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Leaving an abusive partner

I wrote this thesis for my psychology MA almost 30 years ago. It was interesting to come across it again after so many years; it had ended up at my sister’s house, probably after my folks died about a decade ago, and she only returned it to me now, when I went down to the Cape to visit her.

I was in the late 80s and early 90s pursuing postgrad studies to stay out of army camps, but I also had a bursary from the HSRC for R5000 which, had I failed to complete my Master’s, I would have had to pay back. In those days, and with no employment, R5000 was a lot of money. The bursary allowed me to put down a deposit for the first Live Jimi Presley house in Rosettenville in 1990, so it stood us in good stead.

I began my Master’s in Grahamstown but I did not like my supervisor, and my original topic – PTSD in exiles returning to SA – ended up not interesting me or anybody else. Luckily, I was able to change topics (though it still encompassed PTSD). A mate of mine said she worked at the POWA shelter, and could grant me access to interview some of the women who were hiding from abusive partners and using the shelter as a place to gather strength before they began new lives. I was one of the few males who was ever allowed to access the shelter; its location was kept a tight secret from men, and with good reason. 

I ended up writing a fucking tome. The thesis weighs 1.7kg and is over 250 pages in length — it looks like an encyclopaedia! I can’t remember if I wrote it on a typewriter or one one of the earliest computers with a typewriter font, but all the pages are one-sided, hence its considerable heft. My supervisor at UNISA basically told me that I was on my own; she wasn’t going to help me write it. I did a huge amount of research and lengthy analysis of the four interviews I conducted, using phenomenology as my (extremely rigorous) methodology to interrogate my material. She was impressed: I got a distinction.

Here’s the abstract, which basically sums up what I found: leaving a person who you once loved, and in many cases who supports you and your kids, is something that went round in these poor women’s heads for quite some time before they made the leap.

Some of these women thought they were losing their minds. Their partners ran them down so constantly that they feared they were going insane. One of them had to do so much for her “man” that she ended up standing outside the shower, handing him the soap and shampoo, even having to massage it into his hair for him. He wouldn’t lift a fucking finger to do anything in the house; she was basically enslaved. “I felt like a nothing person with no standards or goals/ I’ve felt like a nobody/he would lift his hand to hit me, then not hit me, then laugh/I felt so degraded” etc etc.

This is what patriarchy can result in, if carried to its logical conclusion. Not much has changed: Covid has kicked off a fresh wave of wife-beating, rape and abuse.

The decision these women made to leave was sometimes prompted by a small matter, but it came at the end of a long process of turning the matter around in their heads. This in the context of the massive self-doubt inflicted upon them by their abusive partner. I was in essence examining what the straw was that broke the camel’s back.

I remember I had one regret after I wrote it. I had wanted to add a quote from Bob Marley, but didn’t get round to doing it. “Stop that train, I’m leaving. It won’t be too long, whether I’m right or wrong.”