By Gwen Tuinman
I often think about my ancestors and their acts of courage. They exemplify all that is possible in the face of impossibility. Four generations ago, my Irish grandparents suffered famines, poverty, and oppression. In 1830, with little more than the clothes on their back, they braved the Atlantic crossing from inside the darkened belly of a creaking ship. They dreamt of a better life in an unseen world where they hoped to speak their minds without consequence and live as large as their imaginings.
In light of all the restraining circumstances to which they were subjected, it would have been unthinkable for anyone to say, “Cowards. Why didn’t you leave sooner?”
The history and grandeur of a neighbourhood building, once known as the Ontario Country Courthouse, has intrigued me for years. From my front step, I can see the cupola jutting above the treetops as it has done since the courthouse was built 1854. Back then, cows grazed on the lawn out front. At the centre of the courtroom, the accused awaited sentencing from inside a structure that, according to the Whitby Chronicle, resembled a cage for panthers. Women weren’t permitted on the courtroom floor; we stood in the balcony to view proceedings. Such practices were the rule of thumb, an accepted social norm. In colonial America, the informal Rule of Thumb law was perpetuated by some judges who permitted a man to beat his errant wife, providing that the stick was no wider than the breadth of his thumb.
Twenty-five years ago, I often stood on the courthouse’s front walk between the columns of flowering crab apple trees. I hid my secrets behind an overly bright smile. Any passersby may have presumed I lingered to admire the impressive architecture. How could they possibly have sensed my dread of going home or know about the whiplash collar kicked under the foot of my bed? I doubt they realized a man could push his wife into a wall with the force of a truck rear-ending a Buick, that he could steal her voice, or frighten her into a case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
So often people say, “I’d never put up with that treatment. A woman should leave the first time he crosses the line.” But some lines are invisible. Others zig and zag. Abuse is a mental chess match, the rules of which are kept secret by her abuser while she’s stuck in an endless loop of anticipating his next move.
When her partner’s face reddens with anger, a woman’s brain launches chemical messengers triggering up to 30 varieties of hormones that gallop throughout her body, raising alarms. Blood vessels constrict and her pulse rate skyrockets.
These daily episodes chronically over-activate her flight-or-fight responses and burn through her energy like fire through dry kindling. Self-preserving amnesia wipes painful memories from her mind. She is consumed with orchestrating perfect moments to prevent his anger. Her world narrows which fits his plans to isolate her. Her nurturing, generosity and perseverance are swords he wields against her.
It’s tough to shift from survivor mode to planning for the future.
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