‘When We Remember They Call Us Liars’ is Suzanne Covich’s memoir of her childhood in 1960s rural Tasmania – a childhood clouded by poverty, alcoholism, violence, and by sexual abuse at the hands of her father.
The prose is tightly packed, honest and gut-punching. No frills, no lyricism, no prettying it up – just raw Aussie vernacular describing what happened. The tragedy bounces off the page:
‘We saw Dad punch Mum’s face when she tried to stand and back away from him. We saw him break her nose, smash into her ribs and kick the bulging veins she’d got from the weight of carrying six kids. As Mum tried to curl up to protect herself, he continued to punch and kick and she screamed for him to stop.’ p. 38
Suzanne was a bright kid — dux of her class throughout primary school — and good at sport. Full of feist and bravado, she hid the problems at home — the verbal abuse, the drinking, the punching. But she expressed herself in other ways:
‘One day, when I climbed to the top of the pine tree, squatting myself on its lopped-off trunk, seeing happy little kids making happy little houses with tiny little sticks beneath me, I dropped my pants, held on tight and pissed from way up there. Deliberate. There was no direct hit. I watched it drip from branch to branch, dropping onto their heads as they zoomed matchbox cars in and out. ‘Wozat? Wozat?’ Confused, they rubbed their wet heads and looked up as I curled like a small bear, hands held tight to my chest – out of sight until the bell rang and they disappeared.’ p. 42
Suzanne and her many siblings stayed silent about the abuse. They all knew what was going on — they copped it, witnessed it, and heard it. But they knew they couldn’t talk, and they didn’t. They knew they wouldn’t be believed:
‘Lizzie told Mum and she told the police. The police did not believe her. Lizzie said Dad belted her, and she had bruises to prove it. And she said that he did all sorts of unbelievable things to her. She told the police the lot, like she’d told Mum the lot, and Mum did nothing and the police did nothing.’ p. 51
Unfortunately, kids rarely speak out about abuse at the time. They can’t. Firstly, they know they won’t be believed, so they don’t risk spilling the beans, exposing their humiliation, only to have the door shut in their face and be punished. Secondly and perhaps even more importantly, they feel a shame attached to their abuse, so they tuck it out of sight, keep it secret, and just hope it will stop.
That’s why books like this need to be written, and books like this need to be read, no matter how much tension or sadness they create within the reader. For those who have suffered child abuse, a book like this says, ‘This happened to me and it didn’t break me.’ It also says, ‘I am not ashamed.’ For those who haven’t been abused, it gives insight into something about which they have no idea.
This book stayed with me for days after I’d put it down — the betrayal of a child, the theft of a childhood, the denial of a child’s right to safety, all at the hand of a parent. To me, there is nothing more sinister. I don’t know how a child survives a childhood like this — it’s not like they can strip it away and start afresh as an adult.
Suzanne Covich’s gutsiness and tenacity is evident on every page and, no doubt, is the reason she has not only survived, but achieved. I read in the notes at the back of the book that Suzanne has gone on to obtain a PhD in Creative Writing and works as a school teacher. She writes poetry and short fiction, and is a public speaker and child rights activist.
I’m glad you wrote this book, Suzanne, and I’m glad I read it.
‘When We Remember They Call Us Liars‘ by Suzanne Covich, Fremantle Press, 2012
This is another book review for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.