Real-life stories of hope and pain
A survivor of domestic violence reviews the new book Nightingale Songs: Survival Stories From Domestic Violence.
Why it is so difficult to walk out of abuse? Because these are some of the thoughts that cross a victim’s mind: Perhaps it is just a passing cloud; you mean, I am a victim of violence? Me? No, it cannot be! What is abuse, anyway?
I applaud the efforts of publisher Marshall Cavendish the publisher, author Kendra Frazier, AWARE, and the survivors who contributed their stories to Nightingale Songs, the first book of its kind in Singapore. AWARE did really great work in its chapter on how victims of abuse can seek help in Singapore. The book also has a very diverse scope that will be of interest to survivors, counsellors, as well as those looking for more awareness and understanding of this issue.
Nevertheless, I would have appreciated a more explicit exploration of the survivors’ stories. Beneath the surface, there is a lot of suffering, agony, anguish, shame, antagonism, guilt, loneliness, isolation, humiliation, hurt, tears, struggle, tension, fear, uncertainty, pain and repeatedly giving the perpetrator the benefit of the doubt, hoping that there will be a miracle one day.
Portraying these intense emotions and conflicts will help people better understand how recovering from such insidious abuse, which usually begins in the family of origin, is extremely difficult. The ripple effects are also more detrimental when they are trans-generational. Acknowledging the co-dependency of family dynamics is one of the keys to healing.
For most victims, getting someone to believe their story is the first step to breaking the cycle of violence. In the longer term, it is important to get the time and space to develop one’s identity and instill respect for differences in individuals, instead of using power struggles to ensure cohesion and adhesion.
Nightingale Songs serenades 2 advocates, 3 counsellors, 2 survivors-turned-helping professionals, and 8 victims.
The chapter on law professor Chan Wing Cheong’s efforts to improve legal protection against domestic violence:
I have been a beneficiary to the changes in the 1996 amendment to the Women’s Charter that includes the continual harassment portion. That granted creditability to the invisible sufferings for me this year.
Paradoxically, by prioritizing family unity, Singapore law sometimes jeopardizes its own protection objectives. Perpetrators almost look more normal than the victims most of the time. Mentorship and support is critical for survivors, and it really helps when there is rising social consciousness in her support network about the typical dynamics of an abusive relationship.
The chapter on former AWARE Direct Services manager Kerry Wilcock:
Homelessness is just as intolerable as the abuse. The transient life for both mothers and their children after breaking away from the cycle of violence can be a very stressful time. It is worse when they are foreigners with limited access to their rights to home, children and money, at the mercy of the native spouse. The innocent and powerless children are the real victims in the crisis. Their inner turmoil, and being forced to grow up beyond their years, is heart-breaking.
The chapters on counsellors Benny Bong and Hamidah S.A.B., and social worker Udhia Kumar:
Bong observes that a perpetrator usually plays a victim’s role at work. These men are usually not in touch with themselves, blaming everything and everybody except themselves. Kumar says that recovery begins when we recognise that the perpetrator is also suffering deeply from inner turmoil.
What we victims want is to STOP the violence. We learned the difference between expressive anger and instrumental anger. The latter is deep-seated, entrenched, enmeshed and simmering.
Teaching respect in healthy relationships is critical. The private is a function of the public and the public an expression of the private.
Counsellor Hamidah believes that better communication and inner assertiveness are vital to helping survivors to recognise subtle psychological abuse, and not tolerate disrespect.
The chapters on survivors of domestic violence:
Yu Ming’s personal history is an inspiration – It is possible to rebuild your life. He notes that ignorance and secrecy pose the greatest threats to the welfare and safety of children in a violent home. Empowering them by teaching them to identify triggers to violence is a more proactive and pre-emptive step. The story of Bob, another survivor, also emphasizes this need for guidance and support.
The women and children caught in such situations need someone who listens, takes personal interest. The power of one such person can help to turn things around.
Survivor Akshaya was taunted and demeaned by her ex-spouse in front of friends and her children. The social isolation she describes is unbearable. I identified with her – I, too, did not realise that I had a right not to suffer, until counselling helped me to think differently. Our aspirations for our daughters are also similar – like her, I do not want my daughter to grow up fragile.
My young daughter was instrumental to my exit to freedom. She stayed sensitive to the fact that she experienced more peace externally than home. One day, she just stayed close to the door, and said innocently: “Mummy, let’s go?” Financial dependence was another enslaving factor. Walking away was not easy.
I remembered my fair share of kneeling down, apologetically begging my ex-husband to save our family, and being given the cold shoulder. The late counsellor Anthony Yeo once asked me what the one thing I regretted was. I said, almost instantly: My marriage. His next question was: Do you think that you will regret your divorce?
For a victim of abuse to get clarity and to give up hope of an equal partnership takes time. Self-love was a valuable lesson that I had to learn.
As the road to recovery continues, I can identify with Elizabeth’s Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde double life of flux. The fear of failure, intimacy and rejection in personal relationships is always there, even in platonic relationships. This sense of restlessness about who I can really trust is a constant struggle.
I completed reading this healing book in a day. It is a great comfort for us survivors to know that we are not alone. There are many others who care.
About Nightingale Songs
To write this book, Singapore-based counsellor and mental healthcare professional Kendra Frazier spoke to survivors of abuse and professionals who help those impacted by violence in their home. Their stories provide useful information for those considering working in the field of domestic violence, especially the importance of self-care, and will resonate with anyone whose life has been personally touched by this issue.
To commemorate the United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Woman, AWARE and Marshall Cavendish launched Nightingale Songs on Nov 25, 2011. This book is the first comprehensive documentation of domestic abuse in Singapore. The launch was part of Stop the Cycle Before it Starts, AWARE’s anti-domestic violence campaign, and was followed by a discussion featuring survivors and experts. Nightingale Songs can be purchased for $19 at the AWARE Centre and all major bookstores.