real life

'For over 50 years, my dad controlled my mum's every move. When she died, he blamed it on me.'

Listen to this story being read by Katie Stow, here. 

The author of this story is known to known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. A stock image has been used. 

My mother died in January. It's been nine months and I haven’t cried yet.

No, I’m not cold or heartless or, worse, a sociopath. Her death was expected as she had had a long battle with breast cancer. Her death was a release from her pain. But this is not why I haven’t cried yet.

The fact is, I may never cry because I have grieved my mother for a long time, and it is not because of the knowledge she had terminal cancer; it is because I lost my mother a long time ago for a very different reason.

Ambiguous or unconventional grief is when you grieve someone who is still alive. This can happen for many reasons such as grieving someone with dementia or a brain injury. The person is no longer the same person you knew. However, my unconventional grief is for an unconventional reason. My mother stopped being my mother due to the impact of coercive control and how it can change a person’s identity at a profound level.

To understand how this happened I will need to explain.

Watch: Coercive control is a deliberate pattern of abuse. Story continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

My mother’s relationship with my father spanned over 50 years. At her memorial my father gloated that in 50 plus years of marriage they had only spent five days apart. This was not something my siblings and I felt proud of. In fact, it sent a shiver down our collective spines. Like all the decisions my parents made, this was his and his alone. My mother was not allowed to go on a girls’ trip or visit friends or family overnight by herself. He never usually said ‘no’ but instead made it a nightmare if she tried. To the point it was just easier to not even ask.

Like many in her generation my mother did not attend higher education. She was a country girl and any funds in the family went to her brother to become an accountant because as my grandmother said, ‘as he is male, he will be the main breadwinner’. For that generation this was on many levels true, and if a family had limited funds for higher education, then it went to the son. It was pragmatic but in hindsight, profoundly unfair because my mother could have done anything. She was wicked smart, a clear communicator and very capable. However, my father turned her into someone with the lowest self-esteem I have ever witnessed. Slowly, her behaviour, thoughts and actions became his. And this is how I lost her.


Up until recently I had no language to describe how my mother ended up as this extended shell of my father. But I recently discovered what to call what happened to her: ‘perspecticide’. This is a term discussed in the brilliant podcast The Trap by journalist and domestic violence advocate Jess Hill. The years of emotional abuse and manipulation eroded my mother’s sense of self. Her perspective on life died. Her opinions and actions became his. She turned into someone I didn’t recognise. Her kind and generous spirit disappeared. 

When people ask for me to give them an example of the kinds of behaviour my father exhibited I find it hard to explain just one that signifies what he was like. There were some significant incidents that happened but mostly it was the little things. For some forms of coercive control this is what it is, an accumulation of little things that equal an abusive whole. It’s the small belittling comment, the guilt inducing comment, the tone of voice, the gaslighting, or the adult tantrum. One thing on its own would not raise much of an eyebrow but the collection of behaviours and incidents is what makes it abusive. His behaviours in general are very subtle.

I’m ashamed to say that I was 37 before I started to really question what was wrong with our family dynamic. I always knew something wasn’t right but at the time it was just my reality. We also have an innate need to think our parents are always there to protect us, so you don’t question what is happening on any deep level. Therefore, I just didn't have the ability to understand or describe it.


Looking back, I have realised when you grow up in a family with a controlling parent who dominates the family dynamic you are reduced to playing a role to survive. My role was the compliant daughter who did well in school and never showed too much of my own thoughts as it was just easier. I only shared what I thought was what he would like so that I would get his ‘approval’. As a family we walked on eggshells around him, our family ‘mood’ was very much determined by his. I developed a heightened sense of reading his mood and then this determined what you did and didn’t do or say. But my number one feeling that I still have when I think of my father is fear… and it took me a long time to realise this is just not normal.

My lightbulb moment came out of a financial situation my husband and I found ourselves in with my parents. It is a complicated story but in short, my father did the wrong thing and made promises he didn't keep, lied, and left us in a financially difficult situation. Of course, I had gone along with the initial plan because it was my parents, and I didn’t think to question anything as I was trained not to. However, when it all went pear-shaped, I did question what had happened and asked that he and my mum come to see us, and we could sit down and discuss what had happened and work through a resolution as it was distressing for us all. 

Instead, my father refused and prevented my mother from seeing us and their only grandchildren for three years. I invited my mum to still see us but if my father was to come, he would have to sit down like an adult and discuss the situation. She still didn’t come even though she had the means and wanted to. He just wouldn’t let her.


This was very hard to accept. My mother was such a force in so many ways but when it came to my father she crumbled. There had been other incidents where my father made it difficult for my mother to be with us or spend time with her grandchildren. But this was the time I realised I just couldn’t be the silent, compliant daughter anymore who just tried to keep the peace so my mother could be part of our lives. I had to remove myself from my family and just focus on my own little family as it was breaking me. She was an adult and if she accepted this as her life and would not stand up, I couldn't make her.

Listen to The Quicky where the hosts speak to people who have been through coercive control and an expert who is trying to get the laws changed here in Australia. Story continues after podcast.

I started to read about narcissistic abuse and learned that there was little I could do that would make my father accept what he had done, or understand our perspective, or ever apologise. I pleaded with my mother to acknowledge what had happened, but she always believed him no matter what the evidence put before her. I also learned that if I went low contact, I would end up being the villain in the story he told to explain the situation to others. I just had to accept what would happen for my own and my husband and children’s wellbeing. So, I stopped sharing any real information about my life, I reduced my phone calls to her, and I completely disengaged from her emotionally. I knew that if she couldn’t protect herself from him, she certainly could not protect us. It was a survival instinct.


At this time, I also realised that my anxiety that I had had since I was five years old was dramatically reduced. As I sat back with a developing understanding of my childhood, I observed that my anxiety was so intertwined with when I knew I would see him. My husband and children even remarked how agitated I would become in the week before I knew they were visiting and then the week after they left. My nervous system was geared to his presence, and I still can’t control it even now.

About four years into my low contact with my mother she found out her cancer from 12 years before had returned and it was terminal. She didn’t know how long, and she never disclosed any details about her exact condition despite us all asking and offering to come to appointments. Knowing that she would not be around forever I did try again to get her to acknowledge the way she was being treated by my father. My husband, who has work experience with domestic violence victims, even sat down with her and told her she was a victim. When he pointed out that during her last cancer treatment my father did not take her to one appointment and that was not ok, she said that it was all good as he was this time.


My husband also told her that he had been telling lies to many people, about his business and his children. I was the key player in his story though and I was portrayed as the ungrateful daughter who had a mental illness. What kills me the most is my mother believed him and no matter what we did or said she couldn’t be moved from his story. I just couldn't do it anymore so I wrote her a letter and shared parts of my life and expressed my love but told her that I couldn’t accept that she thought so poorly of me and believed I was capable of the awful things my father was saying. 

I was there at the hospital when my mother died but for the seven months before my mother’s death, I had little contact with her. I know that this will come with much judgement. But all I know is that even though she was still my mother biologically, my father had taken over her personality and she was no longer my mum. I had lost her years ago and I know I would have to be ok with just knowing I had tried. 

After the funeral I have gone completely no contact with my father. His life, as it has always been, continues to be about himself with little regard for anyone else. I hear on the grapevine that he continues to blame me for the situation; his latest is to tell everyone my mother died of a broken heart because of me. Not the cancer that ravaged her body. I don’t ask for the details of most of what he says. It is the standard reaction of an abusive man that has lost control and just confirms what I have learnt about his personality type and how he would respond. 


As my siblings and I move forward without our mum we continue to peel the onion of our lives and discover the many behaviours and experiences of our father that we didn’t know were unusual or weird. We now see them in a very different light. I am just grateful that us three siblings and our families are in each other's lives in a real way. This wasn’t always the case due to my father’s lies. But now we have each other for support as there are not many people who would understand our childhood and its continued effect on our lives.

By telling my story I hope that it gives others in a similar situation comfort, or for others who know that there is something not quite right about their family to start recognising abuse. It is abuse. I didn't know this for so long as he did not hit or touch us.

The word ‘abuse’ just felt so extreme in our situation, however it is abuse through coercive control and emotional manipulation. Until we start telling our family stories of this type of abuse, which is often so subtle, we cannot continue the conversation for others and in the process heal ourselves.

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.

Feature Image: Getty.