Portrait

The writer of Memoirs of a Suburban Girl on her long road out of a violent relationship. “There I am, right in the middle of my teenage years and suddenly in a serious relationship. A relationship that pushes away my other life. Being hit was beyond my world experience. I didn’t want it to happen again. I started treading a little bit more carefully, and that set up a power dynamic.”

By Sarah Price.

Author Deb Kandelaars

Twenty years later, Deb Kandelaars began writing the book. It is a conversation between her older self and her younger self. A remembering – a slideshow of sorts – of her earlier years. Click-click: you are locked in a house. Click-click: you are chased through scrub. Click-click: he cracks your ribs. Click-click: he holds a pillow over your face and you cannot breathe. Click-click: he runs your car off the road. Click-click: he smashes your head against a window. Click-click: he threatens to kill you. Click-click: you try to leave. Click-click: he finds you.

Adelaide, 1979. She met him when she was 16, still at school, at a disco where she was under-age. After their initial introduction, they’d meet up at the Lion Hotel. She “fell” for him. He was 10 years older. Smooth and charming and good-looking. He made her feel special. She thought he was mature, “worldly”. Before long, they shared a flat.

It began with a comment: “Have you put on weight?” Then a slap. A kick and a punch and a hard pull of her hair. He hit, yelled and made threats. Called her names. She quickly became isolated from her family and friends. She began to doubt herself. He allowed her to work, but kept “tabs” on where she was and who she was with. She worked two jobs and brought in the money. He pursued another young woman.

The simplistic way of describing how she got there, Kandelaars says, is this: “There I am, right in the middle of my teenage years and suddenly in a serious relationship. A relationship that pushes away my other life. Being hit was beyond my world experience. I didn’t want it to happen again. I started treading a little bit more carefully, and that set up a power dynamic.

“People said to me, ‘Why didn’t you just leave?’ Actually, it is far harder to do that than you think. I tried a few times … the relentlessness of trying and failing, then just giving up. Somehow or other he would find me. At times he would cry, or beg me to come back. It’s almost like you lose your strength. You end up thinking it is just too hard to leave. You are kind of trapped in a way. And you are embarrassed. I had left home full of myself, thinking I was perfectly okay. My parents hadn’t wanted me to leave, and I felt like I had to protect them from this life I was leading. They were such good people – I didn’t want to expose them to it.”

Abuse has a lot of faces. And it is hard to ask for help, Kandelaars says. You need a friend, someone willing to acknowledge what is happening. Mostly, the people around her ignored what was going on. She would arrive at work bruised, and no one said anything. He would harass her through the work phone, or wait for her in the car park, and no one said anything. Eventually, a young man she worked with asked: “What’s going on?”

“That was confronting,” says Kandelaars, “but it was the beginning of a conversation. He was the one who helped me out of it. That was the beginning of the end for me. Women can’t get out by themselves. People around them need to be aware. They need to say: ‘I can see what’s going on here – I can help you.’ ”

Through her book, Memoirs of a Suburban Girl, Kandelaars wanted people to understand the difficulty women face when removing themselves from violent relationships. Domestic violence is a collective problem, a societal problem. As a community, she says, we need to keep our eyes open. If one in three women is sexually or physically assaulted, then we are friends with them, or we are working with them, or we are related to them. It could be you, or someone you know. The characters in her book do not have names. They are anyone. Reaching unknown women “out in the world” has been the book’s greatest reward, she says. Women have emailed her, or approached her, to thank her for writing the book, and to say: “That was my life. I went through that, too.”

Kandelaars is now involved in Adelaide’s White Ribbon Day. Her husband is a White Ribbon ambassador. On November 23, South Australian school students will be interviewed about White Ribbon’s Breaking the Silence program. which is designed to teach young people about respectful relationships, gender equality and how to challenge attitudes that support violence.

“It all starts with respect,” Kandelaars says. “We need to begin early … with both boys and girls. A healthy relationship is about feeling equal, and having respect.”

Years after she escaped that violent relationship, Kandelaars stood with her daughter at an ice-cream van in Adelaide. She saw him in the distance. Her heart raced. But, she says, he looked pathetic to her, and she felt strong. She put an arm around her daughter, and walked back to her family. Seeing him again, after years of wondering, marked the end for her.

She doesn’t fear very much anymore, she says. “It’s like I experienced the worst of life early on. I think it has made me resilient. I am lucky in that way. For some people, it pulls them apart. For me, I came through it. It now feels like a movie about a young woman who is someone else in another time.”

But, there are little things left over. Sometimes, Kandelaars  still feels a need to protect her body. And in the early stages of the relationship with her husband, she found herself asking permission for things. “Even though it was years later, it took me a long time with my husband to realise that I could be who I wanted to be … to settle into a healthy relationship, and to feel: ‘Ahh, this is what it’s like.’ ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 13, 2018 as "Full strength". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.