The Wars of Childhood

These ABC TV interviews are mostly light-hearted, but when Dr Emerson spoke about rows between his mother and war-damaged father, the mood darkened.

Last month I came across a replay of Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet interview with Dr Craig Emerson, who was a cabinet minister in Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd’s prime ministerships. These ABC TV interviews are mostly light-hearted, but when Dr Emerson spoke about rows between his mother and war-damaged father, the mood darkened. He spoke of needing to look after the “traumatised children” of such relationships. Tears sprang, and the look on his face was of pain I recognised. Annabel looked worried, but having dared to speak of what is perhaps the greatest pain of all, Craig Emerson forged on to repeat that we have to protect children from being traumatised in families. It was the unforgettable moment in the interview. It was obvious that despite all his charm, humour, education and achievements, Emerson is still that traumatised child. As I am. As some of my friends are. We are growing old but not away from the pain of our childhoods. We are relieved that it can be spoken of now, but for most of our lives it has been a secret, sometimes denied by other members of the family. When we third agers were children it was unspeakable, except, perhaps, when we fled to police (who looked away from my eight- or nine-year-old, pleading self – “stop them, stop them” – and told me to “go home”). Or to neighbours, who were embarrassed by their inability to intervene. If you had siblings to help you bear the burden, you were slightly better off. But as my brothers and sisters were much older and often able to get out of the home battlefield, I was mostly left with it, the child with no escape and no power, trying to stop two parents who seemed intent on killing each other. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were many. The natural death of one parent, as it often does, ended the wars, and I was in my 50s before I spoke of it to anyone. Some of my peers will never speak of it. Some are only now dropping hints when interviews like that of Craig Emerson are discussed among us. The war experience, the drink, religious fanaticism, poverty, gambling, the powerlessness of women then, are blamed. Men returning from battlefields to women who had no guidance to understand their changed partners have been a big factor in domestic wars post 1918. But there have always been many causes of domestic violence and the victims are always the weakest. Women and their children. And in my day, there was nowhere to escape, no prospect of economic independence, too much pride to ask for support, being denied it anyway. People like Craig Emerson and me and other traumatised children (for that is what we will always be) hear others boast of carefree childhoods and an icicle spears our heart. We know our lives would have been different, our friendships, even our parenting better, if we had had less fear-filled childhoods – or if we had some magic that would let us forget. But you can never forget that ongoing responsibility a child assumes, while powerless, to save adults from themselves. That’s not even taking account of children who were in actual danger themselves. I can’t speak personally of that, thank heaven, but I know 70- and 80-year olds struggling with those memories. In later life it made us more vulnerable; but it also put a certain steeliness in our spines that may have helped us. If only that we learnt to get out, if we could, before the kids were affected. Adults might think the child can cope, but the child cannot. Adults might think it is possible to “make it up” to the damaged child. You cannot. It is putting a mark on their souls forever. I am proud that I have lived to see the great domestic violence prevention initiatives of recent years and that my daughter is part of them and works to save children from being traumatised as well as adults. Children, now, know there are places to go for help where faces will not be turned away from them, where they will not just be told to “go home”. And what about us oldies with our sad old secrets about parents probably long dead? We revise continually, rehearse often, what happened and why: why two people we loved so much ignored us while they fought battles over our heads and caused us such terror. Reconciling with those parents can be hard. Shifting blame from one to another parent is common. Futile, but we do it. The imprint on our lives is indelible. Not much helps. But the best advice I ever had was from a pioneer shelter worker who heard my story in the late ‘80s. All you can do, she said, when it’s hard to stop thinking about it, is to imagine you are back there with yourself as a child amid the wars and give her a hug, comfort her. You can’t change the past, but you can do that for yourself. @mollyfisher4

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.