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A healing journey back to my dark days as a child

In trying to understand what led her father to administer a violent discipline to her as a child, and her mother to allow him, playwright and theatre director Marion Wyatt has uncovered a complex family history, writes Emily Hourican

Published 26/03/2016

Playwright and theatre director Marion Wyatt
Playwright and theatre director Marion Wyatt

When asked by her counsellor one year ago "If your father was here now, what would you say to him?" the playwright and director Marion Wyatt gave this heartbreaking reply: "Why did you beat me?"

Marion herself was surprised at the words that came out of her mouth, uttered "in the voice of a child," she says now. Her father, Edward, known as Ned, died in 1975 when she was 20. He was just 45. And although she had carried with her the unseen scars of his discipline, administered summarily throughout her childhood in Cork city, she thought she had managed to hide these, put them somewhere out of sight, for many years, during which time she married, had children, forged a successful theatre career.

"In my own life I would think, 'why do I feel sad?' 'Why are there times when I feel sad?' I couldn't answer it. My life was not idyllic, but it was wonderful, in that I was leading a full life, and yet, I would feel sad. I didn't really speak about this - you can probably even hear the catch in my throat" - I can hear it; her voice breaks and she is clearly close to tears as she says - "I could never understand why he did it. I was a very good child. I was a very good teenager."

There is something, everything, so pitiful about this distinction - a hangover, I suspect, from her younger self - and her inability to comprehend what drove her father. Because the reality is, no child deserves to be beaten, because no child is bad. Marion's drive to understand this, to understand the man who was responsible for her childhood pain, and the mother who failed to stop him, has led to her latest work, a play called When We Were Young, a fictionalised story based on their relationship as she knows it, which she has written and directed.

The beatings were not, she says, "the kind where somebody would come in drunk and would just slap out. There was something more twisted about this. This was calculated, as in, doling out punishment for maybe not getting all your sums right on a Friday. I was living under the shadow of a belt hanging on a hook."

The beatings were often for academic failures, even though Marion was intelligent and high-achieving, but could also be for breaches in behaviour, even involuntary ones. Marion recalls when she was six: "I remember sitting on the footpath outside our home one day, and a frog - to this day I have a terrible dislike of frogs - jumped over my foot. I wet my pants with the shock. And I was petrified going in home because of what was going to happen to me."

Perhaps worse than the belt and what it meant, was the notebook. "There was a notebook, so if he went away to work on a Monday - he worked away a lot - and didn't come back until Friday ..." she breaks off momentarily, then says "part of me is uncomfortable talking about it now, but my mother would write down the bad things that we might have done."

Her father would come home, read the notebook, the score kept by Marion's mother, Eileen, known as Eily, and down would come the belt. The punishments started when Marion was "about three", and stopped, at last, when she was a teenager. At that stage, her mother finally spoke out. "I remember coming up to Confirmation time, my mother saying, 'you need to stop this'." And he did, but the abuse became psychological rather than physical. "There was nothing that would ever please him." But it was not the case with all her siblings. Marion is the eldest of five children, with a big age gap separating the older three from the younger two. And an even bigger gap in terms of parenting. "He didn't do those things to my youngest brother and sister, who have a completely different memory of him."

In fact, there are far more shades of grey than stark black or white in Marion's story; so many that it is entirely possible to understand why she says "I don't really want to dishonour them," several times of her parents. Her father, a service engineer, first for Aga, later for Calor Gas, was a hard-worker and "an exceptionally good provider."

More troubling was the fact that, as well the instigator and enforcer of a brutal discipline, Ned was a devoted, generous and unusually engaged father. "He was the one who read us stories, he bought us comics, taught us to cycle, paint, draw. I have photos of him pushing the pram, he cooked, he taught me how to knit, on six-inch nails. He reared me with the belief 'you can be anything you want to be.' He had a wondrous way of making you feel special. He was a wonderful singer, a gregarious man. There was a lot about him that was extremely wise, and he worked very hard to earn enough money for us to go to all the extra-curricular things - Irish dancing, music classes. And yet, there was this thing ..."

The 'thing' was terrifying. "There were moments when he turned into a monster. I don't remember how many blows we would get. The first one was the one that would upset you and humiliate you, so that you started to cry. I don't even remember the pain of it, or the sound of it, I just remember thinking 'this is my daddy doing this to me'. My mother used to say she never knew what his mood was going to be until he turned the key in the front door."

It is Marion's attempt to understand this complex, compelling man, and the mother who acquiesced in his brutality, that has led her to write When We Were Young. The play - her first full-length writing project - came about through what she describes as a period of "burn-out. Exhaustion," just over a year ago. "I found that I didn't want to face the world, which was strange. Then I wondered one day, in the midst of crying, 'why am I feeling this way?' I sought help, because I had enough wisdom to realise there was something going on in my head."

That help, through a wise counsellor, resulted in Marion starting to write, "a stream of consciousness, not a play at all," about the events of her childhood and what she knew of her parents. To assist her, she had something remarkable - a cache of letters, cards and diaries left to her by her mother. Many of the cards and letters had been exchanged between Marion's parents - her father was away a lot, first with the navy, later for his job. The couple had met when she was 16 and he was 22. Eily was from Wexford, daughter of a farm labourer, in a family where music was the thing. That was a place that Marion remembers as "a happy, happy house. My mother came back to live in Wexford for a while, with her family, when my father was off seeing the world, so I grew up with my grandparents for a time, with uncles who were always singing." In contrast, Ned's background was more affluent, but far more bleak. Orphaned young - his mother died of cancer, his father left home and later died in Wales - he was brought up by his maternal grandmother and aunts, in an atmosphere of violence and rage. "I discovered that he was beaten with a floor brush. All the discipline around him was very aggressive and physical." His uncles were all well employed by the West Cork Railway, but Ned left home and joined the navy on his 18th birthday.

The relationship between Ned and Eily was clearly intense and passionate; "a lot of their romance was through writing." Even after his death, Eily continued her habit of writing to him, except the tone of communication changed. "I began to see there was so much dislike for this man she adored, written between the lines, and then later, finally, forgiveness."

Ned and Eily were a glamorous, charismatic couple. "She always said he worshipped the ground she walked on. You'd see them dance in the dining room, the kitchen. When I read his cards to her, his letters to her, I thought, 'this is the stuff of the great films.' She was, right up to her death at 77, a very beautiful woman, who took care of herself with very little. She was lovely, and she was lovely with people. People would gravitate towards her, and she was the life of every party. We might suffer afterwards because she might be hit for a few days with a depression." And indeed, depression dogged Eily for much of her later life, with spells in hospital and institutions.

Of Ned she says, "he was extremely handsome. People who are still alive, who knew them when they were the talk of the town, talk about this amazingly beautiful couple."

So why did her mother allow the beatings? Even participate passively in them? "I did ask her when I was an adult - 'why did he do it and why did you let him do it?' She couldn't answer, beyond 'that was the way he was.' She couldn't stop him. 'Sure I was like only another child,' she would say." Another day, years after her father's death, Eily said, chillingly, "I had a very happy childhood you know. And then I met him," before returning to her more habitual silence on the subject.

But there was more to it than that. As Marion began to add up the sum of what she knew of her past, and her parents' pasts, she made a startling discovery. "They had a daughter called the very same name as me, who died at birth, in London, almost a year exactly before I was born. My father took her away to be buried, and my mother didn't know where. She never held that child. She had nowhere to go to mourn the child. And they never spoke about it, ever."

This secret, she now believes, was the source of the strange dynamic between her parents, a dynamic that seems to have had so much thwarted aggression on each side. And it poisoned their lives together, despite the great romance, because one terrible secret will so often breed more. "There was no communication between them, at a deep level. When he was diagnosed with cancer, in 1974, and given six months to live, my mother took care of him at home. But they never spoke about the fact that he was dying. They never mentioned it to each other."

They did both, however, separately and obliquely, refer to the child they lost. "Before my father died I went to visit, and he kept calling me his mother, and he was saying 'you'll take daffodils to her some day?' and I thought he was talking about his mother's grave. Now, I think he had me confused and it was the grave of this baby he meant." Her mother, meanwhile, would often in later life refer to "a little girl in white" coming through the walls of her bedroom.

The experience of growing up with violence has inevitably had an effect. "I wanted to be the first at everything. I put so much pressure on myself. And there was this thing that went on for a long time - I was 20 when my father died, but I had myself convinced he was still around. You know the way people say they can feel a presence? I was thinking, 'he's watching now, he's omnipresent . . .' and not in a good way. I'm meant to look like him, and I can see the similarities in photos. My mother would say 'Your father'll never be dead while you're alive' and I used to worry that I'd end up like him.

That feeling, of being watched and judged, lasted through Marion's own marriage - she met her husband, Denis, when she was directing Tops Of The Town talent show, and he was a singer and dancer in the show, who later went to work for a pharmaceutical company - and only began to die down after the birth of her third child. "He's 28 now, a strapping lad," she says, "but he wasn't well when he was born. I remember having a dream, and in the dream my father came and was taking this child away. I was saying 'daddy don't take him, he's not ready to go yet.' I woke up crying and sobbing. The child was very ill and people were saying his brain could be affected. After that, my life and the way I saw things was very, very different. I spoke to my husband, Denis, and my mother, as I tried to explain how I was feeling. I thought about the big questions - 'what if he dies? What if I had known he was going to be like this before he was born? What if ...' And I realised, 'I don't think I've ever expressed any of these things and feelings before.'"

Until then, Marion had, understandably, shied away from confrontations. "I used to placate people quite a lot. I was always trying to figure out 'what is it this person wants me to say?' I don't give a sugar anymore, but I used to think, 'if I really give my opinion here, how will I suffer for it afterwards? And that's no way to go through life."

So did she love her father? "Absolutely. And my mother. I still miss them. There was a time when I had an anger within me - how could he possibly have done this? And then that anger became more turned towards my mother, because she allowed this to happen. Then, and I'm very grateful, some part of me went 'there must be something that happened that caused them to be that way ...' and I went and searched and ended up with this play."

Is she nervous about the reception? "I am. But I have written this from a place of love and honesty. I understand now why they were the way they were."

When We Were Young is at the Everyman Theatre, Cork; April 6-16, 8pm. everymancork.com

Belfast Telegraph

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