was somehow blissfully unaware to the fact that they didn’t like him. Over time, I started to spend more time at his house than he did at mine, under his excuse that he didn’t share a bedroom with a sibling like I did, so we were free to study in the privacy of his room. Deep down, I knew he just wanted to avoid my parents. He didn’t like my friends either so I stopped seeing them too.
At the time it didn’t seem so bad or drastic – things felt entirely wonderful. But after we’d been together for around six months, he snapped.
He was a bit of a car enthusiast. He loved pulling a car engine apart and putting it back together again. By this time I had a car of my own. It was a second-hand fuel-guzzler and the brake was rubbing thin. You could hear it when I pulled up at traffic lights, this high-pitched screech as the break pads (or rather, what was left of them) hit metal on metal. He’d promised to fix it for me, but hoped it’d make it until the end of Uni for the year, until the stress of exams were over. It didn’t.
I was working on a film set, as a runner. I’d just picked up the talent – an elderly man – and we were on our way to the set. Two streets out from his house a traffic light ahead turned red. I pressed the brake and it snapped right through. Thankfully we didn’t get hit by any cars. Somehow, without any braking ability, I managed to get him to the local shopping centre to take him by bus to the set while I waited for RACQ. They towed me to the mechanic I’d bought the car from. I was eighteen and a girl. I was sure they’d rip me off. So I got my mum to take care of things and she gave them the authority to go ahead with repairs – it was going to cost me almost $2000.
The moment he snapped was when I told him about it. He blew the top off his rocker, proclaiming my mum was all sorts of nasty things that I shall not repeat. Essentially, he believed that she didn’t care about me because she was so willing to cost me $2000 when he could get the parts I needed second-hand for a fraction of the price and that he could fix the car himself. He failed to see that his lack of priority with fixing the car in the first place could have cost me my life and the life of my elderly passenger. But he said that he was just trying to help. And I believed him.
From here, it began to snowball, one thing after another.
One day soon after, he refused to speak with me on the train on our way to Uni. I was really concerned and tried to get him to open up but he remained silent until much later that day. Finally he burst out saying how he was embarrassed to be associated with me – that he’d seen several guys on the train ogling my chest. Granted, I was wearing a tight-fitting singlet top, but he was acting like I were a tramp. He went on to confess that his father had said he felt uncomfortable around me because of the clothes that I wore and begged me to wear things that were less revealing. It was a fair request so he took me to Queen Street Mall and he bought me something that he felt was more appropriate.
I commented on the way home from Uni another day, when we saw a particularly obese woman, that if I should ever start letting myself go, that I probably wouldn’t realise and I gave him permission to say something about it. He took it as an opportunity to start monitoring my lunch box, scolding me for packing a chocolate morsel for afternoon tea. It came to a head when he outright said it: that it was tearing him up inside. Apparently the previous night he’d had an argument with his sister, which ended with her saying, “I don’t care about you and your fat girlfriend.” I have hardly fluctuated in weight since I left school – even to this day. So looking at me, I’ll let you judge for yourself whether you think I am fat or not. And you can think what you like – but to say it aloud, that is not okay. Naturally I was very hurt by the comment, and bawled my eyes out. But it resulted in him taking me on 10km runs to ensure I did something about it. He clearly believed his sister’s words to be true and I believed him. So we ran.
I have always had trouble falling to sleep at night. I cannot seem to turn my brain off. Over the years I would go to bed later and later at night, in an effort to tire myself out and so not have to spend hour upon hour lying in bed awake, frustrated that I cannot fall asleep. He didn’t seem to understand, thinking it was just a bad habit I’d learned from my parents who stay up late – yet another reason why he felt they didn’t really care about me. So he began to drop me home at night by bringing me to the bathroom, watching me as I brushed my teeth, and then tucking me into bed. It seemed sweet that he cared so much, but I began to resent it, to the point that I would get up again after he had left, or the days where he didn’t drop me home and I promised I would go to be bed before 10pm, that instead I would stay up but avoid social media so that he would never know. Lying to him became second nature as I tried to regain a little bit of myself, to do things as I wanted to do them.
That summer, my parents decided on a whim to take my brothers and sister and I on family holiday to Hawaii. We were all pretty stoked, but deep down I knew it was because they wanted to get me away from him for a little while. It only increased his resentment towards my parents and he was very upset when he heard I’d be gone for two weeks. He and I spent every day together, after all, and he was sure he wouldn’t survive the time without me. I put together a care package for him – a letter for every day that I would be away and a journal for him to write in to me each day, so that he could ‘talk back to me’ so to speak. One night, nearing 10pm Hawaiian time, my family and I were out at the night markets having a great time shopping and eating. He called to say goodnight and obviously found out very quickly that I wasn’t about to go to bed. He said that my parents didn’t really love me if they refused to look after my health and that I should go back to the hotel myself. My dad saw that I was on the phone with him and told me to hang up, but I refused because he was threatening to break up with me if I did. Somehow I managed to calm him down but the situation never really resolved itself. When I returned from the holiday, he was furious with me and had written all sorts of hateful things in the journal I had left him.
I mentioned earlier that he was Christian, not Catholic. He didn’t attend any kind of Christian service on weekends but somehow during our relationship I had managed to continue attending Mass and seeing my youth group on occasion. To be honest, I thought he liked that I was practicing in the faith, like it was a higher choice, like it spoke into my character, and I had secretly hoped that one day he might become Catholic himself. It became apparent, however, that he believed that Catholics were not Christian at all – that we didn’t ‘proclaim Jesus as Lord and Saviour’ so therefore we were all going to hell. I actually laughed in his face when he first said it. It was one of the most ridiculous things I’d ever heard. I wasn’t particularly well catechised so I couldn’t put it in words, but I knew that Jesus was the centre of Catholicism, that you just needed to attend Mass to see. Over the coming months, he wore me down, questioning me of what I believed and why. I couldn’t give him any solid answers and I eventually caved, trying to believe as he did that once I proclaimed Jesus as Lord and Saviour that I would be saved. And I was furious at the Catholic Church for never telling me this – I was so concerned for my family and friends who didn’t know it, what might happen if they died.
We started to attend a Baptist church together. I’d never heard a congregation sing so loudly and joyfully before. It was stark contrast to the little Catholic parish I’d been brought up in and it’s excruciatingly slow organ. You could feel the Holy Spirit moving at this Baptist church – I will never deny that. Yet something felt like it was missing.
I had managed to dodge for the longest time having to ‘proclaim Jesus as Lord and Saviour’. It still didn’t sit right with me. Yet it was the year that World Youth Day came to Sydney and I was still signed up to attend, despite not attending my parish anymore. He asked that if the Catholic Church is bad, then why was I still going to World Youth Day? I didn’t really know why other than that I really wanted to go. I tried telling him that not just Catholics went to it but he convinced me that it was a bad idea, so I agreed. I later thought about it and changed my mind – I really did want to go to World Youth Day. I told him so, yet he managed to get me to change my mind again. This happened several times until, around 6 months before World Youth Day, I finally called up the group coordinator from the parish to withdraw my attendance.
He had a way of convincing me of things, of changing my mind. I would be resolved about something, tell him about it, and by the end of the conversation I would leave with a changed mind. He always seemed to have a better way of doing things, a more convincing argument, a more stubborn resolution. I found myself constantly second-guessing my decisions because of it, half the time doing as I thought he would want me to do, rather than what I wanted to do. I walked around him like on eggshells, careful not to set him off, to provoke his anger, to give him a reason to belittle me. Most days I would go home crying.
I had started to avoid my parents’ eyes, getting frustrated at their questioning of where I had been or where I was going, feeling stifled by them, yet guilty as I used the house as a drop-off zone, just as they were accusing. They sat me down and asked what was going on – ‘where had their happy daughter gone?’ I didn’t realise I wasn’t happy. They pushed for answers, for what he was doing to cause it all, but I was tightlipped and defensive, not wanting to incriminate him. We left the conversation without much resolution and in actual fact it formed a deeper rift between us. I didn’t have anyone else to turn to because he’d driven away my friends and my sister and I were distant. I called him up and we met to discuss it all. His solution: my parents didn’t love me – he loved me, so we should run away. He pushed and pushed me for it but I was too aware of the consequences. It was one small victory of will, but within a week he was pushing it again. We got as far as Burleigh Heads but I put my foot down and he begrudgingly turned the car around and took us back home again.
Some days were fine – they almost seemed romantic and fun. Other days they were not so much. I was constantly wary of which day it might turn out to be, based on his mood. After a particularly unpleasant day, I was driving home from his house to mine, sobbing. I cried out aloud “I can’t do this anymore. Help me.” I don’t know if I was asking for God’s help, but I needed someone to rescue me. I couldn’t do it myself.
Nothing changed until mother’s day, a few weeks later. Traditionally days such as these in my home were family days. We’d do breakfast in bed and presents and eat a special meal together. It was a day that we were just expected to be around the house, available at the drop of a hat. He was at his house, I was at mine. I was studying when he called to say that we should meet up but I said that I couldn’t. He pushed the point but something in me snapped. I told him that we needed to break up. He immediately said that he would drive around to my house and fix it – that we just needed to talk it out. I was sure that if he did, that I would crumble under his presence so I told him if he got into his car, that I would get in my own car and drive to the hospital and admit myself in the insane ward because I couldn’t do it anymore. I wasn’t sure what were my thoughts and what were his. I felt like I was going insane.
I was bawling my eyes out as I heard his car start through the phone. I grabbed my car keys and sprinted outside, barefoot, to my own car. Just as I exited my street, he entered it, and so he drove after me all the way to Greenslopes Hospital. It was a 30-minute drive. The car park was packed when I arrived. I found a park as quickly as I could and got out of the car, determined to make it into the hospital before he intersected me. But he got to me first and I went home, still his girlfriend.
I didn’t know how to tell him that I didn’t want to be with him anymore. I tried to say that I wasn’t right for him and that he’d be so much better off without me, but what I really wanted to say was that he made me unhappy and I wanted to break up. He kept on saying that I’d regret it – that I’d see how good he was to me and that I’d come running back to him. Somehow I managed to convince him that it was over but a few days later I got a phone call from him while I was at Uni. He said that he had lost his job, his grandmother had died, and I’d broken up with him all in the same week so he had said goodbye to his parents just tried to end his life. But he couldn’t go through with it – he thought of the effect that it would have on me, so he backed out. I begrudgingly met up with him, with the intention to get him some professional help. He managed to convince me to give him another go, to start afresh. I conceded. Again, I was his girlfriend.
I came home from one of our 10km runs and mum and dad asked where I’d been. It seemed obvious to me – on a run with him. They said they were confused because they thought I’d broken up with him. There, in the living room, covered in sweat, I told them about the attempted suicide, about all the things he’d been doing to me. They were silent right through until the end, asking if I really wanted to be with him. I said that I didn’t, but that I just didn’t know how to make a clean break. They promised to take care of it.
The next morning, I woke up to hear my dad on the phone. I knew straight away who he was talking to, telling him that he could never see me again. I was free.
Two weeks passed, and I realised that I felt lighter, like I were walking on air. I could think straight and my head was clear. It was liberating to do what I wanted to do and make decisions for myself again – and not have to lie to him about it later. I started to regain myself. I went back to my Catholic parish and went for Mass by myself. I listened so hard to what they were saying and realised there were the answers to his questions of the faith and why we believe what we do. And there was Jesus in the Eucharist. I knew I was home in the Catholic Church. I did go for World Youth Day.
It wasn’t until after World Youth Day that I was in the city for Uni and I saw a billboard advertisement saying “Is he watching what you spend, is he telling you who to be friends with, is he telling you how to dress? Did you know this is abuse?” It dawned on me as I read the sign that he had been abusing me. I felt stupid for not recognising it sooner but I was so grateful to be out of it.
I’m surprised that he honoured my dad’s wishes. I only saw him once more and it was pure coincidence. We passed one another at the train station. It was a haunting moment, as I feared what he might do upon seeing me wearing a crucifix, a loud statement that I’d returned to the Catholic Church. Fearing that he might approach me, ask for me back – or worse. But he didn’t. We just stared at each other, stunned, until we’d passed.
Sometimes I wonder if he might go looking for me online, see what I’m up to now. I wonder if he might figure out that it is him I am referring to in these words. That he might protest and say that I’m a liar or that I’ve blown it all out of proportion or that it was I that had abused him. I wonder what it must have been like from his point of view – after all, he knew I wanted to be a writer so he probably resigned himself to the fact that he had to be the primary breadwinner, and there were no jobs that existed in his industry in Brisbane. With all of these things in his life that he had no control over, I can imagine why he might try to manipulate into place the one thing he could control – me. It doesn’t excuse it, but there are always two sides to a story.