More resonant than the shocking story of her abuse that Tracy Going has penned, is the fact that since her ordeal the abuse of women in South Africa has increased and become so pervasive that one in five older than 18 will experience physical violence, typically at the hands of the man closest to her.
So even if the case of Going, the darling of South African TV screens in the late 1990s, whose career was cut short when her lover beat her up, is fading in your memory, her moving recollection of that time in her book, Brutal Legacy, could not be more important and timeous.
In the gathering momentum of the “Me Too” movement, and the changing tide of sexual power relations that must inevitably follow, it’s the real life stories of courageous women like Going that will keep reminding us, poignantly and forcefully, that forward is the only way. The devil is in the detail, of course, and too many of us will silently relate.
“He was in the hallway shuffling from one foot to another, immersed in a private dance of rage, as he fuelled his own fury. Somehow, I met his rhythm, instinctively mirroring him, rocking ever so slightly from one side to another, trying to make myself part of his harmony, trying to placate him, to send out a silent signal that I was not a threat and that I meant no harm. But it was a hollow synchronicity…
“Please don’t,” I said, my words nearly silent. “Please don’t hit me.” But he did. He slammed his right fist into my eye.”
Screaming, crashing furniture, a chase into the garden, a violent fusion of “heaving, kicking and grunting” follows. “Each time I gave into a strike from his foot I was grateful that he was wearing his brown suede and not his usual heavy, leather boots,” Going writes.
The script of abuse is searingly familiar to many women, not only of this violent scene, but of the run-up to it – the adept way that Going overlooks his faults, banishes the red flags, giving in to his apologetic come backs and searching for where she was somehow at fault.
Now, more than 20 years later, her honest and detailed recollection of that relationship is made accessible beyond the parameters of her court trial, this time as a cautionary tale, and we are all better off for it. What stands out about Going’s account, unlike other, more binary accounts of abuse, is the subtlety she brings to her story.
In recognising the pattern of early abuse that makes people infinitely more vulnerable to bad choices later on, Going digs deep into her childhood, her years growing up on a plot in Brits near Pretoria, her alcoholic father and over-compensating mother, but she avoids the trap of oversimplifying them. Her father is a mean and abusive drunk, turning into a ghost of himself later after her mother divorced him, but Going has memories too of his pride when she is accepted to an all-girls school in Pretoria, of tender moments when he was a younger man, a man of a practical nature and of “great ingenuity”.
“I remember that he used to allow me to sit on his lap as he drove the car up the gravel road and I breathed in the musk of his Old Spice aftershave. I remember that I used to drive the tractor with him, or run alongside, as he ploughed the fields for hours and how the sun burnt the back of his neck and the top of his bald head. I recall how he loved showing 35-millimetre movies… That he loved to cook. And bake,” she writes.
Complexity is in all of us, and she appreciates it in her abuser too.
“There is nothing in life that does not cast a shadow. He spoke of sitting alone on the back seat of those stately cars, a little boy all on his own, his father always working, his mother in a darkened room behind a closed door. Her father, by all accounts a successful man, driven and selfish, but with a deep-seated complex about his compromised height and, as with some who spend their entire lives looking up at others, he overcompensated by ruthlessly seeking power and conquest.”
These are the paradoxes that make hating an abuser anything but a given. That said, with the benefit of years and the process of healing, which included writing this book, Going has been able to untangle her confusion over how patterns repeated themselves, what exactly happened, and who was at fault. And it squarely remains in her abuser’s court, as it should. What journey he has been on since then, and what he has chosen to do about the past, is a mystery, as Going has moved on with her life.
Although she protests that she is “not a writer”, Brutal Legacy is beautifully written.
“His sleeves were casually rolled back to reveal sinuous wrists and big hands that closed easily around mine in greeting. It was an informal and comfortable gesture. I slipped in opposite him as he settled himself back down, his broad shoulders rolling forward as he stretched his legs out loosely before him; languidly, like a wild cat, with the same fluid grace belying its strength and deadliness.”
Brutality, and its legacy, is countered in the end by Going’s journey of healing, and this is no walk in the park either, remembering that she had to endure a harrowing court trial in which she was under intense cross-examination for three days (he was on the stand for 30 minutes), and her career was in tatters afterwards.
Ultimately, hers is a story of truth-seeking and survival. Every woman and man can learn from it, including those “lucky” to have averted abuse by a partner until now. Because knowledge, and knowing, is the most powerful antidote to this ever-present threat.