Warrior Kid Tim Tipene - White Moko

From Nine To Noon, 10:16 am on 9 September 2020

Tim Tipene was raised in two cultures, Pākehā and Māori. A white boy with a Māori name, Tipene constantly faced suspicious questions, typically "How did you get the name Tipene?

He had a miserable childhood at the hands of his birth family in West Auckland back in the 1970s and early 1980s. But he was embraced by his adoptive Tipene whānau as a toddler. To the Tipenes he was their white moko and cherished him, giving him love that would later save his life.

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Photo: Supplied

The author of ten books, five of which have won awards, his last was Mrs Battleship, about a teacher who helped Tim start to turn his life around.

His newest is the memoir White Moko, Stories From my Life. Tipene tells Kathryn Ryan about how the love of whānau and the individuals who entered his life became transformative and how his Warrior Kids programme is now helping children build self-control, resilience and conflict-resolution skills.

Tim’s life was the product of rape, something he discovered at an early age. His mother had married into the Tipene whānau and he had been adopted by them, taking on their name.

“Everyone in my life in terms of parents where victims of generational abuse. So, they’d all been abused and sadly that continued. The cycles weren’t broken." he says.

“The blessing for me was within the whānau, it was a lifesaver. They really looked after me and showed me I was more than how I was being treated by my immediate family and they gave me a lot of immediate support. They really thought highly of me and I never forgot that.”

Tipene’s immediate family pulled away from the whānau after a falling out when he was about eight years of age and the connection was lost. Without their input, family violence and abuse intensified.

When he attended school with his Māori siblings it become apparent he appeared an oddity among classmates, intrigued as to why he was a different skin colour and had a Māori name. When he asked his mother, the reply came in the form of serious emotional abuse.

“She told me my real dad was a monster. That he had raped women and children. I would have been eight years old when she filled me in with all the stories. She didn’t use the word 'rape', but that he had hurt women and children and spent most of his life in prison.

“And then my mother turned around at that time and said I would be the same. That I would follow in his path and the reason I believe my mother took that direction in telling me, she still carried it, and I looked like him and she’s held on to that all this time in fact.

“So, then I grew up thinking I was going to become a monster. She made it very clear to me in fact that I was going to turn out like him… Now at eight years of age I thought that was gospel and there was nothing I could do to change that, and it scared me, panicked me. I wanted my mother to believe I was good and worthy of her love, so I really tried to prove to her I wasn’t going to be that monster.”

Tipene also suffered physical abuse at the hands of his stepfather, a damaged and violent man who he tried to avoid as much as possible.

“He was angry. He has his own story and for him too he was abused, but he never dealt with it. His way of dealing with it was to lash out at me. I took it on as my fault, that there was something wrong with me, so I really set out to prove that I was a good person, win them over.”

The love of the whānau was key to saving him. He recalls going into hospital at the age of five for an eye operation, after developing sight problems. The family surrounded him as he regained consciousness with his eyes bandaged up and they reassured him he was alright and his sight would be good.

“My immediate family was not there, my mother was not there or any side of her family, but who were there were my grandmother, uncles, another aunty. They calmed me down. They said, “you’re alright boy, it’s alright, just calm down’ and held my arm. They brought me chocolate and fruit and all that sort of stuff.

“The key thing though is in that time of darkness they had been there for me and I’ve never, ever forgotten that.”

At the age of 16 Tipene attempted suicide. What stopped him was the love he remembered during that time.

“It was a contradiction to what my mum and dad were showing to me and because that came so early in my life, it was always there. How could these people love me if I was so rotten, if I was so bad?”

Teenage life was full of angst over his identity, with people wondering why he was a white boy ‘trying to be Māori’. He avoided the kapa haka group for fear this would reinforce people’s perceptions.

School life helped Tipene to see how his treatment at home was very wrong. Sharing signs of his physical abuse with a classmate prompted that boy to tell a teacher, Mrs Battersby, who asked Tipene to pull up his shirt to reveal bruises and swelling.

Her reaction touched Tipene and brought the reality home to him that his treatment was heart-breaking and not OK.

“She just bursts into tears, really big emotional tears and then she hugs me. At that point, I’m really uncomfortable, she’s squeezing me tight… but at the same time I’m hearing this voice come up inside of me saying ‘It’s not right Tim, what’s happening at home, it’s not right’. That voice never went away.”

Trauma and symptoms of complex PTSD have been lessened by many factors. Writing has been therapeutic, so too has martial arts, ongoing therapy and the ongoing support of whānau .

“I’m blessed. I feel so blessed. For me the whānau was a key part, those teachers, different individuals who turned up at different times and encouraged me and contradicted how my family saw me. Sometimes these people I’d only see in an afternoon and not see them again, yet the way they spoke to me and saw me showed me ‘I’m not bad. There’s more to me.”

Writing was transformative, as well as a safe internal space to explore. Martial arts brought self-confidence and self-control.

The Warrior Kids Program offered by Tipene brings all those strands of counselling and self-development together, allowing kids to regulate their behaviour and emotions. The child-centred approach started when he realised children he was teaching martial arts to were presenting with other problems.

“In some cases, they were having these huge incidents at home. We had one family there where dad was really upset and angry, so he was running around with a gun and they were having to hide.

“They were presenting this to me in the classes and wanting support and help and so I started to change my classes around and started to bring in a lot more emotional work, looking at anger and sadness and fear… It became all about the children and helping them stand up for themselves.”