"My Father Thinks I’m A Failure—No, I’m A Survivor"

A Story of Survival and Healing
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The artist, Amanie Illfated. Photo: Miriam Moussa

[Trigger Warning: Heavy subject matter]

A Story of Survival and Healing...

I’m about to turn 31 years old. My birthday is October 18 but due to a minor error, it was written as September 18 on all of my legal documents. It’s not hard to imagine the confusion this minor error causes when I meet new people. When I was a child, one of my teachers scolded me after I told her that my birthday party was going to be held in October rather than September like my documents read. She assumed that I had inverted the months. I didn’t want to explain how my father had made a mistake on my papers when we came to Canada, so I just nodded and went along with it. It seems so benign, but it became one of the first of many times that I would protect someone else’s mistake at my own cost.

I was born in Kaya, South Sudan. Back then it was just Sudan, the land of the Blacks. The country was, and still is, being ravaged and bludgeoned by conflicts, many of them so complex that they require full fledged textbooks to begin to explain. The war still lives in my mother and father’s heads. My parents got my sister and I across the border to Uganda to a refugee camp where we were granted the opportunity to take shelter in Canada. I was three years old.

Our arrival to Regina, Saskatchewan in Canada will always remain in my very small catalogue of happy moments. Seeing snow for the first time, meeting other children, riding on the Open Door bus with Getachew as the driver, running through water sprinklers, devouring grapes in the backyard and learning how to use things like a fridge and stove and light switch were also top memories. We frequented Wascana lake to go feed the ducks, many of which were actually geese, as we later learned. My absolute favorite moment was abruptly stopping in the middle of a game of “lava” in the living room to watch Celine Dion perform on the Columbia Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). At four years old, that was the moment I decided to become a singer.

That blissful moment is usually the last of my childhood that I would speak about in interviews and with people that I meet. I’d always jump to the part where I catch a flight to Toronto by myself at 16 years old and paint myself as a young girl who was eager to start a music career in the big city and then I’d fast forward to what I’m currently working on or what everyone should expect from me in the near future. Quite frankly, I’ve learned to dodge talking about some really sinister shit. This is what PTSD looks like.

Throughout the years, I’ve been asked the question: “Why Illfated?” I’d humor the person by answering, “It’s a sarcastic statement towards those that believe that what you choose to do in your life will lead you to a bad future, fortune or fate.” That answer would typically summon confused laughter; someone would cock a brow or frown and we would change subjects and talk about something else.

But I think we should talk about it. From the start.

Within a year of moving to Canada, it became obvious that my father was hooked on alcohol. My mother was pregnant with the first of my brothers and the stress of dealing with being in a new country was getting to my father. Arguments flared up in the house. In a small fraction of time, they became violent. My father had connected with some twisted characters from back home who would brutally beat their wives and children and, in his drunken haze, he would imitate them. I watched my mother get beaten by my father so many times while I held onto my new brother and my sister.

By the time I was five years old, I was in school, only knew a little bit of English and was trying to get along with other students. I didn’t know what racism was at the time. I only knew that the kids refused to speak to me and would constantly point and laugh at me. Many of the teachers I met didn’t know how to deal with a Black child in the class. We wound up moving homes and I went to a mostly Indigenous school downtown. Although I learned so much about the Indigenous in North America, the move made it hard to make new friends. This is when I started to hum. I spent a lot of time alone. My brother and my sister were my only friends. One day, my mother and father left us alone in the basement at night and returned with a brand new little brother.

During those days, things seemed to be blissful, however, there was always this constant looming feeling that something was going to happen. My father would beat us if we did anything wrong—“Us” included my mother. We lived in a really bad neighborhood at the time and he was working as much as he could to get us out of there and tensions were high. It was around this time that I noticed my mother’s stress levels were also high and she was getting irrational. She would take it out on me physically. My siblings became my responsibility. That, paired with not having friends and fearing the next beating in the house, had me on edge the majority of the time. When I went to get a diaper to change my brother, I found a porno magazine in my parents’ drawer. I didn’t know what it was. My dad beat me for looking at it. I didn’t know why at the time, but I started to pull my teeth out. I’d spend hours knocking on a tooth and applying as much pressure as I could until it would finally come out, then I would start on another. The feeling of the self inflicted pain was cathartic at the time. I managed to pull at least seven out by myself over a period of a few months.

Another school change happened and I made a friend called Marcel. She was the sweetest person to me. She would correct my English, play in the snow with me and we’d giggle at literally anything that crossed our paths. She wound up moving and I was alone again. My father’s drinking subsided slightly during this point. He would buy me Caramilk bars in the morning when he drove me to school and he would have me and my siblings at his work where there was a piano. I would play and hum until he was done working, and then it was back to home where he was short tempered. At some point, our car was broken into and we had to move.

Another school. Only this one was slightly more racist. Even the blind kids who found out I was Black refused to speak to me. There were a few gems who were kind enough to talk to me on the bus. I got the nickname “Coolio” because I had cornrows and many had only seen the rapper on TV wear them. Again, I was on my own at six years old. One day after school, I found a Smacker’s lip chap on the ground on my way to the bus. I asked one of the girls at the school if it belonged to her. She said no, and told me that “finders keepers, losers weepers”. I decided to hold onto it till the next day and jumped on the bus. When I got home, my mother went through my bag and found it. She told my dad I stole it from the teacher. He called the teacher, who was in a rush at the time. He referred to it as “lipstick”. She couldn’t find her lipstick in her bag so she said she’d check again and call back. My dad took the time to beat me with a belt and a wire hanger before the teacher called back to say that she had her lipstick. He never apologized.

The next day, the teacher could tell that something bad had happened. She tried to speak to me numerous times about it, but I refused to talk. Another school and house change.

And more racism. This time, I was called “gorilla” by the boys and the girls kept their distance. The silver lining was that the one boy I had a crush on had a crush on me too. He would find me on the playground, and hold my hand. One day, he found me in the park, took me to the top of the hill and rolled down with me to the bottom of it. He held onto me. We shared a kiss. It was the sweetest thing. But then he moved. I spent a lot of recesses on the swing by myself humming Aqua and Backstreet Boys songs and writing my own songs in my head. I did my best to get along with the girls. Eventually, they let me hang out with them during recess because, well, there was a Black Spice Girl.

At home, we were all walking on eggshells. I didn’t know exactly what was going on with my parents. Not even a year into the new house, there was an explosion of fights. The worst was after I turned seven. I found myself sitting at the phone with my baby brother and my sister in my arms and my other brother yelling for my dad to stop hitting my mom. All I could hear were her screams for help. I kept dialing 119 on the phone until I finally snapped out of my shock to dial it correctly, 911. Looking back, I learned that in chaotic situations, your brain starts acting in different ways. I didn't even know what to say to the dispatcher. She heard my mother screaming as I tried to explain that my father was choking her with a piece of wood that he had broken off of the bedroom dresser. At one point the screams of help turned to a gurgling sound and she was getting limp. My brother was trying to get my dad off of her. The police came just in time. My father was arrested but was released. Both my mother and father yelled at me for calling the police.

From then on, I had trouble concentrating at school. I dreamt that my mother died every night for over a month. In class, I could hear her screaming when the teacher spoke. I decided I liked the swing better at recess rather than to discuss the Spice Girls with the other girls. I started to read and draw whenever I got home to distract myself from what was going on in my head.

In the year that passed, my mother started to work. We had a revolving door of babysitters who would look after us after school. Overtime, my parents would leave us alone at home. My father started to drink again and would bring his South Sudanese friends over to the house. Most of them would leave at the end of the night, but there was one that just lingered. My father told us that he was our “uncle”. It wasn’t long before they were leaving us alone with him over the weekends to babysit. It also wasn’t long for him to start sexually abusing me and soon after, my sister. It started first with excessive hugs, then fondling, and then to making us model naked for him after sending my brothers to the basement. He kept saying it was alright because it was what people who were going to get married do. He had tried to lure my sister into the basement one day to do the same and I objected to it. This angered him. I was eight years old; he took me to the basement and I was raped. It was the first time I had ever disassociated. He would try to give me gifts to apologize for the pain. I’d give the gifts away. My mother caught on. I caught him giving money to her one day.

I was eight years old; he took me to the basement and I was raped. It was the first time I had ever disassociated. He would try to give me gifts to apologize for the pain. I’d give the gifts away. My mother caught on. I caught him giving money to her one day.

At school, I continued to have recess alone. I used to love listening to Aqua and the Backstreet Boys, but it felt all ruined for me. I started to drag my teeth on my skin enough to cause bruises. I was tempted to jump out in front of buses, or have an “accidental” fall on the playground. One day, my grade 4 teacher smelt men’s cologne on me and asked me why I had it on. I made an elaborate story about how I accidentally dropped my father’s aftershave on the bathroom floor and had to clean it up. I wrote about the abuse in my diary. My father opened it up, read about it and beat me for writing about sex. Not long after, a teacher was calling home and asking about one of many of my suicide notes. I got yelled at and beaten by my father for those too.

The “uncle” was gone by the time I was nine. I reveled in the thought of being free from him, though the remnants of the abuse were still there. I was having trouble sleeping, I stopped eating properly, I was irritable and spent a lot of time by myself. I started to read the dictionary and started to write and draw more. I joined the school band, I joined a South Sudanese children’s choir, I started piano and voice lessons and started to grow musically. I started to grow socially as well and started to make some friends. Of course, it was as if I couldn’t have nice things. My father was expecting me to have straight A’s in absolutely everything. One teacher said that I seemed distracted and my father was convinced that it was because of music. He stopped paying for all the lessons and equipment. I was stuck with just the choir which I clung onto until it ultimately dissolved.

By 11, we got a computer with the internet. I didn’t get the hang of the internet in the beginning until the kids from school started talking about things like MSN Messenger and chat rooms. I created an account in a chat room one day using an alias and started to talk to strangers online. Within a month or so I had befriended nearly a dozen people on the internet. It was in these chat rooms that my mind expanded. Strangers were giving me information on new music to listen to and how to produce my own music from home. I downloaded DAW’s and learned how to produce my own music. My curiosities were wetted and in a short matter of time, I had started to write full novels, learned to speak languages like Russian and Spanish, learned to bake apple pies and chocolate chip cookies from scratch, studied American history, delved into human anatomy, genomes and biochemistry and even learned how to do the splits. I took a job selling chocolates door to door in order to pay for the things I needed to build a makeshift recording studio in our basement. Many of the friends I had met online are still my friends to this day.

We barely saw my parents at this point since they were always at work. Oddly enough, my parents rarely seemed to have any money. Most of it was being sent back home to Africa. There was no savings account for us to go to university or college here. Just to get new clothes for school was a battle with my parents.

One day, my mother snapped at my brother and hit him on the neck. He complained of a sore neck to the teacher the next day and was sent to the nurse. He told the nurse what had happened and she called in social workers. My mother was furious with him for doing this. We suddenly had social workers making unannounced appearances at the house to check in on us. One particular social worker, Heather, seemed to gravitate towards me. She would ask if we could do lunch once a week. I’d agree mostly because I just wanted to get away from home and school. After a few lunch meetings I started to open up to her and we would talk and laugh. It was nice to have someone to talk to. One lunch date, we met at our usual spot in the food court at Northgate Mall, I was feeling slightly off. She sensed this and asked if something was wrong. When I refused to speak, she told me about something that had happened to her as a child, how she reported it and that helping others get out of those situations was the catalyst of her becoming a social worker. She asked if I had gone through something like that too. I nodded, fully aware that she would be required to report it to the authorities.

The moment I nodded, everything felt like a blur. I went home from that lunch date filled with anxiety. My father tried to yell at me that day and I yelled back about him not protecting us from the “uncle” he brought into our lives and that I had reported it to the police. My father’s face went blank. He got up and actually tried to call the man, hanging up only because there wasn’t an answer. I cussed him out for everything and eventually retreated to the computer in the basement. My mom came home from work that day and, when briefed on what had happened, she asked me, “well, did you like it?”.

This, surprisingly, wasn’t the moment when I realized I could never trust anyone again.

The police requested a full written statement as well as a video statement. An arrest warrant was made out for the man. They could not find him in Calgary where he had moved. They could not find him in Alberta or Saskatchewan either. For months, the police searched.

In the meantime, as my father fell right back into the comforts of alcohol, my mother grew into a monster. She’d scream at me and my siblings, throw objects at us, hit us, and insult us. She would call me ugly for not wearing makeup, bar me from eating out of her fridge, scrutinize me for my weight, and admonish me for not doing my own hair or cooking or cleaning the way she wanted. By the time I had turned 13, I would hide in my room after school and sleep during the evenings so as to avoid my mother and stay up the entire night studying and learning online. Things escalated when I started fighting back whenever my father and mother hit me. They would call the police and I would get arrested. My mother once called the police and told them I was a prostitute because I wanted to hang out with my friend at 7pm in the evening. The officers had to lecture her that this is not something you should call your child. One time, my mother accused me of stabbing her with a knife. She didn’t have any stab wounds. My forearms were slashed up and I was choking on my own blood on the living room floor when the officers arrived. I would later learn that they would call the police on me as revenge for when I had called the police when my father nearly killed my mother. After each arrest, they would send me away for some time to live with other family members.

The stress of everything had me in near tears every day at school. I would fantasize about dying. I started to carve things into my skin. I took bottles of Tylenol with wine that I snuck from the cabinet and walk out in front of cars in hopes that someone wasn’t paying attention and would run me over. I did my best to focus on school and my routine of online learning. I found joy in talking to my online friends.

Several months after the arrest warrant had gone out, there was a knock at the door. It was the “uncle”, accompanied with a family of young girls and their parents. They had been driving from Winnipeg to Calgary and wanted to make a quick stopover in Regina. My father let them all into the house. He wanted us to greet the man with a hug like we did with all of our other relatives. My mother pulled me aside to tell me not to talk about the police report or the warrant. As they ate and drank upstairs, my stomach churned. The more hours that flew by, the more I realized that they were not going to call to get him arrested. I was nauseous and felt like I was going to die. The family left with the “uncle”. I could not speak to my father or mother. I felt so worthless, unprotected, uncared for, unloved.

I started to have migraines. I started to have chest pains. I would start shaking randomly, or feel like the sky was falling on me and I needed to run. I kept up a positive persona at school. It was hard some days. I’d blank out and it would take yelling my name to get me to snap out of it.

Finally, they caught the guy. A court date was set. I had to testify in a courtroom filled with people. They needed to hear all of the sordid details. My father had to leave the courtroom because he was crying. The “uncle” would smile when he heard me speak. He received 10 years with a chance of parole after eight years.

At 15, I noticed that my father was back to drinking heavier than usual. My mother’s mood swings became unbearable. It was clear she had a mental illness. The final time that my father decided he would hit me, a neighbor was upstairs and she called the police. He tried to tell the neighbor that I had started the fight, but she had heard the entire thing from beginning to end and made a statement to the police. My father was arrested, and released again.

I tried to live with other families, however, what I’ve come to know is that there are monsters in other households too. I was drugged and raped at the neighbor’s house at 15. I knew I couldn’t go back to my parents house for long because they would either neglect me, spread rumors about me to the South Sudanese community or eventually kill me. I was starting to disassociate at school. I started to take harder drugs for the first time. There was a summer that felt like night time all the time. I was having difficulty keeping anxiety attacks under wraps so I would hide out in the school washroom or the library at times when I felt the cracks were beginning to show. A friend on the internet mentioned that I could file for emancipation when I turned 16.

Thank God for the error on my birthday. It meant I could emancipate a month sooner. I called my Aunt in Toronto and casually asked her if I could move in with her. She immediately said yes. My mother refused for me to go, citing all kinds of nasty things about my aunt and about girls who left home without being married. In our culture, it is dishonorable for a girl to move out without being married. The marriage allows for a dowry to be collected and distributed to a girl's parents and family. Girls who are virgins at the time of marriage are worth more in dowry. It started to become clear to me that my mother was hoping the “uncle” would pay a dowry for what he had done. I started the process of emancipation. When they found out I had already requested my documents from the school and was no longer enrolled, they had no choice but to buy me a plane ticket. I left with only a pillow, a blanket and some clothes in my suitcase and took a plane by myself for the first time ever at 16 years old.

The 15 years that followed were filled with all the unimaginable lows that someone could experience with PTSD. I had to learn how to function as a human who frequently hears her mother’s cries for help on nice, quiet afternoons; having graphic dreams of people dying, feeling paranoia on a regular basis and having panic attacks at the most inconvenient times. There are still days that feel like night despite the sun being up. I won’t even begin to explain how difficult it is for me to trust anyone and how messed up it was to constantly look for love and a familial connection with people.  

But in the midst of all the healing, I made major progress. I finished high school, worked many jobs, including as a housekeeper and caregiver at a senior home, became a model, got my teeth fixed, took several courses in business management and marketing, pursued a music career, put out two albums and countless tracks, travelled and performed in front of thousands of people, had my music played all over the world, met so many of my idols, and finally made Toronto my home.

COVID has made a huge mess of this year, but hopefully it resolves soon and the music industry can restart. I’m itching to get back on stage, after all.

Recently, my father told my brother that I was a failure and that he is still upset with me for calling the police on him when he tried to kill my mother those many years ago. It hurt, I’ll admit. I was angry and I got on the phone with him with my aunt nearby. On speaker phone, he told me that the reason he allowed the child rapist into the house was because he was too embarrassed to get the guy arrested in front of his other guests. He also told me to “just be like Oprah” and “go make millions or something”. It felt as if I’d been shot in the chest with a 12 gauge. I’d been reeling from shock of what he had said since.

My aunt did not know what I had gone through before arriving at her home so she was stunned, naturally. My parents had told her awful things about me to her as well as the entire South Sudanese community. I had spent 15 years trying to recover from one hell of a childhood and I had been protecting my father and mother’s image.

I could finally see that they had not been protecting me.

Going back to the whole question of “Why Illfated”? It’s a lot deeper than just being sarcastic to those who believe that what you do will lead you to a bad future, fortune or fate.

It’s sarcasm to counter the pain of being told that no matter how well you turn your life around after suffering at the hands of many, there will still be those that will tell you that you are a “failure".

It’s the realization that you can be born into tough situations and spend the rest of your life balancing your mental health against the regular day to day stressors of life.

It’s also about laughing off the scars that you are forced to live with and finding inner peace after a long battle with turmoil.

But most of all, it’s about the paradoxical nature of life: how the things in life that are supposed to be good can actually be bad for you - like family and community; how the things in life that are deemed bad can actually be so good - like surviving the worst and connecting with those who have gone through the same.

It struck me last week to think of how many people are out there right now going through similar situations. Children who are not safe with their own families at home and have not experienced the feeling of being loved or held. Those who are not being supported by their communities and are facing gossip and judgement from community members. Those that are backed into the dark hall of suicidal thoughts without a single idea of where to turn to. Those with bodies that are still healing from the physical traumas inflicted on them, and those who are suffering from the invisible, never-ending pain of emotional trauma.

I share my story—the non sugar coated version—in hopes of reaching someone out there who is in midst of pain and chaos; anyone who feels unloved or uncared for; anyone who has ever heard that they were not good enough or felt unprotected; anyone who has felt silenced or didn’t tell the truth in order to protect someone else. I want everyone to know that it is okay to leave family members that put your life in danger, that neglect you or are not providing the emotional support that you need in order for you to survive.  

It’s not enough to call people who go through these situations as “strong”. We have to do better support those around us, show kindness and understanding and remember that empathy is not a sign of weakness. You never know what someone is going through and your critical words or trashy gossip could cause someone more pain. You never know when someone’s silence is protecting a dark truth.

Stay safe and well out there. 

Amanie Illfated is a South Sudanese born singer, songwriter and model with strong vocals and a dynamic fusion of R&B, Reggae, Afrobeat and Trap. She released her genre bending album “SATURN” in October 2019 containing multilingual tracks like “The Hills” and “You Will Never Know”

You can learn more about the artist and her work on www.amanieillfated.com

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