For years she was trapped in her own private hell – a relentless cycle of domestic abuse where everything and anything could lead to violence.
And now, during lockdown, Cape Town-based writer Cathy Park Kelly knows many women are going through what she endured for years.
The statistics speak for themselves: in the first three weeks of lockdown, the government’s gender-based violence and femicide command centre received more than 120 000 calls to its national helpline. That’s double the usual volume of calls. Here, Cathy shares her harrowing story and also offers a message of hope and comfort to women who may feel there’s no escape.
"The black-and-white bathroom tiles are cold beneath my tracksuit. I sink my forehead onto my knees and wrap my arms around my head.
My scalp aches from where he’s punched me. A ball of my hair lies in the toilet bowl, like an out-of-place bird’s nest. It’s the third night in a row he’s dragged me by the hair out of the kitchen. It’s the only room where the fear of being seen by neighbours through the window stops him from hitting me. He pulls me by the hair into the lounge.
This window gives onto a river that keeps our secret. This secret kept me in a lockdown of my own for eight years: the lockdown of domestic violence. It was a secret I hid from my mother and my best friend. A secret wrapped in shame and self-blame, stuck together with the denial I twisted around our violence, with a shiny bow of hope on top.
But even though, 15 years later, I’m free, today there’s a woman like me in a lockdown not of her choosing. A woman like me is praying in a tin-walled shack. She’s sobbing in a marble-tiled bathroom. She’s pressing her body against a door, hoping he won’t burst in. She’s in London, Toulon, New York, Ocean View, Constantia, Khayelitsha.
In every city, in every village, in every country, there are women being beaten by their intimate partners whose spitflecked lips shout and shout as their fists hit, punch and hurt. And all over the world, these versions of me are unable to leave the house because we’re all aiming to flatten the curve. One day in this life long ago, my mother bought me a crimson throw.
It was soft and fringed and called for sweeping gestures and hair tosses. I wasn’t brave enough to wear it then. Instead, I hung it on the back of my desk chair across from our bed, so that I saw it first thing when I woke up and last thing at night. I wore it once, and for a moment, I felt like myself.
I drew it around my shoulders as I got into the car with my partner. It felt like a magic robe that would fill me with power. But it didn’t. It didn’t protect me from his rage when we took a wrong turn, when I suggested nervously that we should’ve taken the previous offramp.
It didn’t protect me from his blows to my head. By the time we got to the venue, I was hunched against the passenger window, wiping my tears with the throw’s scarlet softness. I didn’t wear it again. I felt its magic had failed me. But still, I kept it draped on the back of my chair.
And gradually, its boldness began to fill me with a shy sense of possibility. Day by day its vivid pink filled my belly with a growing sense of who I was. Until one day, the colours blossoming inside me felt too bright to ignore. And so, I walked out of our front door. And I never went back.
I stepped over a new threshold and made a new life for myself. I filled my space with the same vibrant pink on the walls, my bed, my clothes. So now I whisper to you from your future: one day, you’ll create a safe space to curl up at peace with yourself. Somewhere out there is a different life from this one, a life waiting for you to live it.
If this were a fairytale, you’d stumble through the dark forest to a wise woman’s ramshackle cottage and she’d hand you a magic stick. She’d whisper, “Draw an enchanted circle of protection around yourself in the dust. He won’t be able to touch you.” You know already this isn’t a fairytale. But even though there’s no wise woman in the forest bearing a gift, I hope you find her within you.
I hope you know this is still your story. You can choose what happens in the next chapter. No one else. I want to tell you to find a safe space in your home, but I know there’s none. So instead I pray that the hard, hard weeks of lockdown are a crucible for you, that the heat of desperation strengthens you.
I pray that, with no escape and no distractions, the fog in your mind clears. And I pray that you find something precious for yourself. A soft jersey. A solitary earring from when you knew who you were. A jingly-jangly bracelet that makes your wrist look slim and elegant. I pray the object acts as a talisman.
Keep it close to your heart as a reminder of your beauty, of your lovableness, your worth. You’ve forgotten who you are. Let this object remind you. Let it strengthen your resolve. For now, gather your documents in one place, keep a warm jacket handy, and try to look at yourself in the mirror with clear eyes.
Let go of your hope that things are going to get better. Hope is your enemy right now. There’s a (very strong) chance things will get worse. Look around you.
Is he breaking furniture? Is he punching the wall near your face? Smiling when you flinch? Is he calling you names? Threatening you? Spitting at you? Hurting you? Are you scared of him? If you nodded yes to any of these questions, know that this isn’t love. Ask yourself: is he ever scared of you? If you shook your head, then this isn’t just a difficult phase. It’s violence. Abuse. You are not this. For now, find your object and hold it.
Take one small step towards yourself every day. Hear the wise woman whisper: this will pass. You’ll get out of it. You’ll wake from these dark, desperately lonely nights and find yourself breathing deeply. You’ll look into the mirror, see the light in your eyes, and remember who you are. And the object you salvaged from the wreckage will be shining in the morning sun.