Violence behind the white picket fence

Vanessa Govender’s shocking memoir of abuse, ‘Beaten but not Broken’, shines a light, as harsh as it is necessary, on the brutality often endured in secret.

“He pushed me against the wall, over and over and over. Hard. Measured. Deliberate. Thud, thud, thud. Vibrations of pain were shooting through my skull, but he didn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. He was too far gone,” writes Vanessa Govender.

Recounting the chilling moments that led to her rape at the SABC in her brutally honest memoir, Beaten but not Broken, the award-winning journalist relates harrowing details of her abusive five-year relationship with a popular radio DJ.

As Govender chronicles her secret life as a battered woman tormented by fear and shame at the height of her career as a journalist, she tracks the agony she endured, moving through stages of loss, grief, regret, pain, alcoholism and self-loathing to a place of self-love and the courage she was finally able to gather to tell her story.

As she narrates the violence she lived with at the hands of her abuser, Govender examines the emotional trauma that destroyed her self-esteem and isolated her from family and friends. She describes the first assault: “I felt his weight on me. Still I said nothing. ‘Dear God, if you are there, please help me. Make this stop,’ I silently prayed. But no help came, and he didn’t stop. It wouldn’t be the first time that God would let me down. Where was God? Filing his fucking nails?”

Govender’s boyfriend raped her moments after kicking her in the stomach with a tan Caterpillar boot in the corridors of the SABC studios. At the Lotus FM office, her rapist “stared into my eyes as he moved above and inside me; I wanted him dead. I wished he would rot in hell. The couch squeaked, seemingly protesting the despicable thing happening on it. I wanted to scream. I wanted to die. Still that couch squeaked,” Govender writes.

“He stood up, zipped his pants and walked to the toilet, leaving me alone with humiliation and the ammoniac stench of intimacy, an assault on my nostrils, making me gag. I was desperate for a shower. The couch had at last gone quiet, filling the room with its sad silence. My boyfriend had just forced himself on me for the first time. He would do it again in our years together.”

In another shocking scene, the full-time mother and author of The Selfish Shongololo graphically describes how her abuser choked her until she peed in her pants.

Courage is contagious

After the encounter with this searing memoir I found the courage to tell my story. Through this book I found my voice. Govender’s defiant spirit of owning her power enabled me to find the boldness to speak my truth, and hopefully help others tell their own painful stories, their silent indignities, without shame.

Like Govender and many other victims of abuse, I carried the shame of brutal lashings that marked me black and blue, and I carried them quietly to protect my white picket fence facade. My silence not only protected my abuser, but helped me mask the dark and painful secret life that so often lurks beneath the church and its scriptures. My abuser was a man of the cloth; he hid behind the cross.

Like Govender, I lived in constant fear and despair. It’s grasp was so tight that it threatened my very existence. Like Govender, I dimmed my light to feed my abuser’s ego. Like Govender, I battled depression and anxiety. Like Govender, I died a little. It is in her silver lining that I, too, am hopeful of restoration. In the sharpness and rawness of her words I was able to soothe my pain. 

In a country where violence against women is pervasive, this gripping and heart-wrenching tale will ring true with so many women trapped in the vicious cycle of abuse, a cycle that has led to the deaths of so many. Govender’s sense of foreboding is not unwarranted: “Somewhere, right now, a woman is looking into the eyes of her partner and taking her last breath. Perhaps shot, perhaps strangled, perhaps beaten, she is dying. She will never get to sit at at the feet of her father or mother and pour out her past. She will never become a mother herself.”

Vanessa Govender’s book ‘Beaten But Not Broken’ is published by Jacana Media.

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