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Confronting Assumptions

Trigger warning: This post contains references to true crime involving sexual violence, violence towards women, murder and victim blaming.

May these things cease to exist.

A memory:

It’s a blur, but my grandmother was living with us at the time, and her room was on that side of the house. I was 3. I remember there was suddenly some urgency, and my mother had to go next door. I wanted to follow her, but my grandmother distracted me with the task of washing dishes together. For some reason this moment sits in my mind. It was unusual. And washing dishes seemed boring in comparison to whatever sudden excitement was happening. It wasn’t until years later, I suddenly remembered this again, and understood what was going on.

Years later:

I was in my late 20’s when I read in the paper about the horrific murder of a woman close to my age in my local area. She had been mutilated with a knife and stabbed multiple times. Her murderer was quickly found and charged. A repeat rapist who had already been imprisoned twice before for multiple rapes and assaults. Apparently it was strongly recommended both times that he not be released by his prison psychiatrist. His fantasies were becoming more violent and he would not properly admit to his guilt. But he had a right to parole so there was not much legally that could be done.

The violence of this attack was very shocking, especially as it was so close by. It wasn’t until it was all over the media that my father told me the perpetrator had assaulted and raped my next door neighbour when I was young. My mother had been the first on the scene, after my grandmother, whose room was on that side of the house, heard our neighbour calling for help.

Immediately that early memory came to me. It was so unusual, mum suddenly going next door. I wanted to go with her. My grandmother distracted me. Doing dishes didn’t seem like too much fun in comparison. Boring. I don’t remember anything else after that.

My mother had to untie my neighbour, whose baby was in the house. He had threatened to kill her baby if she tried to resist. Later my mum was a witness in court. He was imprisoned for 5 years. His prison psychiatrist said he was becoming more dangerous. Unfortunately, he was released. Twice.

Dad told me that a reporter had called their house after the violent murder was in the news to see if my mother would comment on the earlier case which she had been a witness in. My dad told the reporter to never call the house again. My next door neighbours, who had kept living in the house, quickly sold it and moved. I don’t blame them.

And then more cases emerged. Over a number of years he would appear in court, charged with yet another cold case which had happened in between prison sentences. Multiple life sentences piled up. He never admitted to what he had done, even with compelling evidence. And each time he was in the media my mother would get more agitated.

I will not say his name because I don’t want to give him any airtime.

This story is not about him.

I just want to tell the story of the reverberations of this event through my family.

Imagining my mother in that scenario.

My Mother, who was autistic, was not at all comfortable in an emergency. She couldn’t stay in the hospital room when my dad was dying. She wasn’t very empathetic at managing situations when I was sick. She had a propensity to fixate on worse case scenarios. I imagine she would have been terrified while she was in our neighbours house that he would come back, or come for her. I have no doubt she would have felt deeply ashamed to see my neighbour had been raped. She was deeply ashamed of anything to do with the body. I can’t even imagine how she would have untied her. She was not very dextrous. I never thought to ask about that. Then, going to court and giving evidence with her speech impediment would have been traumatic. She had grown up being ridiculed for her speech.  It must have been very distressing for her. And scary, especially at a time when charges for rape were routinely dropped, with victims and witnesses subjected to discredit and public humiliation. What my mother experienced was not of course as distressing as what my neighbour experienced. But this story I am telling is about my mother, living in a world of judgement, as someone with a disability, and as a woman.  

The house of fear.

Although I knew nothing of this event as I grew up, the sense of fear permeated our house.

Double locks were installed on the windows and intruder proof latches on the steel security doors. And just in case that’s not enough there was a panic button near the front entrance.

I needed 3 different keys to get out the front door so I could walk to the post box on the corner. Then when I came back I’d find the doors locked again behind me. I had been gone about 3 minutes. The television was loud inside, so it took ages for mum or dad to hear me banging on the window. Then I’d have to wait for them to go and get the key again from it’s hook in the kitchen. “What happens if there’s a fire in the night?” I’d cry in exasperation. “How are we going to get to the keys in time to get through all those locks?”

I remember there was a book about ‘rape’, borrowed from the library, left out when I got up early one morning when I was in around grade 3. I am guessing my parents were trying to understand more deeply what had happened and had accidentally left the book out when they went to bed. I had never heard of rape before I saw that book. But I sure as hell knew what it was afterwards.

I would ask other kids at school ‘Do you know what rape is?’

‘No’

‘It means to fuck by force’ I would offer, sharing my new found knowledge in my own delicate wording.

My bedroom window was up high. Too high to jump out of, though I did do it once without twisting my ankle. One day I came home from school to find my dad outside, looking worried.

“Did you put the ladder up against your window” He asked me.

“No.” I replied in all honesty.

“Because this morning I found it there” he said.

I still get a chill, thinking about this.

My Dad put a security screen up on my window. From my bed in the morning I stared at the sky outside, dissected by the steel squares, and mapped out patterns on the grid.

I couldn’t wait to get out of that house of fear. So much so I left before I even finished high school. It was suffocating, for so many reasons. The environment of fear was one of them. My mother’s obsessive behaviour was another.

My mother

One day, a number of years after my father had passed away, and as the serial killer was frequenting the media, my mother told me that she believed people in the area thought that it was she who had been raped. She believed that this was the reason that she had experienced so many social problems.

It’s normal for people on the autism and ADHD spectrums, especially undiagnosed, to struggle with social interaction and feel alienated. And also to experience RSD (Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria), which I talk about in a previous post. My mum struggled with RSD a lot. But she had no knowledge that that is what it was, and neither did I at the time. Instead, she became quite obsessed with the idea that people didn’t ‘like her’ as she perceived it, because they thought she had been raped. Every different dance or social club she went to, as similar social problems would arise, she was certain this was because people thought she had been raped. And therefore, in her mind, her worth was in some way lowered. Imagine, how painful to think those senior citizens were gossiping about her while washing up dishes in the kitchenette. She was raped. Plotting to avoid her at all costs, the damaged woman.

My mother watched a lot of news. And everytime a new case relating to this particular serial killer was in the courts, she would become more obsessive about it. Often she would call me, and express her worry about it. She thought that his family would be out to get her because she had been a witness in the first case which had seen him imprisoned. She thought that his family were also making trouble for her. They too, were behind the problems which she experienced socially. They were spreading rumours about her, to get revenge on her being a witness.

“No mum” I would say,  “that would not be happening.

“Yes it is” she would say, with absolute certainty.

I started to say “Mum, I think you need to see a counsellor about this. I can’t really help you any further.” It was my way of installing a boundary with her. And she would pull back for a while. But a day or two later she would call again, fretting with the same thoughts. Sometimes this was exhausting. Especially as I myself had two young children at the time. But slowly I developed some tools with which I could ease her anxiety. The bottom line if all else failed being ‘Mum, you need to see a counsellor about this. I can’t help you anymore’. Which would always make her pull back.

Don’t make assumptions

The serial killer would not admit to his crimes, and showed no remorse. For this reason, some of the cases went on for a long time, especially those that were based on circumstantial evidence. One particular murder case went on for a couple of years. There was heaps of evidence against him, he was seen at the location by multiple people, he lived close by, he stabbed her in a similar manner to others etc etc. But because he wouldn’t admit to the murder, it was drawn out, and my mother became especially agitated. She was convinced that people were talking even more about her being raped by him because it was in the news, and not only that, his family had renewed anger at her too. They believed it was all her fault for putting him in prison in the first place, and they wanted revenge. It didn’t make sense, but she really believed it. And the only person she felt safe to talk about it with was me.

Often.

Sometimes it was a nightly counselling session.

I gave her the book ‘The Four agreements’ by Don Migual Ruiz, based on the 4 principles of Toltec spirituality. I had found this book really helpful for looking at some of my own limiting beliefs, and it is so simply written I thought she might be able to take it in. As I said, my mother was Autistic but also displayed many ADHD traits, so her concentration was not great in general unless she was obsessed with the topic, so something easy to read was important. (I am not receiving any affiliation for this recommendation, though I am quite happy to!)

The Four Agreements are:

Be impeccable with your word

Don’t make assumptions

Don’t take things personally.

Always do your best

The sections on the middle two agreements; ‘Don’t make assumptions’ and ‘Don’t take things personally’ seemed particularly relevant. She actually read it, which surprised me, and it helped us work through her anxiety about the situation. With her not wanting to see a counsellor I knew I needed some other resource to draw upon. Now, when she called me, triggered again by seeing him in the media and by what was going on in her social realm, I would remind her about parts of the book, and encourage her to reread sections. Continually I would bring the conversation back to these points. It gave us a shared reference to work from. She started to acknowledge that she was making assumptions. She also started to acknowledge other assumptions she had made through her life, on which she had based many beliefs. And even if those beliefs were true, she started to see that she didn’t have to take it personally.

We also started to unpack some of the prejudice she had and was actually experiencing in social situations, because of her speech impediment and also her ‘manner’. She had never acknowledged these things as a struggle before. It was like she had been told she was not allowed to acknowledge the struggle of her speech impediment. And so she pretended it wasn’t there, blaming others, which made it worse. For the first time she was admitting what a challenge it was for her.

I remember after one conversation when she had a bit of a breakthrough, she said to me ‘You should be a social worker you should.’

I had never heard my mother acknowledge the level of care and support that I had given her through my life, especially to her mental health, and I remember that moment with sadness but also gratitude, that I actually could and did make a difference to her quality of life in some way, after all those years. She never did seek counselling for herself, even when she was eventually offered it as part of a package from local services (another story!). She didn’t trust many people. So I am glad that I was able at least to have a positive impact on her quality of life at that late stage.

Eventually the serial killer was convicted again to another life sentence for that particular case, after a fellow prisoner gave evidence that he had spoken about it in prison. Finally he was out of the media for a while. My mother obsessed over other things. That never changed. But the anxiety about him passed.

A final shocking detail

When my mother died, I packed up her place, and I found some newspaper clippings about the rape that had happened to my neighbour when I was 3. The articles outline what happened, with a photofit description of the rapist. It said that the police had door knocked more than 100 neighbours, which explained in some way how my mother came to think neighbours may have thought it was her. They certainly would have been speculating, and would have known the approximate location. But I was completely shocked and enraged when I read the words of Police Sargent Houghten quoted in the article:

‘Sgt Houghten said that the incident brought home the foolishness of housewives permitting unidentified men into their homes. “When will they learn?” he said’

No wonder my mother was so worried that people thought it was her. This policeman had publicly chastised and shamed my poor neighbour who had been through a terrible and life threatening ordeal. And there was my mum, thinking that others thought it was she who was the ‘silly housewife’. She who had brought it on herself, who was to blame for the rape and threats to her baby, who had to call out to her neighbour for help after the event. Lucky she wasn’t stabbed multiple times and mutilated. That would have been her fault also.

I was so angry, I burnt the articles. But I did photograph them first:

Finding that newspaper article was like finding a missing jigsaw piece in some ways about the event’s impact on my mother’s life, and subsequently on my life. I realised the whole experience and resulting fear was about so much more than fear of a random and extremely rare act of terror. It was about the fear of being shamed for being a woman, fear that a sexual attack would ruin your reputation, your honour, disgrace you and leave you worthless. And then you would be blamed. This sort of thinking is less obvious now days in Australia, but it still lingers, and in so many places in the world this sort of shame and victim blaming of women and children is very strong. When will we stop blaming women and children for sexual violence that happens to them. No more shame. No more secrets. No more framing things so that the victim can be blamed, leaving a loophole open for ongoing gendered abuse to occur and be pardoned.

And finally, a quote from The Four Agreements to finish off:

we need a great deal of courage to challenge our own beliefs. Because even if we know we didn’t choose all these beliefs, it is also true that we agreed to all of them. The agreement is so strong that even if we understand the concept of it not being true, we feel the blame, the guilt, and the shame that occur if we go against those rules.

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