Flight of the Dancing Bird: One Woman’s Courageous Fight to Reclaim her Life
Imagine a dancing bird, pirouetting through the trees, the light catching the golden tips of feathered wings as it soars into the sky. Such was the image that the title of this book evoked in me. The story between the covers, however, stirred few such feelings. Instead, I felt plunged into a hostile world of violence, abuse and betrayal, as far away from a dancing bird as the slimy, crawling slug it might spy in the mud. This book was a hard read, the only positive aspect being the knowledge that the woman to whom all this happened had miraculously lived to tell her tale.
Tanjas Darke (van der Platt) was born in New Zealand but spent most of her childhood and teenage years in Vanuatu. Her parents separated, her mother left, and Darke lived with her father, Ronald, which translated into living essentially on her own with occasional short-lived pets for company. As an expatriate kid living with a weird and scary man, Darke had few friends and received little support from the house servants her father employed, who were always young, always afraid, and always – to him – fuckable.
From age 9 until age 32, Darke’s father treated her as his sex slave. When she was 15, he conducted a bizarre, private wedding ceremony to confirm her as his wife. Against a background of tropical island blossoms, such as those sought by romantic honeymooning couples, he joined her to himself and vowed that no-one else would ever have her. As his wife, Darke was repeatedly reduced to a prop for whatever violent and pornographic fantasies Ronald van der Platt carried round in his head. For one period, he dressed her in stereotypical prostitute fashion and “visited” her as a client demanding an exhausting array of sadistic and humiliating sexual services. Throughout these sessions, he instructed her to think of the money he had placed in a saucer on entry to the “bordello”, money which he later removed as he exited. At another stage in their life in Auckland, he constructed an elaborate contraption of pulleys and ropes to facilitate his use of her in sadistic and terrifying bondage fantasies. Many of his exploits with her he photographed, images which were later used as evidence against him, along with collections of handcuffs, gags, clamps and blindfolds.
This book deals with shocking realities, but the events are typically described in a detached, almost dispassionate manner. I suspect this is why I often found it hard to engage emotionally with her pain and suffering other than on a more abstracted level. The exception to this, for me, was the section where Darke describes, at the age of 31, discovering that she was pregnant. Her father initially doubted the child was his, before acknowledging that this baby could have no other father. She writes:
He started talking about how he was looking forward to it and all I could think was, what if it’s a girl?
He’d beat her, he’d touch her and one day he’d rape her. He’d steal her childhood and her life, just as he had done with me.
It was her fears of such an outcome that prompted Darke to reach for help and plot her escape, sticking to her plans even after she miscarried. The book ends with an account of the Auckland court trial in 2000, which saw her father convicted for his treatment of her, and resulted in his being sentenced to a total of fourteen years imprisonment.
Darke reveals probably more in this account than any reader would want to know, yet at the same time she lets us see little of how these traumas affected her. Generally the book portrays far more vividly the horrors of this abuse than the journey to recovery. At times, the detailed descriptions of the myriad of behaviours to which Darke was subjected are potentially disquieting in terms of how other sexually violent men might possibly respond to, and use, such vivid accounts. This aspect is particularly disturbing given the obvious intention that such a book will encourage understanding and healing, not in any way inspire or countenance abuse.
I wanted desperately to get to the place where her flight to healing began, yet more than 200 pages into the book the details of her sexual victimisation felt unending and relentless. Possibly this echoed in some small way how trapped she felt, and the detached way in which such events were described may have reflected the state of dissociation she adopted to keep herself alive. This was advertised as a survival story, however, and I wanted to know how Darke survived. How, for instance, did she ever come to trust the man we were suddenly introduced to as her husband, given her treatment at the hands of the only man in her life up until that point? How did she view “marriage” after her experience of being “wedded” to her father? What impact did all of this have on her capacity for relationships, love, and intimacy? On such matters, the pages are silent.
Nevertheless, this book helps us to understand how Darke became trapped in a fearful co-dependence on a man who tried to reduce her life to being little more than an extension of his. That any individual can live through such rapes and beatings, and survive such high levels of mental game-playing and deception, makes this a tale worth telling. Unfortunately, the way it is presented makes this a story few will choose to ever let themselves read. I hope, in years to come, Darke may share the fuller tale of her survival which remains to be told, so we can begin to truly appreciate how this caged bird escaped and learned to dance and fly.
Jan Jordan teaches in the Department of Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington.