As professionals working with family disputes, family violence is a topic that we must all confront. We attend training, cover this topic in conferences and seminars, and discuss it on a regular basis. In our work we must assess for this, acknowledge where it occurs, and assist those affected to deal with the consequences. But except where there has been personal experience, this is always as an outsider-we cannot really know, understand and appreciate what the person we are dealing with has been through. I have just finished an amazing book that has allowed me to stand in the shoes of a family experiencing family violence and see this through their eyes. The insights and learnings from this experience have been immeasurable and I hope to inspire you too to share this incredible story!
We meet Guv, the father of this family. He is one of a large family who have also lived with the consequences of family violence and an abusive father. He works hard, but does not have the personal skills to be the father he knowns he should be. We learn of the stressors in his life, his escapism through alcohol, and what triggers him to lash out at those he loves. We learn to see the signs, anticipate what is coming, and flinch too when the yelling escalates and the blows come. Part way through the book, he loses his job, and with this any ability to contain his behaviour and manage his violent and aggressive impulses. At that point he accepts the inevitable that regardless of the consequences he must leave.
One of the most moving parts of the book for me is when Guv takes his son for a holiday to the beach to visit his brother. Away from any of the family and work pressures, he shows the good side of himself, that he can be a good dad, and that he can appreciate his darker side and wish to be better. He connects for the first time within his son on an emotional and intellectual level, and both revel in the wonder of this special time.
We also meet Paula, the mother of this family. She is a battler, struggling to provide the physical and emotional support for her children and her husband. Always working to keep the peace and manage the dynamics around her so that they do not deteriorate into a darker place. She runs the home, manages the children, their needs, with school, doctors, friends, activities, as well as working part time so that she has a little ability for independence. She is large, physically and emotionally, and believes that she can absorb the blows and weather the storm for the sake of her family. But she too has her own needs. She has significant health issues that have to be managed constantly and are often on the point of overwhelming her. She walks a very fine line, but must maintain this for the sake of her family, as she realises that she is the one that keeps everything together. At one point she asks the question that has no answer “What would they do if something happened to her?”
Paula woks part time as a cook at the local Aged Care Facility. She cooks lunch for them, and acts also as a kind of parent to many of them as well. She knows them all, their likes and dislikes, and she always has the right word of advice or encouragement when needed. As a supremely giving person, she always has time for others, but there is a void inside of her when you consider who is it that is giving back to her?
The main character in this tale is Jimmy. He is the younger son of the family and the story is told through his eyes. Jimmy has special needs and these are not labelled in the book. He is a quirky, busy, boy who is always thinking about the world around him and trying to make sense of it. His mind is very active, and he sees everything as consisting of energy that must be connected together for meaning.
His main supporter is his mother, who he monitors constantly checking for any sign that things are not going as they should be, or there is anything that he should be aware of. She is the one who can calm him and centre him, and get him back on track when need be. She is his carer and nurturer who he can always rely on. He will try very hard to do what she says to keep her happy.
Jimmy also looks up to his father. He does not like part of him and what he does, but there is another part that he looks up to and admires. He desperately wants his father to be the best he can and to be the head of the household and look after them all. Jimmy is brave, and if necessary he will step in to protect his mother against his father. When his father leaves, he feels that the family is rudderless and he emotionally searches for his return so that things can be like they are supposed to be.
Jimmy is a loner. He does not cope with school and sees this as enemy territory. The teacher does not see him in the classroom and he feels invisible, as if he does not count. His behaviour alienates the other children and he has no playmates in the playground. He looks for patterns and lines of connection, and his energy inside starts to rev up, getting more and more intense until the sound within him is deafening and explodes. He starts to escalate out of control, and to run from one side to the other, or round and round, faster and faster until he is grabbed and held, or he collapses. Only then will the pounding within him subside, and he can regain a sense of calm. His mum understands this and can see the signs, detract him to de-escalate his mood.
Jimmy idolises his brother Robby who is 6 years older. They go out playing together and can enjoy each other’s company and be in the same zone. Jimmy can tie into Robby’s dreams and games, and they have a special understanding. Jimmy is bereft when Robby goes away to sea to work on a fishing boat.
Jimmy experiences the most horrific trauma. We see this through his eyes and understand the need to withdraw, regroup and search for new meaning. We feel his courage and are amazed at the strength he finds within in his search for a path from this stuck place to one of hope for the future.
I learned so much from this book. It captures the reader instantly and maintains this grip until the final page. I am very grateful to my colleagues Chris and Robyn who recommended this story to me, and hope that I can pass on this to others. It is a only by gaining insight and understanding of what Guv, Paula and Jimmy might be going through, that we can begin to be there to help them.