(Caution to readers: this article contains graphic detail of family violence. Support service details are available at bottom of article).
This is the first in a two-part series by Darren Parker, a Ngunawal man and Phd candidate at Melbourne Law School, as part of the crowd-funded #JustJustice project.
In sharing some experiences of racism and violence within his family as a young boy, Darren Parker highlights the importance of the social and cultural determinants of health in any discussion about the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
His story also highlights how traumatic early childhood experiences can set young people upon a pathway that increases their chances of coming into contact with the criminal justice system, as well as the strength that can be found through family and cultural connections.
In the second instalment, he will explore whether decolonising Australian law will assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in attaining justice.
Darren Parker writes:
As children we all want the love, nurture and respect of both of our parents, but sadly not all of us are provided with such. This is part of my story of domestic violence as I experienced it growing up. (There is more to tell but, not here, not yet.)
I firmly believe there is strength in publicly sharing experiences like these both, individually and collectively. However, critically, what everyone must keep in mind whilst reading or hearing these experiences is that they are deeply personal – as well as political in many regards – and that the author has to be totally respected. Meaning, allow the person whose experience you are listening to or reading about, to speak, without inquisitive questioning along the lines “and what else….”.
This is just one story. It forms a part of the seas of tragedy that are the lived experiences of family violence. Moreover, this story is part of a greater narrative of the direct and indirect effects of the horrors of violence in my family. Miserably, it appears, according to numerous official reports that these seas are rising.
However, this story leads onto a much longer story of resilience, a story that is continuing to this day for my family – with my Mum and me. Yet, it felt the resilience was perhaps a long time coming for me.
My Mother on the other hand was, is and will always be the rock of resilience, of whom I am in complete awe. Though, I am sure if you asked her, she would downplay that point.
All that being said, each one of us in my family have dealt with the aftermath of those experiences, both individually and collectively over the course of our lives – and we continue to do so.
Before we proceed, some clarifiers. The following is told from my perspective and memory of events – obviously there are other perspectives and memories, but they are not transcribed here. These memories are inscribed into my mind as if they happened yesterday. The only person from whom I sought approval in writing this was my mother. I have no idea whether my father is still alive or not – and frankly, I do not care. And a trigger warning: if the realities of domestic violence are viscerally or psychologically difficult for you to stomach, I advise you stop reading this now, or at least read it with your own ‘safety-net’.
Earliest memories of childhood are the stuff of Disney; the warm embrace of a parent, their loving direction, being cajoled to sleep….not so, for me. One of my earliest memories is more like a horror movie – being trapped beneath a bed with a monster desperately reaching out to grab hold of me. That monster was my father. A monster fuelled by alcohol, as well as a deep-seated anger – an anger that had overt racial connotations. It was his anger that I remember most, long after the bruises and breaks had healed.
My father was a white male (Irish/Australian), who married my amazing and resilient mother (Ngunawal) after wooing her at the local dance, as the story goes. An Indigenous/non-Indigenous union is not uncommon in many communities throughout Australia. Yet, what in many ways may seem counter-intuitive is that my father was a racist of Australian proportions and as such, particularly racist about Aboriginals – or “boongs”, as he would call us – and I acknowledge the psychological violence in this.
But for now, here, I will simply concern myself with discussing the bodily violence, while recognising, of course, the intrinsic link between psychological and bodily violence.
Back to that earlier memory of my childhood and the preceding events. In short, I spilt my father’s coffee – that was it. That was all it took on this occasion. Sometimes it was even less.
It was a Saturday morning, the night after another drunken rampage by him that had terrorised my Mother, my sisters and myself. On that particular morning, my sisters were readying themselves for dance classes, whilst I had no such commitments as a four-year-old, and played and joked with Mum on the bed in her room.
At this point, I should inform you, that he had expressly forbidden me from precisely this type of behaviour. That I was doing this whilst he was preoccupied with his hangover in the bathroom had inherent risks. Even then, I realised that my (natural) behaviour was perilous and potentially injurious. Only much later did I realise how this ‘reality’ was a conditioning point for the ‘normalising’ of domestic violence (DV) for its victims. That is, the “walking on eggshells” routine became so ingrained that to break that norm was to risk an actual break.
The reason for my “risky” behaviour was simple. As mentioned, the night before had been filled with another of his drunken rampages, and I wanted to console my Mother and make her laugh and to help her forget. So, I was laughing and joking with her (showing off as four-year-olds tend to do) and jumping around the bed. I over-balanced and began to fall, though catching myself with the wad of blankets, I managed to stay somewhat upright and on the bed.
However, in my scramble I had inadvertently knocked over my father’s coffee. It made a mess, sure, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed. A couple of blankets would need a wash and the bedside table a wipe-down. And a new coffee would need to be made. Like I said, nothing irreparable.
In all of this, however, there is a moment that I remember vividly (one that which has caused me a great recurring dread). It was the moment when my Mother’s eyes and my own locked, with a look of terror on both of our faces. We both knew. As such, we acted fast.
In a coordinated scramble that was both clinically precise and frenetic, my Mother and I moved with absolute purpose. We both knew. I began grabbing up the blankets with Mum’s help, whilst she also took the cup to the kitchen to then return with a dishtowel to wipe up the excess. We dumped the blankets in the laundry (under the pretext of ‘weekend washing’ – if asked) and cleaned the residue of the coffee from the side table. My sisters were unwarily recruited into this ‘weekend washing’ alibi by my Mother, by directing them both to take their blankets off their beds and deposit them in the laundry.
My sisters had no idea what was going on – and it was better that way – but us kids were all acutely attuned to motherly housekeeping instructions, regardless. After helping clean up the coffee and removing signs of any spillage (and on being satisfied there weren’t any) both Mum and I began making the bed anew – new sheets, pillowcases, covers and blankets. The bed looked good and everything was squared-away.
The old man was still in the bathroom and oblivious to what was going on. We had gone undetected. Sweet.
Mum sat on the edge of the freshly made bed and was doing her hair. Stupidly, I thought I would repeat my earlier antics with her – bad move on my part, that’s for sure. I had just made it onto the bed and, standing behind my mother, was about to….“Boy!!” and the simultaneous shove.
I don’t recall even seeing him. I remember just hearing him shout and the feel of his hand pushing across my lower back. I went flying. Instantly, I was off the bed and smashing into the window frame and the wall. I didn’t cry, I couldn’t. I knew (even at four) better than that. But, I did feel the blood. I had caught the corner of the window frame just behind my left ear above the hairline. It wasn’t a large gash but the blood poured freely. Instantaneously, I put my hand up to stem the blood and rushed to scramble under the bed. I centred myself beneath the bed and scrunched my t-shirt to my head as a makeshift bandage.
To say that I was scared would be an understatement of serious proportions. I was terrified. Not for being caught doing something expressly forbidden. Not of bleeding and leaving blood spatter across the wall or on my clothes. No, I was terrified of what I knew was to come.
He attempted to grab me before I disappeared under the bed, but feeble in his effort my foot slipped his grip. And that was what terrified me. That I dared to disobey, that I dared to ‘react’ to his monstrosity. Ironically, it was having a reaction to his outrage, which instigated his most vile of retribution. That was something I had witnessed and experienced numerous before, even at my tender age.
I huddled under the bed, looking at the specks of blood – my blood – flecked upon the white paint of the wall above the skirting board and holding my scrunched t-shirt up to cover my cut. I could hear my poor panicked Mother trying to reason with him, to absolutely no avail. Mum’s pleas to leave me alone were ignored and met with more threats against her and my sisters (I only found out much later that they had huddled in one of my sister’s rooms – for the relative comfort of being terrorised together).
My Mother tried in vain to stop his one-way express to ‘Terrorville’, but this merely escalated his anger. I curled there beneath the bed, shivering with the foreboding of not ‘knowing’ what I should do. That’s when it happened.
As I lay curled in the foetal-position staring at the blood flecks, it suddenly became a whole lot brighter “under” the bed. When people talk about moments in time that seem to occur at “slow-speed”, this is a moment that I recall, among others. And yet, it took me by total surprise. In his venomous rage, he grabbed the side of the bed and ferociously lifted. It completely over-turned the bed onto its side, blocking my mother from what was now our side of the room – just him and me.
I recall him taking a single step and reaching down to grab me, lifting me up by my already scrunched up shirt and spitting, directly into my face, the words “you stupid little f*ck! I was just trying to see if you were alright.” There is more that happened here but, I am not yet comfortable with committing that to the page – not yet anyway.
That is just one story of how he showed his ‘love’ to me over the course of the next six to eleven years. My Mum divorced him when I was ten but I had court-ordered ‘visits’ until I was fifteen, and then decided I had finally had enough. The experience I have written here is but one of my experiences of family violence. Wretchedly, there are many others.
One absolute constant throughout these years growing up was my Mother. It was her inner strength that she passed onto me that helped then, for the most part, and is certainly assisting me now. Mum was the one who, whilst working two jobs and raising three kids, kept me in line as best she could. I am forever in a debt to her for this. Mum always stressed the importance and vitality of our culture, as well as the necessity of an education. Both of these I have grasped on to tightly, even during the lowest ebbs of my life, and pursue with even more vigour now. It was at her direction that I completed maths ‘quiz’s’ every school night and ‘book-reports’ most weeks, which has instilled in me a deep love of reading and learning.
Moving away from this particular experience, I’d like to just briefly speak of the effects of growing up within a violent household. I am not speaking for either of my sisters or my Mum – those stories and experiences are theirs, not mine.
The repercussions of growing up under such conditions are as varied as some of them are deep-seated. I have an automatic unspoken distrust of people, particularly men – and that has to be repeatedly proven to be unfounded before I relinquish that distrust. I don’t feel completely at ease in social gatherings – this is in spite of always being labelled a “rambunctious” person. You know the old trope of the loudest person is often the one craving the most silence. Yet, being labelled rambunctious is completely incongruous with how I feel inside – quiet and solitary. There are other effects too, but I merely proffer those ones for the time being.
However, I will now speak to two very intense and very deep effects I laboured with for years – alcoholism and suicidal tendencies. Thankfully, I have put one of them “back in its box” or “pissed it out of my life”, as I enjoy saying, that being alcohol. Whilst I no longer drink grog, I have not turned into anything resembling a puritan in this regard. I do not deride anyone who does drink, as it is none of my business.
In terms of my own personal autonomy, I have finally made what I feel is the best life-course for myself. But I am forever vigilant, knowing that another bottle is just around the corner if I want it to be and that patently, I am an alcoholic. I am learning my triggers and what sets them off, realising that I must be constantly aware of them. Being a non-practising alcoholic requires a never-ending awareness of self and is easily one of the hardest challenges I have ever encountered, particularly as alcohol is so ubiquitous in this society.
One of the great positives of ceasing drinking, and there are a few, is that my mental health has noticeably improved. Now, I’m not talking about others noticing and/or commenting, I’m speaking about how I have noticed within myself the psychological upside of pissing off the grog. Whilst I have no illusions of being ‘cured’, I have not entertained such self-destructive thoughts for some time. However, ridding myself of that foul inner-voice that has, in the past, screamed my ‘unworthiness’ at me is always an on-going process.
I would love to tell you that I have a number of years of sobriety and with it a well-developed positive mental health outlook under my belt. But I do not. It has only been a matter of months since I began this journey. However, the differences are already quite noticeable, to me.
When I was immersed in the bottle and/or feeling like death, you would have to have known me exceptionally well to see it, and even then it was not always possible. I was what might be called a “high-functioning” alcoholic.
I did not acknowledge the self-destructiveness that arose out of those childhood experiences of psychological bombardment and physical assault. That lack of self-worth was ‘blackened out’ by alcohol, and binges of drinking the pain away, and waking to a new day in a “shame-spiral”. At points throughout my life, it seemed that this was “my lot”, that I would continue on such a path until my eventual and perhaps premature death.
Thankfully, I have chosen a different path, one that is not fraught with: drunken messes; blackouts; police cells; courts; fines; mania; depression; suicidal plans; hospital visits; and the like. While there was not a single event that broke this pattern, it was just after the last time I went home on one of my regular visits to see Mum for a catch up and something – something – just didn’t feel right. Something in her voice that I couldn’t quite pick…. Anyway, after spending a few days at home, catching up, making food and eating, hanging out, I had to return to my place.
It was on the drive back that I committed myself to the course I have recently set upon. I made that choice in silence and did not voice it for at least a month. By then I was already experiencing the positive effects of my choice. Then on one of our regular phone calls I finally told Mum, and instantly I could hear and feel the change in her – and that confirmed it for me. That Mum then spoke, in an abstract way, about our cultural resilience merely reinforced that confirmation.
Knowing that I am truly starting to fulfil my cultural obligations and the cultural respect for my Mother and my ancestors – those who have sacrificed so much for me to be where I am today – is a touchstone with a force incomparable to any bottle. Cultural integrity and respect is the cup I now sup from.
Now I feel ready, willing and able to move forward in the most positive of ways I can. That is, to move with the respect for others and myself that for many years was despicably masked by the horrors of family violence.
• Darren Parker is a Ngunawal man and Phd candidate at Melbourne Law School. Follow him on Twitter @Darren_Parker
In his next article for the #JustJustice series, he will explore whether decolonising Australian law will assist in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in attaining justice.
Mental Health Contacts
• If you are depressed or contemplating suicide, help is available at Lifeline on 131 114 or online. Alternatively you can call the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.
• For young people 5-25 years, call kids help line 1800 55 1800
• For resources on social and emotional wellbeing and mental health services in Aboriginal Australia, see here.
Family Violence Contacts
• In emergency situations or danger, call police on 000
• For confidential help and referral, call the National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)
• Children/young people needing help should call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.
• Call the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service Victoria toll free on 1800 105 303.
• The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling help line can be reached at 1800 737 732
• The Men’s Referral Service provides anonymous and confidential telephone counselling, information and referrals to men to help them take action to stop using violent and controlling behaviour: 1300 766 491
Croakey acknowledges and thanks all those who donated to support #JustJustice (see their names here). We also thank and acknowledge our premium sponsors, the Jesuit Social Services, and Frank Meany of One Vision.