On several occasions, Papa beats his wife and children. Each time, he is provoked by an action that he deems immoral. When Mama does not want to visit with Father Benedict because she is ill, Papa beats her and she miscarries. When Kambili and Jaja share a home with a heathen, boiling water is poured on their feet because they have walked in sin. For owning a painting of Papa-Nnukwu, Kambili is kicked until she is hospitalized.
Papa rationalizes the violence he inflicts on his family, saying it is for their own good. The beatings have rendered his children mute. Kambili and Jaja are both wise beyond their years and also not allowed to reach adulthood, as maturity often comes with questioning authority. When Ade Coker jokes that his children are too quiet, Papa does not laugh. They have a fear of God. Really, Kambili and Jaja are afraid of their father. Beating them has the opposite effect. They choose the right path because they are afraid of the repercussions. They are not encouraged to grow and to succeed, only threatened with failure when they do not. This takes a toll on Jaja especially, who is ashamed that he is so far behind Obiora in both intelligence and protecting his family. He ends up equating religion with punishment and rejects his faith.
There is an underlying sexism at work in the abuse. When Mama tells Kambili she is pregnant, she mentions that she miscarried several times after Kambili was born. Within the narrative of the novel, Mama loses two pregnancies at Papa’s hands. The other miscarriages may have been caused by these beatings as well. When she miscarries, Papa makes the children say special novenas for their mother’s forgiveness. Even though he is to blame, he insinuates it is Mama’s fault. Mama believes that she cannot exist outside of her marriage. She dismisses Aunty Ifeoma’s ideas that life begins after marriage as “university talk.”