Authors: Trevor Noah
The strange thing was that when Fufi got kicked she never yelped or cried. When the vet diagnosed her as deaf, he also found out she had some condition where she didn’t have a fully developed sense of touch. She didn’t feel pain. Which was why she would always start over with Abel like it was a new day. He’d kick her, she’d hide, then she’d be right back the next morning, wagging her tail. “Hey. I’m here. I’ll give you another chance.”
And he always got the second chance. The Abel who was likable and charming never went away. He had a drinking problem, but he was a nice guy. We had a family. Growing up in a home of abuse, you struggle with the notion that you can love a person you hate, or hate a person you love. It’s a strange feeling. You want to live in a world where someone is good or bad, where you either hate them or love them, but that’s not how people are.
There was an undercurrent of terror that ran through the house, but the actual beatings themselves were not that frequent. I think if they had been, the situation would have ended sooner. Ironically, the good times in between were what allowed it to drag out and escalate as far as it did. He hit my mom once, then the next time was three years later, and it was just a little bit worse. Then it was two years later, and it was just a little bit worse. Then it was a year later, and it was just a little bit worse. It was sporadic enough to where you’d think it wouldn’t happen again, but it was frequent enough that you never forgot it was possible. There was a rhythm to it. I remember one time, after one terrible incident, nobody spoke to him for over a month. No words, no eye contact, no conversations, nothing. We moved through the house as strangers, at different times. Complete silent treatment. Then one morning you’re in the kitchen and there’s a nod. “Hey.” “Hey.” Then a week later it’s “Did you see the thing on the news?” “Yeah.” Then the next week there’s a joke and a laugh. Slowly, slowly, life goes back to how it was. Six months, a year later, you do it all again.
One afternoon I came home from Sandringham and my mom was very upset and worked up.
“This man is unbelievable,” she said.
“He bought a gun.”
? What do you mean, ‘He bought a gun’?”
A gun was such a ridiculous thing in my world. In my mind, only cops and criminals had guns. Abel had gone out and bought a 9mm Parabellum Smith & Wesson. Sleek and black, menacing. It didn’t look cool like guns in movies. It looked like it killed things.
“Why did he buy a gun?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
She said she’d confronted him about it, and he’d gone off on some nonsense about the world needing to learn to respect him.
“He thinks he’s the policeman of the world,” she said. “And that’s the problem with the world. We have people who cannot police themselves, so they want to police everyone else around them.”
Not long after that, I moved out. The atmosphere had become toxic for me. I’d reached the point where I was as big as Abel. Big enough to punch back. A father does not fear retribution from his son, but I was not his son. He knew that. The analogy my mom used was that there were now two male lions in the house. “Every time he looks at you he sees your father,” she’d say. “You’re a constant reminder of another man. He hates you, and you need to leave. You need to leave before you become like him.”
It was also just time for me to go. Regardless of Abel, our plan had always been for me to move out after school. My mother never wanted me to be like my uncle, one of those men, unemployed and still living at home with his mother. She helped me get my flat, and I moved out. The flat was only ten minutes away from the house, so I was always around to drop in to help with errands or have dinner once in a while. But, most important, whatever was going on with Abel, I didn’t have to be involved.
At some point my mom moved to a separate bedroom in the house, and from then on they were married in name only, not even cohabitating but coexisting. That state of affairs lasted a year, maybe two. Andrew had turned nine, and in my world I was counting down until he turned eighteen, thinking that would finally free my mom from this abusive man. Then one afternoon my mom called and asked me to come by the house. A few hours later, I popped by.
“Trevor,” she said. “I’m pregnant.”
Good Lord, I was furious. I was so angry. She herself seemed resolute, as determined as ever, but with an undertone of sadness I had never seen before, like the news had devastated her at first but she’d since reconciled herself to the reality of it.
“How could you let this happen?”
“Abel and I, we made up. I moved back into the bedroom. It was just one night, and then…I became pregnant. I don’t know how.”
She didn’t know. She was forty-four years old. She’d had her tubes tied after Andrew. Even her doctor had said, “This shouldn’t be possible. We don’t know how this happened.”
I was boiling with rage. All we had to do was wait for Andrew to grow up, and it was going to be over, and now it was like she’d re-upped on the contract.
“So you’re going to have this child with this man? You’re going to stay with this man another eighteen years? Are you crazy?”
“God spoke to me, Trevor. He told me, ‘Patricia, I don’t do anything by mistake. There is nothing I give you that you cannot handle.’ I’m pregnant for a reason. I know what kind of kids I can make. I know what kind of sons I can raise. I can raise this child. I will raise this child.”
Nine months later Isaac was born. She called him Isaac because in the Bible Sarah gets pregnant when she’s like a hundred years old and she’s not supposed to be having children and that’s what she names her son.
Isaac’s birth pushed me even further away. I visited less and less. Then I popped by one afternoon and the house was in chaos, police cars out front, the aftermath of another fight.
He’d hit her with a bicycle. Abel had been berating one of his workers in the yard, and my mom had tried to get between them. Abel was furious that she’d contradicted him in front of an employee, so he picked up Andrew’s bike and he beat her with it. Again she called the police, and the cops who showed up this time actually knew Abel. He’d fixed their cars. They were pals. No charges were filed. Nothing happened.
That time I confronted him. I was big enough now.
“You can’t keep doing this,” I said. “This is not right.”
He was apologetic. He always was. He didn’t puff out his chest and get defensive or anything like that.
“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry. I don’t like doing these things, but you know how your mom is. She can talk a lot and she doesn’t listen. I feel like your mom doesn’t respect me sometimes. She came and disrespected me in front of my workers. I can’t have these other men looking at me like I don’t know how to control my wife.”
After the bicycle, my mom hired contractors she knew through the real-estate business to build her a separate house in the backyard, like a little servants’ quarters, and she moved in there with Isaac.
“This is the most insane thing I’ve ever seen,” I told her.
“This is all I can do,” she said. “The police won’t help me. The government won’t protect me. Only my God can protect me. But what I can do is use against him the one thing that he cherishes, and that is his pride. By me living outside in a shack, everyone is going to ask him, ‘Why does your wife live in a shack outside your house?’ He’s going to have to answer that question, and no matter what he says, everyone will know that something is wrong with him. He loves to live for the world. Let the world see him for who he is. He’s a saint in the streets. He’s a devil in this house. Let him be seen for who he is.”
When my mom had decided to keep Isaac, I was so close to writing her off. I couldn’t stand the pain anymore. But seeing her hit with a bicycle, living like a prisoner in her own backyard, that was the final straw for me. I was a broken person. I was done.
“This thing?” I told her. “This dysfunctional thing? I won’t be a part of it. I can’t live this life with you. I refuse. You’ve made your decision. Good luck with your life. I’m going to live mine.”
She understood. She didn’t feel betrayed or abandoned at all.
“Honey, I know what you’re going through,” she said. “At one point, I had to disown my family to go off and live my own life, too. I understand why you need to do the same.”
So I did. I walked out. I didn’t call. I didn’t visit. Isaac came and I went, and for the life of me I could not understand why she wouldn’t do the same: leave. Just leave. Just fucking leave.
I didn’t understand what she was going through. I didn’t understand domestic violence. I didn’t understand how adult relationships worked; I’d never even had a girlfriend. I didn’t understand how she could have sex with a man she hated and feared. I didn’t know how easily sex and hatred and fear can intertwine.
I was angry with my mom. I hated him, but I blamed her. I saw Abel as a choice she’d made, a choice she was continuing to make. My whole life, telling me stories about growing up in the homelands, being abandoned by her parents, she had always said, “You cannot blame anyone else for what you do. You cannot blame your past for who you are. You are responsible for you. You make your own choices.”
She never let me see us as victims. We
victims, me and my mom, Andrew and Isaac. Victims of apartheid. Victims of abuse. But I was never allowed to think that way, and I didn’t see her life that way. Cutting my father out of our lives to pacify Abel, that was her choice. Supporting Abel’s workshop was her choice. Isaac was her choice. She had the money, not him. She wasn’t dependent. So in my mind, she was the one making the decision.
It is so easy, from the outside, to put the blame on the woman and say, “You just need to leave.” It’s not like my home was the only home where there was domestic abuse. It’s what I grew up around. I saw it in the streets of Soweto, on TV, in movies. Where does a woman go in a society where that is the norm? When the police won’t help her? When her own family won’t help her? Where does a woman go when she leaves one man who hits her and is just as likely to wind up with another man who hits her, maybe even worse than the first? Where does a woman go when she’s single with three kids and she lives in a society that makes her a pariah for being a manless woman? Where she’s seen as a whore for doing that? Where does she go? What does she do?
But I didn’t comprehend any of that at the time. I was a boy with a boy’s understanding of things. I distinctly remember the last time we argued about it, too. It was sometime after the bicycle, or when she was moving into her shack in the backyard. I was going off, begging her for the thousandth time.
“Why? Why don’t you just leave?”
She shook her head. “Oh, baby. No, no, no. I can’t leave.”
“Because if I leave he’ll kill us.”
She wasn’t being dramatic. She didn’t raise her voice. She said it totally calm and matter-of-fact, and I never asked her that question again.
Eventually she did leave. What prompted her to leave, what the final breaking point was, I have no idea. I was gone. I was off becoming a comedian, touring the country, playing shows in England, hosting radio shows, hosting television shows. I’d moved in with my cousin Mlungisi and made my own life separate from hers. I couldn’t invest myself anymore, because it would have broken me into too many pieces. But one day she bought another house in Highlands North, met someone new, and moved on with her life. Andrew and Isaac still saw their dad, who, by that point, was just existing in the world, still going through the same cycle of drinking and fighting, still living in a house paid for by his ex-wife.
Years passed. Life carried on.
Then one morning I was in bed around ten a.m. and my phone rang. It was on a Sunday. I know it was on a Sunday because everyone else in the family had gone to church and I, quite happily, had not. The days of endlessly schlepping back and forth to church were no longer my problem, and I was lazily sleeping in. The irony of my life is that whenever church is involved is when shit goes wrong, like getting kidnapped by violent minibus drivers. I’d always teased my mom about that, too. “This church thing of yours, all this Jesus, what good has come of it?”
I looked over at my phone. It was flashing my mom’s number, but when I answered, it was Andrew on the other end. He sounded perfectly calm.
“Hey, Trevor, it’s Andrew.”
“How are you?”
“Good. What’s up?”
“Are you busy?”
“I’m sort of sleeping. Why?”
“Mom’s been shot.”
Okay, so there were two strange things about the call. First, why would he ask me if I was busy? Let’s start there. When your mom’s been shot, the first line out of your mouth should be “Mom’s been shot.” Not “How are you?” Not “Are you busy?” That confused me. The second weird thing was when he said, “Mom’s been shot,” I didn’t ask, “Who shot her?” I didn’t have to. He said, “Mom’s been shot,” and my mind automatically filled in the rest: “Abel shot mom.”
“Where are you now?” I said.
“We’re at Linksfield Hospital.”
“Okay, I’m on my way.”
I jumped out of bed, ran down the corridor, and banged on Mlungisi’s door. “Dude, my mom’s been shot! She’s in the hospital.” He jumped out of bed, too, and we got in the car and raced to the hospital, which luckily was only fifteen minutes away.
At that point, I was upset but not terrified. Andrew had been so calm on the phone, no crying, no panic in his voice, so I was thinking,
She must be okay. It must not be that bad
. I called him back from the car to find out more.
“Andrew, what happened?”
“We were on our way home from church,” he said, again totally calm. “And Dad was waiting for us at the house, and he got out of his car and started shooting.”
“But where? Where did he shoot her?”
“He shot her in her leg.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, relieved.
“And then he shot her in the head.”
When he said that, my body just let go. I remember the exact traffic light I was at. For a moment there was a complete vacuum of sound, and then I cried tears like I had never cried before. I collapsed in heaving sobs and moans. I cried as if every other thing I’d cried for in my life had been a waste of crying. I cried so hard that if my present crying self could go back in time and see my other crying selves, it would slap them and say, “That shit’s not worth crying for.” My cry was not a cry of sadness. It was not catharsis. It wasn’t me feeling sorry for myself. It was an expression of raw pain that came from an inability of my body to express that pain in any other way, shape, or form. She was my mom. She was my teammate. It had always been me and her together, me and her against the world. When Andrew said, “shot her in the head,” I broke in two.