Monday 18 March 2019

I saw my father murder my mum

As a 12-year-old, Gayle Sanders witnessed her abusive father's attack and knew she had to escape. Interview by Penny Wark

Nowhere to turn:
Nowhere to turn: "My father haunted my mother, the verbal abuse was constant"

Penny Wark

When I was five, I ran away. The back of the house led onto the canal, and I just walked out. I saw a nice old lady on a bench and sat down next to her. Then they found me and took me back. I had needed to get away.

It wasn't an option for me to tell anyone what was happening because when you're terrified, and manipulated, you don't think anyone will believe you. I suspected that even if I told someone, there would be repercussions. So outside our house, nobody knew what my father was doing to us.

My first memories are of when I was three or four and they are full of terror. I was hiding behind a curtain, paralysed with fear. My father was talking to my mother in an angry voice, telling her she was mad. The more distressed and scared she got, the more he put her down. Then he started hitting her. She stumbled, he pushed her, she stumbled again, he laughed, punched her hard and she fell. He left, slamming the door behind him. My mother was crying. After a few minutes she calmed down and called for me.

My life was dominated by fear and feeling isolated and shut off. My father hit me too, usually when no one else was around; you didn't have to do anything to antagonise him. He haunted my mother, the verbal abuse was constant.

He had so much control, whether it was just staring at her, invading her space, or hitting her.

Once, I went downstairs to get a drink and he smashed her a few times in the face and she lost some teeth. Another time, she was so badly injured I thought she was paralysed.

It often happened in the kitchen. I don't have a memory of my parents having a normal conversation and I never saw an ounce of affection between them. Neither was there any sense of family environment or of safety or security, even though there were five of us living in the house -- I have two older siblings. We were separate individuals; there was no communication. I was never happy, I never looked forward to anything.

When my parents first met they got together quickly; my mother was bright and opinionated and I think he wanted to break her. Of course, this was not the mother I knew.

The only time I saw her smile or look a little relaxed was when she visited her family. We always went to my grandparents, they never came to us. My father was a former footballer who had become a teacher and outside the home he was authoritative, well respected, easy-going, somebody who tried to do good.

People liked him and trusted him, which meant they wouldn't believe he'd do anything bad.

Meanwhile I was neglected, I wasn't fed, and that got worse as time went on. My mum was so consumed by her own circumstances that she couldn't look after herself, let alone me. Yet when I was 12 she found the courage to leave and find a safe place for us. She knew that if she stayed she wasn't going to survive. I never believed the divorce would make things OK and that we'd be safe and happy. On the day she was granted custody of me, we went back to the house. As she put the key in the door he opened it and grabbed her. We didn't know he was there; he had taken out the lightbulbs, left the curtains open, padlocked the phone.

He began punching her head, then he punched her all over her body. She fell to the floor, he kicked her. I crouched in the corner. She told me to call the police. He climbed on top of her and began strangling her. I saw two nooses of orange cord on the floor and thought he was going to hang me too.

I knew that I had to run -- or die. I ran down the road to my friend's house. My mother was declared dead in the ambulance.

Later that night I was interviewed for five minutes by two policemen.

I didn't say very much. I was the only witness, yet that was the only input I had into my father's prosecution.

The family vicar was called as a character witness and, even though my mother had gone to him for help, he still believed my father was a good man.

My father was sentenced to three years for manslaughter on the ground of diminished responsibility. He served 11 months.

I blamed myself for my mother's death and I still hold some of that guilt even though I stood no chance of stopping it happening. I was suicidal for many years because I couldn't see any point to my life, but slowly I began to create an image of how I wanted to live and to put in place things I thought were important -- education, friendships, my career.

I work with children and young people and teachers, educating them about the prevention of domestic violence, and earlier this year I got married.

It's taken a long time, and a lot of determination, to learn to be happy.

Mummy's Witness, by Gayle Sanders, Hodder and Stoughton, £15

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