Up Front by Emma Hart


I Never Been ta Borstal

by Steven Crawford

I've been working for an artist as their technician for a number of years now. I have welding skills and the ability to work across fabrication engineering and fine arts. My formal qualifications in both are a direct result of my dyslexia. All of my engineering training took place in high male to female ratio workshops, the arts training was the other way around.  

I'm not going to name my artist for commercial reasons. Let's just say her name is 'The Artist'. The most recent job we have on is for a Women's Refuge fund raising exhibition. As we were driving around Onehunga, The Artist said she thought Women's Refuge wasn't the ideal name because women are not the only victims of domestic violence. I was like, "Wait! What? I agree, but changing the paradigm is probably impossible."

That's not something I would normally say to The Artist. She is constantly coming up with dreadfully challenging engineering tasks that don't look mechanically possible on the first draft, but I don't let on that anything is ever impossible. It's just not the way we roll. 

I am a fabrication engineer and an artist. I'm not a sociologist, but my own experiences can shine light onto the 'Kiwi male psyche'. My parents separated at a time when grandparent-type people were offering children of separated parents commiserations by saying things like, "It's a shame you're from a broken home." 

And kids who found themselves in trouble with the law were represented by lawyers sayings things like, "This kid comes from a good family." I didn't go to university to study sociology. I only went for the orientations. I have a great memories of the Auckland University cafe music events where we would drink beer from milkshake containers – those "Tallest drinks in town" milkshake cartons, the ones with the giraffe picture – full of tap beer!  

I developed an interest in alcohol from an early age. Not just because DB and Lion branded their products as the male ideal. My drinking began at the local pedophile's pad. I was introduced to it by one of the girls I went to school with. She said we could smoke cigarettes there and hang out. I had no idea that this was a serial pedophile's lair. I have since forgiven myself for this oversight. It was like nobody else, including my parents seemed to recognise the problem either. I 'celebrated' my 13th birthday in that house of horror. 

He was unlike the other pedophile that had groomed me for child abuse earlier in my life, and had been a trusted friend of the family and at times legal guardian (a Centrepoint style criminal). This weirdo who I made myself available to without any parental assistance was an absolute monster, in hindsight.  

Off I went on a teenage alcoholic trajectory, which led to a bit of violence. I wasn't particularly interested in fighting, but I was a problematic drunk at times, and I had a tendency to show up at dangerous parties.  

My first real serious bashing had nothing to do with my drinking. Four of my former acquaintances decided to round on me. They arrived in the middle of the night at a place I was staying, to smash a few windows, punch and kick me to the floor and leave me with a concussion after smashing a bottle of beer on my head.  

I've never had the stomach for that kind of violence, but the drinking just kept me from escaping the sordid, shitty social circles I was being sucked into.

I was at a party where violence was happening outside, then suddenly I was being dragged by my hair onto a porch  I suddenly realised was an actual mini arena. I managed to use wrestling moves like the scissors hold and a headlock to restrain my opponent. This wasn't enough for some of the spectators. They wanted to see blood.

At one stage during this nightmare, I heard someone telling me to "Go now, get out of here!" I escaped, I ran up the road dived into some bushes and listened to footsteps running up the road looking for me. That's fight or flight, which I know! It's the corner-stone creator of the expensive-to-treat, post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the watered-down, less serious, boys-will-be-boys "Young men get themselves into fights" dismissal statements persist, without considering that the majority of young men are not inherently violent human beings. They are just expected to be, for fucked-up cultural reasons. The main reason I went to drinking parties is fundamentally for much the same reasons that birds sing. 

This kind of mental injury shit happened in tandem with also having some good adult mentors and positive interests and activities such as non-competitive sailing and art. I was involved in Greenpeace and I went to a progressive alternative school which promoted democratic participation. That's probably why I've never been jailed and I'm not dead. Healthy mentors were available and supportive of me, the best they could. 

But still, a particularly violent event well and truly lifted me out of adolescence, when I had just turned twenty. It very nearly woke me up to the fact that I was in need of some kind of professional psychological help. Scratch that, it was obvious enough that I needed some sort of respite, which I was buggered if I knew how to go about applying for.

It was when one of my friends decided to commit suicide by lying on a rural road, in the middle of a particularly dark night. A car ran over the top of him, and because the driver had been drinking, they carried on down the road without stopping. What I witnessed as I stood there with a torch was profound. His brain was knocked out of his head. I was gazumped. I had been living with the fantasy that one day I was going to kill myself, and all my problems would dissolve. Then this eighteen year-old went and did it first, which certainly gave me something to cry about. And showed how spectacularly final death really is. The dubious qualities of self-awareness switched on in high resolution.   

The pedophile experiences were buried deeply below all this other drama. It wasn't until I made it into my mid to late twenties that I began to realise they were the main drivers of my drinking problems.

I was at a community health clinic answering a questionaire, and one of the questions, "Have you ever been sexually abused?" set me off on an out of body experience. I didn't know what to do. I was caught off guard, so I said yes! But I wouldn't be doing anything about it for the time being. I had to first address the alcohol problem, then fortunately  the mental health profession began catch up.

A question I was asked in the early days after making a disclosure was, "Do you have any interest sexual in children yourself?" That's one the myths – the belief that male child abuse turns the victims into weird freaks – that made me reluctant to disclose earlier. The bar to becoming a trauma counsellor was set pretty low then, and it's not raised particularly high since. I'd put my money on the clinical psychologists. Especially the new generations. These admirable people do their homework. 

It's different for average men recovering from trauma than it is for women. That's not because our brains are fundamentally different. It's a cultural thing. Gender politics gets into the mix. And there are no easy ways to unpack that.  

Violence isn't only physical; it's also psychological. In order to get an ACC sensitive claim, you need to have a mental injury, not just a physical one. There isn't any evidence that I'm aware of to say that men and boys are any more, or any less, mentally robust than women and girls.  

Recovering from the consequences of violence requires comprehensive community support. But sometimes it feels like the community is at war. This for me is an echo of my "broken home". That's my own problem to deal with. I am aware that the feminist movement fought for equality. We all benefit from that. I know the women's movement set up the women's refuge, and rape crisis. None of that answers the problem of general ignorance about male victimisation.

I exposed some difficult personal history, you might say intimate details about myself, in an attempt to start a new conversation. I wrote this essay because I'm sick and tired of seeing male victims of violence marginalised in public discourse.  

Before anyone says "diddums", this isn't the 1970s anymore. In this essay, I'm not particularly interested in gender politics per se . I'm identifying a public health problem that needs to be addressed. It's not in the best interests of anyone to have men wandering around alone and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. We need to create environments that facilitate disclosure. I am supporting that work here.

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