:: Article

dumbstruck

By Freyja Howls.


Photgraph by Felix Huth under a CC BY 2.0 license.

The first time I witnessed violence I went mute. My mother was the victim, my father the perpetrator. She packed bags when he left for work that evening and she got a plane with me, her broken foot and the seed of my little brother. I had been a very talkative child, sometimes to my parents’ dismay, having lost sight of me to find me perfectly integrated with a group of strangers. It didn’t last long. I was taken from our island home of pink sunsets and shoeless anarchism, where children sat with adults into the night, and I arrived in London dumbstruck. Along with my father, I had lost an entire language, a culture, and one future had been swapped out for another. We never spoke of it, and I was mute for two months, so I am told.

Processing is a therapeutic term now in common parlance but as far as I can tell, it’s still a privilege of those with space and time for it. My mother had no time to help me process what I had witnessed; she couldn’t process it for herself. She was a destitute single mother in a country she hadn’t seen in fifteen years. She worked a rotation of jobs nobody wants to do, and I was sent to a very normal British school, full of very normal children, and my silence became a stutter.

My mother never hit me as a child. For this I consider myself lucky, because it could have been different. She wasn’t perfect, a lot of the time she was out of control, but I’ve learned to forgive that now that I’m the age she was when she had me. I can’t imagine how I would fare alone at an airport, broken foot, broken home. Recently I was having a picnic with a friend, talking about mothers and all that goes unsaid between us and them. My friend was too immersed to notice the rupture of violence nearby. Three mothers, all chain-smoking and passing the bottle of rosé, all tired and all poor. One of them had her four or five-year old on one of those human leashes made for children who run into traffic, and she yanked him so hard he fell and cried. I watched her hit him twice, and I panicked, the memories of children beaten still rattling in my bones. Somehow her words disturbed me more. Sometimes they last longer. “See what I mean?” She looked to the others for approval, “he’s a fucking devil child.”

I watched the boy blubbering and pass it all onto his sister, who had been minding her own business. Frantic little fists pummelling her arms, to her shock, doing no harm for now. I was a coward. I told myself that, bad as it was, it wasn’t my place to intervene. There I was, childless with the time to debate the finer points of mother-daughter conflicts (of the heart, not the fists). It would only result in a brawl my friend wouldn’t back down from, a further eruption of violence on the picnic spread, shouts of “who the fuck do you think you are?” with a side of fag-ash, a Blossom Hill bloodbath. I told myself that if it got worse, I would do something. Truthfully, I couldn’t move.

When I was ten I had a friend called Cheryl with auburn hair down to her knees and small rosebud lips. Everything about her shone a little red with exacerbation. She lived on an estate nearby but her extended family lived in caravans. Her brother was maybe thirteen and loomed like a lanky giant. I found it funny the way his voice wasn’t yet his own and his limbs moved without him. It was just Cheryl and me the day he came home, and it wasn’t funny anymore. I don’t recall if anything in particular set him off, but suddenly he had my tiny friend up against the wall by her throat so her feet dangled, and I stood paralysed. I figured he wouldn’t hit me, I wasn’t family. And with the safety of being outside that family came a reason for silence: it is not my place to intervene. I have no power here. I watched the scene in mute horror but with no surprise. This is what families do, I thought, my mother’s broken bone in her foot keeping my feet firmly stuck there. Cheryl got smacked several times around the head and then once across the face by her mother when she cried to her about what her brother had done.

That summer I saw her talking to some travellers working rides at the annual fete, and then she didn’t come back to school. I told myself she had run away with the circus, swapping out bruises for the trapeze. I pictured her waves of hair flying miles high and used that image to plot my own escapes. The fact that I had seen her beaten and defiant, declaring anything but this, meant I was less inclined to accept it when it was my turn. I was eleven when my grandmother attacked me. She was babysitting me and a bottle of whiskey. She left me with bruises, a bloody mouth and a tendency to run and hide under my bed whenever she showed up. This response was not acceptable — she was the only help my mother had, and there was no time for discussion. With enough protesting, a neighbour took her place and, like everything else there was no time for, the prolonged and terrifying assault was put away in a corner for me to stare at, bemused. For my mother, the violence was just another crisis to endure, and my trauma was an inconvenience.

My grandmother and I barely spoke again, until I was fifteen and she had her first stroke. Something like roots round my ankles, like the phrase blood is thicker than water, something beyond reason had me scared. She was my only link to before this — what if she died and we never patched things up? What if she was buried before I ever understood? I began to visit her frequently as her mind and body accelerated their demise. I worked hard to construct the relationship I thought we ought to have, the kind I had read about, between a regular schoolgirl and her fat, old grandmother who was showing an interest suddenly, who was telling me about bombs raining on London and who could actually be rather funny before the third glass. It was during a visit like this that I discovered the violence that made her.

My grandmother was raised in Birmingham with seven sisters, one child of an unmarried neighbour; her mother, who tortured the girls with belts, canes and a hot poker; and her father, who drank quietly and never intervened. At fourteen she joined other children on factory lines, and my great-grandmother took every shilling. “The thing is,” my grandmother said in a Dickensian reverie, “sometimes she was quite good to me, and it was the others she’d pick on. You just never knew. But she was never nice again after little Charlie.”

Charlie was the baby they had received from the young woman who probably ended up in a nunnery. My grandmother claimed she had accidentally dropped him one day and so her mother scarred her with permanent burns and sent her to work for a week without shoes. Her words came out so flat I couldn’t believe they were real. I thought, this isn’t how you talk about being tortured, like you’re reading the weather report. Her eyes were hollow and I searched her hands for traces of my great-grandmother. Her wrinkled hands cupping the glass, telling me this horror story like it was nothing. The same hands she had used to slam my head against the staircase. And I understood. I saw loose thread on her stained t-shirt and realised that if I pulled at it, everything that made up that fragile monster would unravel. I sat in silence while she finished her drink.

It isn’t that I had low self-esteem, it’s just that when the blueprints for your life are littered with violence your tolerance for it might be too high. It’s not that I didn’t know better; I knew what was happening when he splintered me from my family and friends. I saw all the red flags like they were waving on a freight train a mile off, I just had no impetus to get off the tracks. This is what it’s like, remember, this is family. I was eighteen when the first man I ever loved grabbed my head and planted it into a wall, and the moment was revelatory. I watched my lineage fall from his drunken punches and print a legacy of blood on my sheets. I watched it all from a space outside of us, seeing myself uncannily slip into the role assigned by my DNA. This was inevitable, almost funny. Of course I hadn’t left him when I should; it had to come to this. He only did it once, and the next time my grandmother threw words at me like knives down the telephone wire, I ended that relationship too.

My grandmother’s death has been slow enough for me to make the decision to not see her a dozen times. Once or twice she has had a lucid moment and asked why she never sees me. Any opportunity we once had to meet one another has been stolen by dementia. I decided a dozen times that I wouldn’t hold the weight of all the violence inflicted upon us alone. Where she grew up there was no language for addressing the brutality of her experiences. She moved from one phase of life into another and muffled the echoes with alcohol. I lent myself to the relationship until it hurt too much, then I set out to make sense of a world my family could not speak about. Space, time and articulation would be my severance. I achieved a little liberation, but there is something spooky about DNA. Our bodies are not our own; they are hosts to alien life, anything from gut bacteria to cancers able to seize control of the gears. I have a birth defect. Nothing major, just a split down a fingernail which never grows out. My mother and grandmother both have defects in the same finger; they serve as a reminder that despite my swings away, the pendulum falls back to base matter. I have changed my appearance a hundred times and it doesn’t make a dent in the gravity of blood. We have the same nervous tics, my grandmother and I, despite my lifelong defiance of her tyranny, our split like the fault-line down my nail. It has been over a decade and yet I’ll never be rid of her because I still grind my teeth with nervous energy the way she always did.

There is a mute child in me wherever I go, a silent witness to things too awful to speak of. I sat on the ground where we picnicked while that little boy was abused and thought about the word dumbstruck. Struck so hard you go dumb. I watched his sad little punches and remembered my nervous stutter, which spawned a cycle of hysterical teasing so unbearable I resorted to playing dumb. I realised that being dumb isn’t having nothing to say, it’s being deprived of a language with which to say it. My grandmother left the battlefield of her childhood home for the Blitz. She once told me proudly that she worked on the line which assembled the planes my grandfather flew to fight the Nazis, and I imagined her leaving that house of perpetual blows only to live through air sirens and the incessant threat of V-2s ripping through the sky.

Some clinicians are arguing for ‘Complex-‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to be regarded as a singular category, meant to specify the kinds of pathologies which develop in extraordinary circumstances: sites of perpetual abuse or neglect, war zones… well, extraordinary conditions from the perspective of someone who expects trauma to be a rather singular thing. My grandmother was donning an apron between daily beatings and nightly air raids, and psychologists have only recently discovered that such an existence might have unwanted side effects. The complexity is about the issue of post-trauma, in that there is no possibility for an ‘afterwards,’ no respite, there’s just more trauma. Had anyone known this when she was young, it still wouldn’t have helped her. She was made in brief breaths between wounds, and all the theory I can throw at the violence which relates us to each other is only useful in retrospect. Neither one of us had a language we could use to resist fate. Where I longed for articulation and recognition there was only repression and amnesia. Her surrender to silence as a child set the stage. Every failure to articulate her experience of violence became a failure to prevent its recurrence. Each time she framed horror in monotony was a failure to communicate. I only wish I could have found a language for us before it was too late.

Freyja Howls is a writer, performer and activist who would have been a style icon and comedian a century ago. Her essays have been published by Dog Section Press and Lumpen Journal and she has contributed to the Every Day Analysis collective. She is working on memoirs and a novel. You can follow her on Twitter @FreyjaHowls or contact her by email.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 5th, 2020.