Feminist Sundays is a meme created by Elena over at Books and Reviews. Here’s what she says about it: “Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme created at Books and Reviews. The aim is simply to have a place and a time to talk about feminism and women’s issues. This is a place of tolerance, creativity, discussion, criticism and praise. Remember to keep in mind that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although healthy discussion is encouraged.” Do head over to Books and Reviews to read the excellent posts for this meme so far.
This week for Feminist Sundays I thought I’d put a downer on Christmas – if you’re full of festive cheer you may want to stop reading now. I love Christmas, and I’ve had a great time this week decorating my flat (OK, so I’m a bit behind), wrapping presents and icing Christmas cakes. I do this in anticipation of the day itself which for me will be fun, silly, relaxed, full of food, and getting slightly tipsy (OK, fairly drunk – when else do you drink alcohol at breakfast? Why does the birth of Jesus make early morning Bucks Fizz acceptable? Whatever – it’s a fine tradition) in the company of my lovely family. I can confidently state in advance that there will be no weird atmospheres, no aggression, no physical assaults. But this is not the case for everyone. Unfortunately, the Christmas period consistently sees a rise in domestic violence compared with the rest of the year. And although I’m looking at this topic as part of Feminist Sundays, (as the majority of domestic violence cases are male violence towards women) domestic violence can happen to anyone: any gender, any sexuality. It’s a subject Roddy Doyle explored in his 1996 novel, The Woman Who Walked into Doors.
The novel is narrated by Paula Spencer, a woman who is beaten regularly by her violent husband Charlo. Paula works as a domestic cleaner, and self-medicates with alcohol. Hers is a voice rarely heard in fiction; Doyle does a brilliant job creating the character and all that surrounds her through a narrative that intertwines the present with reminiscences of the past:
“Where I grew up – and probably everywhere else – you were a slut or a tight bitch, one or the other, if you were a girl – and usually before you were thirteen. You didn’t have to do anything to be a slut. If you were good-looking; if you grew up fast. If you had a sexy walk; if you had clean hair, if you had dirty hair. If you wore platform shoes, and if you didn’t. Anything could get you called a slut. My father called me a slut the first time I put on mascara. I had to go back up to the bathroom and take it off. My tears had ruined it anyway.”
Into this world comes Charlo Spencer, a sexy man who literally takes Paula’s breath away: “I suddenly knew that I had lungs because they were empty and collapsing.” The romance of their first meeting contains a horrible irony in the soundtrack:
“His timing was perfect. The Rubettes stopped and Frankie Valli started singing My Eyes Adored You.[…] He’d been drinking. I could smell it but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t drunk. His arms rested on my hips and he brought me round and round.
-But I never laid a hand on you-
My eyes adored you-
I put my head on his shoulder. He had me.”
This is immediately followed by a description of the aftermath of an assault:
“I knew nothing for a while, where I was, how come I was on the floor. Then I saw Charlo’s feet, then his legs, making a triangle with the floor. He seemed way up over me. […] his face was full of worry and love. He skipped my eyes. – You fell, he said.”
Charlo’s violence escalates, and Paula gradually comes to realise that he will not change, and that she is not alone in this experience. Doyle achieves the extraordinary balance of writing responsibly about a serious subject and still providing hope:
“For seventeen years. There wasn’t one minute when I wasn’t afraid, wasn’t waiting. Waiting to go, waiting for him to come. Waiting for the fist, waiting for the smile. I was brainwashed and braindead, a zombie for hours, afraid to think, afraid to stop, completely alone. I sat at home and waited. I mopped up my own blood. I lost all my friends, and most of my teeth.”
Ultimately Paula is a survivor: Doyle returned to her in the sequel Paula Spencer, ten years later. I haven’t read the sequel (one of many on my TBR pile) but I highly recommend TWWWID. Roddy Doyle is hugely talented at capturing authentic voices in his writing, and TWWWID is no exception.
If you are affected by domestic violence, please, please contact Refuge (UK) or the equivalent service in your country. They are there to help, not to judge. Here’s a powerful video make-up artist Lauren Luke made on behalf of Refuge: