I Kept on Crying

I Kept on Crying is the story of a beautiful, eloquent, educated and seemingly confident woman who finds herself trapped in a toxic and corrosive relationship of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The signs were there right from the start, yet Koli Notshulwana chose to stay on to the point where abuse “became a central part of (the) relationship.” She confirms that “Dave became a controlling freak obsessing with me and my activities. This made me uncomfortable and my life quite miserable”. Yet she went on to marry him as “an opportunity to assure him that I was not cheating on him”. But why?

Gender based violence (GBV) and intimate partner violence (IPV) is well documented in the media and literature. It is predictable (in the sense that you can see the signs) yet its location in patriarchal power relations makes it both complex and elusive to comprehend. In several books I have read: Dancing to the Beat of the Drum by Pamela Nomvete; It’s Me Marah by Marah Louw; Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta; You Are Never Alone by Criselda Kananda-Dudumashe; I could not pin down the source of the vulnerability that drove these powerful, successful and discerning women to cede their power to abusive male partners that they could (at least in my view) easily do without.

Through her story, Koli surfaces behaviours that are common in abusive relationships. Firstly, the systematic isolation of a partner from family and friends is a fertile foundation for abuse. In Koli’s case, Dave isolated her from her student friends who would have raised concerns about how she was treated and who she was becoming. But abuse is always presented as passionate love and protection. Dave “literally closed all my social networks and made me dependent on him. His argument was that he had to protect his property”. This also feeds into the narrative of women as perpetual minors, and so Dave was performing his duty as a “man”.

An automatic consequence of this isolation and dependency is the erosion of self-esteem. This is the main reason why abused women find it difficult to leave. They internalise feelings of helplessness and that the belief that they cannot make it on their own. The abuser’s shadow looms large in their minds. Koli believed that “things were too complicated and stressful. I was in a fix…I did not think I could stand on my own. I was scared to even try.”

Nowhere is the complexity of GBV more pronounced than in the guilt that the women in these relationships carry. They own the responsibility for their partner’s behaviour. They rationalise and legitimise their anger, terror and bullying. They present themselves as the source and trigger of this violent behaviour. As such they believe it is them, and not the abuser that has to change. “It was important that I stopped making him feel that way…I took it readily that I was in the wrong…I resolved to tread carefully lest I offended him.” She thought that this was something she could fix if she tried harder to conform.

It is this idea that an abuser can and will change that keeps women hopeful. Koli rationalised that “the man was literate so we could pass through these challenges…(so) I remained hopefully”. But at the core of this hope are societal expectations of womanhood and wifehood. To reach full womanhood, one must be married. And successful wifehood is the ability of a woman to hold a marriage together at all cost, even when “the man was hell bent on breaking my soul, diminishing my humanity and demeaning my womanhood.” So, the success or failure of a marriage is on a woman. That is why both her father and her church coerced Koli to drop charges against Dave.

Koli claims that she “loved Dave effortlessly and accepted everything he decided even without (her) approval.” But in the same vein she accepts that “for him both love and abuse co-existed peacefully. In fact, they were wrapped as one without any possibility of separation”. But for in my view Koli, like most women, is trapped in the murkiness of love, hope, pride, guilt, and faith. It seems to me that these very powerful emotions (spiced up with fear, pain and guilt) that are so central to relationships, are the very ones that ensure that women remain bearing the cross of abuse as long as possible.

As a woman, reading this book put me through an emotional roller coast. I was as angry with Koli (the victim) as I was with Dave (the perpetrator). I could not understand how she could proceed to marry and bear two children in such relationship. I was resentful towards society at large(men and women) for making sure that patriarchy persists. In her book Second Class Citizen, Buchi Emecheta challenges the notion of women as innocent and naive victims in abusive relationships. She argues that women choose to stay whilst fully conscious that her “marriage was not a bed of roses, but a tunnel of thorns, fire and hot nails.” After this book, and several others, I am left unsure if we ever really comprehend why women stay in abusive relationships. Koli points out that “things are complicated…”

I Kept on Crying is Koli Notshulwana’s first book. I recommend it to young women and to professionals working in GBV / IPV space.