Jess Hill’s incisive examination of domestic violence saw the journalist win the coveted Stella Prize last month. But the four-year project also took an immense personal toll. “All that advice about self-care … I didn’t do any of it. I almost pointedly didn’t do it. I thought: ‘You need to feel, even just one iota of the pain and suffering the people you are talking to are feeling.’ If I was feeling really relaxed and detached from it, I wouldn’t be able to write about it in the way I wanted to … I sort of had to inhabit it.” By Sarah Price.
Author Jess Hill’s inner power
When she was writing her award-winning book, See What You Made Me Do, Jess Hill challenged her own ideas about domestic abuse. She approached the topic as a scientist would an experiment, building on knowledge inductively. She had to dismantle her prejudices, and was forced to shift her opinions about power, love and control, as she sought to investigate family violence through a humane lens. The writing process became personal. Hill attached her understanding of her family, herself and the world to everything she learnt.
Every time she talked to a victim–survivor of domestic abuse, her knowledge and understanding grew exponentially, Hill says. She sat in the Children’s Court, Family Court, Local Court, and read all of the significant writing on domestic abuse from around the world. She conducted countless interviews, many of which live on in the book as vivid accounts of abuse, and extraordinary stories of survival. On April 14, See What You Made Me Do, published by Schwartz’s Black Inc, won the Stella Prize, a major literary award celebrating women’s writing, becoming the first journalistic book to do so.
Initially, Hill set out to answer a question so many people have: Why does she stay? “In order for people to stop asking that question you’ve got to answer it satisfactorily,” she says. “I wanted to get that question answered, for myself, and for the people reading the book. When I’d done that, I then had a whole lot of other questions bubbling to the surface that were maybe concealed under the ‘Why does she stay?’ question. Suddenly, all those questions were begging to be answered. I didn’t find it difficult to understand why people stay in these relationships. But what was much more confounding was why do perpetrators do it? And that opened up this gigantic rabbit hole.”
Going deep inside the minds of perpetrators, Hill discovered ways of looking at different patterns in abusive men – some cold, systemic abusers, others reactive and haphazard, and those who are more paranoid and co-dependent. “That is interesting in trying to get a kind of landscape,” she says, “but what it really did was to shake me out of my complacent response: that domestic abuse is a result of men needing power and control and they do it because they can, because nobody holds them accountable, and they get all the privileges that come with that.”
That is part of the dynamic, she says, but a perpetrator dedicates much of their time to making someone else miserable, “patrolling their perimeter”. That is not a type of freedom. It is not power. “They are inflicting power, but it’s not a powerful way to be – when we think of positive power, or the kind of power that we all seek in our personal lives. The most fundamental paradigm shift for me was to look at these men, and not have pity for them – but to have an understanding of them as human beings who have a damaged way of coming at the world.”
Attached to the process of researching and writing the book was a profound sense of responsibility and, at times, an overwhelming emotional toll. She felt, in her bones, that our culture needed to confront domestic abuse in a much deeper way. The only thing that could force that conversation, she says, was a book. It had to be done right, even at enormous personal cost. She wrote obsessively. A six-month project stretched into four years. Her social life – with very few exceptions – fell away. Financially, it was extremely stressful: she spent her advance in two months; after that Hill and her partner lived on his salary. A year and a half after starting the book, she gave birth to the couple’s first baby. She was “at the wall” financially, she says. A crowdfunding campaign raised enough money to pay off a few debts and allowed her to keep writing.
Hill has no direct link, or personal experience with family violence, but her dedication to the task was intense. “When I was in an interview it almost did not matter what else was happening in my life – I had to be 100 per cent present for that person. I held all those people in my heart every day that I sat down at the computer. Nothing else was as important as representing them,” she says. “I knew the book could be important. If I didn’t do it right, I knew I was letting all those people down: all the people I had met and interviewed, all the people who had contacted me, and millions of others who I really feel could be helped by a book like this.”
While writing, Hill says, she made the decision to dedicate every waking hour – apart from time spent with her daughter – to the work. If she stepped away from it, she felt there might be some nuance or some depth she would miss. “I just needed to keep going, all the time. It might be that I would speak to someone for three hours and I would then adjust only two sentences in the book, but they were vital. The amount of writing, rewriting and analysing – going over every line in that book – was just exhaustive.
“I dropped out of social situations. Friends went through hard times and I wasn’t there; friends had weddings and I didn’t go. Sometimes, friends took that really hard and I totally understand. That is a part of writing the book that I regret: I wish I’d been better at balancing that and preserving those friendships. Hopefully, in the future, those friendships will come back. There’s a certain type of damage that can be done when you totally vacate your social space … when it goes for years and you miss important times for your friends. A lot of people don’t understand why you would do that for a book. Fair enough. It was probably selfishness on my part. But I didn’t feel like it was selfishness; I felt like I was responding to some calling. I didn’t feel like I was doing it for me.”
Hill was interviewing three children about their experience of domestic abuse with their father when her close friend and mentor Mark Colvin called her. He was in hospital, what would be one of the last days of his life. She had very recently sent the journalist and broadcaster, who was dying of cancer, a letter – the last thing she would tell him.
“I was really connecting with these kids and I just knew in that moment that I couldn’t leave them – we were right in the middle of talking about their father and it wasn’t fair to them. So, I didn’t pick up the phone. By the time I tried to call him back, it was too late.”
A year into writing the book, Hill says she had a realisation: she was astonished by her own contentedness and security. But as time went on, the vicarious trauma of the research and interviews, of carrying people’s stories, began to take its toll. “I sort of started to jump at shadows,” she says. When her child was 10 months old, Hill was researching the story of a baby the same age, Charlie Mullaley, who was brutally raped and murdered by his mother’s partner. A post-mortem revealed gruesome injuries. Late at night, not long after learning the details of his murder, Hill was sent a photo of Charlie. “That tipped me over,” she says. “I could not have his face in my head, knowing what I knew had happened to him. I went to the bedroom to my partner and said: ‘I need it to be out. I can’t have it in my head. Someone take it out of my head.’ ”
She continues: “All that advice about self-care … I didn’t do any of it. I almost pointedly didn’t do it. I thought: ‘You need to feel, even just one iota of the pain and suffering the people you are talking to are feeling.’ If I was feeling really relaxed and detached from it, I wouldn’t be able to write about it in the way I wanted to … I sort of had to inhabit it.”
Although Hill didn’t do a lot of self-care, she was cared for – by her partner and her family, she says. Her partner, a problem gambling counsellor at Wesley Mission, believed absolutely in the project: it was personal for him, too. But the book became a burden. Deadlines kept getting pushed back. The couple had to continue to readjust their expectations about how they lived their lives. “I don’t know how I could have written that book in a healthy way,” she says. “There was no other way through except to just keep going. What was required was to just go into the guts of it. I knew the only way I was going to feel better – and feel like myself again – was when I finished the bloody book.”
Winning the Stella Prize is life changing, Hill says. “Being just a journalist hack,” she laughs, “the idea of being brought into the field of writing and literature is a total dream come true – because that is what I always set out to be: a writer.”
Claiming a major literary prize while in isolation, during a pandemic, brought with it its own challenges. Hill was informed of the win around the time of the beginning of lockdown and had to keep it secret for a month. “I was sitting on my front step when I got told and I just burst into tears,” she says. The night of the public announcement, she had a Zoom party with friends and family, in her pyjamas, and pretended she didn’t know who was going to win. “I would have loved to be in the room with everyone, and the other authors on the shortlist, to have had that experience – it would have been unforgettable – but at the same time, the night it was announced I could just kind of hang out. There was so much feedback and support from people that it didn’t feel lonely.”
The working title of See What You Made Me Do – The Story of Us – defined the ambitious reportorial project Hill set for herself. It’s a title that still feels deeply enmeshed in the final book. In our culture and European patriarchy, Hill says, we are basically entitled to have “power over” others. We are individual units who act on our own interests. When she researched the Indigenous chapter, Hill realised that domestic abuse is not inevitable. She learnt what traditional Indigenous societies in Australia understood about the interconnected web of life: that everything is balanced, nobody is a free agent, and everything is in relationship with everything else.
“That is the sort of long-term cultural change that we need to be working on … this notion of power, whether it be power over partners, or power over people in workplaces, power over nature, power over animals – that is the fundamental mistake that is leading to the destruction of our entire system. I see domestic abuse as a symptom of the problem of ‘power over’. We have kind of forgotten that we are all part of nature, and all part of each other.
“That is why it is a book about all of us. It looks at the most destructive examples of how that ‘power over’ can happen, and how it winds its way through to personal relationships – but actually on some level, it is present in all our lives.”
National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2020 as "Power within".
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