A lazy autumn morning, dry leaves tumbling in the streets. The foliage on the catalpa or Indian bean tree is the colour of butterscotch. Dog at my feet, a copy of Daily Reflections nearby, I am sitting and welcoming the morning. Neighbour proferring a clump of apple mint through the window, a gift to be potted out later.
Annie Lennox playing, a little strident but lively. I am reading news reports, thinking about ripe pears and making something later with wild rice and perhaps bok choy. Humming as I read.
It is the detail that captures my attention. The bathroom tiles were decorated with octopus and snail motifs. I stop reading and think of slimy tentacles, of reddening bathwater, of children running taps in darkness, the mocking absurdity of starburst octopus and seashell motifs put up to amuse children who would not see the ocean, children kept locked in a dungeon.
This is the case that has horrified readers worldwide. The Austrian father who locked up his daughter in a cellar for 24 years and forced her to bear seven children. Three of those children grew up in the cellar with her, trapped in a rabbit warren of dark rooms, their only view of the world a flickering television set. He was a sexual and authoritarian tyrant, beating his children, keeping his wife in ignorance, fooling neighbours and social workers, pretending his daughter had joined a cult.
Elisabeth his daughter is now 42, grey-haired and frail, very disturbed. She told police she was first raped at the age of 11 and drugged and locked into the cellar at the age of 18. Nobody came looking for her. One of the children to whom she gave birth died and her father threw the body into a household furnace.
In the house of incest, your point of view vanishes. There is only what he wants. There is no safe place. And everything is seen through his eyes, everyone outside the family is a stranger and a danger.
Some fathers do not need to construct an actual dungeon. The family home is isolated enough, the children terrorised into complete silence and obedience, the wife and mother a child herself and as helpless as the littlest one.
When there were unexpected guests, us children would be locked in the main bedroom and told to keep perfectly still. We would sit there unmoving for hours. When we misbehaved or disobeyed or misunderstood something, we would be locked up in the dark without food. Locked into the garage, into an empty spare bedroom, unfurnished. Locked into a shed in the garden. The locked spaces and the prison stayed inside us for many years, the need to keep very quiet and listen for footsteps approaching. Footsteps could mean more punishment or release. It was important not to fall asleep, to stay vigilant and not to feel anything very much.
And these children, the child and her father’s children carried by her, knew only that dungeon and the darkness, the narrow passages and tiny spaces, the crampd dark rooms and need to keep silent. No other life. Incestuous tyranny taken to its logical conclusion.
New figures released by the United Nations claim that one in three women in the world today experience violence, mostly sexual violence.
‘Violence against women and girls continues unabated in every continent, country and culture. It takes a devastating toll on women’s lives, on their families, and on society as a whole. Most societies prohibit such violence — yet the reality is that too often, it is covered up or tacitly condoned. ‘
— UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, 8 March 2007