The Cronenberg at number 12: A story about child abuse in Nigeria (1)

Theo was about five years old when he discovered that something was wrong at home. This was the age when he had developed sufficient self awareness for his older sibling to begin trusting him with certain types of information. The stories and scenarios varied widely, but the general thrust of the first few messages they passed on to him was always the same – “Be very careful around mummy. Something is wrong with her.”

There were stories about being stripped naked, beaten and told to stand outside on the street stark naked, but it all seemed distant and unrelatable. Being a bit of a stronghead, Theo did not take these hints, preferring to find out for himself what his siblings were so terrified about. In his late 20s now, he cannot remember exactly what happened the very first time he found out, but he does remember that it had something to do with an untidy room.

He remembers the sight of his mother flying into the biggest fit of rage he had ever seen and attacking him with a nearby mopstick. By the time she was done with him, leaving his small 5 year-old frame heaving on the floor of his room, covered in cuts, welts and bruises, he finally understood what his siblings had been trying to tell him. Something was very, very wrong.

The state of being an abuser is not written on anyone’s face. Theo’s mother did not in any way fit the Nollywood-influenced “Patience-Ozokwor-playing-evil-stepmother” stereotype of what a child abuser should be

My mother the Cronenberg”: Theo’s 12-year horror story

In Season 1 Episode 6 of the animated hit series Rick and Morty, crazy scientist Rick Sanchez accidentally turns the whole of humanity into a grotesque species of monster known as Cronenbergs. While the Cronenbergs retain some physical traits, personalities and even social relationships from their previous existence as humans, it is impossible to see them as anything other than shapeless, horrifying masses of organic horror that should ideally be put down.

Rick and Morty did not exist when Theo was a child, but he used the Cronenbergs as an allegory while explaining to me the type of relationship he had with his mother. Just like a Cronenberg was in theory still the same human being they once were, and still maintain a close semblance of regular social order they used to have, his mother on the surface could act like a normal mother, especially in public. Behind closed doors, however, she was a completely different animal.

Theo draws a deep breath when I tell him to describe what living with her was like. Almost 30, he still has a small anxiety attack whenever he reaches into his childhood memories. He describes a weird situation where on the surface life was good – a well-to-do- family by Nigerian standards, a great big house, several cars, expensive schools, holiday trips, the whole gamut. Behind this facade, however, was the constant feeling of walking across a nest of snake eggs, not knowing when the mother will strike or where from.

Theo’s mom had a particular fondness for drawing blood whenever she flew into one of her murderous fits of rage. The house he grew up in which had the street number 12, later became “Number 12” to him instead of “home,” a gallows humour reference to a prison cell block number. He peels back his shirt sleeves to show me a patchwork of still-visible scars and scorch marks from a series of brutal beatings that started when he was five and didn’t stop until he stopped crying at 14.

There were many more of these he says, but thankfully his skin tone darkened considerably around age 12, hiding the majority of marks and scars.

Theo recounts several incidents of incredible violence that he either witnessed or experienced at the hands of his mother. There was the time he came home from school with ink marks on his shirt and his punishment was to punch the rough Texcote wall outside the house for 30 minutes while she stood watch holding a cane in case he stopped, as his hands became torn and bloodied.

There was the time he witnessed her fling a bunch of keys at his oldest sister’s face, hitting her square in the eye and tearing her retina. 23 years later, she still has to wear special glasses. Another time, he remembers waking up on a Saturday afternoon to a commotion, and seeing a thick trail of blood snaking its way around the house from upstairs to downstairs and outside to the car park.

Apparently his older sister did not pick a bunch of vegetables properly and the Cronenberg brought out a cane and did what she did best. Most notably, he remembers when she caught him watching a music video he was apparently not supposed to watch, and she snatched his tennis racket off his wall and turned it into a weapon. His skull suffered a depression and a hairline fracture in the process, but nobody took him to a hospital.

To date, he hates shaving his hair low because the depression in the centre of his head is still visible. He estimates that over nine years, the total number of beatings must have come close to 400. At a point, Theo began sleeping with a meat knife under his pillow because his mother had started quoting the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac and telling him that as his mother, she had the right to take his life if he kept on “misbehaving.”

Years later, Theo found out that this threat was used by other parents in a lighthearted manner. In his case, there was nothing lighthearted about it. His mother was a raging psychopath with nobody to tell her “no,” and his dad was a yes man who stayed the hell out of her way most of the time. If she made good on her threat, there would have been no consequences whatsoever for her.

Apart from the physical assaults, Theo recounts the psychological torture she made him go through as he went through puberty and started losing his physical fear of her as his pain threshold went up. At a secondary school PTA meeting in 2002, which was being covered by the newspapers, Theo’s mom got up to make a comment. It was not enough that she had humiliated him by slapping him up in public during a school open day because of the usual “Your son talks in class” comment from a teacher. She was determined to make the point to the entire PTA and the press covering the event that Theo was a devil child who “acts like an angel at home, but is a devil in school.

“Presumably, disparaging your own child in front of 400 people earns you parenting wings. You’d have to ask her why she did it. Typically, the Guardian reporter present saw that as the only interesting thing that happened all day, and decided to run that as his story. The next day, Theo’s name came out on the newspaper’s centrespread: “ “My Son Acts Like Angel At Home, Devil in School” Says Parent.”

Being treated like an inmate at a Japanese prisoner of war camp was not enough. Theo also had to experience the psychological pressure of knowing that he was the single worst child in the whole of Nigeria – and there was a newspaper article to prove it. For Theo, all of this was not the worst of it though. The worst – the absolute worst – was the pretence. His JSS2 English teacher made him put in an entry for a “Peak Mom of the Year” essay competition because she noticed that this child was good at writing and hey, “You love your mom don’t you?”

How would he explain that he did not? How would he explain that he had no idea why “Your father” was an acceptable schoolyard taunt, but “Your mother” could leave you with broken teeth? Could anyone even begin to understand how much he could not relate? So he put in an entry that was – every word of it – a complete lie. He took composites of his classmate’s moms as he heard them described everyday, and wrote an essay about that fictional “mom” creature.

Unlike the Cronenberg he went home to everyday, this “mom” composite was warm and attractive to her children, and she did sweet things like smile at them, and pat their heads lovingly, and not chase them around the house dripping blood from being beaten like cows under nomadic herdsmen.

As it tends to happen for some reason, his entry beat out over 10,000 entries from 1,500 schools around Nigeria and to his horror, he and his actual mother were invited to be on NTA 10 to compete for the grand prize. Of course, he won again, because why not?

Read also: With 20m out-of-school children, Nigeria preparing for more B/Haram – Obj

Mom of the year!

The producer said he would have to hug his mother for the cameras, and thus ensued the briefest, most awkward side hug of his life, the first – and last – time he would ever consciously embrace his mother, as she smiled broadly for the cameras with her “Mom of The Year 2003” sash. The picture appeared on the front page of most national dailies the next Monday – Theo’s anxious, secretly horrified face next to his mom’s broad, shit-eating grin as he silently wondered how many weeks free of the bloody beatings this would buy him.

It bought him five. Five weeks.

The myth: “Real” child abuse didn’t happen to us

Something that typically finds its way into any conversation about child abuse in Nigeria is the faulty assumption that “real” child abusers walk around pouring smoke out of brightly coloured horns growing out of their heads. To admit the possibility – the reality – that child abusers are our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours, our parents, even ourselves requires a level of self-reflection and willingness to ask hard questions that we are generally not raised with.

The best analogy for how the child abuse topic is treated is how rape is treated. Whenever the existence of a rape culture is brought up, the immediate riposte goes along the lines of “They should worry about protecting themselves from those sick rapists first, instead of trying to preach to them.”

This correct-sounding argument seems logical, after all who cares whether rapists exist as long as women can make sure that they never get raped right? Well the thing is statistically, the vast majority of rape victims globally are aged 12-19 years of age, and of that number, 93 percent of rape victims report that the rapist was known to them. In other words, any amount of precautions taken to avoid the nighttime dark alley with the hood-wearing bogeyman will prevent at best 7 percent of rapes.

The vast majority of rapes cannot be prevented by anyone other than the rapist themselves because the victim is someone who trusts them or is in their authority. Sure, she can avoid staying out late or getting drunk or wearing “revealing” clothing, but when she comes home early wearing a full body niqab and her brother or lesson teacher or uncle turns out to be the rapist inside her own home, what is she supposed to do? That is how child abuse works too.

The state of being an abuser is not written on anyone’s face. Theo’s mother did not in any way fit the  -influenced “Patience-Ozokwor-playing-evil-stepmother” stereotype of what a child abuser should be. In between psychotic episodes, she was not any different to your typical domineering Nigerian parent – annoying, but just about tolerable. Whenever he made it to more than three weeks without one of her violent fits, Theo could almost pretend to himself that he had a normal life and a normal family, like the kind his schoolmates had.

Through the years while those things were happening, she was a respected member of the local community, an upstanding member of her church and the proverbial capable wife.

She was an excellent cook who kept the house spotlessly clean, she took care of her husband well and she went to great lengths to ensure that her children appeared perfect on the outside. On at least one occasion during a temporary dip in the family’s fortunes, she actually sold an expensive asset of hers to make sure that all 5 children could keep on attending the eye wateringly expensive schools they were enrolled in. If anyone were to confront her with her history of horrendous child abuse, she would firmly deny everything and point to those facts as her defence.“

How could I have abused them when I did so much for them? Why are these children lying against me?”

As Theo informed me, this in fact actually happened once a few years ago when he confronted her after his father’s death. After the well-rehearsed performance routine, interspersed with the obligatory tears and lamentations, her church elders who were present actually ended up kneeling down and apologising to her – they even made him do so too.