On January 31st, 1985, Kathryn Joy lost her mother to domestic violence. Exactly 35 years later, Kathryn shared her story during the Children as Victims of Crime Round Table in Melbourne:
Click here for the transcript
Kathryn: I’m 12 years old and in my first year of high school, and a new friend asks me what my mother does for a living.
I’m standing in the doorway of a classroom and I can’t move. Everything inside me feels chaotic - a jumbled mess of thoughts and feelings, my brain scrambling for the right words to get me out of the conversation that I know is about to occur. I feel my new friend staring at me, waiting for an answer that I don’t know how to give…
‘... she’s dead’, I said quietly.
My stomach turns as I wait for the follow up question... it always comes. Kids are curious, and not well versed in social cues.
‘How did she die?’ he asks, and my face turns red and there is this hollow nauseous ache in my guts that I would later come to recognise as shame.
I say nothing, because... I don’t really know. I don’t know how to explain it, nobody has ever really explained it to me.
‘How did she die?’ He asks again.
It is an odd feeling, to want so desperately to be understood, to be seen, and, in equal measure - to disappear, become invisible.
'She.… I don’t want to talk about it’, I say.
And I brace myself for what’s next but all he does is shrug and say ’Ok... sorry’, and he walks away but I still wonder if somehow he just knows, like my face gives something away, and I realise I haven’t taken a breath in a really long time and I want to cry or scream but my class is about to start so I pack up my bag and all of my feelings, and I put them away somewhere... because they’re confusing and I don’t understand them -
and then, all of a sudden, I feel nothing at all.
If it’s possible to feel less than nothing, inhuman somehow, I feel that - and I don’t understand that either, I don’t understand what’s wrong with me, but I know something is really wrong with me. In that moment, it’s the only thing I know for sure.
In the following years, whenever the question was asked, I would say ‘car accident’ or ‘cancer’. No less tragic, of course – however, I was already keenly aware, far more socially acceptable.
I got good at lying. Another thing to feel ashamed about, but somehow less shameful than the truth.
‘My dad killed her’.
I never knew how to say that out loud.
‘I am afraid of him’.
I never knew how to say that either.
It seems fitting that today is the anniversary of my mother’s death. On January 31st, 1985, my father got a gun and shot my mother, Carolyn, 3 times in our family home. I was 3 months old, my brothers, 4 and 8. My father served 3 years of an 8-year sentence for manslaughter - the provocation defence.
In what I assume was an effort to keep us out of the system, my brothers and I were informally fostered - looked after by family friends and relatives of my father, while he was in prison. We each lived with separate carers because no one person could take us all.
I often wonder what that must have been like for us as small humans - a dead mother, a father in prison, and then to be separated from each other. Carers who were suffering through their own complicated trauma and grieving process. Nobody keeping tabs.
My heart feels heavy for those children.
It is sometimes easier to feel for them, back there in the past, than for myself, here, in the present.
Upon my father’s release from prison, my brothers and I went back to live in the family home with him. My attachment to my foster family seemingly irrelevant at this juncture – my father wanted us back.
So, most of my childhood was spent in that house, with my father as my primary carer.
It is a lonely feeling - to love someone who you fear. To want to protect someone who has hurt you so much.
To feel unsafe in a place, a home, but perhaps more unsafe outside of it because the world feels terrifying when the people that are supposed to love you the most, are the ones that hurt you. It feels like, if they can do it, anyone can...
And... better the devil you know.
I wasn’t asked at any point if I wanted to live with him (I don’t remember ever being asked anything), though I realised later that part of the reason he served so little of his sentence was because they were keen to get him back to his family, his job, his life. As far as I could tell, everything was in his best interests, and nothing was in ours.
I don’t really blame people for not advocating for us…. folks had their own trauma to deal with. And they were up against a system and a society that saw my father as a victim – he was a white, well-educated, middle class man, and my mother had betrayed him.
But I do continue to be amazed that nobody once asked me if I was okay living in that house with him. Or with my brothers, for that matter. They were angry (understandably, justifiably). We all were. Though my fear trumped my anger and my anger manifested quite differently than my brothers. Mine turned inward - theirs, outward.
I spent a lot of years searching for answers, searching for ways to be okay... I searched for validation, for understanding, for connection, for community, for safety. I searched in places that I probably shouldn’t have - places and people that were far from safe. I found myself in situations that I look back on in sadness and regret and fear.
I searched for a way out of the life I was born into. I searched for a way into something more meaningful.
I searched for information, for education, for mental health support, for similar stories, for peace of mind.
Some of those things I have found - others I still search for. Perhaps I always will.
Somewhat ironically, the thing that protected my father from his crimes, from taking responsibility, is the same thing that has protected me, kept me relatively safe, helped me be a somewhat functioning human being in the world - privilege. I have quite a lot of it. Many people in my situation, do not.
And I also fought hard to be okay. I fought *for* myself and *by* myself for a very long time. I fought for professional help, for a support network, for my freedom and for my sanity. I fought for access to information about my own life, I fought to have a voice. And it is exhausting to fight for these things. And it is expensive. And it has taken up a lot of space and time in my life. It has taken a lot *out* of me, and *from* me.
And there were so many things I had to do alone, that I wish I could have done with the help of others.
And I have others now...
But there are still days that feel impossibly hard.
Living with childhood trauma is complicated, to say the least. Traumatic grief - Disenfranchised grief, is complicated. It is both personal and political, and healing becomes somewhat dependent on both your own understanding of what has occurred, and society’s understanding and acknowledgement of what has occurred.
It is a difficult road, and nobody should have to travel it alone.
'Listen’ focuses primarily on Kathryn’s story as a person with lived experience of being bereaved by domestic homicide.
We acknowledge that this is one story from one person. Every child or young person affected by domestic homicide has a unique experience, which in turn is shaped by their social, economic and cultural contexts and their intersections.
Questions for reflection:
- What opportunities do we have to learn whether a child or young person is currently going through personal or family difficulties?
- How do we help a child or young person regain and maintain a sense of self-esteem, safety, stability and trust?
- Where do we have opportunity to adapt our work more effectively to children and young people’s cultural background and specific context? Where may we be able to bring in cultural brokers?