Beaten but not Broken

In Beaten by not Broken Govender relives her experience in a five-year abusive relationship with a well-known and admired DJ. Herself an award-winning news anchor, her story underlines that abuse knows no class, race nor status.

But Govender also lets us into what might be the source of her vulnerability. She grew up with torments and bullying about what in the Indian community is viewed as ugliness associated with dark skin. She learnt how to lie and present a brave face against rejection, bullying and being called “Blackie”. So, for her to be “chosen” by the famous DJ brought her the affirmation she so desperately craved. Her need for affirmation combined with the Indian culture of privacy and protecting the standing one’s family “moulded, shaped and defined (her) for the role of the abused”. So, she went on to accept (her) fate…He was there to serve the punishment that (she) deserved.”

Govender’s story provides a window into the psyche of the abused. The bigger burden is not fear, but shame and humiliation which he effectively exploited. “The truth is that we lie to protect ourselves. No one must know who we really are. That beneath the smiles and laughs we carefully and calculatingly display…is a frightened, defeated, barely existing, pathetic little victim.” As a face from TV he knew that she had no choice but to present a “veneer of absolute respectability”. What devastated me in this frankly written story is how it must have felt to be caught up in the toxic and potent combination of physical pain and emotional humiliation.  She writes that “the thing that made me incredibly sad and lonely was the look of pity in the eyes of people around me”, because regardless of how much you might try to pretend, those close to you (parents, siblings, friends, colleagues) will always know what is going on.

Govender refers to women in abusive relationships as being in “the dead, cold place…with blackness that fill(s) (their) heads.” This blackness emanates from a self confidence that has been systematically chiseled away. “He stole my confidence and reduced me to nothing”, from an admired news anchor to a frightened little victim with panic attacks that drove her out of her job. She was left feeling and believing that she was helpless and hopeless, yet in the public arena she was a respected, confident and eloquent news anchor.

But the depth of loneliness lies not in physical pain but in the shame of living a lie. It is about living in the interface between fear and nothingness in the private space, and the bubbliness and confidence in the public space. What shocked me is how abuse becomes so embedded on one’s being that it becomes a valued clutch. “Without the abuser you are alone with your secret, and shame”. With him you share something deeply personal. So, you stay. “Leaving is never easy…because the abuser doesn’t just hurt you physically, your abuser strips you of all common sense, your ability to rationalize, to see right from wrong.”

Beaten but not Broken is literally and figuratively heart wrenching from start to finish. Maybe it is because I felt that I “knew” Vanessa Govender to be a confident, intelligent and composed journalist who brought us stories from near and afar. I couldn’t reconcile that persona with so much pain – bullying, abuse, grief and rejection. Her beautifully crafted story made me reflect on how many women are in relationships, yet very lonely. What must it feel like when the only thing that is certain in your life is physical and emotional pain?

But I was left with a big question mark. Govender argues that “this is my story. This happened to me. Who he is irrelevant”? Is it really? Is she inadvertently protecting him again? Why must his life and brand remain untouched? Yes, it is her story, but if impacted by someone who she writes “altered me profoundly why not name and shame the abuser?

Beaten but not Broken is a sad confirmation of the pervasiveness of intimate partner abuse, and how it continues to germinate and thrive under the veil of privacy. But it is also a story of the resilience that undergirds women’s vulnerabilities. I particularly recommend it to family, friends and colleagues of those in abusive relationships. Perhaps we must love them enough not to keep quiet. Perhaps our love for them should manifest in how much we actively save them from themselves!

I recommend Beaten but not Broken to women in abusive relationships, and to those around them.