How do you forgive the person who put you through hell as a child? That’s the question that will be running through my mind when I watch footballer turned pundit Ian Wright's documentary tonight on domestic violence. Wright says he has made peace with the stepfather who subjected him and his family to physical and psychological abuse. He has also made amends with his his mum, a victim herself, who he recalls saying she wished he’d been terminated. But forgiving the man who tormented me is not something I can bring myself to do.
I don’t have much in common with Ian Wright. However, I do have some understanding of how it feels to be dominated and, worse, to feel your mother is either unwilling to take your side or powerless because she is a victim herself.
I was two when my mum and dad separated; she was still just 20. For a time we moved between bedsits in London and Manchester. My first memory is of some tattooed ne’er-do-well beating her up in a scrofulous room; when I went to comfort mum he hit me so hard I flew across the room into the wall, seeing the world upside down. After that, mum’s boyfriends were mostly kind or a tad pathetic. Many seemed afraid of this four-foot-ten, feisty London Irish woman; one told me she’d chased him with a knife. Then, when I was ten, mum met a Mancunian (I’ll call him Pete) who seemed funny, intelligent and kind; he even had a car, and took us to the Lakes for a short holiday.
After they married, everything changed. We moved from a house on the moors to a tiny terraced house in the back end of town (from Emmerdale to Corrie). Perhaps paranoid by the dope he was smoking, Pete became more coercive towards mum, demanding to know where she was going. When she returned from a teaching conference, he inspected her underwear. Their fights became louder and more physical; mum told me later he’d thrown a flick-knife at her, and on another occasion shot at her with an airgun. I grew accustomed to the sound of fighting, screaming, mum crying. To this day I wish I’d done more to intervene. By now it was apparent from the strip lighting and smell that Pete was farming dope to sell; the door to their room was always locked.
Naturally, I was no angel. I dabbled in dope and magic mushrooms; worst of all, as far as Pete was concerned, I drank – he had diabetes and could only drink in moderation. Unfortunately dope made him paranoid; when I returned from a trip to see my wonderful, loving paternal grandparents in London he insisted I was on drugs (on that occasion, he was wrong).
When I expressed an interest in staying on at school, he demanded I join the army instead. He would leave porn magazines in my room by way of 'education' and call me, apropos nothing, a little poof. I began to dread the sound of his old car pulling up outside, the sound of his key in the lock. On New Year’s Eve 1982, in a screaming rage he threw mum and me out of the house; to my dismay, next day we went back.
Matters came to a head in the summer of 1983. I was 16 and had just left school but this being a time of high unemployment found myself waiting to sign on. I wrote a letter to a local paper in which I made an impassioned plea on behalf of the starving in Africa, lectured bemused locals on environmentalism, and described my fears at the then very-real prospect of nuclear war. Even the local tough stopped me on the street to congratulate me. The only person who didn’t like my letter was Pete, who explained he’d sent my tea to Africa and, in any case, didn’t I realise whites were in South Africa first?
By doing a paper round, working in a shop and washing cars I saved a few pounds. Pete fixed up an interview with the instructor of a Youth Training Scheme; all the money I had saved, he demanded, should go on a suit. As it was a training scheme I disagreed; he grabbed me by the throat and (in Yorkshire parlance) 'walled me up' against the wood-chip wallpaper. I walked to the station and took a train south. After a few days sleeping rough and staying in grotty bedsits I went home to face the music. Mum was glad to see me; Pete insisted I apologise to the police for wasting their time.
Things deteriorated further. Later that summer, in the midst of another row (I wanted a girl to stay over), Pete punched me to the floor and stamped on my face. I went to my dad’s and never went back.
I moved to London in 1985 and only saw Pete a couple of times after that; once at my grandparents, where we had another fight; then, a few years later, when I went home. Some friends took me to a dealer’s house to smoke dope. I’d been there a while before realising the dealer was, in fact, Pete, who mum had finally divorced. I saw then how pathetic he was and almost felt sorry for him; but unlike Ian Wright, I could never forgive him.
But at least I no longer wallow in self-pity (I now recognise that my childhood was no worse than most and better than many) or plan elaborate acts of revenge. For one thing, Pete is long dead; and for another, to paraphrase Seinfeld, the best act of revenge is parenting well. My kids are 17 and 14 now and under no circumstances would I hit them. When I’m beating myself up about one thing or another, I console myself with that thought: that whatever my other failings, at least I broke that cycle of violence.