Sina Retzlaffs’ initial reaction to being told her story Unborn Child was to be published in the Samoan Observers English language stories “Our Heritage” was and gasping nooooooo! It is one thing to write a story that gets sent on line to a judge and is read by only a few people.
It is entirely another matter writing a story that is read by many in your own small local community. Now Sina wants to write more stories and we certainly want to read them!
“Unborn Child” is written from the point of view of a nearly full term but still in uterus baby child, it is masterful. Sina Retzlaff writes a thought-provoking and intensely imaginative short story that examines the many faces of domestic violence. Threaded throughout the story are a multitude of poignant themes that touch the complex issues faced by partners of abusive individuals and during a fascinating and lengthy interview Sina Retzlaff tells us of these themes.
The insights of the narrator (the unborn child) enable Sina to tell her story effectively and “I knew that I wanted to write from the perspective of an unborn child. I had thought about the story for a long time in my head. I then had to take out much of the emotion, as I know that scares people. There are things that close people up and too much emotion is one of them.”
Sina had been mulling over the story in her head for quite some time. She was being prompted by Lani Wendt to write the story and Sina realised Lani’s resolve would not stop until she has submitted a story. This was now a year ago and Sina was running out of time. The story had to be presented to the Observer on June 1st 2015. Sina dropped her children off to do the 5 am Independence March while she parked herself beside the Tanoa Hotel pool. She had the day to write the story. …“It took me a day to write. Once I saw it published I wish I had spent more spent more time on it. If I do it again I will take more time. But I poured something out for 8 hours. “
Sina remarks candidly that, “In terms of pouring something out as a survivor of domestic violence there are things you know about the issue that others just don’t know. There is the tippy toeing around things waiting for something to explode if you do or say the wrong thing; a landmine explodes if you do the wrong thing, make a wrong action.”
After leaving a volatile domestic situation Sina was awarded a fellowship to study domestic violence. She ponders that… “it’s hard to do research while you are there in the situation. You can pin point exact moments, the cycle, the early warning signs. You don’t know it while you are in there, you are in survival mode.”
While researching for the fellowship Sina found four women in Samoa who had died at the hands of their husbands. (See the court cases on the Pakley Website and the final reports). In all of the cases the women were married and in two of the cases the women were pregnant and one was 8 months pregnant. There were no charges against the perpetrators for the deaths unborn children. Staggeringly no one thought to prosecute the person for the murder of the death of the child.
The weeks in the story are inspired by her research and the story of the nearly full term unborn child from the court records. In the cases of domestic violence and the resulting murders the only lawyers there are defending the killer. The police bring charges forward and ignore the murder an almost full term child, a child that could have lived outside of its mothers’ womb.
Sina reflects that it is…”the state versus the perpetrator – they did not think to prosecute for the death of the child. Nothing is done about the unborn child. I have always love films where animals or babies talk and it’s outside of you but they are showing human-like emotions and thoughts. I could always identify with them. This is why I used the unborn child as the mouth piece of the story.”
Further more she is very aware of people tolerance of heartbreaking tragic stories with no happy endings. …”There are some key themes but it is an issue we can’t shove down peoples’ throats we have to be smart about advocating especially in our Christian and cultural context. Women in these relationships need to be able to see it and need to be able to get help.”
In the story the husband goes to a faalavelave. The wife is alone and “there is peace and tranquillity, she becomes awesomely happy.” There are different levels of mental cruelty in very case but they do follow a similar pattern and if you are not free you are being abused.
“You don’t have to be beaten to be abused. If you have to tip toe around your partner, you can’t go out with your friends you are not free. If you are afraid to be yourself, if you have to watch what you say, watch what you wear, be afraid not laugh as loud as you want; you are not being yourself. As long as you are unable to be who you are and how you remember yourself you are in an abusive relationship.”
The second theme in domestically abusive relationships is that you don’t realise as a mother the impacts of this abusive situation on your children. Sina strongly urges women to not stay in an abusive relationship because of their children. She states that, …”So many people think you are staying for your children – this was in the story I want mothers to see what its like when they leave an abusive relationship and to understand how free they feel.”
Lack of effective and supportive networks for victims of domestic violence are very real in Samoa. While increasingly the subject is being discussed the actual legal support structures remain inadequate and frustrating. Sina recalls the second time she went to the domestic violence unit the day after as she had been abused.
“It is a waste of time going in the middle of thenight. The young policeman looks at you as if he would prefer you to disappear. They offer no support and help. They almost see it as commonplace in Samoa so why are you reporting this? “We had to take photos and the defence council tried to stop these but as the police did not take photos (and they should have), our photos were allowed in as evidence.
But the 3 am trip to the Police station does not work. The young cop does not know what to do and he looks at you as if to say ‘Why are you here?’ That happens all the time. My Aunty came as a witness. The female cop says why are you here? What about your family? I said I am leaving because of my children.”
On this issue Sina is adamant, it is not negotiable,… “I say you are leaving and you have to leave for your children. Children are a reason to leave not to stay. What are you telling your children? You are letting them live in the bunch of pathetic lies of a fantasy. That your sons grow up thinking this behaviour is acceptable and your daughters grow up thinking this is how they will be treated when they are married?”
“It’s better to live with a broken family than live in one. It can be hard in Samoa for instance, I do Sunday school, and last week I had to complete a form for endorsement – the first page asks are you married or divorced and if you are not why? So I wrote ‘domestic violence? I felt like putting ‘happily.’ “Is the person you were married to living in Samoa? Why do we still have these questions in Samoa and as we leave and enter the country.” Married and single people do not have to put up with such invasive questions.”
In the story this is a key message is to show the impact on the child. Sina has tried to make this like a rollercoaster ride and she conveyed the message – “your daughters are learning its okay as are your sons and two out of three sons will then bash up their wives. Daughters will see this as acceptable. It is not.”
Another clever ploy the abusers use is to portray the image of the perfect family the perfect father. “In our situation it was the image of the perfect father – a clever man will be good at covering up what the truth is. They think if they are good to the children its okay and you, the partner are the sole victim. I didn’t want my boys to tiptoe with me. But they too learnt the triggers. So my kids changed their behaviours, they became anxious, scared to trigger another angry outburst from the father. The issues go from simple things to major cross-cultural conflicts. You are the sole victim in the house and it is still affecting your children. I didn’t want my sons to live through it and they were tiptoeing along with me. “
Sina could only see the impacts on her children after she left her abusive situation… “I saw their personalities blossom. Children learn to tip toe and I now go out of my way to let my kids speak. It was important in the story to send this message out to mothers. You are teaching your kids the norm how to avoid an incident, a beating, as it’s the only way people are now learning what it is. People here don’t see yelling at someone and calling her a “-----” as abusive. My boys were shielded. The ones with a public image kept it great with smiles.”
The abused wife or partner may find moments of freedom and happiness but not with the abuser. Sina liked to attend public events. “I was free then. He wouldn’t do anything in public – I could have the public arena now so I could be myself. But once in the car then I had to wait for the earbashing, the jealousy. I was talking to much, laughing too loud, kissing friends three times on the cheek in the French way??!!” There was a price to pay for my enjoyable evenings outside of the domestic setting.
“So I would be myself out at events and then once they were over I lived in the abusive situation, I would stay and listen. I did not get a lot of beatings. There were four and two big ones and two of these after we were separated. I was beaten with words, emotionally abused, called names, being yelled at. My personality was being supressed, I was unable to be myself, and he was stopping me from developing and waiting for me to fail.”
“It’s a strange thing – the movie The Perfect Guy”, he makes everyone think he’s the prefect guy. Everyone sees what he wants you to see, but behind doors he was manipulative and putting you down. Your family and friends even think he is the perfect guy. He depicts the perfect guy, the quiet guy the humble guy – until he gets angry. So often you see these perpetrators spoken to in the media as if they were great people, ‘such a humble guy such a lovely guy’…” But within the intimate family unit they are completely different people.”
The message of isolation is also in the Unborn Child and the grandmother and sister come to stay with the pregnant mother the days after the husband had left for a falavelave. The unborn child recalls of the three women enjoying the peace and quiet of their own company. The mother and sister hardly saw the wife any more. This isolation is a common tactic to keep control over the partner.
Sina herself was a victim of isolation. “When I studied it and I looked back I saw what approach to isolation I was experiencing. He would come and say the most hurtful things and vicious things about my family, people I loved and people who were my support.” In her research paper Sina studied the issue of isolation and how women are isolated from the very people the victim would get the most support from if they left the relationship. “Most of your ill-informed people tell you to stay in it, that you have to stay in the marriage no matter how abusive. I say you have to leave it for your sake and the sake of your children.”
Another key issue was alcohol as…“the family events were demonic events we should not go to. But the partners’ family toanai was something we could not miss. The husband wants to show the picture of the perfect family. Many times you are in survival mode. Don’t stay in a relationship because you have learnt how to live in survival mode.”
Sina also researched what the abusers did after the murders were committed and this is again portrayed poignantly in Unborn Child. What the perpetrators did was cut off the wifes’ hair, one went went shopping, and another cleaned the house. There was no sign of despair or remorse. In the story it is not until the partner wanted sex that he realised what he had done to his wife. At the end Sina brings Christianity into the Unborn Child, the murderer is remorseful, but after the fact. Sina states very articulately that the church has a huge responsibility on the issue of domestic violence, which it is not moving on. “The scene of him crying over the wife is so common. Crocodile tears that come too late. I leave it for the reader as who knows if he are remorseful or not.”