THE SISTERS' SONG coming in January 2018 from Allen and Unwin. Sign up to my newsletter.

Thank you to everyone who commented on this site or on Facebook, or who wrote to me personally after last week’s post. Your words and support mean so much.

To those who contacted me because you’ve experienced similar, thank you. We can draw strength and support from each other, so please continue to write.

Now, here’s the second part in the series. (For anyone who missed last week’s post, please click here.)

***

The Final Years of School

By the time I hit my final year of school in 1984, my parents were suing the government and my mother was gambling.

In 1982, a Casino had opened in Launceston and my mother was spending increasing periods of time gambling. To be honest, I didn’t mind—not only did it mean she wasn’t at home to yell at us or hit us, but she gave us fifty dollars if she won and let us into the gambling room underage. We weren’t allowed into pubs, but she believed gambling was acceptable because you had a chance at winning your money back.

In 1983, the Consumer Affairs Council tabled a report in parliament that warned people about my father’s business, so my parents decided to sue the Council for defamation.

Because my mother was at home less, she didn’t see what we were getting up to. By this age, I’d discovered alcohol, and I loved it. Under its influence, I became the extrovert I wanted to be.

One Sunday, my mother picked my sister and I up from outside the church. I actually hadn’t been to Mass, but had been drinking at a Sunday session at a pub instead. When my mother smelled alcohol on me, she pulled the car over and hit me. I put my arms up to protect myself, then she told me to get out of the car. At first I didn’t get out, but she said she wasn’t moving until I did. My sister started crying and telling my mother to just drive home.

I got out in the end, and watched them drive off. I waited, hoping she’d just drive around the block and come back, but she didn’t, so I walked to a friend’s house where I spent the night. I had to wear my friend’s too-small uniform to school the next day because I had no clothes with me. One of the teachers noticed that my uniform was short, and I told him that it was my friend’s because my mother had kicked me out.

Another time, I remember the same teacher noticing the bruises on my forearm, and lifting my hand to look at them. I didn’t say anything, and he let my arm drop, shook his head, and walked away.

I still tried to tell people what my mother was like, and I think some people understood, but my behaviour was pretty frustrating, and I felt as if they were thinking, I’d want to hit her, too.

Year 12, a photo I couldn't look at for years

Year 12, a photo I couldn’t look at for years

Somehow, despite wagging school, barely studying, handing assignments in late, drinking, and passionately devoting myself to self-sabotage, I still managed to get into Medicine. Once at University, I took full advantage of the freedom of living away from home and drank my way through the first few years. I was the ‘go to’ person if anyone wanted a drinking partner, and I was good for a few hours, until I passed out.

Because that’s what I did—I drank until I passed out. It wasn’t the best coping technique, and not one I’d recommend, but it was the only way I had of coping at the time—for a while at least, there was no pain.

Then, in 1987, my sister was killed and I spiralled further downwards. I failed the following year and the faculty told me to take time off—I think they hoped I wouldn’t return.

I had to get out, and I escaped to the other side of the world, to London and Europe. The day after I arrived, I queued all day for a cheap ticket to a Lloyd-Webber show. I sat in the old theatre in a seat near the front, and as soon as the music started and the curtain rose, I had tears in my eyes. I couldn’t believe home and its misery were so far away. For the next few months I lived in a city filled with history, saw buildings that had witnessed the Great Fire, walked through Hyde Park, and visited the places on the Monopoly Board. Tasmania and its grief began to recede.

No one knew me or my past, and I thought I might be able to start afresh. I didn’t drink as much because I was in a huge and unknown city. I hadn’t changed as much as I wanted to, not yet, but it was the start.

Helping demolish the Berlin Wall

Doing my bit to demolish the Berlin Wall, 1990

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

I began to see my home state for what it was—a tiny island in a much bigger world. I realised I wanted to be part of that world, and I didn’t want to waste my life. Slowly, I began to claw my way back. I returned to Australia and to university, and tried again.

 

A Happier Life

Not long after I returned to uni in 1991, I met my husband.

Scott and Louise

I studied hard this time, and graduated in 1994. At my graduation, my mother said, ‘I should be the one going up and getting that degree.’ I wanted to tell her to leave—I knew how hard I’d worked to earn those letters after my name, and I was annoyed that she was trying to take it away from me and claim it for herself.

My husband and I married, and at our wedding, my mother made a speech. She didn’t wish my husband and me a happy life together or talk about us as a couple, but spoke about how everyone there knew that I’d gone off the rails and got back on. Then she told a story about the Danish sculptor, Thorvaldsen, who’d wanted to make a heraldic statue of Jesus, one with his arms in the air, but the mist came in overnight and Jesus’ arms drooped. Thorvaldsen immediately thought his statue was a failure, but it went on to become a famous ‘Come unto me’ statue—it was a failure that turned out all right in the end. She held out her hand towards me, and said, ‘And that’s how I think of Louise.’

Inside I was cringing, but I kept a smile on my face, and I went over and kissed her. In my speech, I thanked her and told everyone how she’d never deserted me.

 

Isabelle - Version 2

 

It didn’t take long for us to start our own family. As soon as I held my babies and saw their innocence, I knew I couldn’t hurt them.

As they grew, I saw that they were good children, and I felt relieved that they weren’t bad like me. Then they started doing the same things I’d done, the naughty things that all kids do—throwing tantrums, hitting each other, telling lies—and I saw that they were just like me. And I’d been just like them—a normal kid. I hadn’t been bad. I wasn’t a ‘selfish bitch’ or a ‘lying bastard’. I’d been a normal child—in fact, I’d been a good child.

It began to dawn on me that it wasn’t ‘punishment’ I’d received—it was, in fact, abuse.

 

My Parents’ Legal Case

My parents’ defamation case against the Consumer Affairs Council was still going. After commencing it in 1982, my parents had sold their house and holiday home in the late 1980’s, and moved in to a flat behind their business. In 1991, their case went to court. The case was discontinued, Dad was given an apology, and each party agreed to pay their own costs. However, my parents weren’t happy with the outcome, and continued the fight to ‘clear our names’. Over the years, they took their case to a few Ombudsmen, reported their trial lawyer to the Law Society, counter sued their lawyers who were suing them for their bill, took their files to police and the CIB, lobbied politicians and Attorneys-General for an inquiry, and wrote to the Governor. They were convinced of injustice, incompetence, and cover-up. In 2000, they went to mediation during which they were offered an apology and a substantial amount of money. They declined that offer.

I was devastated when they rejected this offer. I was sick of hearing about the legal battles, which had hung over our family for eighteen years at that stage. I couldn’t understand why, when given the chance to end it, they rejected it. After that, I banned the topic from being discussed in my presence. My mother ignored my wishes and still brought it up …

My parents wanted to go back to court and reopen the case from 1991. In 2001, at my mother’s request, my husband and I bought their final properties. My mother told me it was to get their assets out of their names so they couldn’t be sued, but really, they’d run out of money and needed to finance their lawsuit. My mother promised to pay rent to cover the mortgage. ‘It won’t cost you a thing,’ she said. However, we rarely received the rent on time and sometimes went months without any money at all.

I didn’t like it and I complained from time-to-time, but I put up with it. For lots of reasons. My mother kept reminding me how much I’d cost them over the years, financially and in terms of anguish, and I felt as if I owed them. I was still frightened of her, and of what she could do to me. I knew my mother’s punishments only too well, and I worried that she’d try to hurt us financially, and that the rent would stop coming at all. I worried about what she might tell people to turn them against me, people I cared about—she’d done it before, to me and to others.

But the main reason I tolerated it was because I still wanted a mother, even a flawed one. I kept hoping that one day I might be good enough, that I might have paid back my debt for being such a bad kid, and that the abuse might stop. So I did whatever she asked and let her do whatever she wanted …

 

‘Close that door’ 

In January 2004, while my parents were staying with us, my mother told our elder daughter that she was taking her out. She hadn’t asked me and I was annoyed, particularly because it was a school night. However, because I didn’t want to disappoint my daughter, I went along with it. As my mother was brushing my daughter’s hair, I asked her what time she intended to bring her home. My mother didn’t answer, so I repeated the question.

She stopped brushing, turned to my father, and told him to pack their suitcases, that they were leaving.

I knew I was meant to say, Okay, just bring her back whenever you want. But I didn’t. I let Dad dutifully pack their bags and I let them go. Because I was sick of it. I was sick of being told what she was doing with our children and when. I was sick of coming home to find her rearranging our furniture, without asking us. I was sick of their legal battles. I was sick of owning their house and being told off each time I had to ask for the rent. I was sick of being abused if I dared complain about anything she did. I was sick of pretending that she had been a nice mother. I was sick of not being free to say what I felt. I was sick of not being free to live my life how I wanted to live it. I was sick of it all …

That night I watched my children sob and scream as they tried to stop their grandparents leaving, and I saw my mother not care. I watched her spend half-an-hour with the phone and Yellow Pages dialling a taxi, then move out onto the verge still calling a taxi that never came. Inside, I had four howling children, including a twelve-month-old who had no idea what was going on but was crying because everybody else was. Our eight-year-old kept running out to her grandparents, grabbing their suitcases and trying to haul them inside. I was racing out after her, prising her fingers from their legs, and dragging her back in as she kicked and screamed.

It took me back to my childhood, back to when my mother threatened to leave us and when I sobbed and screamed for her to stay. It had been such a traumatic part of my childhood and I was not going to have it in my family now. Not in the family my husband and I had created. We had a peaceful home, a peaceful life, and I was determined to keep it that way. I wasn’t going to let my mother do to my kids what she’d done to us. I could put up with the abuse when it hurt only me, but no way would I let her harm my children.

After about an hour and still no taxi, I drove my parents into the city and dropped them off at a hotel. As they climbed out, I gave them a hundred dollars towards their hotel bill—I can’t believe I did that now, but at the time I felt guilty because I wasn’t giving in.

Back at home, my husband said he wanted nothing more to do with my parents.
‘Neither do I,’ I sobbed.

But I didn’t know how I was going to cope. I knew I’d done nothing wrong that day and I couldn’t continue with the relationship how it was—handing over my kids, my home, my money, and living my life according to my mother’s needs. But the alternative—a life without my mother in it, and therefore without my father, too—was too horrible to face.

I rang my parents and howled as I left messages on their phone begging them to come and see us before they went. They didn’t, and by the time their flight departed, I was a mess—a sobbing on the floor in the fetal position mess.

My husband found a psychologist who could see me that day. I cried as I told him the story, then I waited. I waited for him to tell me that it was my fault. That I was a bad daughter. That this was my mother, who’d done so much for me, and I needed to react differently and learn to get along with her.

‘Close that door,’ he said in his American accent. ‘For your protection and that of your children, you have to close that door.’
‘But … it’s my mother …’
‘You’ve given her hundreds of chances to change, Louise,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘And she ain’t going to.’
‘But … but what about my kids?’ I said. ‘They won’t have grandparents.’
‘It’s much more important for your children to have happy parents.’

I needed to hear this. At thirty-six years’ of age, and a mother-of-four, I had finally found someone who understood what it had been like to live with a mother like this. This was the first time someone told me that I didn’t have to put up with it. The first time someone gave me permission to shut the door on the relationship. The first time someone told me that my happiness was just as important as hers, that my rights were just as important as hers. The first time someone gave me permission to protect myself.

The first time someone told me that it was not me, it was my mother.

As I left his office, he added, ‘And if you feel like ringing her again, ring me instead.’

***

Next week: Part 3

Obediently, I closed that door. Intellectually, I knew what he was saying was right, but deep down, I still hoped that my mother would change. I hoped that once she lost us, once she saw how much she’d hurt us, that she would realise how important her family was to her, how much she did love us after all.

I still hoped …

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THE SISTERS' SONG

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