My father bought me AirPods. I cried.
They found out when my sister saw the Instagram story and my mother phoned me, confused.
“Your dad sent you something this morning. It was meant to arrive today,” she told me.
“What is it?” I asked, trying to keep my tone light.
“He says it’s a surprise, but that you should go and get it. And send over your new address.”
I agreed that I would and then hung up with no intention of doing so. The music that I had been unpacking to suddenly sounded bubblegum-bright, fake, unnatural. I turned it off and called the grandmother that I had been living with and asked her to open the package.
They were AirPods Pro. I cried myself to sleep.
You may have guessed by now that this is not a story about being ungrateful. If you had told me that morning that I would receive a surprise gift of some $250 wireless headphones, I would have been ecstatic. But these were not gifts. My father does not give gifts.
My father did not even call me on my birthday.
On the rare occasion that we even acknowledge financial abuse, we only tend to discuss restriction. It is true that my father took my mother’s debit cards and prevented her from accessing money. It is true that he gave her only enough to do the food shopping and then checked the receipts to make sure that she wasn’t siphoning any away. It is true that I spent my childhood with my own mother taking me aside to “borrow” my birthday money because she couldn’t let her husband find out she had spent anything on herself.
But in order for this kind of abuse to go unacknowledged, abusers have to occasionally do the opposite. In fact, to this day my grandma cannot comprehend that her former son-in-law could ever have been abusing any of us because he was such a ‘generous’ man. ‘Why do you hate your dad so much, Lydia?’, she asked me after I left home. ‘He clearly loves you. He paid for you to go on holiday.’
The holiday in question had materialized the morning after I stopped breathing in the night, and he got out of bed only to tell the paramedics that they were talking too loudly.
When you are being financially abused, ‘gifts’ are not actually gifts. They are weapons, tools of manipulation. Every purchase is calculated and perfectly timed. When buying somebody a present, your main concern is usually what will make them happy — but this is not the focus when financially abusing them. The AirPods were a gift that he knew for a fact I didn’t want. When we still spoke occasionally, I had mentioned that I constantly lost Bluetooth earphones and that my worst nightmare would be owning expensive ones.
No, the gift was a skillful manipulation. I had not spoken to him in months. We did not acknowledge Birthdays or Christmas. Suddenly, he was the generous man who cared about his daughter still, even though she had walked out. The ball was in my court, now. Did I ignore it, and hand him proof that I was ungrateful and spoilt? Or did I thank him, and validate his behaviour?
The cycle of abuse contains periods often called ‘lovebombing’. The abuser showers you with affection and gifts, just enough to make you question whether they might be good people after all. They are often careful to do this all publicly, isolating you from anyone who can help because they too are taken in by the charm. You begin to think that they have changed, or that they are capable of being loving if only you don’t provoke them.
Often, the psychological effects of this are more damaging than the violence itself. In therapy, I can easily talk about how he force-fed me food I was allergic to, or how he hurt us, or how he kicked my bedroom door down. Who could deny that these things were wrong? On the other hand, how am I supposed to explain the handful of happy days, or the Airpods I haven’t lost yet, or the family videos I can’t bring myself to watch where I know I am smiling and laughing and hanging onto his leg? How am I supposed to move on when I get panicky if my partner is nice to me, scared it is the lead-up to abuse? How do I stop myself from bending over backward to accommodate for other people’s desires, because I think that asserting my own needs will put me in danger?
In our society, financial abuse is often made invisible as part of the cycle of reproductive labour. My father was the “breadwinner” and the “man of the house”. My mother, a very smart and capable woman, agreed to stay home and care for the children, more than one of us being disabled. The process of the abuse was so slow and so couched in the dynamics of the nuclear family that she did not see it happening.
“Let me look after you, and you can stay with the children,” he said. “You don’t need to work.” So she did.
Then, the next week, he would complain. “You don’t even have a job. I do everything.” So she would look for one, and then he would change his mind. “Why are you looking for a job? Do you think I can’t support us?”.
So she stayed at home, relying on him to provide for her. This, built into the fabric of our society as the ‘ideal’, took her power away. Why do we not question the act of surrendering our survival to our partners when it is presented as marriage? She became distanced from any kind of community. She couldn’t leave now, not with children, because she didn’t have a job. And why would she want to leave? He was so generous and kind, most of the time.
It progressed over time into total control. First, he began to examine what was being purchased, questioning every line of the bank statement. It became clear that she had to answer for every penny. Then, he began to declare that they were having financial issues. It was her fault, of course, and she didn’t question this because he had spent a decade informing her that she was stupid, lazy, and incapable so it was easy to accept that she was also terrible with money. This is why it seemed only right that he take her debit cards. He earned all of the money, after all.
I told my boyfriend all of this at the time, and he told his mum. She had just left her husband. They passed on a long list of phone numbers and resources, all of them catered to women who were being abused and I panicked. “I think you’ve got it wrong,” I told him. “We’re not being abused. He’s just an asshole.”
They didn’t push it. But, at thirteen, questions began to bloom in my mind, flourishing as the rotating cycle of apology flowers died on our breakfast table. If things were fine at home, why did I dread being there? Why did my mum try her best to hide anything from our father, from bad grades to the money our grandma slipped her, with a glint of fear in her eyes? And, if he wasn’t an abuser, why was his behaviour listed on every article about abuse they had sent me?
I left home when I was eighteen, having started trading sex at seventeen because it was safer than asking my father for money. Last year, my youngest sister – Ramona – followed me after an incident at home. I took her to visit our mother one day, careful to time it so that he was not in the house. He showed up anyway. Within an hour, social services had been called and we were all packed into my ex boyfriend’s car, running.
This was the day that my mother finally left her abuser and spent the next few months sharing the tiny bedroom at my grandmother’s house. As much as I had been angry and bitter that she had not protected me or taken us away from him when I was a child, and as much as I still in some ways resent her, I know that the reason she stayed had been almost entirely financial.
All she had needed to leave, in the end, was a safe place for her child, a place to stay, and a getaway car.
As an adult now, I would never and will never share all of my finances with a partner. The idea of it sets me into a full panic attack. I don’t know know if it’s trauma or just a lesson learned in the hardest way possible.
I just know that it will keep me safe.