By Bunmi Sofola
Augusta is in her 60s, middle class, and seemingly contented except for the ton in her flesh – the destruction of her daughter’s self-worth by the monster she was married to. Here, she tells her story:
“December 19, 2004, was a Friday. I know this because it is a date etched deeply and painfully in my memory. My husband and I came home from a party to find the answer-phone message that would change my life forever. “Mum, please call. I’ve been attacked.’ It was my eldest daughter, then 29, speaking in a trembling whisper.
“I frantically dialed her number and could scarcely take in what she told me: her husband had thrown her down the stairs in a drunken rage. She had phoned me after barricading herself in the bedroom with her two children.
“But there was I five hundred miles away, living at the other end of the country. And I hadn’t even been at home to take her desperate call. Many are the time I have chastised myself for going out and for not living closer. Instead, it fell to her mother-in-law to take away her son to sober up.
“I didn’t sleep that night. I had difficulty imagining my son-in-law doing such a thing. They had seemed so happy. One thing I was certain of: that would be the end of their relationship. Looking back, I could weep at my naivety. I still had everything to learn about abusive relationships and how they can rumble on for years while parents watch, helpless, from the sidelines. Incredibly, 12 years on, my daughter is still living with her husband. There have been countless episodes of abuse, physical and verbal. On one occasion the police were involved. Again and again, she has vowed to leave only to be lured back, to my frustration and, above all, dread. I knew things like this happened, but not to people like us. We are a close-knit family; educated people who resolve things by talking. It was shocking to find that domestic violence goes on behind the most respectable of middle-class facades. Domestic violence isn’t the taboo topic it was. But I felt compelled to write this because the plight of an abused woman’s mother is rarely discussed.
“MY DAUGHTER is a grown woman. Her life and that of her children have been ruined by violence, but only she can change that. And the more I nag her, the more I risk pushing her ever deeper into her attacker’s clutches. Bola, as I will call her, is the oldest of my three children. She and her brother and sister are close in age and in affection. She was a happy child, pretty and always singing. She was 17 when I divorced her father and she coped as well as children can in such circumstances. When I remarried, she had no difficulty accepting my new husband. She was 20 and living at home when she met Julius, a colleague at work. Mild-mannered, quietly spoken, he caused a rippled of approval in the family. Alarm bells should have rung after the birth of their first child, my first grandchild, five years later.
“Overnight a kind of invisible fortress encircled Bola. Visits were by appointment and the baby’s regime was laid down by Julius. As a rookie granny, I wasn’t sure of my ground. I backed off, deferred to Julius as the proud new father. I have often wondered if it would have made a difference if I had been a stronger presence if I had been the kind of mother-in-law who was not to be crossed.
“When your child is being ill-treated you do a lot of soul-searching.
“After that answer phone message, the next three days were surreal. Bola didn’t want me to go to her house, so we talked on the phone. She assured me she had nothing worse than bruises and shock and begged me not to tell the family.
“I understood – sort of. Her pride was bruised as well as her body. She was adamant the incident was not reported to the police. I understood that, too; he was her husband and the father of her children. It would never happen again.
“On the third day came the inconceivable yet inevitable reconciliation. Bola assured me she and Julius had talked things over and she now understood she had been to blame for his momentary loss of self-control. Her crime? She had invited one of her siblings to Christmas dinner without seeking his permission.
“When I challenged this ridiculous excuse, I found myself wrong-footed. ‘You don’t know him like I do,’ she screamed. ‘Anyway,’ she said, putting in the final boot, ‘you’re partly to blame. You’ve never made him feel welcome in the family.’ This was one of the most twisted corruptions of the facts I’d ever heard. My husband remembers me sinking to the floor, weeping tears of despair.
“After that, things seemed to settle down. I say ‘seemed’ because I don’t know half of what went on. Information has leaked out little by little. A few words confided in a sister, a few more confided in a sister, a few more confided in me, long after the event. What I know is that Julius took control of every aspect of Bola’s life. She stopped seeing her friends. She was always short of money. Perhaps the saddest thing of all – she stopped singing, even to her children. A year and a half later, Julius dragged Bola round the house by her hair in front of my terrified granddaughters then five and two. She called the police and Julius was taken away to cool off while Bola’s father drove her to the safety of her brother’s house. After three days, she went home of her own volition. Julius, she insisted, had been cautioned and turned over a new leaf. Our phone conversation went pretty much as it had 18 months earlier: she had provoked the attack with some thoughtless comment. No one else understood Julius, they loved each other and it would never happened again.
“It was a defining moment for me: no matter what I did, no matter how much I offered to help Bola escape, the decision had to be hers.
‘Having had his case on file by the police, Julius changed his method from physical abuse to psychological warfare, chipping away at her confidence: she was a lousy mother and wife, she was stupid and incompetent. There was no reasoning with her; she had constructed her own little universe; she and Julius versus the rest of the world. If she wouldn’t help herself, what could I do? If I pressured Bola to leave, I might alienate her irreparably. If I did nothing it might cost her life.
“My other children and their father reassured me I had no reason for self-reproval, but the thought that I should be the one to save her haunted me. That’s what mothers do. Life settled into a pattern. Occasionally Bola would confide in one of us that there had been another ‘episode’ and this time she was leaving. Time and again she went back. We saw it as the ‘day three phenomenon’; she receive presents and promises from Julius, and return.
“Our family had less and less contact with Bola. A year could pass without us seeing her. Family gatherings became tinderboxes. Julius would never attend, but would be waiting at home, with threats and a vicious tongue. My granddaughters, now teenagers, were not permitted to visit me and their home was a place I dreaded. It smelled of fear. Their downcast eyes and cautious way of answering questions spoke volumes. I was lucky in that I still had my son and my other daughter, and, by then, more grandchildren. With them I enjoyed a normal, happy life, but Bola was always the spectre at the feast. I felt I had lost her.
“Earlier this year we all attended a family funeral. This was the first time I had seen Bola since her brother’s wedding five years ago and her appearance shocked me. My beautiful daughter had become gaunt and dead-eyed. As we parted, I couldn’t stop my tears. ‘What’s wrong?’ she asked. I said: ‘I’m frightened that the next time I see you it will be you I’m burying.’ She said nothing, but there were tears in her eyes. My words must have touched her in a way nothing else had because a week later she e-mailed: ‘I know I have to get away. I just don’t know where to start.’
“I’ve learned many things about abusers and one frightening fact is this: the most dangerous moment for an abused woman is when she breaks free. Men like Julius insist on being in control. When anyone challenges that grip, their anger escalates. Some kill rather than let their victim escape. Meanwhile, I torture myself: Why didn’t I spot Julius’ true nature? Should I have had it out with him face to face? Or was I right to play the long game, hoping that Bola would come to her senses? I have days when I think I could not have done anything differently. I have days when I feel I have failed her. Bola may be in her 40s, but she is still my baby. As I told her few days ago, I dream of the day I hear her sing again.