In the 1980s, supermarkets provided a safe space for children to get slapped. For working-class kids in my community, supermarkets only existed to give our parents a little target practice. I usually got whacked in the dog food aisle.
In my supermarket, the pet goods were stacked in one of the last aisles, towards the end of the shopping expedition, when children were restless and parental patience was wearing thin. Parents gathered in those distant aisles to strike their children’s backsides, which led to stunned little ones flying forward as if jabbed with a cattle prod.
Like the Mark Ronson of kids’ smacking, my mother was more of a music producer than a disciplining parent, blending vocals and percussion into one spectacular rhythm. She scolded and smacked in sync.
You. Can’t. Eat. Dog. Food. Moron.
Smack. Smack. Smack. Smack. Smack. Smack.
She never missed a beat. It was like being reprimanded with Dave Grohl’s drumsticks.
At this point, appalled virtue-signallers must choke on their smashed avocado, unable to swallow such horrific Dickensian tales of violence, particularly when presented humorously, even flippantly. But our parents’ generation hit their children, quite a lot, and often for very little.
Today, any self-respecting, liberal parent accused of striking a child in a supermarket—even in the organic aisle—might as well be accused of molesting a beloved pet. It doesn’t happen.
But it did once. Domestic violence of the parental, disciplinary kind was a way of life. Some of it can be laughed off now, written off as a by-product of less enlightened times (we didn’t even have kale). But the other kind of domestic violence cannot. It still haunts.
I grew up in the age and working-class culture of the ‘right-hander’. In such societies, the right-hander, which was essentially a slap, cuff or punch of some description, was liberally applied when warranted.
Judge, jury and executioner were usually the same person, a man, and the accused was often a woman.
Women in my community—and women in my childhood home—were sentenced to a ‘right-hander’ for all sorts of ‘crimes’: being argumentative, looking a certain way or simply being, just being around the wrong man at the wrong time. You’ll get a right-hander if you carry on like that.
What a witty line that was. It was often spat out to entertain others at drunken family gatherings, but it came with a belligerent undertow, an edgy reminder of a woman’s place in the hierarchy. You’ll get this if you keep doing that. It wasn’t so much a threat as it was a reinforcement of the power structure within the household.
In my world, men expected to be treated a certain way (ie obeyed). If they weren’t, well, that’s what the right-hander was for. One of the most viciously scathing lines ever written in a sitcom came from a cynical grandmother in The Royle Family, a peerless British comedy about a working- class family.
Speaking of a friend, the grandmother said: “She married a joiner and moved to Leeds. He knocked her about a bit, but her home was lovely.”
Both funny and depressing, the line is a profound analysis of domestic violence, particularly within the working-class communities of my youth, highlighting the entrenched male authority and that weary acceptance of archaic gender roles.
Man provided food and shelter. Job done. Woman must be grateful for the food and shelter and gloss over any shortcomings, such as the occasional battering.
That trade-off can manifest itself in a slightly different way in Singapore, where the patriarchy still insists on optional extras for merely providing the basic essentials of a relationship (ie the mortgage is taken care of, the kids’ tuition is sorted, so I’m entitled to shag the office intern, right?)
Not that Singapore is spared domestic violence. No one is. According to AWARE, one in 10 women in Singapore experience lifetime physical violence by a male. According to the global campaign, One Billion Rising, one in three women across the world will be beaten or raped during her lifetime, hence the name of the campaign.
Statistically, one billion girls and women will be a victim of violence. That’s someone living on the same floor as you, someone sitting at the facing table in a café, someone beside you on the MRT. And it was someone in my childhood home.
Memories of domestic violence against women can never entirely fade. The rage never subsides. Ever.
Rachel Louise Snyder recently published a book on the subject, called No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us. The title is as poignant as it is perfect.
The bruises are either hidden or buried. Shame hides them from public view. Dignity tries to justify them. Blame-shifting—or victim-blaming—is commonplace.
You made me angry.
Yeah, I shouldn’t have made you angry.
These lines, often rehearsed, definitely repeated, were heard too many times. Quiet attempts to explain the violence and pacify the alarmed child now seem as pitiful as they were brave. For others, the bruises are buried. In 2013, statistics from the UK Home Office suggested that most women endured an average of 30 assaults before they sought help.
Men can’t just batter women. They must break them.
And they often do.
Between 2000 and 2006, around 3,200 American soldiers were killed in combat. In the same period, American men killed more than three times that number of people on American soil—their wives and girlfriends. And their children often witnessed the savagery, the ‘right-handers’. Every witness is a victim of domestic violence. Everyone in the family home ends up with those invisible bruises.
So I don’t hit my wife or daughter, which is a faintly ludicrous boast, typical of a privileged, dominant gender, as if I’m expecting a round of applause for not being a thuggish arsehole. But in a literal sense, that’s all I can do. The cycle of male domestic violence in my family ends with me.
And in a literary sense, I can make those bruises visible, long enough for others to realise that they exist, and that they must be present elsewhere, maybe in the home, maybe at work or maybe just within. Those bruises are now a source of strength, not shame. The scared boy who could do nothing is now an angry man with a laptop.
I don’t throw right-handers. But I’ll never stop writing about those who do.