We are sitting down for dinner at the Chinese Restaurant. Our family fits in with all the other white, well-dressed families. Judging by the pricey menu and the line of Mercedes and BMWs in the parking lot, the families here are wealthy. I make polite chit-chat and play my role as part of a "happy family." To the people at the next table everything appears to be quite pleasant. They don't know that my father is censoring our vocabulary and our conversation. They can't see the leash my father has on us or the reins he's pulling. They can't feel the eggshells under our feet. My stepmother abruptly but politely, quietly, leaves the restaurant, leaving a plate of untouched Peking duck on the table. Something -- it could have been anything -- must have just triggered my father's anger. I was in the washroom so I missed what was said. Having just returned to England to visit my family, I'm unsure as to what has been going on. But the pattern is familiar, and soon my survival techniques kick on. It's like a reflex, like I'm on "auto-pilot" now. I bite my lip, keep my head down, listen to his ranting, do as I am told. The rest of the family synchronizes their behavior to protect each other.

We're back at home, and I'm scared for my stepmother, who is the primary target. He's drunk. We shout at him, relentlessly: "Go to bed!!"

For some reason he does. Why did he leave? In the past it has not been that easy. I feel more anxious now that he's gone because I can't see him and I wonder what he is doing.

I'm glad I managed to get upstairs to the rest of the family. He tries to keep us apart, to comer us alone. My little stepbrother and I snuggle up together next to my stepmother in her bed. They watch a detective show on the TV. I pretend to watch too, but instead I listen to dad's drunken snores coming from the guest room, where I usually sleep.

I think about how ordinary this all seems to my stepbrother. He softly strokes my arm. He's only seven but he knows intuitively how to calm me to sleep.

Dad wakes up several times in the night -- I knew he wouldn't stop that easily. He's desperate to get close to my stepmother. He touches and kisses her body. She wants him to leave and she says so repeatedly, but her voice is weak now, weak and tired. He persists. It's horrible. I stare at him in the eyes. I want to scream, call the police, but all I did was sit there and stare. Even now I question why I didn't do something to protect her. I know I was afraid of being hurt as well, or making the situation worse for her.

I lay back down on the bed and close my eyes. Tired of fighting, of being so damn powerless, I gave in and felt my body sink into sleep. I can vaguely recall my stepmum following my dad out of the bedroom. I knew then that she had given up the fight too. My father would rape her and then there would be that familiar silence.

In the morning I joined the family for breakfast. "Looks like it might rain later this afternoon," she says. "Would you like a cupper, dear?" As the morning progresses it's more evident that last night will not be mentioned. I force a smile and take a long gulp of tea.

Dad told me once that she was seeing a psychotherapist. He thinks its because she's got issues from her childhood. That was five years ago and now the children are going too. During that time, she has continued to raise her children and develop her career. She runs their home with pristine organization. Her figure and attire are appropriated to my father's desires. Sometimes she feels the house could be cleaner, the children more obedient, and these she works at daily to keep the peace and stop the violence.

My stepmother explained to me that her therapist listens to her challenges and offers support, empathy, and encouragement. In a typical one-hour session, she expresses her frustration while the therapist gradually steers her toward clarity. Afterwards she can pin-point the place where she could improve to avoid my father's outbursts of verbal and physical attacks. My father comments on how much calmer she behaves afterwards, particularly with a new "hypnosis-therapist" she has been seeing. She enthusiastically announces that she feels more in control of her life, as though she's reassuring us that now she is getting help, everything will be okay. But later that morning she confided that his abuse is on-going, and her frame of mind is, in her words, "inconsequential" when he is raging.

Each week her therapist collects around $200 in professional fees. During the times between each appointment, my father is free to be abusive sexually, physically and verbally. Her therapy reconfirms his belief that the family problem is related to "her psychological issues," and he is not the one responsible.

It's common practice for therapists to not incorporate safety plans for women in their codes of ethics. On the contrary, they encourage therapists to not get involved. The Registered Canadian Counselors Association Code of Ethics clearly states to "not advise a couple to separate or to end their relationship."

My stepmother does want to end the relationship but she does not realistically think it is an option available to her. Her therapist has yet to tell her about transition houses, peace bonds, reputable lawyers, custody and access procedures, or even refer her to an agency that could. Basic acts of human decency to protect her and her children are considered "a conflict of interests."

Little pressure is being put on therapists to encompass ethical standards in their practices. A study by the Toronto Rape Crisis Center indicates that battered women make up 70 - 75% of the therapist client base in North America today. This means that battered women and rape victims pay the salaries for most therapists. What incentive is there for therapists to refer their clients to non-profit volunteer-based crisis organizations? Therapists often profit off women's oppression, in concert with the greater part of the world.

Professionals diagnose women as mad with a multitude of different labels. "Clinical depression" is a standard diagnosis for most women. Many women who leave abusive relationships turn to therapy and anti-depressants, as they are the most obvious, most aggressively advertised, most readily available options offered to help women cope. Anti-depressants are a multi-billion dollar profit industry. Two-thirds of this revenue comes from women alone. Are so many women really sick? It's debatable. While it's true that we do experience very real pangs of depression, are these not rational responses to our oppression? Do we really need to be heavily medicated? Or are drugs often prescribed to enable women to fit in to an oppressive world, to make oppression tolerable, to distract attention from the need to change the world?

The New World: Discovering the Power Of Sisterhood

Part of my reasoning to move continents at 21 years old, to live in Canada -- the "New World" -- was to start fresh. I found solace in the knowledge that dad could not show up at my door and berate me at any time of day. But freedom from interference alone was not enough. I wanted real freedom. Living in isolation and searching within for your "inner child" may provide the feeling of freedom, but that is all it is -- a feeling. It does not stop violent behavior or reverse women's inequality. It merely provides a door to shut the world out momentarily. My stepmother is still with my dad and remains unsafe from his violence.

I still experience moments of intense anxiety, usually for good reasons. But I now have some tools to help me handle the emotions. I know now what intimacy looks like, and have felt pieces of true love. How did I get here? What made this possible? Feminism. Hands down.

As a collective member of a radical women's movement, I learned that my experiences are not isolated to my father. They are part of a much bigger political problem, the effects of which are experienced daily by all women to a lesser or greater degree. It's about violence against women. It's about living in a patriarchal system that not only permits but also supports men that abuse the power that they have in the world.

Answering the crisis line and facilitating a group for women who have experienced sexist violence provides me with an opportunity to change the status quo. With the backing of the organization and their 28 years of experience in stopping violence against women, I am in a strong position to make decisions that really will make a difference in the conditions of my life and other women's lives.

Like a therapist's group, our group is completely confidential and set in a comfortable environment. But our group differs greatly on many levels. Unlike therapy groups that either cost money, or run only for a specified number of sessions, we are available to all women. We are available to women of every class, race, age, sexual orientation, and ability who have experienced sexist violence.

The basic premise of therapists' belief system is that the world is a fairly decent place, and it is just a matter of working with their clients to "get them back on track." It is logical that therapists think the world is basically okay, as most of them are white, middle class professionals who enjoy several benefits of being at the top. Therapists assume that the external structures of male supremacy are not connected to our experiences of inadequacy, but are personal issues. In contrast, feminist consciousness-raising groups validate women's feelings of anger and stress as very real responses to inequality and oppression. We recognize that significant change in the world must happen before we can realistically feel better. Rather than privatize, individualize and pathologise our problems, we understand them as shared consequences of a patriarchal system. When women group together, we can empower ourselves and bring about changes that affect the conditions of our lives. We give each other emotional support. We share childcare and car rides. We use the pieces of power we create as women united to protest and picket, to transform media, to refuse male definitions of us, to create our own alternate visions.

Therapy, in itself, is not intrinsically good or bad. Therapy is good if it can help you get by. In many cases, such as my stepmother's, I can see that therapy is detrimental because it allows abuse to continue. It blames us, in a very insipid way, for the sexist violence committed against us. Therapy often encourages us to analyze our behavior and appropriate ourselves to prevent the violence. Therapy implies we are somehow responsible. But the truth is, it doesn't matter what we do. Men will still continue to be violent. Women are raped and beaten for no good reason, for any reason, every day. It must be acknowledged that when women have access to certain tools and resources, such as safe homes, childcare, healthy diets, equal pay, and supportive friends, our depression will be lifted. If therapy is not working, it is useful to know that your experience of sexist violence is not unique to you, but an experience all women share. It does not take an expert to help women get free from a violent man. Coming together as women, we can use our common sense and find ways to transform our lives together.