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As an incident of domestic violence sends shockwaves through Sydney’s comedy scene, guilt may lie not just with the perpetrator but the men who protected him. By Kara Eva Schlegl.

Complicit content after domestic abuse

I’ve been pacing my bedroom floor, my mind teeming with contradictions. If it’s true, if he’s an abuser, then I have to say something. As his friend, as his co-worker, I must confront him. 

But I don’t know him all that well. I know the victim even less. 

I’ve only heard rumours, second-hand information, gossip. I worry that I’m about to set off a chain of events that could lead to me losing friends, my reputation and my job. Accusing someone of domestic violence is no small thing. 

Two weeks after I make the phone call, I sit across from him at a cafe. He is pale, shaken, his words stagger out of his mouth like small drunken men. He tells me he is avoiding alcohol. He tells me he hasn’t eaten in days. 

His former partner, the woman he confessed to me he abused, has released an article online that details the acts of violence he committed against her years ago. It indicts the Sydney comedy community for protecting him by covering up what had happened, silencing her and her friends, ostracising her from the group. 

I ask him if he might make a public statement of apology. I tell him that perhaps acknowledging this would help everyone get past it. He tells me he doesn’t think that would help. That he’s afraid it would come across as making excuses. He tells me he wants to kill himself.

 Despite all rationality, I pity him. He is my friend, and he’s in pain. I’ll call him Steve.

Speaking out

“I couldn’t give a flying fuck if he’s in pain.” I’m on the phone with my friend Susan. I’ve never heard her swear before. She’d been involved in a fairly high-profile DV case in Britain over the past few years. A prominent director had been accused of beating his ex-girlfriend. He maintained it was a lie. So Susan released her own statement on Facebook about their two-year relationship in which she alleged he’d systematically abused and beaten her until she ended it and left for Australia. 

“That’s what they all said, all of his friends and even some of mine – that he wasn’t eating, he wasn’t sleeping, that I was hurting him by speaking out.” She takes a breath. “I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping, I was in pain all the time when I was with him. I don’t give a damn about what he’s feeling now.”

She’s right. Why should she care about the suffering of a man who beat her, abused her, humiliated her and then refused to acknowledge what he’d done? Why should anyone else? 

Trying to understand

I’m having a minor emotional breakdown in my car. I’ve spent a week speaking with the men who had allegedly protected Steve. Men who have been accused of knowing what he’d done, yet who remained his friend, and helped to keep him in work all these years. I’m trying my best to understand why they might have stood by him, and why they never held him accountable.

They all seem to have learnt of the abuse at different times – some six years ago, three years ago, a year, a month, a week. They all have different versions of the story. Some say he shoved her against a wall; others say he slapped her. Some say, almost comically, that he pushed her into a bush. All of them say it was only once.  

“He choked her up against the wall, until she couldn’t breathe,” my friend told me in my lounge room a few weeks earlier. It was the story I’d heard, from various sources, up until this week. “There is a police report that says the cops had to pull him off her and tackle him to the ground.”

I’ve checked, and there is. Steve was caught by police holding his then girlfriend against a wall, that they had to pull him off her, restrain him and arrest him. She chose not to press charges.

I asked these friends if they’d considered that what they’ve heard might not be the whole truth. Most said no. 

“I don’t think he needs accusations or judgements right now. I think he needs our support,” one tells me.

“The thing is, he’s very mentally unwell at the moment, Kara,” another says, “and this happened a long time ago. I don’t think it matters – I mean, it matters, don’t get me wrong, but this was a one-time thing and I don’t think any of us have the right to push it with him. It’s not our place.

It’s a line I’ve heard over and over: “It’s not our place.” They didn’t feel as though they had a right to say anything to Steve, or to take a stand for the woman he abused.

In a state, I leave coffee with one of them. I sit in my car and I hold the steering wheel so tight my knuckles turn white. I wonder if it’s ironic that I want to physically assault people for enabling a domestic violence perpetrator.

Fitting in

“I definitely asexualised myself to fit in.” I’m on the phone to Hannah as she battles parrots screeching in her backyard to tell me what it was like to be a woman in this circle of young Sydney comedians six years ago. 

“There weren’t many women – only a small handful of us, three or four. We were never allowed to be the funny ones. I would be cast in sketches as the girlfriend, the wife, the maid… [There were] never two women on stage at the same time.”

Hannah is referring to a comedy room directed by a group of men who were back then five university students, but are now five of the most successful young comedians in Australia.

“These guys were all progressive, left-leaning, uni-educated men. They thought they were switched on… They wouldn’t acknowledge at the time that they benefited from the system.”

She tells me stories I’ve heard again and again from female comedians, about blatant sexism, about being hushed in writers’ rooms, about being shut out when she reached a certain level of success. “I felt submissive around them,” she says, finally. “I felt like I had to just go with it.”

I ask her if she thinks these men, who formed the scene back then, conspired to keep what happened a secret, if she thinks they ostracised Steve’s girlfriend on purpose? She says she doesn’t know. “But they must have known, and they still stood by him.”

Unsolicited messages

I start receiving unsolicited messages from women in the comedy community, women who have heard I’m asking questions, who want to thank me for confronting Steve. 

These women share their stories with me, and they are all exactly as heartbreaking and disappointing as each other. Some of them aren’t about Steve, but other men – either friends of mine or people I’ve looked up to and trusted. 

I’m hanging out watching Jessica Jones with a friend when I receive a particularly heinous story about an acquaintance of mine via Twitter. I turn to look at my friend, a male comedian, a person who had been accused of covering for Steve but had explicitly denied it to me. I am exasperated.

“Please tell me all men aren’t pieces of shit,” I say.

“All men aren’t pieces of shit.”

‘Terrible shit’

I sit across from her at the Newtown Hotel. She has wide eyes that make her look earnest. We’ve never met before, but I confess that I immediately adore her. I try to restrain this impulse. 

She tells me Steve had lived with some of these men that I’d spoken to at the time of the incident, that they had seen him do some “terrible shit” to her. 

“They all knew he had problems. What got me was that they didn’t do anything or say anything about it, to stop it, to see if I was all right, before or after.”

On an especially bad night, close to the incident, one of them had told her that she needed to control her man. “That’s what he said, as if it was my responsibility to calm him down. I was actually frightened and he said, ‘Go take care of him!’ ”

I tell her that one of them described their relationship as “emotional” and she laughs. “Well, yes. Steve was very dramatic. But the guy who told you that also saw him smash a bottle on the wall above my head.”

I ask her if she was sure they all knew what had happened to her, and she seems resolute. 

Feeling responsible

I’m in my car again, having yet another minor breakdown, this time with a close friend at hand. He’s not doing well, either. He tells me he feels responsible. Even if he didn’t know, he feels like he chose not to see the behaviour of these men because he admired them and he wanted them to like him. 

I’m familiar with the feeling. 

For the past month I’ve cast Steve as both villain and victim in my head, never clear on who he might be. I think of that scene in Richard III, when Richard seduces Lady Anne over her father’s corpse, and I wonder if Steve had done that to me. I had held him and told him he was a good person. I’d said that everyone does terrible things. 

But the narrative I’d built in my mind, of a broken man who had made one big mistake, has been shattered by the barrage of testimony against him.

His friends say we must support him, that he is fragile, that he might take his own life. 

I say that he is a domestic violence perpetrator, and it is the responsibility of his community to hold him accountable for his actions.

Names have been changed.

National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732; Lifeline 13 11 14

This story was modified on March 12, 2016, to clarify the procedure through which a police report can be accessed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2015 as "Complicit content". Subscribe here.

Kara Eva Schlegl
is a Sydney-based writer and producer who co-directs the diversity-driven comedy room Wolf Comedy.

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