In my very busy role as a retired person, the least booked up days of the week are Tuesday and Friday. So there I was last Friday week (17th Feb), husband out, house to myself, happily sat in front of the laptop working on my manuscript – when the phone rang.
It was a reporter from the local TV station wanting to film my thoughts on the latest announcement in the domestic violence arena. What announcement? I got him to send me the media release, rang a couple of buddies who work in the front line, and found out they had not heard either. I forwarded the release to them, had a quick chat on what is the current situation, slapped on a smart casual outfit and makeup, and faced the camera.
There are two things I’ve discovered in my limited dealings with the pre-recorded news media. You don’t get much notice, and you have no control over how they edit what you say. Wiser people might decline altogether. But this is an important issue, and my memoir, I Belong to No One has attracted more attention for its glimpses of domestic violence than for its core story of adoption relinquishment and reunion.
And the reason for that is simple. Adoption – at least of the “forced” variety i.e. removing babies from unmarried women in order to pass them to infertile couples, in the course of which the baby’s identity is switched – has become so foreign in our society that many can barely believed it ever happened.
Domestic violence, on the other hand, is so prevalent in our society – still – that if you are not a victim yourself, you are likely to be the relative, friend, work colleague, or professional connection of someone who is caught up in its traumatic cycle.
So domestic violence is an important issue to speak about, and if my voice has any influence, then I am happy to add it.
One of the challenges for people working with victims of DV is funding. This would be true the world over. In Australia it is complicated by the State and Federal governments having two different budget buckets. We hear so much talk about what needs to be done, or could be done, but when it comes to action, it is too easy for the responsibility to be hand-balled between different agencies, and we end up with different approaches per state.
This media release concerns the Legal Aid Commission, which is funded by the NSW Government, allocating some of that funding to private lawyers to represent victims of Domestic Violence, via The Legal Aid NSW Domestic Violence Panel (the DVP). To understand what benefit this may mean for the victim I’d like to talk a little about my experience in DV. And while acknowledging that men can also be DV victims, I will speak from the woman’s perspective, because that is all I know first-hand.
It is hard for many to understand how a woman gets involved in a domestic violence situation in the first place, and the answer is – very easily . . .
If I went on a first date, and the guy was abusive, there is a high probability there wouldn’t be a second date; even if I was young, insecure, lacking in self-confidence, starved of love or affection, under-educated, unemployed, drug or alcohol addicted, from a non-Australian cultural background, marginalised, or any of the other stereotypes that may spring to mind when imagining who are potential victims. It is timely to remember that DV strikes at all levels of society.
But it doesn’t happen that way. DV is insidious, and at first, you are not even aware it is happening. You meet someone, you like them, love them, form a relationship, begin to meld your life with theirs, their friends, their family; your finances, your living arrangements – these things get thrown into the mix. Maybe you have kids together. Maybe there are already kids from a previous relationship. Maybe there is both.
As the relationship develops, things change. It might be that you find more time is allocated to his friends than yours. Maybe your friends don’t like him and they get squeezed out because you are put in a position of choosing one over the other. Maybe you find yourself abandoning the things you loved to do because they are not his interest. But this isn’t DV – right? This is love, because when you love someone, you do the things that they love to do – right? That’s what you do when you’re in love, you give. At least, that is how it looks from your perspective.
Or perhaps, there is something that you really, really want to do – but money is tight, so you hold back. Then hey presto! There is something he wants to do, and it not so much money after all, so the budget gets accommodated for that.
But then maybe there is a disagreement over this, or there is a petty jealousy, or some other little spark; and one day, in the heat of the moment, there is a push, a shove, or a slap across the face. That’s not DV – right? It’s frustration, everyone gets frustrated sometime. It’s just some people are better at controlling it than others.
And so it goes, etc, etc. The violence escalates. Afterwards there are tears and apologies all round. He feels bad, he didn’t mean it, he swears it will never happen again. He may have grown up in a violent household/it was a bad day at work/it was the drink/it’s the money worries/the pressures on him.The woman blames herself . . . it was something she said/didn’t say; did/didn’t do. She excuses him . . . because most of the time he is a good man, and he loves her/her kids/their kids.
It is hard for outsiders to understand, but at the crux of it is this; that the couple still love each other. It is not the man she does not like, it is the behaviour. So the promise of a change in behaviour is a powerful pull to keep her in the relationship. Not to mention how will she cope financially, where will she go, and what are the wider repercussions of her leaving? Sometimes she has become completely isolated from her family and friends. Sometimes if she has retained them, involving them will put them at risk too.
The fact is, that once a man has turned to violence, he is unlikely to stop. In fact, the interim between attacks is likely to lessen, as he becomes emboldened. In extreme cases, the loss of respect for the woman can lead the man to think that he should “teach her a lesson” when things go wrong. Equally, the woman can become so cowed and anxious, that it is impossible for her to draw the strength to leave, nor think clearly enough to formulate a plan.
Many women do not speak up at first because of shame. Society expects an instant reaction, so if a woman confides that she has been assaulted, then continues living with her abuser, society blames the woman’s choices, rather than the perpetrator’s actions.
It is hard to leave. I spent three years on and off with a man who became increasingly violent. Yet whenever I was ill, you couldn’t have asked for a better nurse. Looking back, I guess it was a control/submissive thing – but I didn’t have that language in my toolbox at the time. On one occasion I tried to leave him, he smashed up the flat of the friend I went to. Another time I moved into a room in a pub for a week. I was the only woman there and subject to many curious looks, but no one spoke to me in that week. He tracked me down at my workplace and convinced me to return. During one fight he broke my nose in thirteen places. Yet while I was in hospital recuperating, he brought chocolates and flowers. Ultimately I saved in secret, bought a ticket to London, and kept my mouth shut till the last possible moment. He wrote a few times, and I gave curt replies. In one of his letters, he said, “You seem angry with me for some reason?” Get it? He still loved me, and saw nothing unusual in his behaviour i.e. from his perspective he was thinking: sometimes, you just get so mad at something your girlfriend has said or done, that you just have to hit her. And why did I write back? Because, for a long time, I still loved him. It took me a long time, and miles of distance without seeing him, to get over that.
Today’s statistics suggest that by the time a woman leaves a man permanently, she has had eight failed attempts. So by the time she finds her way to a women’s refuge, that’s a lot of broken noses and broken promises she has had to process. When she gets to the refuge, it may be the first moment in a long time for her to get a different perspective on what has become of her life. It may be the first time she learns her rights in the courts, and certainly the first opportunity for her to have a trained support person accompany her there.
Means-Tested Legal Aid has been available to both victim and abuser for some time. Others have had to fund their own actions. Those who qualify for legal aid often have to repeat their story over and over as the solicitor is whoever is on duty that day. If the police bring the action it may reach the court so quickly that the victim has no representation and the matter gets adjourned. Conversely, there may be such a long delay in getting to court that the victim remains at risk in the interim.
By the time a woman (and her children) come anywhere near a court, a lot of trauma has already occurred. This latest initiative may mean, for a select group, that she has continuity of representation from a lawyer who has tendered for this type of work, and who professes to have the special skills and understanding needed to understand the complexities underpinning DV.
One of the grabs chosen by the news media was my comment “We have yet to see how this plays out” and I stand by that. Let us hope that this programme is a part of the solution, and not a gratuitous gesture. Even if it is successful, laudable though it is, this programme is dealing with the back-end of DV trauma.
What I would really like to see is effective action in the early-intervention sector.
Footnote: When women and their children come into a women’s refuge it is usually an unplanned flight and they have left everything behind with little chance of retrieving larger possessions. If the refuge is able to find them new accommodation it is often unfurnished. Over the past year I have donated several items of second-hand furniture. If you have surplus furniture you may care to make enquiries in your local area. Please expect the location of the refuge to be kept secret for the protection of its clients.