Years ago, I married into a family that is both very large and very conservative. It was in another country, and I won’t reveal which country for reasons of privacy. In this family every second or third cousin was as close as a first cousin, and there was an abundance of them. And the family’s elder members were held in high esteem. Almost to the point where they were infallible.
There was one man in that family I came to despise. He was the brother of my wife’s grandmother. And he lived right around the corner of our house. He was a simple man, not particularly well-to-do although his house was quite pretty. A widower, he had married again to a woman who was, herself, on her second marriage. He had adult children of his own, stepchildren and some very young children, a baby and a toddler, with his new wife. The man was very pious. Teetotaler. Member of the Adventist Church. He carried with him a guitar to every mass, where he’d play psalms and gospel music. Often, we would hear music coming from his house. At first me and this man’s family were okay. I heard some bad stories, sure, but I never minded it much. I needed to give him the benefit of the doubt, I felt. So, I did.
This man… let’s call him Uncle Bing, he had a stepdaughter who lived with his wife and him. They made that girl work the field of their farm nearby. For hours on end she would have to stand in the field, scaring the birds away to protect the crops. They made her into a human scarecrow. This made me uncomfortable, but I hid my feelings. Speaking out wouldn’t help anyway, my wife said. Because of cultural differences and what-not. Things just kept getting worse. The more I found out about the man, the more it destroyed me to live near to him and see the things he did to that poor girl. She ran away from home on five occasions. Each time she was found, and severely beaten. I befriended a man and woman from the village, who one day found her hiding out in the house of the woman’s father… she had climbed into the highest tree and fallen asleep there. They found her in the morning.
As it turns out, Uncle Bing had been starving his stepdaughter. The younger kids, his biological children by his second wife, got nice food. His stepdaughter, let us call her Cinderella… she got nothing but plain rice or old bread. On warm days if an ice cream vendor would pass by, bells ringing, Uncle Bing would send out his wife with some money to buy the kids ice cream… everyone but Cinderella. If she was lucky she would get the thrown away ice cream cone of her brother, half-chewed up. Or nothing at all, as most of the time they’d never even call for her on the field nearby. On scorching hot days, she would pull the little kids around in a plough, a very heavy old metal thing, and her stepfather would sit on his old lazy ass on that same plough as they used her as a human donkey for their amusement.
Whenever Cinderella’s little brother had a birthday, Uncle Bing would slaughter a pig. Members of the Church would drop by the house and sing songs. Big party. Cinderella’s birthday came and went, unnoticed. One year, on her birthday, my wife and I gave her an umbrella as a gift. So that at least she would be dry on her daily three mile walk to school. Thus, forced to acknowledge her daughter’s birthday, Cinderella’s mother (who was as nasty a character as Uncle Bing) decided to give her the rare treat of pancakes… which she would have to bake for herself! She baked them. But as she did so, but at the same time they made her watch her infant sister and little brother. Naturally, the pancakes got burned. Her mother whipped her with a broom handle until the girl’s cries could be heard throughout the neighborhood. This is the point where I had enough. My in-laws tried to stop me from going to the house and speaking up against a family elder, but I had reached my limit.
I knocked on the door. Out came Uncle Bing, dragging his wiry body along with a wooden cane tipped with a silver lion’s head. I demanded that they treat their daughter better. That it was shameful and un-Christian like, the way he treated her. That his façade wasn’t fooling anyone. And that if his actions didn’t stop right there and then, I would expose him to the village and make him “lose face”. Which was essentially the worst thing anyone could suffer out there, to have one’s reputation ruined. And held on to his for dear life. Uncle Bing told me, in his broken English, that he understood and would “act better”. I thought this was the ending of the story. I hoped it would be. For a few weeks, he was on his best behavior. So was Cinderella’s mother. The girl went to school regularly again, sometimes she’d hop and whistle a tune and she would hardly ever go to the farm anymore. So far, so good.
But one day, when I was away to another part of the country for business, my wife called me and told me something bad had happened. Her great-uncle had threatened Cinderella very badly after an argument. There has been a lot of screaming and shouting and the old man had waved a machete at the girl. She had tried to fend him off and he had sliced her hand with the machete. This was the final straw for me. I couldn’t go to the police, they didn’t care about child abuse as much in these parts and were highly corrupt. Child right laws hardly even existed. So, I wrote down a long essay on the man’s behavior. Never naming him directly but describing him in such a way that everyone would know exactly who the man and his wife that I described were. I wrote it and had my wife translate it in her language. And then I posted it on Facebook.
Now in spite of the country’s poverty, even in this tiny village everyone somehow had social media. Uncle Bing’s cousins, his siblings and their families, his children from his first marriage and their own families, everyone had Facebook and I was friends with them all. So, I posted it and the whole village pretty much saw (and liked!) the post. People replied to it. Writing in the comments how they saw other bad things being done by the man. Turns out he was very hated! I always figured he was some sort of “salt of the earth, pillar of the community” type of guy, but man he was hated! And it all came out. All the nasty stories. People even wrote me private messages. One woman, a distant relative, even told me how he raped her when she was a young college student living in Uncle Bing’s house. He had been thirty at the time, she had been nineteen.
When I returned to our home, Uncle Bing had already read the letter. I think it was his son or his second wife who read it to him. He was so angry he threw into an all-consuming rage. He broke his guitar, the one he used to play gospel songs on, into a thousand pieces. He threw rocks at our house, too. My father-in-law filed a police rapport. They settled things. Everyone in the neighborhood witnessed the old man’s melt down. His wife very much joined in, screeching like a banshee. They made a complete fool out of themselves. And afterwards they hid in the house for days. A year has passed. My wife and I moved far away. We now live in another country. Over thirty of my wife’s relatives broke off all contact with her, and with me, over what we did. Our “step against a family elder” caused us to be expelled from the family. Exposing his bad side was something they could never forgive.
Uncle Bing lost his standing in the village. The members of his church never visit his house anymore. People shun him and his wife and he has no friends left outside of the family. Within our own family, there’s a clear line drawn… there are those who hate us for exposing the old man and his ways, and who declare that “since Cinderella is not a blood relative, only a stepchild, you should have ignored the abuse”. And then there are those who have personally suffered in silence from the old man’s misbehavior for years, who now have the courage to speak out. The applaud us. At times my wife blames me for the fact that some of her cousins won’t talk to her anymore. That some of her childhood friends, who were her relatives as well, have broken off all contact. My wife’s grandmother, Uncle Bing’s sister, was sad at first. But she later told us, smiling: “I used to be mad at losing so many relatives over this. But it’s for the better. Never mind him and his children and grandchildren anymore. I’m free…” Eighty years old and finally, she is free… her brother, as it turns out, has abused his siblings for decades. He threatened to cut my wife’s grandma’s head off with a machete before. Chased her around the house like a chicken for the slaughter. She covered it up, out of love for the family. Hid it for years. But now she could speak up.
Cinderella was never beaten anymore. She goes to school now. For the first time in her life, she has friends. Villages watch her parents’ every move. Uncle Bing and his wife are afraid to even scold her and they never dare to raise a finger to her again. Thank God. That’s all I wanted to achieve. It was worth facing the family’s wraith over.
At times I feel a bit weird. The strong position I took meant my wife lost some of her close relatives for good. She can never message them anymore. Never call or visit. They blocked her from all social media, she is dead to them for standing by me through this whole ordeal. There have been times when even my wife told me, she sometimes regrets how we played things. Because she lost some people dear to her saving a girl she hardly even knew. In the end, she stands by what we did and feels that we did the right thing.