New Internationalist

Breaking The Cycle

Issue 187

new internationalist
issue 187 - September 1988

Piecing together shattered lives is a long painstaking process.
Dirk Buwalda / CAMERA PRESS
Breaking the cycle
'My dad kept me in a toilet for a year when I was five years old... hung me from the
back of the door,' says Maggie. Will she recover? Sue Shaw went to find out.

It is a beautiful house. Flanked by cherry trees, its white wooden walls exude tranquility and comfort. The door stands open as children of all ages run in and out, busily engaged in weeding flower-beds, collecting chicken's eggs or simply playing. But someone is missing. All the children are listening for a special car - the one which belongs to the woman they call 'Mum'.

You may think this picture similar to that of innumerable families. But you would be wrong. This is no ordinary family, and the mother they await is no ordinary mum.

Take Maggie, nineteen years old but so small she could be twelve. She has soft cotton-blonde hair and pebble glasses. It's hard to believe that she once sustained physical injuries so savage that the photos were too horrifying to show a jury. Gazing across a field where the children have built an adventure playground, she speaks in a low nasal voice:

'See my nose,' she says, indicating nostrils flattened like those of a boxer. 'No bone. My dad broke it. He kept me in a toilet for a year and I lived in a kennel. It had six pieces of toilet paper on the floor and all I had to eat was dog-food. No-one to talk to. He tied my legs and hands together - like this - and hung me from the back of the door. Once he held me over a balcony and said he'd drop me, like my baby sister. When she landed she was dead. He said "That's her punishment for the day".'

She picks a dandelion and studies it minutely. Oh yes, this is a beautiful place. There is a pen with sheep and goats. Chickens strut peaceably around a large compound. It is a lovely house, a peaceful house. But someone is missing.

'She'll be back soon,' says Simon, a dark young man with a moustache. One of Mum's first children, he was invited back to her flat as a young boy. The cigarette in his hand trembles slightly as he talks, and his eyes rove anxiously around the room. 'Dad? I never knew my dad.' He snorts. 'We were living in a home for battered wives because of the boyfriends. My "birth" mother couldn't stop drinking. And when she was drunk - could she pack a punch.' He rolls his eyes. Lifting up a bare-foot toddler who has been playing on the floor beside him, he gently tucks on the baby's shoes. 'I kept wanting her to stay sober,' he says of his birth mother. '1 kept wishing and wishing. But the more I wanted it, the more it hurt when she didn't. So I killed her. Figuratively I mean. She was dead for me a long time before she actually died.' A car crunches down the drive. Footsteps sound in the hail and just as the toddler starts to cry, a tall, heavily-built woman strides across the room and scoops the baby into the air.

There is no false jollity about this mum. She first got involved with children seventeen years ago when a small boy stealing sweets from Woolworths attracted her attention. He was five years old, living on the streets. She took him home and looked after him until his mother arrived late in the night. She was inspired to rent a room in the town hall as a club for the boy and his friends. The first day, to her amazement, 78 children turned up. Over the years her reputation for being able to handle difficult youngsters grew. First one, then more were referred to her for fostering and today she has 36, many of whom she has adopted, some now grown-up.

Says the mother, 'When my children come to me I tell them: "I can't take away the things that have happened to you, but I can share them. You may never recover completely, but you will learn to live with the scars just as you live with physical scars." I tell them: "Pain is part of life. Face yours, be honest about what you feel and use it in a positive way".'

If you doubt that such pain can be used constructively, then take a closer look at this woman. Many years ago she was a small girl, terrified by a father who sexually abused her and betrayed by a mother who blamed her for what had happened. She was a child who ran away and lived alone. Mary Johnston was a victim who became a survivor. And the healing going on in this family is the product of her pain.

From her own experiences Mary is able to communicate with children that other people can't understand. And it works. Says Maggie, 'I love my mum so much. She has taken away all my problems and made them alright. I knew I could tell her everything: she would never tell anyone else. She loves me.'

Ask about the anger, the hate, the confusion: where has that gone? Says the mother, 'I tell my sons and daughters: "You have a right to feel these things. But don't let them get in the way of your happiness. Hatred destroys".'

Outside the house the sun is a fat gold ball sinking behind the trees. Simon leans against the door smoking a cigarette, studying the smoke as it weaves and dissipates into the stillness.

At the far end of the house something stirs. A new brother stands, very small and angry, legs astride, arm drawn back, bottle in hand aimed directly at an upstairs bedroom window. 'I wouldn't do that if I were you,' Simon calls, walking lightly towards him. 'I don't fucking care.' The boy turns, challengingly. 'Maybe not,' says Simon, as distant laughter drifts towards them on a breeze. 'But you will do.'

Sue Shaw is an NI Co-editor.

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