Image courtesy of InQuire Photography | Aslan Ntumba
Slowly, he edged her towards the door. She felt the cold tip of the knife touching the small of her back. “Tell her everything’s okay. Make it convincing.” She let out a small cry as she tried to compose herself. With a trembling hand, she opened the door and faked a smile to her best friend.
Domestic abuse has many faces. For Abigail Smith [fake name], that face was her father’s. For her mother, that face was her partner’s. For many others, it could be a husband, a wife, a mother, a sibling, or a stepparent. Over 70% of recently surveyed Kent students have been involved in or have witnessed domestic abuse. Nearly a third (63%) admitted they had been physically or mentally damaged by family.
These figures are staggering. It means that the majority of Kent students could have gone through domestic trauma. Whilst the statistics may be shocking, they do not show the full picture. In an emotional interview, Abigail Smith, a 21-year-old Kent student, reveals the intimate details of her story for the first time in her life.
For as long as she could remember, Abigail’s parents always fought: “A large percentage of my childhood consisted of me sitting on the staircase with my teddy, listening to my parents argue. Waiting for my older brother to take me to his room so I couldn’t hear the screaming anymore.”
Abigail’s mother, Sofia [fake name], had been unknowingly stuck in an abusive relationship for years. After speaking to several survivors over the past few weeks, it seems that many are. Due to the common misconception that domestic abuse has to be physically aggressive, it makes it very difficult to know whether you are being mistreated. Yet, mental and emotional abuse is often just as bad, if not, worse than physical violence. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 61% of reported domestic abuse cases in 2018 were non-violent. Typical non-violent abusive behaviours include being controlling, coercive, threatening, and economically and emotionally abusive.
Even at the beginning of Abigail’s parents’ relationship, her dad showed signs of controlling behaviour. It began with him picking her mum up from work or events at unplanned times. “My mum just thought he was being really considerate but that wasn’t it. He wanted to know where she was and who she was with twenty-four seven.” His behaviour began to escalate. He would phone bars in the city until he found out which one she was in, even phoning work colleagues continuously to find out what she was doing. Abigail informed me that as the years went on her father got much worse. In an attempt to isolate Sofia, he began dictating how long she could see her friends and family. That would always cause a scene when she fought back. This led her to give in to his demands to save herself from his embarrassment and anger. Unfortunately for Sofia, she experienced both psychological and physical abuse. It was not until she tried to leave many years later that he got physically aggressive.
It began in 2005. Abigail was 7-years-old and living abroad with her mother and brother, whilst her dad, temporarily, continued to work in England. For four days every, month he would come and spend time with his family. “My mum would dread those days.”
Over the years, Abigail’s dad had developed a cocaine addiction. This made him paranoid, irrational, emotional, and overtly hypersexual. “Of course, I didn’t know that at the time, it wasn’t until recently that my mum told me that he would ask her to do sexual things she was uncomfortable with. She would never agree to them, but this just made him get angry and say things like: ‘What’s wrong with you? This is what normal couples do.’” Abigail emphasised that as much as he was affected by the drugs, he already had something ingrained in him. “He was already very controlling, with a highly addictive and jealous personality.”
In the early months of 2005, Abigail’s dad attempted to commit suicide in front of his family after her mum threatened to leave him. “He was drinking. All-day. And taking a lot of pills.” She paused. “At some point, I heard a scream from my nan. I ran into the bedroom to see her lying across my dad who lay unconscious on the bed. She was screaming and crying, my brother was also crying, and I was just still. I was in shock, I think. Just watching the scene unfold like a movie. What’s a seven-year-old supposed to make of that?” This was the start of a very difficult year for the family.
After the attempted suicide, Sofia couldn’t look at her partner in the same way. “He reached out to her when he woke up from his coma in hospital. But my mum didn’t reach back. She hated him for what he had done.” Abigail disclosed. Prior to this incident, they had been fighting even more than usual. With him being addicted to cocaine, struggling financially, and in a separate country most of the time, the fights only got worse. “He wasn’t really trying to kill himself. He was trying to trap my mum into staying with him, and it worked.”
A common sign of being in an abusive relationship is entrapment. Whether it’s financial, paternal, or simply love. An abuser will hold it over you so that you cannot leave. For Sofia, love had been gone for a long time. Many would ask: “Why did she not leave if she was not in love?” This is a very complicated question for a lot of victims. Abigail’s response to this was simple and clear: “He didn’t make it easy. My mum might not have loved him at this point, but she did once upon a time. Imagine, the man you used to love telling you how sorry he is, how he will change, crying, begging, and pleading with you. Knowing that he would go to the extreme of ending his life if they didn’t stay together. Knowing he could do it in front of your seven-year-old daughter. His daughter. How can people say it’s easy to leave that?” For other victims, it could be even more complicated. Other survivors have admitted to their abuser having financial control over them, leaving them homeless if they left or the fear of losing their children if they left. There are countless reasons that complicate the situation that many who have not experienced it would not understand.
The thought of Sofia leaving only made her partner act worse. “That year was horrible, for my whole family. There are countless moments that I could talk about including my mum jumping out of a moving car to save herself from him, my brother breaking my dad’s arm to save my mum, seeing my dad and my brother circling the sofa holding a knife and a bat. And all I did; all I could do was watch.” The events that Abigail told me were heart-breaking. Things that no child should experience. The list went on, but there was one weekend that was particularly frightening that she wanted to share with me.
“We had just picked my dad up from the airport and I told him that we had a lot of fun with mum’s new friends who sing in a local show. After I told him this, he just switched. My mum explained that they were all gay, no one was having any kind of affair, but he still switched.” As soon as her father heard that Sofia was spending time with other men, he got out of the car and slammed the door. To this day, Abbie admits that she still feels like she was the trigger to a distressing few days: “Maybe if I hadn’t of said that, the weekend that followed wouldn’t have been as harrowing.” Later, he returned to their house drunk and raging. “He came in screaming and threatening. He was backing my mum into corners, pushing and shoving her and then he grabbed her by the throat. He began to strangle her against the kitchen counter. I don’t remember why I was awake, probably because of the noise. But I saw everything. He knew I saw, but he didn’t care.”
Paul [fake name], Abigail’s brother, had enough. As a child, Paul received a lot of abuse from Abbie’s father, as he was his stepson. He was 16 and at the sight of his mother being strangled by their abuser and the sight of his little sister screaming, he knew he had to stop it. “My brother is our hero. He has been many times in the past and he still is.” Abigail told me with a smile. Paul picked up his baseball bat and started to hit her father as he told his mother to take his little sister and run. “My mum didn’t want to leave her son with my dad, but she was frightened, and she didn’t really have a choice, so she took me, and we ran to her best friend’s house.”
As they took refuge in the home of their family friend, they thought they were safe. “It had been a few hours, it was late. My brother had gotten away safely and left my dad to calm down.” At around 1 in the morning, there was banging on the door. “It was so loud, and he was threatening to kick it down if we did open up, so we did. He came in, took me, and left. I still don’t remember where we went. All I remember is sitting in his car as he passed me the phone and said, ‘say goodbye to mummy’.” Threatening behaviour is common among domestic abusers. Abbie’s dad did not hurt her or her mother late that night. He returned Abbie home a few hours later. But Sofia went through something worse than being hit. She went through the intense fear of losing her seven-year-old daughter, for hours. This kind of psychological torture is what makes many victims too scared to leave.
The next day, Sofia realised she did not have any of her belongings. She decided to go back to the house, in the hope that he would have sobered up, to retrieve their things. She found him unconscious on the bed, the room littered with empty bottles. “To this day, my heart races when my mum tells me the story of what happened to her. It’s awful. No one should ever experience that.” Abigail told me that her father was pretending to sleep. He grabbed Sofia, tied her to the bed and began stabbing the mattress with a carving knife, only just missing her body with each stab. “It went on for about ten minutes. Each time he would say things like ‘Abbie is going to be an orphan’.” In a desperate attempt to save her life she began pleading, telling him anything she thought he wanted to hear: “We can make this work. I’m sorry. I love you. I don’t have to spend time with anyone else.” A knock on the door saved her life. He untied her. Slowly, he edged her towards the door. He put the knife to her back and said “Tell her everything’s okay. Make it convincing.” With a trembling hand, she opened the door and faked a smile to her best friend. But her friend knew better. She called Paul immediately, who came running to the house and kicked down the door.
“Once again, my brother saved my mum. When he went in, he saw the ties on the bed, and he went crazy and punched him.” Again, Paul told his mum to run. Again, she did. Eventually, his stepdad calmed down. Paul stayed with him all day as he cried, pleaded, and apologised. Telling him how sorry he was, what an awful person he was and how much he loved Sofia. It got too much for Paul. He was only sixteen and had his relationship with his stepdad was complicated. After a while, he phoned his mum and told her that they should meet to sort it out and that he was sober, and she would be safe. Reluctantly, Sofia agreed, and they arranged to meet in the car park of their building, bringing Abbie with her.
“Unfortunately, the next part of the story is the worst. He kidnapped us. He asked us to get in the car so he could talk it out with my mum and before we knew it, the doors were locked and he was driving down the motorway like a lunatic, swerving from lane to lane. My mum was screaming and crying hysterically while I was is in the back of the car. He told us that he was driving us across the border and that we would ‘all die together’.” Fortunately for Abigail and her mother, he had to stop for petrol. As he opened his door Sofia ran. “It was all such a blur, as if it was happening in slow-motion. My mum ran in and shouted for help, the man working there took her in and my dad ran back to the car, which I was still in. As he began to drive off, I felt my mum grab my legs and drag me out of the moving car. He left, with all four doors wide open. It was the most traumatic day of my life.”
The police found his car at the airport the following day. He had fled the country directly after his failed kidnapping attempt. “I know that in many instances the police aren’t particularly helpful with domestic cases but in ours they were great. I think that’s partly due to the fact it was in a different country and partly because what happened that weekend was so extreme,” Abigail said. The police had been outraged at what had happened to the family. They phoned Sofia every day for months and issued an injunction so that Abbie’s dad could no longer come back into the country. That did not mean they did not hear from Abigail’s father again. He would phone Sofia often and threaten her, telling her he could find other ways to get to her. Telling her to “watch out” and that he was going to “throw acid in [her] face”. For a long time, the family lived in fear, scared to turn a corner on the street. That is the power an abuser has.
Abigail’s story is just one out of millions. Attempts to improve the laws relating to domestic abuse have suffered numerous setbacks in recent years. Proposed changes in legislation to prevent perpetrators cross-examining victims in the family courts were initially included in the Prisons and Courts Bill 2017, which was abandoned when Theresa May called the 2017 general election. A number of measures were then included in the Domestic Abuse Bill, which was finally introduced to parliament in July this year, but charities and campaigners are seeking assurances that the legislation will not be dropped again in the current political turmoil. Many campaigners are asking the question: “Is this bill enough?”
I spoke to Becky Wyatt, the University of Kent’s Wellbeing Adviser, who specialises in domestic abuse and sexual assault. She told me: “We need to be educating children a lot better and at a younger age.” Perhaps, if measures were taken to do this, children would grow up knowing how to have a respectful relationship and how to handle it when they find themselves going through abuse.
Abigail is now in her final year at Kent. Her family is doing well, and they often sit back and laugh at the chaos that happened many years ago, but that does not mean the mental scar that it left them with will ever go away. Even after Sofia undertook 9 months of therapy. “My mum and brother really struggle with showing emotion now. I think they disassociate quite a lot. I was younger, so for me, it is not as bad, but sometimes I remember things and it unsettles me. I often get anxiety and growing up I was very shy and very quiet, social situations were very difficult for me. And all three of us try to avoid loud or argumentative environments. I’ve managed to overcome a lot of it. To be honest, what choice did I have? The best revenge you can take is to live a full and happy life. We are not weak. We will not use our status as victims as an excuse. We are survivors.”
If you have been affected by any of the content in this feature or have been a victim of domestic abuse please contact any of the following: Student Wellbeing Services (H Block Keynes) Crisis drop-in sessions every weekday 14.00-16.00, Canterbury Nightline: 01227824848, Inform Kent (InK) at ink. kent.ac.uk to report a problem, Rising Sun Domestic Violence & Abuse Charity: 01227452852, #Respecttheno to talk, find out more about services or to find a safe community to be a part of, Becky Wyatt, Wellbeing Adviser (Sexual Assault and Harass- ment): R.F.Wyatt@ kent.ac.uk
This article is part of our one-off edition of IQ Magazine, out from November the 29th 2019. Pick up the magazine on campus in our InQuire distribution bins in Keynes, Co-op, the Templeman library and other locations on campus.