By Erin Pizzey
UPDATED: 11:52 GMT, 24 September 2009
ERIN PIZZEY set up the world’s first refuge for battered women in 1971 – and went on to establish an international movement for victims of domestic violence. But what she has never made public before is that her own childhood was scarred by the shocking cruelty of both her parents.
Here, for the first time, she tells the full harrowing story – and how it led her to a surprising, but deeply felt, conclusion …
Though I remember little of my earliest years, I grew up in a world of extraordinary violence. I was born in 1939 in Tsingtao, China, and shortly after my family moved to Shanghai with my diplomat father, we were captured by the invading Japanese army. It was 1942, the war was raging and we were held under house arrest until we were exchanged for Japanese prisoners of war and put on the last boat out of China.
My father was ordered to Beirut by the diplomatic service, and we were left as refugees in Kokstad, South Africa. From living in an enormous house with a fleet of servants and a nanny, my twin sister Rosaleen and I were suddenly at the mercy of my mother Pat’s temper. And it was ferocious. Having escaped the brutality of the war, we were introduced to a new brand domestic cruelty.
Indeed, my mother’s explosive temper and abusive behaviour shaped the person I later became like no other event in my life.
Thirty years later, when feminism exploded onto the scene, I was often mistaken for a supporter of the movement. But I have never been a feminist, because, having experienced my mother’s violence, I always knew that women can be as vicious and irresponsible as men.
Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the movement, which proclaimed that all men are potential rapists and batterers, was based on a lie that, if allowed to flourish, would result in the complete destruction of family life.
From the very beginning, I waged war against my mother and quickly learned to disassociate myself from the pain of her beatings.
Her words, however, stayed with me all my life. ‘You are lazy, useless, and ugly,’ she would scream. ‘You look like your father’s side of the family – Irish trash.’
They were vicious words that I have heard repeated over and over by mothers everywhere. Indeed, when I later opened my refuge for battered women, 62 of the first 100 to come through the door were as abusive as the men they had left.
She was, however, right: I did look like my father, Cyril. While my twin sister was slim and had long dark hair, and my mother’s deep blue eyes, I was fat and fair-haired, clumsy, noisy and brash.
I was only five but I knew my mother didn’t like me
I was only five years old, but I knew my mother didn’t like me. And with no servants to restrain her now, she lashed out whenever she felt like it.
When we finally joined my father in a flat in Beirut, I soon realised that he was no saint either. He would constantly scream and rage at all of us.
He was particularly consumed by jealousy. Even though he verbally abused my mother and rarely showed her affection, he seemed compelled to follow her around like a guard dog.
If she spoke on the telephone, he grilled her until she burst into tears. If she went out shopping, he paced the room until she got back and exploded with rage if she were more than a few minutes late.
I hated my father with all my childish heart – and was truly terrified by him. He was 6ft 4in tall, massively built and had a huge paunch that hung over his belt. He stared out of piggy, pale blue eyes and had a big sloppy mouth that slobbered over my lips when he kissed me.
He didn’t believe in baths, which he said were ‘weakening’, and smoked tins of Players Cigarettes, which made him smell like an ashtray. His rages were explosive and unpredictable.
But despite his clumsy, predictable form of macho brutality – born out of his being the 17th child of a violent Irish father – it was my mother’s more emotional, verbal form of abuse that scarred me most deeply.
She indulged in a particular kind of soul murder – and it was her cruelty that, even 60 years on, still reduces me to tears and leaves me convinced that feminism is a cynical, misguided ploy.
Unfortunately, at that time, what I wanted more than anything was for my mother to love me – something I never felt she truly did. And so, when my father was posted to Chicago, and I followed my mother to Toronto, to live with my godparents, I was initially hopeful. I believed that without my father’s presence, she would have the time be a real mother.
But once in the bosom of this normal family, my own dysfunctional behaviour soon became apparent. I had, it seems, already been too badly damaged by my mother’s hatred of me.
I was always in trouble at school, encouraging the other children to behave as badly as I did. On one occasion, I was caught sitting on the doorstep giving away the money I’d stolen from my mother’s bag.
Needless to say, my mother went berserk. She took me upstairs and beat me with an ironing cord until the blood ran down my legs. I showed my injuries to my teacher the next morning – but she just stared back impassively and did nothing.
Many years later, when feminists started demonising all fathers, these stark images continually reminded me of the truth – that domestic violence is not a gender issue.
She beat me until the blood ran down my legs
Shortly after the war, my father was posted to Tehran and we all went to live with him. It was only when I saw him again that I remembered how much I hated him.
He would come home from the office, and as he put the key in the door I would freeze. I would often hear him coughing outside the door – he was still a heavy smoker – and spitting phlegm into the flower bed.
His eyes were windows into his violent moods. If they were narrowed and red, I knew he was in a rage and it would only be a matter of time before he erupted.
But my hatred of my father was pure and uncontaminated by any other emotions. My feelings about my mother, however, were far more complicated.
As much as I was devastated by her hatred of me, I still genuinely strove for her love. In fact, I had moments of great compassion for her when I saw her weeping and wailing in front of my father.
Occasionally, she fought back against his brutality. She was only 4ft 9in, but my mother was extremely strong and her tongue was lethal. She accused him of being an oaf and an idiot. She called his mother a prostitute and his father a common Irish drunk.
Unsurprisingly, my brother and sister were both withdrawn and silent children. My sister suffered from headaches, weeping eczema and mysterious days of paralysis when she was unable to get up from her bed.
To outsiders, my father was a genial, intelligent man and my mother a famous party hostess with three beautiful children and a perfect diplomatic family. In fact, my parents were both violent, cruel people and we were all deeply damaged.
In 1949, my father was posted back to Tien Sien, in China. I was left with my twin sister in a boarding school – Leweston, near Sherborne in Dorset – and my brother accompanied my parents.
Very shortly after they took up their post, however, my parents were captured again – this time by the communists – and held under house arrest for three years.
Without them, I felt an abiding sense of peace and loved my holidays at St Mary’s in Uplyme, a holiday home for children whose parents were abroad. Miss Williams, who ran the place, was the first adult that I really admired and respected. She became my mentor.
But this idyll was shattered when I heard that my parents had been released. I remember being called to the telephone in the convent to speak to my mother. I had completely blotted my parents out of my life and so when I heard her Canadian accent, I just screamed down the phone.
‘You’re not my mother!’ I yelled, all too aware that the whole circus was about to start again.
When my mother first returned, to a house outside Axminster, we enjoyed an uneasy truce. I was much taller than her now, and too big for her to batter.
Instead, she began to list my father’s faults, and the atrocities he had inflicted on us all, as if I were now her confidante. She would tell me how much she hated him and that they never should have married.
‘But I stayed for you,’ she told me. ‘I stayed because I wanted you to go to a private school and enjoy a comfortable way of life.’
I took the decision that I would have to stab my father
Once again, she was unleashing her peculiar brand of emotional cruelty, and placing all the responsibility – and guilt – on me. It was a pattern of behaviour I would witness again and again among some of the women in my refuge.
The day my father was due to join us in the new house, my mother was a nervous wreck. She was crying and clinging on to me, demanding that I protect her. ‘I don’t want him anywhere near me,’ she said.
In dysfunctional families, children, no matter how badly they are treated, will try to take on the parenting role. For me, this still meant protecting and comforting my mother.
And so, on the night of my father’s return, I took a large carving knife from the kitchen and went up to my parents’ bedroom, which I peered into through a gap in the door. They slept in separate, single beds and I took the extraordinary decision that I would stab him if he tried to force himself on her.
I was, on reflection, following my mother’s unspoken orders. Remarkably, she had manipulated me to such a degree that I was now willing to murder for her.
My father certainly tried to talk his way into her bed. Fortunately, however, he didn’t become physical. If he had, he would now be dead and my life would have turned out very differently.
In the 1950s, while I was working in Hong Kong, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I returned to our house near Axminster – and found my father unchanged.
By now, he was trying to force my mother to sign her money – she had received a sizeable inheritance from her father – over to him. Week after week, in the local cottage hospital, she refused, and week after week, he ranted and raved at her while she writhed in pain. I begged the nurses to stop him, but they said no one could come between a man and his wife.
At first, my mother refused to believe she was dying. But when my father finally broke her down, and bullied her into signing the papers, her life began to ebb away in earnest.
She died on September 16, 1958, and my father had the body brought home and placed in the dining room. That night, as she lay next door, we sat down to have supper at the table in the hall.
He made us stand vigil over her visibly decomposing body
After supper, my father ordered us into the dining room, where my mother’s open coffin was draped with a red cloth. My brother, sister and I begged my father not to remove the cloth, but when we closed our eyes for a moment to say a prayer for her, we opened them to be confronted by her pale face. I vividly remember that there was cotton wool sticking out of her nose.
Every night, we would stand vigil over my mother’s body, and every night she would be exposed to the humiliation of having her children see her visibly decomposing. At last, six days later, my father buried her.
I left home the next day and only saw him once more – when I took his ashes to my mother’s grave in 1982.
I only decided to talk about my traumatic childhood last week – on a BBC radio programme called The House Where I Grew Up – but I decided long ago I would not repeat the toxic lessons I learned as a child. Instead, I would become a survivor.
Feminism, I realised, was a lie. Women and men are both capable of extraordinary cruelty. Indeed, the only thing a child really needs – two biological parents under one roof – was being undermined by the very ideology which claimed to speak up for women’s rights.
This country is now on the brink of serious moral collapse. We must stop demonising men and start healing the rift that feminism has created between men and women.
Harriet Harman’s insidious and manipulative philosophy that women are always victims and men always oppressors can only continue this unspeakable cycle of violence. And it’s our children who will suffer.