Chapter 1 of TS – The reason why


Chapter 1

The reason why

In the autumn of  1993, I racked my brains trying to understand why all those women in my family had kept silent for so long. By sifting through the lives of my mother, her sisters and my grandmother and piecing things together again, I had come to the baffling conclusion in July of that year that the sexual abuse of girls, women and most probably of boys also, has been a practice in my family for at least seventy years, and still continues because of the silence of everyone involved.

After discovering this, I was stunned for days in shock and horror. No words can describe how I felt.
I would have liked to grab all those women by the shoulders and shake them and scream: ‘Nanie [1], why didn’t you say something, mousie [2], mama? Why, why?’


This piecing together did not, of course, just happen out of the blue, but came while dealing with the sexual abuse which had in turn, fell to me. The most crucial moment of this process was when this experience was publicized in an interview in Vrij Nederland [3] in May, 1993. The path to this public acknowledgement had been laid down by two  previous years of psychotherapy together with books I had been reading on incest traumas and why this had to happen to me. These books together with the conversations I had had, taught me that you are seldom the only one, very often there are other victims in the immediate family without either you or the others knowing. The perpetrators are protected by the wall of silence around the victims.


And it is precisely this wall of silence which I broke through in that interview. I had turned twenty nine in April of that year. Two years before, I had informed my mother that two of her seven brothers had sexually abused me, while she was under the impression that she had left me safely at her mother’s home. Tears flowed abundantly while I told her, sitting in an apartment in the Bijlmer in the South-East of Amsterdam.  


The irony was that without her ever having told me so, I knew that she had been abused. I even knew who the perpetrator was. But she was not aware that I, her own daughter, had also fallen victim to the incestuous practices which had become a family tradition. She was in deep shock. She did not know that it was a tradition, nearly a kind of rite of initiation, until I proposed this to her in May, 1992.


Why did they keep silent, allowing this collective deed, undergone in loneliness, to continue? Puzzling over this for weeks on end, I comforted myself by reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and many other books. As I read further, I became more and more enraptured with the book. In all his books, Rushdie plays like a magician with the diverse meanings which name can assume. I read about Padma, about Saleem, Mother Superior (the Venerable Mother) and about the Children of Midnight. I learnt about nicknames and the meaning of names and the different directions lives can take under the influence of a name.


And suddenly I found the key to the reason why. I had known it all along but never had the insight to accompany that knowledge. I had forgotten the stories of my grandmother because their meaning had escaped me. At birth she had been given the name Manthorni which means ‘she who has broken my heart’. After the first girl, she had come into this world as the second child of her parents instead of the boy whom her adji [4] had so set her heart upon. Barely a few days in the world, it was given to my grandmother to bear the burden of that disappointment. My grandmother is seventy and still carries that name. From the first day of her life onwards, when anyone called her by name, she was reminded that she was worthless as a woman. This awareness influenced her life to the extent that she became submissiveness itself. Growing up in a more independent generation, I was often irritated by this submissiveness, the cringing way in which she attempted to hold her ground in the family. She was such a capable woman, there were so many things she had done of which she could be proud. I wanted her to be proud of herself but she always left it up to God to decide about her life. Her answer to the issues of life has always been ‘Bhagwan jaane’: only God knows.


Ever since she was born, she had learnt to be ashamed for the simple fact that she entered the world as a woman. The alleged superiority of the male was perpetually drummed into her. She learnt to be silent, learnt that it was her fate. She grew up under the law of self-fulfilling prophecy: if from the time you were born, you only heard negative things about yourself, you start believing that they are true and you become negative about yourself. Because she did not know better, she raised her four daughters whit this same idea, idolized her sons and hated her daughters-in-law before she even set eyes on them. My mother also tried to force this negative notion of womanhood on me but she did not succeed, something for which she is now grateful.


That day in the fall of 1993, I cried for my nanie, my mother and myself. And at that moment my as yet tentative plan to write a book on incest in Surinamese families changed to firm resolve. Because I realized that after seventy years, I was the first one daring to speak out; that it was not only my story anymore, but also theirs. We are all part of a terrible tragedy that has to be exposed. This tragedy which made their lives and mine unbearable and which has dominated mine for more than twenty years, has to stop. I still live in the benumbing realization that I was not the last to be sexually abused. The abuse will only come to an end if the protective wall of silence around the rapists is destroyed brick by brick.
[1] Maternal grandmother
[2] Auntie
[3] Vrij Nederland is a weekly Dutch magazine
[4] Paternal grandmother



© Usha Marhé