Sophia's Story
He put it in the middle of the driveway where he set fire to it

He was a handsome, articulate, intelligent man, but there was a fakeness about him. He’d say things like “when I was in England” – when he’d never been to England. He’d put things in such a way that you couldn’t argue with him, mainly by being very detailed and emphatic.

You had to be careful around him all the time. It was really hard to ask for your pocket money or whether you could go out on a Saturday night. He didn’t always say no but you never knew how he would react. You couldn’t ask him anything he might have to give way on. Quite often he just wouldn’t hear. He wouldn’t acknowledge that you were asking him, he’d just ignore you and get on with reading the paper or going out into the garden. He kept a brick wall up and often didn’t talk to us directly.

I am a very untidy person and when I was a child my room was usually covered in junk. My father couldn’t stand mess and several times he got into a huge rage and swooped on all my stuff, gathered it up and put it in the middle of the driveway where he set fire to it.

My mother would have a sherry, but just one, and one cigarette before dinner when she was waiting for Dad to come home. I never saw her have an excess of alcohol; she was too much of a lady. She was a quiet person. She was the sixth of eight children from a very loving family. I think she and my father were probably attracted to each others’ differences, because they came from absolutely different families.

She had been 30 when they got married, 38 by the time my brother was born and 40 when I was born in 1951. She was very focussed on my father who was the focal point of the household. She was quite isolated because she was an older mother; she no longer had her own mother, who died when she was a teenager, and she had moved to a city where she didn’t know anyone and didn’t drive.

As a young woman she had been very independent and had had her own car. But once she got together with Dad she never drove again. We only had Dad’s work car anyway, always a big American car.

I don’t know what she did – except to keep the house tidy and clean. She didn’t go out much or do things on her own, apart from hat making and floral art classes, and for a while she went to the Country Women’s Institute. When Dad went to the club she waited at home – in those days women didn’t go to clubs.

She kept people at arm’s length. When I had young children, I was hardly ever at home. I was involved in La Leche League and Playcentre, and I ran antenatal classes. I always had things I was occupied with as well as my family. And I’ve always had lots of women friends. If something goes wrong, the first thing I do is ring a friend and get it out. But my mother never did that. I don’t think she had anyone she could talk to.

We very rarely had visitors. I think it wasn’t safe to have people in because they would get too close. Occasionally we would go to other people’s places and they’d all sit around and drink.

I think that because, even when I was little, I felt my father’s behaviour was not fair, I’ve never been able to stand anything that’s not fair. It doesn’t matter if it’s not fair to me or to someone else. This really came out when I went to boarding school and ran up against the nuns. ‘Not fair’ was not part of their way of thinking at all; they just dictated our lives. I didn’t like people getting into trouble. I didn’t like getting into trouble either – and I did get into trouble for saying “that’s not fair!” One thing I thought wasn’t fair was that we’d have movies on special feast days, and they’d show you two reels of the film and then the juniors would have to go to bed before the third reel. They’d show it to you the next day or even later.

I’d voice my opinion on things like that, and end up waiting in the annexe outside the headmistress’s office. Waiting there, you couldn’t see who was coming but you could hear them – the clomp of shoes on the wooden floor and the rattle of rosary beads. I’d be thinking, “is it her?” and then the footsteps would pass and I’d be waiting again. She might not come at all during the period I was standing there. They didn’t know how good a punishment that was for me! It fed into my anticipation anxiety.

My debutante night was a classic example of my father not being fair. He arrived home late and had had too much to drink, so we went to the deb ball late. I spent the whole time tense and embarrassed because I didn’t want my friends to know that he had had too much alcohol although he would not have behaved badly socially, and he wasn’t aggressive in front of other men.

I think that sense of unfairness did have a positive spin-off for me in that it made me a campaigner. I really fought for women on issues around childbirth, and was a leader in the home birth movement.

My father used to say that I was his special little girl, and my whole object in life was to please him. He used to show me off. If we went to someone’s place, I’d dance or perform. I struggled to impress him. I felt that he expected me to be perfect because I was his daughter, his only daughter. So I had to be pleasant and pleasing to everyone – and pass everything at school.

I’m a perfectionist and I get quite het up over doing things well. I know this is to do with my father’s expectations – that you couldn’t produce something mediocre, you had to be the best. If you got 86 percent for an exam, why wasn’t it 96 percent? I graduated with top marks in both a teaching degree and a nursing degree. There’s a part of me that likes studying, but it’s more that I hate failing – and getting a B has always been failing to me.