By Jess HillNon-fiction Black Inc.
See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse
Domestic abuse is a national emergency: one in four Australian women has experienced violence from a man she was intimate with. But too often we ask the wrong question: why didn’t she leave? We should be asking: why did he do it?
Investigative journalist Jess Hill puts perpetrators – and the systems that enable them – in the spotlight. See What You Made Me Do is a deep dive into the abuse so many women and children experience – abuse that is often reinforced by the justice system they trust to protect them. Critically, it shows that we can drastically reduce domestic violence – not in generations to come, but today.
Combining forensic research with riveting storytelling, See What You Made Me Do radically rethinks how to confront the national crisis of fear and abuse in our homes.
Domestic abuse remains a scourge on our society. The statistics are damning. In Australia, one woman a week is killed by a man with whom she has been intimate. Nationally and internationally the home remains the most dangerous place for a woman. Domestic abuse accounts for 60 per cent of Australian women who are hospitalised for assault.
Jess Hill tells the story of domestic abuse through a compelling and powerful narrative, which bristles with astute and incisive observations, insight, wisdom and clarity. Framed by a meticulous examination of specific case studies, Hill offers a sophisticated reading of how a tapestry of institutions including the judiciary, the police, women’s organisations and government agencies have tackled this endemic problem. But why does it continue in contemporary society? One of the major achievements of this significant book is in shattering stereotypes and myths surrounding how domestic abuse is defined, which women are most affected, and how it manifests.
See What You Made Me Do does more than chart the appalling statistics of abuse or canvas a familiar terrain. It takes us into a fundamental discussion at the heart of domestic abuse, raising questions related to the exercise power and control, abuse and violence, love and trust. It speaks eloquently to wider questions of how we conduct intimate relationships, what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour within them and, ultimately, how we love. How do we create a future free of domestic abuse? Where should we focus our attention?
Hill illuminates continuing patriarchal practices with disrespect for women at their core. She addresses prejudices underpinning gender inequality, shifting attitudes towards relationships, including what respectful relationships look like, as well as examining the responsibilities of the police, courts and communities to work toward achieving the urgent goal of eradication.
This is an edited extract.
Domestic abuse cuts a deep wound into our society. It has been experienced by one in four Australian women. It accounts for nearly 60 per cent of the women hospitalised for assault. It drives up to one in five female suicide attempts. Of the escalating numbers of Indigenous women in prison, 70 to 90 per cent have been a victim of family violence. From this yawning chasm comes a never-ending exodus of women and children, fleeing their homes: in 2015–16, 105, 619 people – 94 per cent of them women and children – said domestic abuse was the reason they’d come to a homelessness service for help. We see the impact of domestic abuse everywhere, but rarely do we trace the breadcrumbs back to where the destruction begins. We see only the ruinous aftermath – rising homelessness, more and more women in prison – and wonder how things got so bad.
We may be able to grasp intellectually that domestic abuse can happen to anyone, but many of us still can’t imagine it affecting anyone we know – even when the evidence is right in front of us. This is what the national chair of WESNET, Julie Oberin, hears routinely from the aspiring social workers she teaches in Victoria. ‘[In the beginning] they say things like, “I don’t know anybody who’s been a victim of domestic violence,”’ she says. ‘By week three, we get disclosures. They say, “I realise my childhood was a family violence childhood, but no-one’s ever named it.” One woman said, “I rang my sister, and I said, you’re in a domestic violence relation- ship – he’s controlling everything you do and everywhere you go, you need to get some help.” There’s a big barrier [to seeing domestic violence], because there is all that focus on some people, rather than an understanding of it being entrenched throughout the society.’
That focus on some people leads us to believe domestic abuse only happens to certain types of women: the poor, the vulnerable, the mentally ill or those with ‘victim mentalities’. Some women are overrepresented: those who are Indigenous, disabled or on insecure visas, those who grew up with domestic abuse, the young, and women who live in the outback. In regional and remote areas of Australia, reported incidents of physical violence are higher than in the cities – and women there are even more trapped than their urban counterparts.But when police and victim advocates say that domestic abuse can affect anyone, they’re not making it up. In all reputable studies of domestic abuse victims – and there have been thousands – not one researcher has been able to find a victim ‘type’. As one review concludes, ‘there is no evidence that the status a woman occupies, the role she performs, the behaviour she engages in, her demographic profile or her personality characteristics consistently influence her chance of intimate victimisation.’In the hands of a sophisticated abuser, even the most secure and strong-minded woman can be reduced to someone utterly unrecognisable, even to herself.
Well-meaning people often say we should stop using terms like ‘domestic abuse’ or ‘domestic violence’ – that such language hides a brutal reality and we should instead call it what it is: assault, or terrorism, or just ‘violence’. But this misses the point. Domestic abuse is not just violence. It’s worse. It is a unique phenomenon, in which the perpetrator takes advantage of their partner’s love and trust and uses that person’s most intimate details – their deepest desires, shames and secrets – as a blueprint for their abuse.
We also say domestic abuse is a crime, but that’s not quite right either. Crimes are incidents – if you get bashed, you can call the police and report an assault. There are criminal offences committed within domestic abuse, but the worst of it cannot be captured on a charge sheet. A victim’s most frightening experiences may never be recorded by police or understood by a judge. That’s because domestic abuse is a terrifying language that develops slowly and is spoken only by the people involved. Victims may feel breathless from a sideways look, a sarcastic tone or a stony silence, because these are the signals to which they have become hyper-attuned, the same way animals can sense an oncoming storm. These are the signals that tell them danger is close, or that it has already surrounded them.
For many victims, the physical violence is actually what hurts the least. Almost uniformly, victims who haven’t been physically assaulted say they wish their abuser would just hit them; anything to make the abuse ‘real’.
After all, it’s not a crime to demand that your girlfriend no longer see her family. It’s not a crime to tell her what to wear, how to clean the house and what she’s allowed to buy at the supermarket. It’s not a crime to convince your wife she’s worthless, or to make her feel that she shouldn’t leave the children alone with you. It’s not a crime to say something happened when it didn’t – to say it so many times that you break her sense of what’s real. You can’t be charged for turning someone’s entire family against them. And yet, these are the kinds of controlling behaviours that show up as red flags for domestic homicide. By the time that crime occurs, it’s too late.
For decades now, experts have recognised that the repetitive infliction of traumas like these can produce a form of mental captivity, in which victims struggle to define their own reality. In this abusive environment, minor assaults and humiliations can occur so regularly that they become as unremarkable as breathing. Even if we could find a reliable way to criminalise this behaviour, how might a survivor prove that in so many ways they were trapped – even though it looked to the world like they could have just left?
For friends and family – especially those who’ve never experienced domestic abuse – none of this makes sense. It doesn’t make sense that 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 will often return to her abuser – even plead for him to take her back. It doesn’t make sense that someone known as a good bloke could be going home to hold a knife to his wife’s throat. If we were to think about his actions as much as we think about hers, it would make even less sense that a man who inflicts abuse on his partner would want to stay – and even kill her after she leaves. Why does he stay?
None of it makes sense. What’s even more confusing is that perpetrators commonly believe with all their heart that they are the victim, and will plead their case to police even as their partner stands bloody and bruised behind them. Their victimhood is what makes them feel their abuse is justified. They’re not like those other men, because they’re just defending themselves.
This is the kind of doublethink that enables an abuser to say – and believe – that violence against women is wrong. Four months before Steven Peet was arrested for the murder of Adeline Wilson-Rigney and her two young children, Amber Rose and Korey Lee Mitchell, he shared a Facebook post that said, ‘The day you raise your hand to a woman. That day you’re officially not a man!’ When he posted that, he probably meant it. If we are to confront domestic abuse, we need to make sense of these baffling contradictions.
It is now common to hear male politicians and business leaders say things like ‘real men don’t hit women’. But they are still sidestepping the root of domestic abuse. Men don’t abuse women because society tells them it’s okay. Men abuse women because society tells them they are entitled to be in control. In fact, society says that if they are not in control, they won’t succeed – they won’t get the girl, they won’t get the money, and they will be vulnerable to the violence and control of other men. It says that if they fail to assert themselves like ‘real men’, they will end up poor and alone. Men who internalise these beliefs won’t necessarily become abusers – many will enjoy remarkable success, some will spend a lifetime wrestling with these beliefs, and a shocking number of them will end up suiciding, believing they have failed. But for some of these men – those with a pathological sense of entitlement – getting their way at home is a birthright. ‘Addressing control,’ writes sociologist Evan Stark, ‘is far more difficult than stopping men from being violent.’ So it’s one thing for male leaders to proclaim ‘real men don’t hit women’. But how could they ever honestly campaign against the dangerous norm that men should be in control, when they are so often living examples of that ethos?
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