I was the one who was constantly excusing and making allowances, seeking to understand. Karl was the one who was blaming and seeking to control me. If someone had told me before this relationship, that I would end up being with a partner who hurt me and worked to control my thoughts and reactions, I would have laughed at them. “Never!” I would have said, proudly.
Boiling a frog slowly is a courageous exposé of a romantic relationship that slides into increasingly disdainful and abusive territory, when love indeed goes wrong. In this interview, Joanne Hichens chats with Cathy Park Kelly about her experiences and the writing of her memoir.
Boiling a frog slowly, a memoir of emotional and physical abuse at the hands of an early lover and partner, is searing in its honesty. Your story shows how terribly difficult it can be for a woman to extricate herself from a relationship in which she is treated with violence and contempt. What prompted you to write your account of abuse at the hands of your male partner?
It’s what I do – I use my writing to explore my life and pick out threads that shine with truth for me. What I have learned, and what I am coming to trust, as I write more and share my writing more, is that these threads are universal. They are present in many human stories. When it comes to the story of the abusive relationship, I wanted to do two things: make sense of this experience for my own sake, and also make something out of this chapter in my life that I could share with others.
On the first, personal level, I used my writing to make sense of this chapter and to crack through the disbelief I was left with, to dig beneath the feeling of “What the f*ck?” to get at the truth of what it meant. I was weirdly fascinated, as well as confounded, by what I had gone through, so I used my writing to create some sense of order and understanding.
But, on the more universal level, I was driven to write this for the unknown reader out there. I felt that I had learned much and gained many insights, and this hard-earned knowledge burned inside me. It felt alive, like it wanted to be given a voice.
Karl, your nemesis, your persecutor, constantly and with increasing blame accused you of “pulling on him”, getting into his psychic space, attempting to “engage” with him – even when you were later living in separate apartments. He called incessantly and rapped at your door at all hours, blaming you for this “pulling”. This sense of coercive power, of obsession, is clear throughout the telling of your story. You describe in visceral detail how Karl regularly battered you about the head, bruising his knuckles but leaving no visible marks on you. I must admit, I fell into the trap, thinking, “How could this violence have happened to this woman whom I know as compassionate and kind?” Cathy, you too could not fully grasp the situation. Looking back, what insights have you gained as to how it progressed?
The insidious, invisible thing about coercive control or abuse is that it is most often incremental, as implied by the title, Boiling a frog slowly. There is an inch by inch eroding of boundaries, a degree by degree increase in the heat. And, especially if the one on the receiving end is by nature compassionate, empathetic and caring – all of which are historically feminine attributes – she keeps excusing, making allowances, changing her behaviour, appeasing, compromising, adjusting her inner thermostat.
And, although I think that all relationships need some degree of this – an attempt at compromising, trying to understand, making allowance for the other – in order to work, the insidious thing about an abusive or controlling relationship is that this is usually completely one-sided. There is no mutuality and a very clear power imbalance.
A concept I came across in my research that was incredibly useful in helping to frame what happened to me was “coercive control”, defined as a predictable pattern of abuse, where the victim/survivor is led to believe that they either need to “fix” themselves or need to fix the person who is controlling them, thus focusing their attention away from the abuse. To quote Jess Hill:
Coercive control … includes various techniques, like inducing exhaustion; training the person into compliance by enforcing arbitrary demands; degradation and threats; constantly breaching their boundaries by pushing them further and further into places that feel shameful so that they start to feel complicit in it, as though they are shameful, as though they almost deserve what happens to them …. Coercive control is not just a system of abuse but a system of entrapment, of oppression where someone starts to lose the sense of who they are ….
Reading about this was a goosebump moment for me.
I was the one who was constantly excusing and making allowances, seeking to understand. Karl was the one who was blaming and seeking to control me. If someone had told me before this relationship, that I would end up being with a partner who hurt me and worked to control my thoughts and reactions, I would have laughed at them. “Never!” I would have said, proudly. But this is what I have tried to show in the book, that, because I was in love with the idea of who I thought Karl was, I kept giving him the benefit of the doubt, and kept adjusting my inner thermostat to make allowances for him.
You worked at the time with juvenile offenders, young men who had robbed and raped their victims. You were aware of how boundaries are crossed, how violence takes place, that it is not acceptable. How then did you continue to justify to yourself the violence perpetrated against your own body, particularly as it escalated over a number of years?
Because I firmly believed that “it takes two to tango” and “your inner reality creates your outer reality”, I kept turning my questioning inward, working to change my own thoughts and behaviour, in the belief that this would change my outer reality.
As a teacher, I have always been able to draw clear boundaries in my classroom. The young men in my classroom, although they were clearly capable of great violence, were very respectful and eager to learn. Also, being the teacher, in their eyes I was the one who held the power. There were no mind games or gaslighting in my class.
But at home, in this particular relationship, my boundaries kept being transgressed, and I was caught up in the sticky web of “psychologising” and gaslighting. And, because I took on the blame that Karl kept handing out, I took on the responsibility to change.
Also, these episodes only began once we started living together. I firmly believed that we had to work it out somehow, as I was deeply committed to our relationship. I didn’t believe in leaving at the first sign of trouble. I believed that an intimate relationship was a space in which psychological wounds, childhood issues, unresolved baggage came to the fore, and that being committed to one another would mean that, ultimately, by working together, these wounds could be healed.
What I was only able to see in retrospect was that this “inner work” was very one-sided and that Karl placed the blame for all our troubles firmly in my lap.
In later chapters, you describe in spare and unflinching prose, the debilitating terror you felt when Karl attacked you in your sleep, came at you with his fists and blame, and how you were forced to leave your own home in the small hours of the night, how you slept in your car at times, and sometimes at your mother’s home on the couch. Was this one of the lowest points?
It was achingly lonely. Sleep is such a sacred thing; it is when we are most defenceless and vulnerable. And it took a long time for me to reclaim that sense of safety in bed. Buying a double bed when I had moved out, and covering it in white cotton linen, and falling into it whenever I needed to, was one of the most consistently joyful things I experienced. And today, sharing a bed with my husband and feeling completely and unflinchingly safe – I feel grateful for it every night (except when he snores).
You also, however, were no flinching violet. I’d like to ask you, too, about one of the most powerful scenes. Goaded by Karl, you pick up a knife (albeit a bread knife) in an attempt to warn him off from hurting you. Of course, you throw it down, but it speaks to your desperation and anger. Did this action scare you or motivate you?
My action in picking up the knife didn’t frighten me, because I already had a clear knowing that there was no way I could go ahead with it. The action felt more like a kind of posturing, an attempt to draw a line in the sand for myself and for Karl, to show him that I had reached my limit. So, in that way, it did give me a sense of my limits, of how much my body was willing to take before it reacted instinctively and defensively.
But the thing about bullies, or perpetrators, is that this kind of demonstration means nothing to them. The only thing possible is to leave, to escape. When I finally realised that my own life and survival were more important than anything else, I was able to gather the strength to leave and to break contact. And I believe that any action to put an end to this pattern has to be purely self-motivated, the ultimate act of self-care, not a last-ditch attempt to change the other and make them finally see the error of their ways.
Another low moment, and towards the end of the relationship, you write the heartbreaking sentence: “Tonight I want to keep my sense of shame, my sense of failure, to myself.” As a memoirist, did you find your shame – baring your self – difficult territory for you to expose?
Historically, within relationships, it has been women who carry the burden of making it work. So, when a relationship is not working, there is self-blame and an awful sense of failure. I carried such hope that if I worked hard enough on myself, read the right self-help book, I could find the “key” to a successful relationship. And when, time after time, none of what I tried worked, and time after time Karl blamed me for it not working, I felt desperate shame and failure.
In writing the book, I worked hard to be as truthful and as vulnerable as I could be. I did my utmost to bare all in the writing and not hold anything back. That act of exposure was oddly strengthening for me. Making yourself vulnerable is an act of strength.
To stick with the writing, was it heartbreaking or cathartic to relive the violence – perhaps both?
The first draft I wrote, the year after I had left Karl, was the one that provided the most cathartic relief. I was writing it then like a detective, sifting through my diary entries from those years to find evidence, to examine what I had been through, to have it down in black and white, because part of me still couldn’t believe it. It was a way of “studying” my experience so that I could learn from it.
And then, the desire to share it with others – because I believed that what I’d learned could be useful – grew steadily stronger. Although many people go through similar or worse experiences, not everyone necessarily wants to wrap words around it and craft it into a story of learning. But I strongly needed to do this.
The crafting of it in the last few years was difficult but deeply satisfying – working to make the writing as vivid as possible for the reader, while constantly checking in with myself and my memories to ensure I didn’t deviate from the truth as I remember it. Each layer of work on the book has given me something: new insights and deeper acceptance and appreciation of myself.
There is no excuse for what happened. Karl could have killed you, as happens to so many others in abusive relationships. How, then, did you finally begin to extricate yourself – to understand that Karl would never change?
Just as the relationship had deteriorated incrementally, so my sense of self and strength had begun to expand by increments. But the one moment that stands out for me came after a tortuous phone call from Karl. It was late at night and I put the phone down, grabbed the closest pen and wrote myself a promise. It was as I scrawled on the page in the dark that I realised my job was not to try and understand Karl, to understand his actions or to understand the underlying reasons. My job was to hold my “one wild and precious life”, as Mary Oliver describes it in her poem, “The summer day”. I held on tightly to it, in my hands, and took full responsibility for what I did with each moment from then on.
And so you reclaimed your life. I was, however, surprised to hear in a chat you had with John Maytham, on 567 Talk Radio, that you still refuse to label Karl – even after everything he did to you – as a “monster”?
I know that calling any perpetrator “evil” or “a monster” is too simplistic and is not useful in working to decrease gender-based violence and grow peace and mutuality, because cruelty and abuse are committed by humans, not monsters – by ordinary people who live next door to us, who are married to someone we love, or who run the corner shop. When we recognise this, then we are better equipped to see instances of abuse and to help each other heal and improve.
From where I am now, I do call his behaviour abusive, and I can say wholeheartedly that he was the perpetrator of cruel actions.
But when I was in the relationship, I took (and he gave me) full responsibility for what kept happening. I think that in some ways, in situations of intimate partner violence, this feeling of culpability is created, or perpetuated, by the perpetrator and accepted by the victim/survivor. I accepted the blame, because if it was “my fault”, then I could do something about it. I could work to change. I could work on myself. This gave me a twisted sense of agency, of some sort of control.
A dictionary definition describes “culpability” as the responsibility for wrongdoing or failure, whereas “complicity” is the association with or participation in a wrongful act.
This issue of culpability versus complicity is a complex one, and one that I still chew over. There are no easy answers. Without going into victim-blaming, I think there was complicity on both sides – for the reasons I explore in the book, I accepted and allowed his actions, but the responsibility for that behaviour lies fully at his feet. I could never imagine hurting someone in the ways he was willing to hurt me, no matter what they “allowed” or “accepted”. And that is the clear difference between a perpetrator and the one on the receiving end.
"My heartfelt hope is that this book reaches those who are in toxic situations (whether at home or at work), where their boundaries are being transgressed, and that reading it helps them to see their situation with clearer eyes and take steps to protect themselves."
Are you fully able to look back with compassion at your tender self?
Yes, this is part of what drove me to write the book – for the me then, hunched over on the black and white bathroom tiles.
And, to end off, what do you hope for readers of this book to take away with them – particularly a South African audience, a woman, too many of whom in our country are similarly abused, some tragically murdered by their intimate partners?
My heartfelt hope is that this book reaches those who are in toxic situations (whether at home or at work), where their boundaries are being transgressed, and that reading it helps them to see their situation with clearer eyes and take steps to protect themselves.
It is vital for women to come forward with their stories, because each story can reach someone. What I’ve seen since my book came out is that it opens up a space for difficult but important conversations. I have read a lot on the subject, including Tracy Going’s Brutal legacy, Jade Gibson’s Glowfly dance, Barbara Boswell’s Grace: A novel as well as several international memoirs on abuse. A book that helped me enormously in understanding the phenomenon of intimate partner violence and coercive control was See what you made me do by Jess Hill, quoted earlier, an Australian investigative journalist.
This thing of being human and learning to love ourselves and others is so complicated and nuanced, that the more we talk about it, the more we all learn.
Thank you, Cathy, for your heartfelt and honest responses.