The words that shocked this woman to act: ‘He’s unstable. Leave now.’
When Susan Berg was 15 years old, she lost her parents and brother in a boating accident – she was the sole survivor. Susan suffered from survivor guilt and struggled to find any positive meaning in life. In the years that followed she delved down a path of self-destruction, looking for solace in casual sexual encounters and drugs. By the age of 19, she was pregnant. In this extract from her powerful memoir The Girl Who Lived she tells part of this story.
IT WAS THE tenth day of February when I woke at two o’clock in pain. I rose quietly, knowing that today would be the day I’d give birth to my baby. The contractions were several minutes apart, so to pass the time I ironed my partner’s business shirts, finished the last of the laundry and gave the house a tidy. When the pain became unbearable, I woke my partner, Stuart, and phoned my sister Julie, who had agreed to support me during the birth. At the hospital, when it came time, I pushed with every ounce of energy I could muster, keeping an eye on the mirror at the end of the bed that had been set up so that I could watch the birth.
William was born at twenty-three minutes past one in the afternoon. He was perfect. I was overcome with joy and full of unconditional love. I marvelled at his tiny fingernails and the smell of his skin. Along with William’s birth that day came my own rebirth. I had a new sense of self-worth and happiness. I had a reason to live again. I looked forward to going home and getting into a normal routine – to start my new life with my new family. Everything was wonderful.
But being at home was more tiring than I’d expected, and Stuart refused to help out with parental duties.
‘Raising children and cleaning a house is a woman’s duty,’ he said.
I was wandering around like a zombie, in desperate need of a good night’s sleep. On my fourth day home from hospital, Stuart woke me. ‘Quickly sign these papers,’ he said, switching on the bedside lamp and shoving a pen in my hand. ‘I’ll explain what they are later.’ I was too tired to argue, so I signed the papers and fell back to sleep.
Later in the day I thought about them. I felt sick at the possibility of what they might have been. ‘Can I have a copy of what I signed?’ I asked. Stuart promised to bring them home the following day, but days turned into weeks, then months. ‘Stop pestering me about it,’ he eventually yelled. ‘The papers have nothing to do with you. It’s business stuff.’ I feared the papers had everything to do with me – and my apartment. But his aggression scared me and I was too afraid to raise the subject again.
Stuart was drinking constantly and becoming increasingly aggressive, finding fault in everything I did. One day he came home early and flew into a rage because the bed wasn’t made. ‘What have you been doing all day?’ he yelled.
I tried to explain the level of work that goes into keeping a house and looking after a newborn, but he became angrier and angrier. ‘It doesn’t look like you’ve done anything,’ he said.
I changed my daily routine, attending to the obvious household chores first and leaving the less noticeable things until later. I felt like I was on a rollercoaster, my happiness going up or down depending on whether Stuart was home or not.
For the past four years I’d watched other families celebrating Mother’s Day together. I’d hated it – it made me feel cheated. But now I was a mother and it was my day to be celebrated. Holding William in my arms, I had a new understanding of the level of love my mother had felt for me. I hoped she was proud of me. But, despite the joy of having a family of my own, there was still an emptiness inside of me that could not be filled. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ Stuart said, entering the room. ‘I miss my Mum,’ I said.
Stuart suddenly lashed out, smashing me across the face with the back of his hand. ‘Don’t be so fucking selfish,’ he spat.
The violence escalated over the following months. I found the emotional abuse harder to deal with than the physical. Stuart was determined to break my spirit. He attacked my self-esteem, telling me I was fat and ugly.
‘You’re pathetic,’ he said. ‘You’ll never get another man as good as me.’
Stuart told me what to wear and accused me of having affairs. I started looking at the ground when I walked down the street so he couldn’t accuse me of flirting. Tabs were kept on where I was going, what I was doing, and with whom I was speaking. ‘Your calls are being monitored, too,’ he said.
Slowly, Stuart isolated me from my friends and family. Nana and Papa were the only people who continued to visit but even this made me nervous – sometimes Stuart showed up at home unexpectedly to try and catch me out. I’m sure my grandparents sensed there was something wrong, but they never asked. I could envisage Papa telling Nana not to interfere – It’s none of our business, Mavis.
Stuart’s brother, Beau, noticed how withdrawn I’d become. He was the complete opposite of Stuart. He didn’t care about driving luxury cars or living in a fancy house – he was content living a simpler life. He started dropping over during the day, doting over William and changing his nappy as if it was no bigger deal than tossing a dirty shirt into the wash. I didn’t tell Stuart about the visits – one-on-one contact would have been forbidden.
Beau was the only man I felt I could trust. He never put me down or laughed at my thoughts or feelings. I looked forward to him visiting, even if I was constantly looking over my shoulder. One day I got a phone call from Stuart’s business partner, confirming my fears about the papers I’d signed. ‘They’re held with the Commonwealth Bank,’ he said. The papers revealed the severity of Stuart’s financial status – he had already withdrawn every cent he could against my apartment and was trying to borrow more. I was paranoid that Stuart was following me all the way to the bank and back. He’d done similar things to his ex-wife, Emma.
‘He even hid a tape recorder in the garden to record my conversations,’ she’d told me. Emma and I had become friendly over recent months, and she wasn’t the horrible person Stuart had told me she was at all. I felt ashamed that I’d initially tried to make her feel jealous with my looks and postnatal figure, ensuring I looked immaculate whenever I saw her. These days, I trusted her enough to tell her about the abuse.
‘He hit me too,’ she said. ‘That’s the reason I left so suddenly.’ When I confronted Stuart about my money, instead of becoming violent he simply shrugged. ‘The money your parents left you is of no importance,’ he said. ‘The main thing they left you with is memories and morals. Anyway, there’s something more important we need to discuss.’ Stuart started crying.
He’d been diagnosed with cancer.
‘I want to spend the little time I have left married to you,’ he said. ‘And I want us to have another child.’ I had always dreamed of having three or four children but I didn’t want another baby – not with him. Stuart had killed any feelings of love that I had once felt for him. Instead of feeling saddened that he was dying, I felt a sense of relief. I only had to stick out our relationship for another year or two and then I’d be free. I wouldn’t have to fear being beaten, battered and bruised for leaving, and this sense of freedom made me agree to marry him.
It surprised me how quickly Stuart wanted to arrange the wedding. The majority of it was booked within weeks. I asked Virginia if she’d be my bridesmaid. ‘Sure,’ she said. But I sensed her reluctance.
A few days later she sat me down. ‘I’m sorry, Susan,’ she said. ‘But I can’t be your bridesmaid. I see how fearful you are of Stuart. It’s not how real love should be. If you go ahead with the marriage then that’s your choice, but I feel I would be failing you if I stood by quietly and pretended that this was a happy time.’
I knew she was right. And as time went by, I was beginning to think I might have no other option than to leave, as Stuart didn’t appear to be dying, or even sick. I picked up the phone and dialled his doctor, aware of the consequences I’d face for defying Stuart’s orders. I explained to the doctor that I didn’t want to be a young woman with two infant children and a dead husband.
‘Who is that you are talking about?’ his doctor asked, confused. ‘Stuart Dickson.’ ‘And he told you he has cancer?!’ he exclaimed. ‘You better tell him to give me a call!’ Stuart was furious.
He called his doctor while I hid in the bedroom. When I heard the front door slam, I crept back out to the kitchen and hit the redial button on the phone. ‘I’m really sorry, Susan,’ the doctor said. ‘Stuart explained that both your parents died from cancer. I can understand why you’re worried it may happen to him, too. If you like, I can organise a therapist for you to speak with.’ The doctor went silent when I told him my parents had died in a boating accident. Then he told me to leave the house.
'He’s unstable, Susan. Leave now.’
But leaving immediately wasn’t an option. Stuart’s brother was coming for dinner and I still needed to pack all my stuff. Later that night, after Beau had left, the fighting started. Stuart was drunk and, as always, he believed his own lies. ‘Why aren’t you supporting me?’ he raged, backhanding me across the face with such force and bitterness it brought me to tears.
I ran out into the darkness, over to the neighbour’s house, knowing I would be waking them from their sleep. As I sat on their couch waiting for the police to arrive, I heard Stuart’s car screech out of the driveway. I raced back to the house to check on William and saw Beau standing on the front patio. ‘I had a feeling there’d be trouble tonight,’ he said, ‘so I waited around the corner. Stuart just left with William.’ I was petrified.
William was my life. If anything happened to him, I’d never forgive myself. I felt powerless to protect him. I cursed Stuart, praying he wouldn’t crash the car in his drunken state. There was nothing I could do but wait. After speaking with the police, Beau took me back to his house. ‘You can stay with me for a few days,’ he said. Stuart phoned a while later to say he’d left William with his mother. ‘You can pick him up in the morning.’ I didn’t like William staying there. Stuart’s mother was extremely unfriendly. Emma and I had nicknamed her The Ice Queen. But at least William was safe.
Emma invited me to stay with her but I was fearful of Stuart knowing where I was living, so I moved in with an old girlfriend instead. I’d known Alison my whole life but Stuart had never met her, so I could relax and get back to being a mother. But while I tried to move on, my enjoyment was overshadowed by anger when Stuart refused to pay back the debt to the bank. ‘I don’t give a shit about your apartment,’ he said. ‘The bank can sell it for all I care.’
Legal Aid agreed to take on my case. It was a relief to be able to fight now and pay the legal expenses later.
‘It’s lucky you got out when you did,’ my barrister said. ‘You would have become liable for his debts and relinquished all rights to your apartment if you’d married him. It’s called an STD – a sexually transmitted debt.’
Legal papers flew back and forth, with Stuart’s solicitor adamant that Stuart wouldn’t be repaying the debt. ‘You’ll have to fight the bank instead.’ I was livid. Stuart had spent every last cent against my apartment and then brushed his hands clean of it. I despised him. A few weeks later a courier delivered a letter to Alison’s house. It was from Stuart. My hands shook as I read it. How did he find me?
Stuart wanted to spend time with William because he didn’t want to lose the ‘father and son bond’. What father and son bond? I refused Stuart’s request. There was no way I was going to leave William in his care after Stuart’s doctor had told me he was mentally unstable and, in his opinion, capable of committing suicide.
‘Stuart will have to take me to court,’ I advised his lawyer. ‘And I’ll be asking Stuart’s doctor to present a psychiatric assessment.’ I didn’t feel safe after that. Paranoia sharpened my senses, and I felt I was being watched. I jumped at shadows or the sound of creaking doors. Is he going to kill me? I placed a note under my pillow when I went to bed, disclosing who the killer would be should anything happen to me during the night. But Stuart didn’t pursue the matter any further. The threat of a psychiatric assessment had been enough to scare him off. William and I began to feel safe.
Leaving Stuart was the first good decision I’d made in years. Thankfully, in the years that followed, and with William by my side, I started to make better decisions. I have since learned to love myself and life again.
For women suffering from family abuse, please contact McAuley Community Servicesfor women on 03 9371 6600 or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is an extract from The Girl Who Lived by Susan Berg published by Affirm Press, $29.99. Available now. You can find Susan on Facebook and Twitter.