One Innocent Question

Can you hear them? Ever so slowly, kids are noticing and turning around to their Mum or Dad, their older brother or sister. And these are just the first few. Within weeks, almost every kid in every AFL-loving house across the land will have asked the question that one of the players so desperately hopes they’ll ask:

“Dad, why is Jimmy’s hair and beard so long?”

This is as powerful as an awareness-raising campaign can be. Those people who walk or cycle mammoth distances in the hopes of raising money and awareness for various charities are beautiful in their sentiments, but they can’t hold a candle to this. One footballer, one season, no haircut and no shave from Round 1 through till season’s end. Seeking to raise awareness not through the question, but rather through its answers.

For almost every parent in every AFL-loving house across the land knows that Jimmy Bartel’s father physically abused him, his sisters and his mum during his childhood. His interview in the Herald Sun has been appropriately praised for its courage, honesty and import. In it, he revealed memories so horrendous – stories so unfamiliar and yet so familiar – that he immediately became one of the most famous survivors of child abuse and domestic violence in Australia

And now, he is forcing all of us to answer the question.

How each of us answers will be slightly different of course. When the four year-old pipes up at some stage later in the year, I assume that Mrs EPO or I will respond with something along the lines of: “Jimmy’s Dad was a really bad man who was really mean to Jimmy and his family. And whenever we see Jimmy’s hair and beard, he wants us all to remember to make sure we’re always really nice to each other.”

We’ll field any follow-up questions, of course, just as Bartel would expect us to. When he was four, his Dad was throwing him across his house “into an old-fashioned bureau.” It seems only reasonable that we accept that our little blue-eyed, blonde-haired ball of innocent energy in his Tigers jumper can cope with losing some of his naivety. It’s probably not too early for the kid to begin to understand that sometimes people can be unfathomably cruel.

Of course, it’s the personal touch that Bartel has forced upon parents that is the true brilliance of his approach. He simply said, “I would love it if a father has to explain to his son or daughter that I’m doing it to raise awareness around domestic violence, and to also explain the issues surrounding domestic violence, and to have an important conversation around it.” There are no catch-cries he wants us to preach or statistics he wants of us to learn. There is no one story he wants to be told. He wants us to think of the right phrases, the right stories, and the right concepts to share with our individual kids when they ask the question. He trusts we’ll know how to respond.

Now, can you pause ever so briefly? Can you bear to take a moment to think of those you rarely think of? Those children of Australia who are cowering from abuse as you read this? For many of us, parenthood makes such thoughts more difficult to face than ever – we even hide from the suffering of fictional children on tv or in films, just so that we aren’t faced with any thoughts related to the potential suffering of our children at the hands of others. But leave that aside and take a moment now. It’s so important. Think of those kids asking the question. For whatever the answer, whether it comes from their brave but vulnerable mum or from a mate in the playground, they aren’t hearing “Jimmy wants us all to remember to make sure we’re always really nice to each other.” Instead, they’re hearing a phrase that’s indescribably worse yet infinitely more powerful: “Jimmy knows how it feels.”

And take a moment, too, to think of the mothers. To think of their internal response when they hear a man at the stereotypical pinnacle of Australian masculinity say of abusers “They are not real men.” When they hear him speak directly to them and their families, saying “You are not alone. There is help available. You are valued. You don’t need to be imprisoned by it or defined by it. You are not responsible for the inexcusable actions against you. You are worth a lot. It’s not embarrassing. It is not a stain on your life. You don’t have to blame yourself.”

Jimmy Bartel is Geelong’s softly spoken Brownlow medallist. He’s the humble on-field general who’s won three premierships, a Norm Smith Medal and league-wide respect for his tough, smart style of play. Despite not yet having finished his career, there’s already a place reserved for him in the AFL Hall of Fame. On the day of his enshrinement, we’ll again be called upon to remember his story and his cause. Mrs EPO and I might discuss Bartel’s message in a slightly different way with our eldest child then. He’ll have a clearer understanding of cruelty’s place in the world and in some other people’s homes. But at heart, thankfully, I know that our message will still be the same: “Jimmy wants us all to remember to make sure we’re always really nice to each other.”

It’s utterly horrendous to truly comprehend that Australia needs to have an awareness raising campaign about an issue such as this. Here’s to its need lessening thanks to an incomparable ambassador for survivors of abuse. A man who has subtly forced his way into the lounge rooms of Australia, simply by encouraging kids to turn around and ask one innocent question.

 

In Australia, 1800 RESPECT is a free, confidential national family violence and sexual assault counselling service. Those needing support can also look at other services on the Department of Human Services website

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