By J J Joseph
Exisle Publishing, $35 | Reviewed by Christine Linnell

AT THE beginning of Fighting for My Life: The Confession of a Violent Offender, J J Joseph writes, “I hope my story takes you out of your world and into mine for a day or so”. This insight is the main strength of a Waikato man’s memoir about domestic abuse.

In many ways, Joe’s story is a textbook case. He grew up in a violent home, with a father who repeatedly beat and abandoned his family, and a mother who kept taking the father back. Joe started taking drugs by the age of twelve, and dropped out of school at 14. By the time he became a husband and father himself, he had a long history of brawls and dysfunctional relationships, some of which are described in crudely-worded detail in the early chapters.

Despite his determination to never be like his father, Joe began to lash out at his wife Jennifer, verbally and then physically, pulling her hair and shoving her to the floor. Finally, during an argument over another woman, he lost control and attacked her so violently that she was in hospital for weeks. He was convicted of assault and sentenced to home detention, and there was a very real possibility that he would never see his family again.

It might have been difficult for me to feel sympathy for Joe – or make it through the book’s clumsy prose – if it weren’t for the vulnerability that lies at the heart of his story. He wrote Fighting for My Life as a part of his struggle turn his life around, and in the process he finally dealt with the pain in his life: his father’s abuse and his mother’s selfishness, the suicide of his brother, his feelings of worthlessness.

The book reads like a transcript of his therapy sessions: jumbled and rough, with painful memories appearing at random moments. It has a powerful effect, though there are difficulties with such an internal perspective. I often wished that I could get a better understanding of the other characters, especially Jennifer, who chose to support her husband despite everything he put her through.

But Joe’s emotional honesty ultimately goes a long way toward transcending his limits as a writer. His devotion toward his wife and children is undeniable, and it’s satisfying to read about his determination to regain their trust. Halfway through the book, he turns a corner in a moving scene at his brother’s grave, and from there the plot moves ahead with surprising clarity and compassion.

For me, what emerged from Joe’s story is a deep struggle for identity. All his life, he was trying to become the real man his father never was. Violent behaviour was a quick solution, as it forced people to acknowledge him and won him a kind of respect. But on a deeper level, he turned to violence in order to hide from buried feelings of grief and helplessness, and only succeeded in pushing people away. Far from asserting his identity, his aggression was smothering him.

If nothing else, Fighting for My Life offers a valuable look into the realities of abusive behaviour and the long road to overcoming it. And as Celia Lashlie points out in the introduction, “It will only be when men’s voices are clearly and consistently heard speaking out against such violence that real progress will be made”.