This is How I Will Strangle You – Gideon Haigh

While many subjects that were once taboo are now openly discussed, incest is not one of them. It’s something that’s so difficult to even wrap your head around, so reading about it is never going to be easy.

Natasa, the eldest child of Peter and Ruby, endured horrific abuse by both of her parents. Growing up in Australia in the 1970’s, Natasa was failed by all of the adults in her life. Her story is a prime example of how people and institutions that could and should have protected an already vulnerable girl from further abuse failed. Miserably. Countless times. From a Case Closure Summary:

There are at least nine agencies that I know of that have been involved with this family over the past four or five years, none have made any real progress with the family.

So many of these agencies were aware of the physical and sexual abuse Natasa was experiencing, or at the very least suspected it was the case, but failed to intervene.

Natasa’s story is graphic and disturbing, reminding me in many ways of Dave Pelzer’s recollections of his childhood. While there’s a part of me that hopes child protection practices have come so far since the 1970’s that Natasa’s story could never happen again, there’s the other part that knows Natasa is not alone, that there are other Natasa’s experiencing the unthinkable right now.

Originally included in an edition of Griffith Review, Natasa’s story is expanded here and includes letters, reports, emails, photographs and excerpts of Natasa’s own written recollections. The author has also included quotes from professionals in the fields of criminology and medicine, as well as theories by social scientists and psychiatrists. Effects of incest, such as retrospective blame and isolation of affect, are also explained.

Given there were almost 2000 pages of documents collated from medical, therapeutic and legal records, the final word count felt too limited. While I felt like a voyeur reading the graphic details of some of Natasa’s most painful memories there were other aspects of her life that were barely touched upon.

Her experiences at school were something I wish had been given more page time; if I was a teacher I’d definitely want to learn about any behavioural red flags I wasn’t already aware of. I was also interested in learning more about the dynamics between Natasa and her siblings, and how she has managed the long term effects of trauma.

I’m really hesitant to recommend this book to anyone in particular because of the potential for its content to bring up any relevant trauma in readers. If you have experienced any of the abuse detailed in this book please be safe while reading and make sure you have access to support if you need it.

Content warnings include abuse and murder of animals, attempted suicide, emotional abuse, forced prostitution, incest, physical abuse, sexual assault and verbal abuse.

I have no right to rate someone’s experiences so this rating is solely based on the way the book was written.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

‘I’m just a prisoner of my past. I don’t want to be a prisoner any more.’ Natasa Christidou’s earliest memory is of her father masturbating over her childhood bed. She was two. It was the start of a lifetime’s physical abuse and psychological torture, which included long phases of sex slavery and sex work, institutional neglect and brutal imprisonment.

Aged fifty, Natasa decided to tell her story. Gideon Haigh listened. The result is a compelling work of investigation andreportage of the silent crime of incest – usually so confronting, so taboo, that we prefer to lookaway, because of the social sanctity of ‘the family’.

Today, Natasa lives in a tiny unit in Morwell. She is agoraphobic, vision and hearing impaired, stricken with incontinence, insomnia, panic attacks and back pain as a result of her experiences. Only with the help of a dedicated group of care workers, counsellors and lawyers has she made it so far. She is also a warm, gentle and funny woman whose survival testifies to the resilience of the human spirit.

This Is How I Will Strangle You takes the reader behind the headlines and hysteria around child sex abuse, and reinforces an uncomfortable truth: that women and children are sometimes safer on the street than in their own homes. 

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