Listen to the inner rage, hit the punch bag harder… and let love reign

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An attempt to strip me of my humanity made me realise what it means to be human. Violence inflicted on me has only made me more determined to love others and to avoid causing harm.

I have a view of my garden from my kitchen table. Every morning, I look at the dried-up vegetables in the upturned, halved oil drums in my backyard. All the vegetables have died. I remember where the cute, tiny, butternut squash suddenly appeared and where the tomatoes, onions and carrots once grew.

I moved into this beautiful house, with its wooden floorboards and pressed ceilings, because I had been thrown out of my home. I had stubbornly taken all the gardening products with me from the old house, every seedling tray, trellis, pot and plastic tub had to come. I wasn’t in my right mind. I was wildly grasping at that which was alive. I tugged and tugged and uprooted the plants and, with that, myself, my life. Attempting to move a vegetable garden across Johannesburg was a really bad idea. All the plants that came with me eventually died. I didn’t plant anything again. Now the spreading rust on the oil drums reminds me of what was.

My ex-husband felt he was entitled to withdraw the privilege of living in what I considered my home at any point in time, especially if he disagreed with something I had done or said. His name was on the deed and bond and mine, because I’m a foreigner, was not.

On New Year’s Eve (2017/2018), he threw my framed works of art and family heirlooms outside onto the patio, smashing the glass. My body was covered in scratches and bruises. I had called the police and a friend. I felt endangered, cornered. This time his abuse had lasted three long days. By day three, I had broken down. I could not cope and no longer wanted to be conscious, so I started drinking in an attempt to knock myself out, to disappear. But you can’t drink or sleep off domestic abuse.

(Ed note: Hopkins’ ex-husband denies the claims made against him, confirms that he is facing charges that she has laid against him and says he has laid counter charges against her. He also indicated that he reserved his rights to take legal action against Hopkins and Daily Maverick should this piece be published.)

On New Year’s Eve, when my friend arrived, I gathered some belongings in a suitcase. As I walked through our garden towards the front door I saw the tomatoes growing along the outer wall, leaves wafting in the wind like they had no worry in the world. The fruit was bright red and succulent, bursting with energy. I had watered, pruned and tended that plant that was now more than a metre high. It was life. It was mine. I grabbed the plant and heard the shoots snapping. My ex saw what I was trying to do; he approached and threw me to the ground, I fell hard on my hip, adding another bruise to my battered body. This would be his last act of physical abuse. A year after I had said “I do” in front of our families and friends, I left him. The tomato plant came with me and died in my backyard.

Some time after I had moved into the house with the pressed ceilings, a group of writer friends came over. One of my friends smoked a cigarette in my backyard. I joined her and stared at the rusty oil drums, the desiccated butternut squash, and the green shoots of weeds punctuating the shrivelled plants. This was my graveyard of memories. I wished they would die and shrivel like the plants. But they haunted me, like zombies.

“There’s a lot of violence in your life,” she said, possibly reading my sad silence.

“You’ve encountered violent men in your private life and you choose to investigate them further in your work,” she continued, deadpan, as if I knew this already.

I let this sink in. No one had ever pointed out that link between my private life and my work.

Silence

In thinking about that question, what struck me was how I had compartmentalised my experiences. I travelled up and down to Bloemfontein where I listened to the shackled men tell me about the violence, abuse, fear and humiliation inflicted on them behind bars. I was one of the very few people who actually wanted to hear their stories. My listening ear protected me, not once did I feel unsafe or threatened by these men.

What I felt towards the man who had hurt me was completely different. I felt a burning rage, an anger and hurt that went so deep that I swallowed it and said or did nothing. Silence is in many ways the wingman of violence. The #metoo movement broke that pervasive silence, provided a space where years and even decades of swallowed pain and hurt, of suppressed anger and rage, could come out into the open.

Violence engenders silence in its victims, creating and ensuring a space where it can be perpetuated, it does not allow people who have experienced abuse to address it, to heal and to grow.

I think of Francis, who went into Mangaung prison a soccer-loving healthy young man with a slender athletic build. When he came out of prison he walked unsteadily with crutches, following a brutal attack by the Ninjas that had permanently damaged his spine. He was in constant pain and his speech was slurred, probably from the tuberculosis that had spread to his brain. During the interview, Francis cried several times, describing the utter despair and hopelessness he experienced in prison when the symptoms of his ailments worsened, when he ended up in the prison hospital in a wheelchair. He had TB, HIV, couldn’t walk and was incontinent. No one seemed to care. He was awarded medical parole when he nearly died.

Abuse was wired into Francis’s DNA. His mother abandoned him at a young age, he became homeless and was taken in by a social worker who ran a home for orphaned and homeless kids. His sister told me he never really found his place in life and cycled in and out of prison. During the interview he sat on his bed in his bedroom, tears streaming down his cheeks, he kept trying to wipe them away with the back of his sleeve, much like a little boy or girl would do. I imagine his tears stemmed from a deep place of pain, where the disappointments and isolation that ran through his life had pooled. Abuse and neglect were threaded into his life experiences and they had become his language. He changed from perpetrator to victim and back again so many times, it ceased to hold any value: receiving pain, then dishing it out.

Shame

When I myself became a victim of violence, I could barely categorise what was happening to me. Rather, I became consumed by shame, fear and regret. I cowered in the face of abuse that was meted out by a man I thought I loved. I hid, covered up and mentally tried to “rewind” and “delete” the scenes of abuse and hurt that had taken place. My response was the exact opposite to my public reactions in the face of violence.

“Shame divides us from ourselves just as it divides us from others, and because we still yearn for reunion, shame is deeply disturbing,” one of my favourite feminist authors, bell hooks, wrote in her 2001 book All About Love.

My divided self deepened whenever I attempted to speak out about my experiences. Recently, a friend of mine asked me: “Explain to me how an intelligent, beautiful and strong woman like yourself ends up with men like this.”

This response reinforced in me the idea that what had happened to me was my own fault. That my strong, intelligent and beautiful exterior was somehow not me; that my wounds shamefully revealed my true self. I mostly made light of my experiences of domestic violence. Not complaining, in modern culture, is often perceived as a virtue. My public persona, the warrior, was what most people knew and responded to. And a warrior will shake off wounds, hurt and abuse so (s)he can return to the battlefield, where the war is raging.

The outsider within

Silencing around violence leads to shame, which in turn leads to a divide within oneself. That divide had allowed me to come close to violent men, to attempt to understand their thoughts, problems and ideas, without my private experiences of violence interfering with that process. This inner alienation from myself was useful in that it allowed me to work uninterrupted by my own trauma. It was problematic in that it did not allow me to develop fully as a narrator.

hooks calls this inner alienation the “outsider within”.

But, unlike hooks, I had no outsider within, implying an inner harmony between the constituent parts within oneself. I had not contemplated how my personal experiences of violence affected my public writing about violence, I had not embraced the outsider within me. Feelings of shame about what had happened to me were amplified by the inability to put into words how the experiences had made me feel. I had no words for my sorrow. I pushed my experiences of trauma out of the realm where my inner warrior operated, fearlessly and tenaciously.

Fight, flight or freeze? 

James is my boxing coach. He is a muscled, compact man from Nigeria with an intensity in his eyes that I feel channels the Igbo God of Thunder, who is said to manifest the wrath of the Supreme Being. I doubt James would ever entertain that comparison, as he is a devout Christian who has repeatedly tried and failed to convince me that Jesus will save me.

James and I dance inside the ring during boxing training, his pads inviting my punches. I know when one of his spirited and crazy moments is going to start. His eyes will go into a trance and the sounds coming from his throat will not always necessarily form words. He moves in, moves out, towards me, away from me – sometimes hitting my head with his pad, providing a rough reminder that a boxer would have slammed a hook on my temple. Blows come my way that I either need to avoid by ducking or respond to with an equally hard slam against his pad swishing through the air. James will instruct me in the midst of our frenetic performance: “Be yourself! Don’t be afraid. Show yourself!”

James taught me how to fight. It was a long-held wish. Growing up as a kid, I had to ward off bullies. My immediate response was physical; I usually chose to fight back. So when my 10th birthday neared, I dragged my father to the local toyshop and asked him to buy me a kids’ boxing bag and gloves. He refused, because, so he said, “boxing is not for girls”.

James, the Nigerian with fire in his eyes, showed me boxing is for girls.

Whenever James yelled “be yourself”, I was usually in the trance-like state that is the mid-point of any good boxing training; when your body is sufficiently warmed up and you are nearing the point of resistance. I am but my body, my intellect shuts down and I’m naked, fighting, giving what I have, all I have, my breath pushing my body forward. My thought patterns slow down to a single pinhole view of the pads and my blows, my body responding to a primal urge: to fight back. I feel how my heel pivots my body as I turn in for the hook, I feel my knuckles absorbing blows, my breathing catches up after combination punches. It is a pure, undiluted physical presence in the moment.

My fighting skills were nowhere to be seen when I faced domestic violence. Intimate terror and violence paralyse. I had read the reports and interviewed the experts. But now it was happening to me. And it felt like I had lost my mind, like my personality had spontaneously combusted. I was a weak nobody. In the three primordial responses to danger: fight, flight or freeze, I have a strong fight response. But when faced with intimate violence, I freeze.

The Power of Patriarchy 

If we don’t analyse patriarchy, Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore warned, we will never tackle the worldwide scourge of violence against women, in its many and varied manifestations. “The #metoo accounts of assaults and harassment that have been shared on social media … illustrate the myriad ways women live smaller lives in anticipation of male violence,” she wrote.

Smaller lives. Those words made me think of how I tried to disappear into myself, making myself small and invisible. #metoo pushed me out of a metaphorical closet and made me face and acknowledge these and other traumatising events in my life. The hashtag made me realise how deeply immersed patriarchy was in the fibres of my life.

Author hooks opined in her treatise Feminism is for Everyone that we should replace the words “domestic violence” with “patriarchal violence”. The scope and meaning of patriarchal is more public and systemic, because it applies to society and, therefore, to us all.

South African society is deeply patriarchal. The rates of violence against women are among the highest in the world. Every four hours, scientists calculate, a woman is murdered in South Africa. Half of those women are killed by intimate partners, which can be a current husband or boyfriend or a former partner.

In South Africa, domestic violence is still largely thought of as a private matter. Police laughed at a friend of mine who tried to report life-threatening levels of domestic violence, after her partner tried to throw her out of a moving car. I was allowed to open a case, but the investigating officer accused me of using the police to sort out my private issues.

(Em)Power in numbers 

My ex-husband had become violent only after he gained actual power over me. The house and car were in his name. My residence status, and therefore also my right to work, became dependent on him. My loss of power, the loss of a communal set-up, enabled his violence as he had leverage over me. He would threaten divorce, promising that the sheriff would serve the divorce papers at my office so I would be humiliated in front of my colleagues. He would also threaten to phone Home Affairs to get me deported. Despite contributing to the house payments more than he ever did, he felt he had the power of eviction and, if I refused, he would use physical violence to enact his “decision”.

The men in prison also faced a sudden loss of power. The prison was run like a dictatorship: prisoners’ voices were silenced; complaints were usually met with either silence or violence. Leaders – the prison management – were invisible and not accessible. Like dictators, they did not dirty their feet, but rather ordered or tacitly accepted violent retaliation to perceived troubles. There was no order, collective vision or sense of communality, just the fearful reign of violence that paralysed the guards and inmates alike.

The incarcerated men and their guards regained some of the agency that they had lost by speaking out about the violence inflicted on them. The realisation that they were not alone and that there was power in numbers, emboldened the prison guards to go on strike and the inmates to start riots, both expressions of collective dissatisfaction.

And, while their collective actions did not lead to a cessation of violence, it did serve to hold to account those who were in charge and responsible for the violence.

The #metoo movement had a similar effect. The silence that was obscuring violence from society’s line of vision broke out into a cacophony of different voices. This newfound awareness, combined with the sheer numbers of women speaking out, rearranged the power balance between men and women. Similarly, breaking that silence did not eradicate violence against women, but it served to lift the veil on the private sphere.

While my experience and those of the incarcerated men are worlds apart, we have both struggled to express our voice, to speak about humiliating experiences, without fear or shame, to find power in numbers. Public sharing of experiences of abuse is not just empowering for the individual, it provides others with the courage to proclaim their presence, the momentum to tell the world: I am here.

Forgiveness

The men in prison had killed, raped and generally caused harm. But, as they sat opposite me, they were stripped down, their naked humanity was all they had; they were stripped of bravado, stripped of their individuality through their prison uniforms, often stripped of their mobility, because their hands were cuffed. I was there to talk to these men about what had happened to them. They had been assaulted, raped and harmed and no one cared. The perpetrator was now a victim and many people felt: Serves them right. An eye for an eye.

I might have felt the same, had I been their victim. My private views as a victim were very far removed from compassion. I spent a lot of time thinking about revenge. The fact that he got away with it all, that he continued to work, eat and play as if nothing had happened, burned through me like acid and left behind a throbbing inflamed wound.

Forgiving is setting yourself free, they say, it’s letting go of the pain, without expecting anything from the other in return or expecting anything to change. I tried and failed to forgive the man who hurt me physically, emotionally and psychologically. I felt nothing when I tried. After a while it even became counter-productive. The longer I thought about him, the more my anger and frustration would rise.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu thought that was un-ubuntu of me. In an interview, he claimed: “When someone doesn’t forgive, we say that person does not have ubuntu.”

Whereas I was in no position to forgive the men I interviewed, because they had not harmed me, my approach was reconciliatory, focusing on their human dignity, which was tied in with what I felt was everyone’s dignity and humanity.

Publicly I subscribed to the idea of ubuntu, but privately I failed.

Maybe my inability to forgive the violent man in my private life is because the hurt is not acknowledged. And perhaps I could forgive if a space was provided where apologies could be made and a discussion of some sort could be facilitated. Perhaps my revenge fantasies would subside and I could actually let go.

But, alas, the man who hurt me will never apologise. In his mind, I am the aggressor and he is the victim. He exhibits textbook behaviour of domestic violence perpetrators: victim blaming.

In November last year, nearly two years after he threw me out of my home, I finally plucked up the courage to report him to the police.

I gave the police my evidence: pictures of my wounds, of all the things he broke; I had my friend who witnessed the violence write an eyewitness statement; my psychologist, who treated me for trauma emanating from my ex’s abuse, also wrote a statement. Two days after I fled the violence, I went to a hospital and a kind doctor and nurse documented the reminders of violence on my body on a J88 form; this creates medical-legal proof of injuries.

But will the retributive nature of the criminal justice system lead to a restoration of my dignity as a human being? On the one hand, I want him to face the consequences of his actions, but on the other hand I want to interrupt the cycle of violence and South African prisons are known to be extremely violent. So what, then, is a fitting punishment? And is punishment even a desired outcome?

The imprisoned men and I faced each other and I listened to them speak their pain. That enabled a reconciliatory approach in me (and possibly in them as well). The man who hurt me never looked me in the eye and listened to me speak my pain. He denies any of it ever happened.

It is a deep human need to be heard, validated and recognised. And that, in the end, is what lies under my anger, rage, shame and sadness: a need to be heard. The complete denial of the trauma I experienced still fuels the anger in me, makes me fantasise about revenge and makes me hit the boxing punch bag so hard I feel I’m going to faint. An acknowledgement of and ultimately an apology for the hurt caused would create a space in me to forgive. It is the denial that made me swallow my pain and silence myself. I feel reconciliation can only grow from forgiveness and an apology.

The attempt to strip me of my humanity made me realise what it means to be human. The violence inflicted on me has only made me more determined to love others and to avoid causing harm. And that, in the end, is where my two divided selves meet, both my private and public self – my outsider within – agree that the cycle of violence needs to be interrupted to let love reign.

Originally published: Daily Maverick

Main Photo: Unsplash/Stefano Pollio

Ruth Hopkins

Ruth is an award-winning investigative reporter who writes about human rights and criminal justice issues. Her latest book, Misery Merchants, Life and Death in a Private South African Prison was published in February 2020. Learn more about Ruth.