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Since I wrote ‘Whatever Happened To Ishtar?’ in 2010, a tell-all book about life within immigrant Lebanese and Italian families, I have received thousands of hits on my blog. Some relatives’ views are critical of my baring family ‘secrets’ for all to read. Some refuse to read the book. Most descendants of the people, places, I write about, along with the photos that have come to light, are appreciative. The majority of readers say they empathise with what I have to say in the book; that it has influenced them to be more tolerant of mental illness, and to understand more deeply, the emotional harm that can be caused to children, when they and their mothers are constantly abused, vilified and demonised.
The very personal memoirs I write about, including my own, are told with heartbreaking honesty because sometimes you have to shock readers into the realities of life for those women and children who are abused, neglected, and who have no safe haven.
There are times in life, in every culture, when marriages fail, parents die or become ill, families fall on difficult times. Everyone understands this, and we have to make the best of it. However, when physical and emotional abuse is meted out to innocent children by their own family, then that is entirely another matter. The same is true when children witness that same level of abuse toward their mothers. The post traumatic stress that grips these vulnerable children, can be every bit as devastating as that suffered by children who have lived in the midst of a violent war.
This is the premise of my book. Motherhood and childhood can be difficult enough, but when you are alone, with no family support, life is precarious. I researched my paternal Lebanese and maternal Italian family histories extensively for the book, but nothing could have prepared me for the soul destroying stories I uncovered; the brutality of husbands and fathers, the sexual abuse, the hypocrisy and heartlessness of the Catholic Church. Not to mention the fateful abandonment of children by their mothers. But the most fundamental insight I gained from all the research, is that, like ripples in a pond, the ongoing psychological effects are transmitted down through succeeding generations. As one of the reviewers of my book wrote:
What is ironic is that she [Anne] uncovers the rich cultural history of these families and the fact that such wonderful traits and traditions were all but lost to modern generations as her family tree fractures again and again.
Someone has to be brave enough to tell the truth. Powerful families can leave children they do not favour, on the scrapheap of life, with no prospect of being accepted into other good families within their community, either through marriage or friendships. They are ‘tainted’ goods, and have to break all family ties just to survive. Few people who have not experienced this life event can comprehend the courage it takes to wipe all your extended family from your life, even an abusive family. It can take years for the emotional scars inflicted on such children, to heal. An adult deprived of a loving childhood has to learn how to play, to make lasting friendships, in effect, to be ‘socialised’ at the same time as healing is taking place. It takes enormous amounts of energy and soul searching. This is vital if they are to become a contributing member of the community they eventually choose to live in. Some of us make it, many of us don’t.
The answer isn’t just in education, although of course this is important. The answer lies in the memoirs left behind, the minutiae of everyday lives within abusive families, because if we don’t read our negative history, whether it’s family, country, or world history, how are we going to know what changes to make so that what happened in the past, isn’t perpetuated into the future. Very often, personal stories can be the motivation to change behaviours and even laws. Because when we read these ‘survivors’’ biographies, we are in a way, walking in their shoes, reliving with them all the abuse and trauma. I know that it can take decades to change entrenched cultures. But even one person can make a difference, in one lifetime.
© To Anne Frandi-Coory All Rights Reserved 8 March 2012……
Published in The Australian Writer issue #377 December 2012