Blaming the victims of domestic violence – #LarsSpeaksOut

Monday, 17 June 2013

I’ve got something to say.

I’ve woken up this morning to see the photos and reporting of Nigella Lawson apparently being choked and otherwise abused by her husband, Charles Saatchi, in a restaurant in London. I use the word “apparently” as it all hasn’t been confirmed etc., and I’m trying through gritted teeth to be impartial.

The first thing I saw about this incident was on my Twitter feed, from (everyone strap themselves in) the Mamamia website. Let me just pop in a little excerpt from a comment there:

“How can she sit there and take it. In the pictures she looks sad, but she doesn’t seem to be trying to stop him? Her hands aren’t up? She isn’t defensive?
… Please! For your children!!”

See the blaming? She shouldn’t be taking it. She should be defending herself. And, seems like she’s a bad mother as well.

Here’s another one.

“You’d think nigella, with her resources, would be able to have the pick of a mate however, didn’t her father betray her mother? this could set a pattern she’s trying to repair.”

So she’s picked a bad egg, or is possibly trying to recreate some twisted pattern of history by choosing an abusive man. Probably not helpful to make a psychological assessment of Nigella’s deep rivers of emotional pain if you’re not Nigella’s psychologist.

This post is not about Nigella Lawson, or Charles Saatchi. It’s about this bizarre, uneducated culture of blaming the victims of domestic and family violence we are still clinging to, even now, in 2013. I’m going to be using terminology mainly in the feminine purely because women are the victims of domestic and family violence many times over more than men – women “comprised 87%… of partner assault victims nationally (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012, Table 6)” ( I’m also going to use the term “victim” for practicality’s sake, whilst acknowledging that some people prefer the term “survivor” (a term I too adore). 
I am raging over it. I’m sick of hearing it. I even had a little Twitter debate with a follower who seemed to feel that the choking thing was probably over-exaggerated and sensationalised.

We always hear the same things. “Why doesn’t she just leave?” “Why is she putting up with it?” “It can’t be that bad or she’d leave him.” “I think he’s a really lovely guy.” “He didn’t hit her, what’s her problem?” I’ve even heard, “Well, it’s her choice, if she wants it she’ll just have to put up with it”– said with some disgust, I might add.

Even if we take compassion and understanding out of the equation, none of this is helpful. It’s horrible. It’s heartless, re-traumatising and actually not at all the point.

A victim of abuse already feels like an idiot, or at fault for everything, or a loser, or pathetic. He or she usually gets told that relentlessly. They don’t require any further contribution to their rapidly diminishing self-esteem. Especially from someone who is lucky enough to be basking in the reality that their ignorance comes from nothing more than dumb luck - if you don't understand why victims don't "just leave" or walk away or end the relationship, it's only because you haven't been there. You haven't suffered this nightmare. You've been lucky. Lucky, because it can - and does - happen to anyone and everyone, and it just hasn't happened to you.

So, I’m going to take a deep breath and share – a little, not all – about how it was for me.

It was years ago. I fell in love with him. He was tall and handsome, hilariously funny, charming, smart, outgoing and quite hypnotizing in a way. He was incredibly demonstrative both physically and verbally about his love for me. “You’re the most beautiful woman in the world.” “I love you so much.” “You’re my soul mate.” He made me feel adored, and special. I deeply loved him. But he was also a broken soul, and to love him was not safe.

Looking back, I can see things that I didn’t even register at all at the time. He would undermine little things I said, or things that were important to me. I can’t even think of a way to describe how he did it, because it was so gentle, it was almost invisible. It developed so gradually. Something that I believed in – maybe it was silly. Something that was meaningful to me – worth a laugh and a pitying look. At other times, he made me feel like the most vauable person on earth. He would show up extremely late for our dates and when I’d tell him that it made me feel like he didn’t respect me, he palmed it off. I was being silly and overreacting. At other times, I felt revered, not just respected. It was confusing. Eventually, sometimes he wouldn’t bother to show up at all to our planned meetings. He would make fun of me, in private or in front of his friends. If I asked him not to, I was making trouble and being difficult or blaming him. Then, I realized I was making him feel insecure. I was flirting with the waiter a little too much – I was obviously inconsiderate to not even notice that I was doing it – and it wasn’t fair on him, because he "loved me so much", I was hurting him. How did I expect that would make him feel? I had to be more careful of his feelings. I was wrong. I had to watch myself.

I became wrong more and more often, usually for things that I didn’t even realize I was doing. I didn’t even notice the eggshells that had begun to appear under my feet, until it was too late.

I started getting sick at this point. I was feeling nauseous, had headaches, and had a runny tummy. The doctor told me there was nothing wrong with me. Looking back, I can see they were most likely all stress-related issues. I loved my job, but it became a struggle to handle in amongst all the physical problems I was dealing with. He began to “encourage” me to take better care of myself, take some time off, and spend more time with him. I wasn’t doing that properly, silly girl that I was. He knew how to take care of me, so he suggested that to give me a break, I move in with him.

The downhill path my self-esteem and I were on was now about to become a cliff edge, and I would struggle daily not to fall off.

By the time I managed to escape from our relationship, I had no job (I had to give up my job as I wasn’t allowed to work) and no money. I had to ask for a $2 coin to buy a bottle of water at the petrol station. (Sometimes he would refuse this request, for no other reason but to have control, and he made this very clear to me.) I was isolated from my friends, whom he refused to spend any time with and hated. (The feeling was mutual - they hated him, too.) I was critiqued every time I went to leave the house about my clothing and make up, and then interrogated about whom I was going off to see and sleep with. I was accused of having affairs with every man I glanced sideways at. If I was polite to a waiter, it was on for young and old. I had to ask permission to do everything. I was sexually assaulted over and over. I was left bruised and sore, especially when I said no. Having to hide bruises on my neck was a challenge in summer. I was denied medical care, and if I managed to get to the doctor and needed medication, I didn’t have the money to buy it, so I went without. I never really knew what would set him off but it could be anything, and everything, or nothing. One bizarre example: I once was really punished because he got pulled over by the police for speeding, and I “didn’t do something”. I didn’t know what I was supposed to have done, but he managed to make it my fault. I was hurt and I still remember vividly the severe repercussions of having committed no crime. I was a liar, trying to trick him, a whore, a slut, a bitch, crazy, fat, pathetic, stupid, ugly, and hopeless. And, I felt it. This emotional abuse was, for me and apparently for most victims, by far the most hurtful and damaging form he employed. In all its forms, the abuse was constant and relentless. This list is by no means comprehensive and I've never told anyone about all the things I went through.

Meanwhile, people around me, who were mostly well meaning, were mostly not helpful. I was told I should “just dump him” and “don’t be so weak”. Or “just tell him x, y and z.” People were angry with me that I wasn’t taking all this stellar advice, that I didn’t know better, that if I wouldn’t leave then it was my fault. “If you leave, it’ll stop, so you know what to do” in stern tones was often the gist of the lectures I was given. I was embarrassed and ashamed. And I just felt more of a fool, like they all saw me just the same way he did. At no stage did those people seem to wonder how on earth I could magically make an abusive man suddenly non-violent once I voiced my decision to end our relationship. Apparently, it was my responsbility, my choice, and my decision to allow him to be violent and to hurt me. It was all in my hands.

Let me tell you this. Even well before this stage, there would not have been an occasion where I could have thought to myself, “Oh, I’ll just leave.” And then left. For starters, I had no financial means. I didn’t know where I would go. Domestic violence is recognised as the most common pathway to homelessness for women ( More to the point, I had no faith in myself, a tool that is essential in one’s arsenal when trying to take on any incredibly challenging, dangerous task. No confidence, no self esteem. And hearing all those words against me over and over again made me believe them.

The other incredibly important point here is that the most dangerous time for a victim of violence is the period during or after he or she leaves. Most homicides committed that are connected to DV happen during this time. What this means is that it is sometimes safer for the victim to stay with the abuser. After I left, I was stalked for a very long time. I was harassed, threatened, followed, stolen from, made a prisoner in my own home a few times, and very much afraid for my safety. The years after I left him were just as dangerous and just as emotionally debilitating. Many women are seriously hurt or killed during this time. Most people who are living with violence know when it is absolutely not safe to leave, or when they do or do not have the emotional fortitude it takes to take on the gravity of the process of leaving, what with negotiating your physical and emotional safety, dealing with police (who may or may not be helpful, let alone respectful), the court system, family court, living arrangements, splitting of assets etc., all while trying not to fall apart. It’s not easy to do.

The point of this post is NOT to get any sympathy (and, with respect, I’d really rather people didn’t post comments of sympathy as that’s not what I’m trying to do here). Now, I am strong and confident and living a happy and empowered existence. I’ve painted a picture here of my story. A real, uncomfortable, shitty story of much pain and hurt and drama. Because I want people to know what it is like for the victim of abuse. I want to humanise these men and women. Imagine it’s you, or your son or daughter, or sister, or mother. I don’t want another victim of abuse to have to hear those judgmental, cruel comments, not one more time. Every time they hear one of those comments, it just cements the hurt the perpetrator has hurled at them, and it pushes them down deeper into the hole they are in. It does not help. I want every victim to know that they are not alone, and it is NOT their fault, and they do not deserve it. This is the message we need to be sending. And that victims of DV, just by sheer virtue of making it through what they have lived through, are likely to be an absolute powerhouse of emotional strength and courage, not weak, not stupid, not hopeless. These are the messages that support victims to take their lives back.

People living with domestic and family violence need support, compassion and understanding. Not judgment and derision from yet another person who is supposed to care about them. They are not at fault. The abuser is 100% responsible and the fault is theirs. Get educated before you put forward your opinion. Please, search your heart and find that gift to give, before you open your mouth.

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