Before the Knife by Carolyn Slaughter

by Philip Spires - Date: 2008-09-06 - Word Count: 487 Share This!

In Before The Knife Carolyn Slaughter describes her childhood, a fraught, anxious prelude to an adulthood that continued to suffer from its heritage. She tells us early on in the book what caused this anguish, and what gave rise to its associated self-pity, self-abuse and anger. She was raped by her father at the age of six. But then the book unfolds almost without another mention of the trauma until its reality is finally recognized, long after the father, the self-tortured mother, and even the younger sister have gone to their graves.

Carolyn Slaughter's life, though not fully acknowledged in the book, could only have been lived in a narrow window of history. The British Empire, always eager to install a white face in a position of colonial authority where people of race might not be trusted, elevated many lower middle class émigrés to effective aristocracy. It meant that they could only feel at home, that is, only attain the status they assumed, if they lived outside of the Sceptred Isle. Carolyn's mother had been born and brought up in India. She had grown used to a life with servants, where sewing, cooking and cleaning could be delegated to the competent. This created time for the important things in life, like deciding what to wear for dinner, what would go with what, and whether the lunch invitees would gel. Not that there were many expatriates to invite in the Kalahari Desert.

Carolyn Slaughter seems to have lived an itinerant's life. More significantly she seems to have adopted an itinerant relationship with life. It happened as a result of denial, as a result of not accepting or acknowledging what happened to her. The father, a shop worker back home, was a District Commissioner in the Empire when his white face provided his main qualification. His wife, Carolyn's mother, unable to accept what the daughter had told her or, indeed what evidence proved, slumped into a private depression that never left her.

The author's African childhood was almost wholly unhappy, even depressing. Her tantrums angered others, her self-abuse threatened her own life, and yet the father who was the source of the tragedy soldiered on, apparently stoically, delivering whatever duty the assumptions of Empire might demand.

There were times when I lost touch with the sense of depression and foreboding, periods in the book when I knew things were lighter and brighter than the reminiscences suggested. Occasionally, the weight being borne got too much. But then I had a happy childhood, without abuse, indeed with love, affection, and support throughout, so who am I to criticize this insight into a world I never knew?

So, towards the end of the account, when the horror of the abuse can be re-lived in later life and thus partially expunged, we can sense the destructive havoc it has wreaked through the family's life. It's a rather one-paced account, but the seriousness of its focus justifies its form.

Related Tags: family, sexual abuse, africa, class, incest, colony, social class, colonial, botswana

Philip Spires
Author of Mission, an African novel set in Kenya
Michael, a missionary priest, has just killed Munyasya. It was an accident, but Mulonzya, a politician, exploits the tragedy for his own ends. Boniface, a church worker, has just lost his child. He did not make it to the hospital in time, possibly because Michael went to the Mission to retrieve a letter from Janet, a teacher, and the priest's neighbour. It is Munyasya who has the last laugh, however.

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