Caught in the Chain of Abuse: the Story of a Suicide
My cousin Richie was 24 years old when he killed himself.
Richie isn’t his real name. I’ve changed all the names to protect the innocent and the not so innocent.
His mother arrived home from work to find him lying on his bed. Beside him were several empty pill bottles. They were her own pills, sleeping tablets and tranquillizers she had been prescribed by the doctor.
If Richie found in life no joy, in death he found no mercy. The priest would not allow him to be buried in hallowed ground. Suicide, he said, is a sin.
So Richie remains an outsider, buried not in the main cemetery beside members of his family, amidst the shade of trees and the dance of flowers, but outside, on the edge, on bare, windswept, open ground, beside a few other lost, despairing souls, alone in death as they had been in life, excluded from eternal bliss in death as they had been from ordinary human happiness in life.
Was Richie himself to blame for his own apparent exclusion from Heaven? Or were others involved? His parents? His teachers, his bosses, his doctors, his friends? A society in which he failed to fit?
Or were the seeds of Richie’s death sown long ago? In fact, long before he was born?
Mary, my great-grandmother, and Richie’s, was raised in a paupers’ orphanage run by nuns. The nuns practised harsh discipline; worse than harsh: it was sustained, sadistic and ruthless. Punishment for very minor offences was often physical and severe. "It's for your own good," they would say. "We have to be cruel to be kind."
Most children in such places were, in those late Victorian days, illegitimate babies born to girls in domestic service. Most middle class families had servants and girls from poor families often had very little in terms of career options. It was a very hard life with constant physical work, long hours and extremely low pay.
Girls went into service at a very young age, twelve or thirteen, often being sent far from home to work for strangers. They were vulnerable and defenceless, and it was far from uncommon for them to be abused sexually by their employer’s sons or even their employer himself. Others, lonely and naïve, could be easily manipulated by male servants. When they got pregnant, they were usually thrown out without a reference. To get another job, they had to find somewhere to place the child.
There was no social security, no welfare payments. Most of them loved their children devotedly and would on their sole day off make the often long journey to spend time with their baby at the orphanage. At Christmas and birthdays they would buy the child the best gift they could. When the child could read, they would write letters regularly. For all the stark reality of their lives, the children knew they were loved.
The Lady in the Carriage
Mary never received any communication whatsoever from her mother. At Christmas she would wait, ever hopeful, as the letters and gifts were handed out. One memory that stood out was an incident when a nun was leading the children home from church. She was four years old and at the tail end of a bedraggled, half-starved little convoy, when a horse-drawn carriage suddenly drew up beside them. A young woman stepped out, came straight to Mary, threw her arms around her and wept. A man in the carriage was angrily calling to the young woman to return. Before she did, she placed in Mary’s palm three gold sovereigns – In those days, a small fortune.
The carriage continued on its way and, without a word, the nun took the three sovereigns and walked on. Mary did not fantasize that this wealthy young lady was her mother. Even at that young age, she knew that rich people’s children did not end up paupers’ orphanages. Probably it was simply a tender-hearted young woman moved at the sight of the pathetic string of unwanted children. But Mary remembered that young woman and that warm embrace for the rest of her life, for one very simple reason: it was the only affection she was ever shown in her entire childhood.
At fourteen, after a particularly harsh and unfair punishment from the nuns, she ran away from the orphanage, found a job in a textile mill in Lancashire, and from then on was on her own in the world. The toughness and lack of self-pity that she had been forced to develop at the orphanage must have come in handy. It was a world without pity. Work was long and hard for subsistence wages, and the workhouse loomed like the Gates of Hell for those who faltered.
Mary eventually married and had a son, our grandfather, Jim.
Had She Escaped?
Mary had escaped the nuns. Or had she? For we can only give what we have received, and Mary had never received love. She had never received mothering, nurturing, kindness and affection. The only things she had received were physical discipline and punishment, rigid, unfeeling and cold.
My mother would recount how, as a young child, she would accompany her father to visit his mother. They went on foot, a full hour’s walk. When they arrived, Mary would offer her a seat, but not her father, Jim. Although he had walked an hour to reach her, and would have a further hour’s walk home, he was never asked to sit down. Though he was tired, the relationship between himself and his mother was so formal that he did not feel that he could sit down uninvited, or even ask to do so. Nor was he ever offered anything to eat or drink. While families then may have been more formal than in our times, this was even then extraordinary. Mary had raised her son with the same distant, cold discipline that had been shown to her. It was all she knew.
The Chain Lengthens
Jim in turn raised his own son, Jim Jr., in a similar way. The order was tough love, but hold the love. He would say you have to be cruel to be kind. And in turn, Jim Jr., Richie’s father, practised what he had learnt from his father on his own sons.
In general, people don’t think about what they do. We act like automata, although we don’t admit that to ourselves. How few of us scrutinize what we ourselves do or what we think, question where it came from, whether it’s valid or true or right. Instead, we pass on the pain of past generations like a baton in a relay race.
Richie was not tough or strong. He was a sensitive child, had some learning disabilities, and was possibly partially deaf, although it went untreated. He was sent away to a special school, which did nothing for him at all. He arrived home eventually, aged 15, still unable to read and write.
So his father taught him. He sat Richie at the kitchen table, and taught him his alphabet and his numbers, how to add and subtract. Richie then had to answer his dad’s questions, and every time he forgot something or made a mistake, his dad would punch him in the side of the head. "27 plus 42?" Punch! "8 X 12?" Punch! "How to spell ‘neither’?" Punch!. Eventually, Richie managed to learn to read and do basic arithmetic well enough to make the punches stop.
His Working Life
It was time to get a job. Jobs were plentiful at the time and fairly easy to find. They were low grade, unskilled jobs, but even so, Richie couldn’t keep them. For years, he went from one job to another. It got worse, not better; the time he kept a job got shorter and shorter. Eventually, he had nine jobs in the space of twelve months. Sometimes he got fired; other times he just walked away. His dad, Jim Jr., got more and more exasperated. The boy must be lazy, pure lazy. He wants to be fed and clothed and kept without working. He has to be shown for his own good that he can’t do that, he has to knuckle down and work like everyone else.
So every week, Jim Jr. took away one of Richie’s few treasured possessions to pay for his keep. Eventually, all he had left was a little transistor radio. He would spend many hours in his bedroom with the tinny-sounding radio held close to his ear to hear the latest pop music. Finally, his dad took the radio away.
In his way, Jim Jr. was trying to do what was right. He was, psychologically, a simple man. He saw things in black and white. He didn’t understand depression, confusion or fear. The concept of a young person needing help and support rather than punishment was alien to him. Toughness was what he had been raised on. Life was hard and his son had to learn the realities of life. He had to earn his keep. If he didn’t, he had to be punished until he accepted that he had to. A bit of macho toughness never did him any harm. But Richie was made of different stuff to his dad. He was lost, he was drowning.
Jim Jr. kept his life savings in a box under his bed. It was money hard-earned. Every Friday night, he would count the money. Richie got up to go to the toilet, saw his dad through the partly open door, counting his cash. Money seemed to be all his dad cared about. He had all that money, yet he had taken his radio away, the thing he treasured so much, the last thing he owned.
The following week, Jim Jr. went to count his money again. The box was gone. Richie’s room was empty. Maybe it was a protest; maybe it was to hurt his dad. He had disappeared with his dad’s savings. Jim Jr. went to the Police. He told them how hard he had to work to make the money, how many years it took him to save it, how his son wouldn’t work, was lazy.
When they found Richie, he’d spent a relatively small amount on a room in a bed and breakfast, some food and a change of clothing. The Police took him to the station. The Police were different then. They locked him in a cell, then in they came. "You piece of scum," they said. "Steal money from your poor old father, would you?" Punch!. "Too lazy to work yourself, are you?" Kick! "We’ll teach you to treat your poor hard-working dad like that." Punch! They knew where to do it so bruises wouldn’t show. The kidneys are a good place.
The Last Farewell
When they let him out of jail, Richie went back to his parents’ house. He had nowhere else to go.
A few months later we were getting ready to move to the USA where my dad had been offered a job. My uncle Jim and his wife (Richie's mom and dad) came to say goodbye, and unusually, brought Richie with them. He was quiet, as ever. My mother said, “It’s nice of you to come, Richie,” and Richie said, “I came because you’ll never see me again, Auntie Kath – I’m dying, you know”. My mother, taken aback, asked him what he meant. “Oh, ignore him,” Jim Jr. snorted. “He just wants attention.”
We’d been in America for about a year when I had a vivid dream of Richie. In total silence, he showed me three scenes. One was my mother and I clearing the house after my father’s death; the second our leaving America; the third was a heartbreaking event happening to his sister, my cousin. When I stepped forward, intending to comfort her, he held up his hand and slowly shook his head.
I was so disturbed by the dream that I asked my mother to write to Uncle Jim and ask about Richie. From the reply she received it was clear that Richie had died several months previously, but they just hadn’t told us. The details came out later.
The three scenes Richie showed me in the dream all eventually proved to be true. However, this isn’t about an afterlife, but about this one. We go through life so often sleepwalking. The abused become abusers. The losers arrange for their children to lose. Those treated heartlessly all too often lose their ability to feel.
We become numbed by habit and brainwashed by abuse. We think horrors are normal and cruelty acceptable, an aspect of the everyday. Our minds, which should have access to the infinite, are shrunk to the shape of a clenched fist. The horizon vanishes; the sky grows dark and hovers like a raised hand, until a lost and lonely young man who struggles through the darkest days can see only one way that leads beyond.
Did my cousin Richie deserve to be buried in unhallowed ground? Don’t others share his sin, if sin it was? Jim and Jim Jr., Mary herself? Or those nuns, those holy brides of Christ, who all those years ago treated an abandoned child with relentless, ruthless cruelty? So much so, that the pain they set in motion cascaded down the generations until, almost a century later, it reached the heart of one young man who simply did not have the strength to bear it.
Who is the sinner? And who is sinned against?