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October 9, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Family Monster

CW: Strong warning that this piece contains comprehensive discussion of child sexual abuse, rape, and incest. If you do read this article, and find yourself distressed, we’ve placed direction to support services at the end.

Editor’s note: The author has chosen to remain anonymous because of the close proximity they have to the subject matter. Writing about these topics necessarily implicates the family and thus there are not many safe ways to do this, without the protection of anonymity. As someone who can relate to this topic, it was initially very triggering. This piece delves deep into the topics listed above, and brought back memories I’ve minimised all these years, as my coping mechanism. I had to read it in multiple sittings. However, I came to find some relief in at least having some language to articulate my conflicted and shameful thoughts; and some comfort, in knowing that I’m not completely alone in this.

*

This is a biography of my paternal grandfather, a man who has indecently assaulted all of his granddaughters. He is technically guilty, though may die without ever being officially charged, of incest, rape, sexual assault, and child molestation. Unavoidably, this is also a story about my family.   

The evils closest to us, the ones raised in the same domestic spaces as our virtues, are difficult to place at the clinical table of analysis. To pluck out these evils means wrenching away, alongside the cancer, so many other vital organs. Imagine my bony hands, my gloved forefingers and thumbs, rubbing through latex to feel for lumps across the bloody oesophagus of your childhood. Now, near the heart, I am prodding that fond memory of the Christmas when you received the Barbie doll you wanted, the one with the grocery cart. Here, parallel to the trachea, your first pet dies, and now your first day at school, you were so good that day, you sat on the mat without even being asked. Finally, at the top of the throat just before the mouth, lodged within the image of your father tucking stray locks behind your ear over and over (“my little angel,” he keeps saying), is your grandfather forcing his way in through the locked bathroom door to come and watch you, still a vulnerable idiot with your pants hanging over the sides of your little shoes, as you sit on the toilet. Recall how your mother would lovingly comb the tangles from your hair in the shower of that same bathroom.

In conversation, I’ve found that the topic of child sexual abuse (CSA) struggles to get beyond the bounds of “children can’t consent” — consent, that golden word — child sexuality being all but totally non-existent until the very sudden age of sixteen, a view that sometimes worsens the shame felt by victims of CSA. To obfuscate further, perpetrators of such domestic evils are treated as monsters — we fear their existence to the extent that few are brave enough to comprehend child sexual abusers, or those who enable them, as humans, that is, as our friends, our family, as woven into the fabric of our society.  

 

A Family Monster

After the consecutive breakdowns of the two sisters, one in class and the other during a test, the German teacher of the local high school was overheard confiding quietly to another staff member:

There is something wrong with that family.”

Civilised, dipping their biscuits in watery coffee, the other staff in the religious department construed the teacher’s deduction as harmless intuition, and though for a while they thrilled from the new gossip, eventually the issue was politely, correctly, forgotten. Inquiring about the family of the two sisters was sensitive, and it might have brought the school into an array of difficulties — grudges, cultural particularities, and possible accusations of over-stepping boundaries.

Fear, monsters teach us, is remarkably constructive. Whole societies are built, not only by need and desire, but by terror — by walls and weapons, by jails and mad houses. More insidiously, fear prescribes many labyrinths of evasion, seemingly benign, like bureaucracy, or denial.  

The catalyst had been a text message, then still an exciting novelty. One propitiously warm afternoon, Reginald had sent a confession to one of his granddaughters. “I cant b around u anymore…” he wrote. Alarmed, the granddaughter dropped her books in the locker room and texted back “why?His reply was quick — almost premeditated: because if I c u again I am afraid that I will have to kiss you… I am in love with you

Mama was the first adult to be told about what was happening to her daughter. Reginald is her husband’s father, the head of that model family who laughingly regard her as a superstitious housewife, while she, from the lowly position of the kitchen counter, resents them. Troubling though it is, it is conceivable that Mama felt — burning white at the centre of her outrage — a little triumph.

Mama arranged to meet Reginald’s two daughters at a café, where she unsteadily recounted what had been said by her daughter, seeking calm in their educated, liberated presence. She assumed their neutral expressions for composure or intellect, but when she finished speaking, they laughed.

In stories we read as children, it is always the marginalised who are the earliest to admit the possibility of the monster’s existence, while the better positioned members of a community, those who have benefitted from the structures where the monster feeds, are the last to cede through recognition.

Mama tells me they said that she was crazy and that their father was probably just “joking around.” He’s just a funny old man with a penchant for incest jokes. At the time, they didn’t know that their own children had been molested as well.

 

The Immigrant

Evil induces incomprehension, a terrifying Otherness straining the many ethical philosophies hinging on our human responsibility to each other. Yet, part of being good, at least among the aspiring progressive milieu, is being open-minded about those unlike you, a generosity which is favourable for immigrants like me, and like my grandfather. The oft omitted truth of immigrant families is that there will be members who hate their new home, and a degree of alienation inevitably attends the status of the foreigner; the phantom itch of a mother tongue torn out because its language has no currency here, among other ills.

In hindsight, one might have predicted that Reginald would someday become a lonely man; it was only a question of how. Poets are often lonely. He thought of poetry when he walked. He always loved to walk, and would do so for long hours, travelling many miles by foot, the distances lengthening as he grew older. He could have kept going one day, headed all the way to central Manila and caught a bus, a plane or boat, to Boracay, to Dumaguete, to Davao. Freedom. 50 years ago, he could not have guessed where loneliness would come about.

This proud man, the perfume peddling charmer, harried away from the sultry climes of that far off archipelago to live out his last years in the sterile, dry chill of the antipodes. New Zealand: where hardly anyone speaks Tagalog, where loud laughter is berated and silence is so precious that conversing too avidly on the bus warrants glares from other passengers. Everywhere, white faces staring with their grey eyes, speaking in slow cluttered gibberish to him, a poet, presuming him stupid and poor. Sometime earlier in Reginald’s life, I cannot pinpoint precisely when, an ecstatic lack had taken root, and it finally erupted into flower in this strange climate. Evil thrives unchecked.

Open-mindedness improves society — it allows Others to become Us — but it requires the ability and willingness to participate in social norms, our laws, our ways. Falling too far outside of these revered tenets marks you as deviant or insane. Positively correlated with just such social exclusion are, to name a few: poor mental and physical health, substance abuse, crime, lower living standards, and suicide.   

James Baldwin once spoke of how a Negro father has no authority over his son, because “his past has disappeared.” Something similar might be said of the fathers of immigrant children, or at least those in my own life. What knowledge can my father, or his father, impart to me about how to live in this foreign land, this modern world, that shares with them only a mutual incomprehension? Equally, a man who shares no history with a place might see no reason to obey its laws. In the case of Reginald, he wilfully tests the law, routinely committing petty crimes — shoplifting, trespassing, and destruction of property — which are passed off by bemused authorities, open-minded men and women, as the quirks of a strange old immigrant. His Otherness endows him with a little freedom, a bit of wiggle room, when it comes to social norms. Later, a digital camera he had stolen from the mall would be found with hundreds of pictures of young women on it.

 

A Patriarch

The immigrant patriarch occupies the position of the weak and the powerful simultaneously. According to Papa, Reginald’s despotism had softened since middle age, or so everyone believed, and as their frightful memories of his temper softened into bucolic pastorals of childhood discipline, nostalgia became a cloak for his actions. Slowly, Baldwin’s quote inverted. It was exactly because my family’s collective past had disappeared from their daily lives that my grandfather, a symbol of that history, managed to secure so much filial power.

The marriage of my paternal grandparents, Reginald and Felice, was an unhappy one, and looking at the two of them now, you might suppose that they had never been in love — indeed, it is easier for me to imagine that my grandfather had raped Felice to produce his offspring than to picture them linking hands.

Before my mother and father were forcibly married, Felice told Mama that she and my grandfather had not had sex for 30 years. Despite the barren state of her marriage, Felice persisted in its preservation because it was ordained by God, and she has always had an affinity for God’s wrath. Nowhere in the bible does it specify “thou shalt protect thy grandchildren from the molestations of thy husband,” and Felice apparently took this omission literally. Even after it was revealed that Reginald had, indeed, not only professed his romantic feelings for one of his granddaughters, but had periodically molested each of them, my grandmother made it her wifely duty to ensure that order was upheld at family gatherings, at which my grandfather continued to be present, commanding all of us to kiss our monster, to press his hand against our foreheads as a show of our respect, our allegiance to him and to God.

Papa visited Reginald last summer. My grandparents share a government-funded home, one cornered by four replicas of the same design at the end of a cul-de-sac in Taita. Papa and I sat in Floridita’s together with my grandmother, who picked at her risotto for the duration of our meal. Papa told me that Reginald had been diagnosed with dementia and had suffered several strokes, resulting in paranoia, a short temper, loss of appetite — imminent death something of a pleasant subtext. Felice, at several points during the conversation, interjected that Reginald has been threatening to kill her for a long time. “He tried to kill me,” she said. He had — he had tied her to the bed and left her to die.

A woman gagged and bound to a bed is pornographic, and sex has as much to do with this story as loneliness. Manhood in my family is defined in opposition to the womanhood of its daughters and wives, their subjugation and subjection. Mama used to tell me that sex is something only men enjoy; your body and its unused nuptial “gifts” belong to your father until he gives them to another man. These are my father’s ideas. Owing to the same attitudes, my grandfather believes his granddaughters’ bodies are his possessions, and that he has done everything within his rights.

Asian immigrants are shown to have markedly lower numbers of reported CSA than most other ethnicities, though researchers generally assume that the statistics do not imply a lack of CSA incidents in Asian communities; instead, it is believed that the families are less willing to disclose it. To this, I can only offer my own experience. Though my father and his siblings wear their New Zealand citizenships with pride, I find them, even in the face of monsters, stubbornly clinging to vestiges of home. The importance of these relics only mounts as time churns on, eroding my family’s ability to recall and, indeed, ever return to their home as it once was.

My family has not, and likely never will, report what my grandfather has done.

 

Trust

Evil, moral philosopher Susan Neiman writes, “shatters our trust in the world.” True; experience has led me to question the legitimacy of so much of what we are told is important. Family, love, loyalty, and belonging are, to me, all synonyms for ownership. Likewise I question the values of individualism, the worth of authenticity, freedom, and personal feelings, given how ethical duties so often require their suspension. But I would not regard my trust shattered, so much as reshaped. Some might describe me as cynical, especially when it comes to how people relate to children, or whether people should have children in the first place. But ponder the statistics that mean that when you are in a room with three or more women, it is likely that at least one of them has been sexually abused as a child. The same is the case in a room with six or more men. Of 16 men, you may be looking at least one who has raped someone before. How misshapen, then, does trust begin to look.

When I was young, my father used to brush my hair after my shower, and he would say, with each stroke, “my little angel.” When we would come home from our outings alone together, he would declare loudly to my mother, full of love, “we are back from our date.”

One weekend, my sister took me shopping and helped me choose what would become my preferred outfit that year: a blush pink hoodie and a pair of brown corduroys. I loved that outfit so much I wore it every mufti day. On a Saturday, just before my violin lesson that morning, I was traipsing around the lounge, proud to be donning, for the umpteenth time, my favourite corduroys. Papa was sitting on the couch, grinning with those big teeth. As I crossed his path, he slapped me on my ass and said “you have a nice ass.” It would not be the last time he said this. He would say it again and again. He would tell my mother, “she has a nice ass,” and tell me that Mama is jealous of me, of my body. That I have a nice body. He would slap my ass again.

***

Here are my gloved hands, in the bile in your stomach, beating the lining of your womb, squeezing water from your drowning brain. How to interpret this reality, your father, brushing your hair, given what you know about the world, knowing as you do that the majority of CSA in Asian families is perpetrated by fathers; aware, also, that there was a time when your father’s father would never have elicited any suspicions from his daughters. You are not a vulnerable child; you can trust what you know, and fill in the gaps with what reasonably fits. Love is beside the point; you will not be his little girl or his property.

I’m now at an age where I have a legal obligation to report my grandfather to the authorities. Only 3 in 100 reported cases of CSA reach court and I feel, with dull fatalism, that my story is representative of that useless 97. Here is how the labyrinths of evasion wind round and round. It is a question of costs — so much was spent to raise me, why betray that? No one in my family would testify, and there’s no material evidence left to speak of. Time cannot be retrieved. Childhood cannot be rewritten. Round and round and round.

Order and its maintenance are sometimes mistaken for goodness, and for my own part I hope that I will someday be able to really tell the difference. Nevertheless, I believe that to live honestly you have to acknowledge some portion of evil as embedded in the things to which you owe your life, perhaps the very things you love. There’s some hope in acceptance that I won’t fail those I’m responsible for in the same way I was failed. Papa always told me that my gift with words came from my grandfather. Personally, I have always preferred prose, and I have not written a poem in ten years. The last poem I ever wrote, if you could call it one, goes like this:

I have embraced evil,
He kissed me on the mouth,
And told me

I had grown.

 

*

If you need support:

Victoria University of Wellington — VUW has a number of different support avenues, details are on their website: https://www.victoria.ac.nz/students/campus/health/sexual-violence.

VUWSA advocacy service — Erica Schouten; 04 463 6984; advocate@vuwsa.org.nz

Rape Crisis — 04 801 8973; Crisis line 0800 883 300

Lifeline — 0800 543 354

Women’s Refuge — 0800 733 843; Crisis line 0800 REFUGE

Shakti New Zealand — Crisis line 0800 SHAKTI FREE

Youthline — 0800 376 633

Wellington Sexual Abuse Help Foundation — 04 499 7530; Crisis line 04 499 7532

Tū Pakari Ora — Cuba Street Clinic, 275 Cuba Street, Wellington; 04 805 0522

Hutt Rape Counselling Network — 04 566 5517; Crisis line 0800 22 66 94

Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust (MSSAT)  Wellington — 021 118 1043

ACC Sensitive Claims: 0800 735 566

MOSAIC (Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse): 022 4193416

If you’ve experienced sexual assault or abuse you can report it to NZ police by dialing 111, or learn more here.

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