Pretty much everything I thought I knew about violence against women and children turned out to be wrong. Here’s how
hen I started researching domestic violence last year, I thought I basically understood it. Some men, driven to distress by things such as unemployment, substance abuse or mental illness, were unable to control their anger, and took it out on the person they loved the most. We’ve all said and done things we’re not proud of in relationships – I thought domestic violence was just the extreme extension of that.
It took about two weeks for that notion to be demolished. Dozens of conversations with survivors and advocates revealed a very different reality, and understanding it was like being given the key to a secret room. Domestic violence is not driven by anger, first and foremost. It’s driven by a need for – and a sense of entitlement to – power and control.
But someone with such a powerful drive to control would surely reveal that at work or around friends, I thought. But I wasn’t right about that, either. Sometimes they do, but often perpetrators come across as normal, good people – even pillars of the community.
It wasn’t until I’d spent months researching and writing about it that I began to understand why most people don’t get domestic violence: it doesn’t make sense. The traits are often entirely counter-intuitive, and attempts to look at it through the lens of common sense can actually drive you further from the truth.
It doesn’t make sense that even women who are smart and independent will stay with a man who treats them like dirt. It doesn’t make sense that even after fleeing, a woman is likely to return to that man six times on average – “it mustn’t be that bad”, people say. It doesn’t make sense that someone you know to be a good bloke could be going home to hold a knife to his wife’s throat. None of it makes sense.
But the more you learn about the nature of domestic violence, the more sense you can make of it. For me, a big penny-dropping moment was reading Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman’s landmark book on understanding psychological trauma. In it, she equates the experiences of domestic violence victims to those of prisoners of war. In both situations, establishing control over the other person is achieved through the “systematic, repetitive infliction of psychological trauma” designed to instill fear and helplessness.
Survivors who have escaped this systematic abuse often emerge from it confused and utterly disoriented. Tragically, that means they often don’t present as credible witnesses: in their post-traumatic state, their stories can be fragmented, highly emotional and contradictory.
In the court system, especially in cases determining the custody of children, victims can appear mentally disturbed and overly anxious, especially compared to their ex-partners, who come across as composed and reasonable. In a system where most lawyers and judicial staff are not trained to recognise the signs of family violence, victims – even ones with court orders on their side – can find themselves being accused of making up allegations to gain advantage.
According to a 2013 survey by VicHealth, a statutory health authority in Victoria, 53% of Australians think women going through custody battles make up or exaggerate claims of domestic violence in order to improve their case. Until I started researching this phenomenon, I believed that, too.
What’s even more confusing is that commonly, perpetrators believe they are the victim, and will plead their case to police, even as their partner stands bloody and bruised behind them. They can genuinely believe their partner provoked them to commit the abuse, just so they could get them in trouble. After a while, the victims start to blame themselves for the abuse, too – after all, he’s so nice to everybody else.
The fact domestic violence is so counter-intuitive is exactly why the media needs to keep telling these stories. But we journalists need education on it, too, so we don’t continue to make the same old mistakes. Never again should we see journalists looking to the behaviour of the woman to explain why she has been murdered or maimed. Never again should we see journalists making excuses for men who kill their families, as though stress could ever be a reasonable excuse.
The work is hard, but it is worth it. Looking around at the room full of domestic violence advocates and survivors at last night’s Our Watch awards (launched this year in collaboration with the Walkley Awards, to recognise reporting on violence against women) it really hit me how important this work is. Domestic violence doesn’t make sense. But for these people – and for the thousands who are suffering in silence at this very moment – we need to make sense of it.
Jess Hill is an investigative reporter who contributes to Radio National’s Background Briefing and The Monthly. She has reported exclusively on domestic violence for the past year, and was on Thursday the recipient of three Our Watch Walkley Awards, including the Gold Award for reporting on violence against women.